First, remember: Nebraska is a place. It sits square as an anvil in the center of our maps, and yet, somehow, people on the coasts seem to forget it exists. Maybe that’s because Nebraska is also a land of ghosts, of small towns dwindling to the point where, in another generation, they might disappear altogether.
It wasn’t always so.
The Homestead Act of 1862 brought more than a million people to the state—among them my ancestors, who farmed along the Platte River and opened general stores in Aurora, Murphy, and Giltner. But the act, which deeded 160 acres to anyone who would build a home and raise a crop, was no match for the drought of the 1890s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. People fled in droves.
Technology, which promised to save small towns, only contributed to their demise. Combines, tractors, and trucks meant fewer men were needed to plant and harvest; hybrid crops, herbicides, and pesticides meant fewer hands were needed to tend rows in the summers. With each catastrophe—drought in the 1950s, the Farm Crisis of the 1980s—farms consolidated. “People used to have an 80-acre farm and raise a family,” a cousin of mine lamented. Now farms encompass thousands of acres and are often run by a single family.
My father jokes that people in his hometown came to believe in a flat Earth: all their children left and never returned. Those who do stay, those documented by photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier, become landlocked castaways, marooned in crumbling farmhouses amid oceans of corn and soybeans. As tax revenues dwindle, rural communities struggle to provide adequate hospitals and schools. The worse things get, the more people go. And the more people go, the redder the state has become: Nebraska has not voted for a Democrat for president since LBJ.
Today, my father’s hometown is half the size it was when he was a kid. The restaurant where we’d go with my grandparents is boarded up. The shops are closed. The old movie theater is long gone. People feel abandoned and forgotten. There was a lot of talk during the past election about this demographic and the motives behind their voting. If you really want to understand, remember: Nebraska is a place, with people, not just precincts. Then ask yourself: If this were your home, how would you feel?
Wayne Gerlach, 92, a retired postal worker from Cowles. Gerlach added a second steering wheel to his car for mail deliveries. Only 30 people remain in Cowles, and the county has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1910.
“Sooner or later, I’ll have to move,” Gerlach says. “Might be tomorrow, might be a year, but I know I’ll have to.”
A teenage couple dance at the wedding reception of two ranch hands in Sioux County. The number of immigrants in Nebraska has grown by 50 percent since 2000, but Sioux remains 96 percent white. Donald Trump won the county by 74 points.
The elder generation dances at the wedding of two ranchers in Sioux County, Nebraska.
McKenzie and Stephen McIntyre shop with their daughter, Tye, at the sole grocery store in Hayes Center. The nearest supermarket—a Walmart—is nearly an hour away. Social isolation breeds political uniformity. “If under 100 percent of the county voted for Trump,” Stephen says, “I would be very surprised.” He wasn’t far off: It was 93 percent.
Drinkers at the Longhorn Saloon, a hunter and biker bar in Harrison, population 247. The Longhorn is the only bar in town, and almost everyone ends up gathering there. But few young people stop by: More than a third of the county’s residents are older than 55.
Gottsch Feedyard, near the town of Red Cloud, best known as the home of frontier novelist Willa Cather. The Gottsch yard alone feeds 60,000 head of beef cattle. Today, only 1000 Nebraskans work as cattle hands-fewer than librarians or janitorial workers.