In the midst of empty lots where buildings used to stand and other buildings, still standing but no longer usable, one or two businesses hang on, and chances are the man behind the counter and the owner are one in the same. In the neighborhoods, scattered among houses that have been vacant for years with owners who moved away long ago, there are still houses that are someone’s home with flowers in the garden, lamps in the window and maybe even a bicycle or basketball in the driveway, left there by children just moments before.
Small towns are fighting to survive throughout rural America, and there’s no one thing to blame. High interest rates in the 80s, droughts that are as fierce as they are long, an agricultural economy weighted against the independent farmer—all those things played a part. No one, in good conscience, could blame any parent for telling his son or daughter to “leave here, go get yourself an education, build a life that’s easier than this one”. And no one could blame that son or daughter for listening, which they often do. Nonetheless, that migration to the big cities has left hundreds of small towns hanging on by the slimmest of threads, their future more uncertain than it’s ever been before. And, with a current population of 56 hearty if not stubborn souls, uncertainty is one way to describe the future of Haswell.
There are a number of challenges facing Haswell, but, as it always does, one stands out more than others, and it can be summarized in a single word: money.
“We have two major funds,” explains Michelle Nelson, Haswell’s mayor for the last eight years. “We have the water fund, and that takes care of itself. Our problem is with the general fund. That fund has to pay for our fire department, membership in two organizations, insurance that we’re forced to carry and utilities. Things like that.”
For years, Haswell was able to maintain a small reserve that was enough to cover them through the lean times. But the rising cost of utilities and insurance premiums that are higher than ever before, that reserve is now gone. With no sales tax and declining property value that doesn’t generate much revenue—the two sources of income most towns rely on to operate—the situation has gone from bad to worse.
So just how bad is it?
“It’s…pretty bad,” she says, quietly. “We’re waiting to see what the mill levy will be. But we’re told it’s going down for at least the next few years, and that has us all pretty worried.”
The town has done all it can to cut costs, a step made possible only because of the sustaining efforts of a core of dedicated volunteers. Nonetheless, in some ways, the cards are stacked against a town like Haswell. Municipalities are prohibited from taking out loans, and no funding organizations are willing to award grants for operating expenses, which is exactly what Haswell needs.
And in perhaps the greatest irony of all, the amount needed to continue operation is small by relative standards. “We need about $3,000 to $6,000 to keep going,” Nelson says. “That may not sound like much to a lot of people, but, to us, that’s a lot.”
The people of Haswell are not the type to just sit around and wait for what some may say is inevitable. They’ve investigated the possibility of becoming unincorporated, which would make the citizens eligible for basic services provided by the county that the town would no longer provide. But that would require the mayor and her four person board of trustees to close down the one asset they hold on to most dearly—the community building. “If we lost that,” Nelson says, “we’d lose the one place where we can gather together and…be a town.”
And in that one sentence, Nelson hits on the most crucial point of all.
Let’s face it. Circumstances like this force people—even when they don’t want to--to ask the one question no one wants to answer: is a town like Haswell really worth saving?
The answer to that question resides in the hearts of the people who live there. .
In a tradition on the High Plains that dates back to the late 1800s, a town became a town when there was a place for the townspeople to gather. And the people of Haswell have kept that tradition alive. For years, grandparents, children, grandchildren, generations of neighbors and family and friends have continued to come together for the simple joy of being in each other’s company, whether it’s in the monthly gathering of senior citizens, the potluck suppers held during holidays throughout the year, the annual fish fry where everyone brings a dish and a few men fry up the fish caught at Blue Lake specifically for that purpose, or the fall bazaar where local folks bring out everything from homemade jams and jellies to hand crocheted afghans and have a sale.
All of that takes place at the community building, which just so happens to be the old elementary school where many of the older folks first learned to read and write. And losing that is a cost no one is prepared to pay.
So, they’re trying other things. Sunday night, the town put on their first fundraiser—a bingo game—and the response was what would expect. “We had a really good showing today,” Nelson says in the interview conducted Sunday night. “We had 32 people show up.” A turnout of 32 people in a town of 56? That ain’t bad. What’s more, Nelson thinks most of the people went straight from bingo to services at the Methodist Church, which must have come as a pleasant surprise to Reverend Black, the gifted, newly graduated minister who’s recently come to the area.
There are other beams of light that speak of new life coming to Haswell. There is talk of a much needed community clean-up day, although the date has yet to be set. And, in no small feat, the historic Holly Hotel is being renovated by Kris Stokke who hopes to return it to the wonderful bed and breakfast it was in the days before bed and breakfast was even a commercial concept.
Yet Nelson, who seems to be, above all, a pragmatist, admits that the Holly Hotel is a far ways from being done, and a town can only go to the same people so many times. At some point, new revenue must come in, and where that revenue will come from is anybody’s guess.
And that brings us back to that most difficult question, once again. Is saving Haswell worth the effort it would take, even to raise such a small amount?
The citizens of Kiowa County will have to answer that one themselves, for there are some things that no man can determine for another. But, for the sake of argument, if nothing else, perhaps it would do well for people to think about what it would mean to see Haswell “go under”—not just for the 56 people who live in the town but for the people of the county, as well. At what point does one decide to not turn their back on another, knowing that the other has weathered the same storms, survived the same losses, seen the same hopes be born and then dashed only to be born again when the rains finally come? At what point does one decide to say that this extraordinary way of life is worth fighting for, whether that battlefront is in this town or the town not so many miles down the road? How does one place a price tag on the value of a community of people other people have known their entire lives?
That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s a question that is being asked throughout rural America, including within the borders of Kiowa County. And it has an answer that only time will tell.