“Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, first appeared on Broadway in 1938. It has been performed often over the years. If you’re an old geezer, maybe you’ve seen it. If you’re just a kid, say under 60, I doubt you have.
“Our Town” is — or was — a celebration of inner-connected villages like Bogue, where I live. I’ve seen the play several times, directed it once.. And performed a role. I taught it several times to high school English classes, who read assigned parts out loud.
In 1938, the play championed truly interactive community, a shared village. Today, if anything, it’s closer to nostalgia — if even that. There are three acts.
Particularly across rural plains America, today we’re seeing Act III. Once thriving villages are approaching what looks like the final curtain — not likely met with appreciative applause, but with sad resignation...or apathy. “What the hell, no big deal. Nothing anybody can do about it, any way.”
Having come to Bogue in 1963, half a century ago, intending to stay no more than two years, I’ve witnessed the growth of both the cemetery and the number of empty homes. Houses in good repair are hard to sell for anything like the cost to build them from scratch. A couple months ago, I counted 18 empty houses, 15 probably livable, three too far gone.
In reminiscing, I remembered the hardware store, the grocery, two filling-stations, the beer joint with rooms upstairs, a hotel on the corner, three grain elevators, a soda fountain, two mechanics, a vibrant high school and a grade school, a lumber yard. And for a short while, a thriving cheese plant. Most of the buildings either demolished, or in need of that. The bank, post office, one elevator, and America’s Best Steaks in the old grade school are what’s left.
In the early 60s there were around 250 people living within city limits. Today, you’d have trouble counting 150. One friend opined that was because of fewer women deciding to have kids – birth control being so available. There’s probably a little truth to that. But looking at local ladies, I’m guessing post-menopause might be a bigger factor. There’s lots of gray heads here, including grayed males with ever-shinier heads.
Some younger adults live here, but many are not connected or inter-active with the community. Many, if not most, work out of town. The one church in town has a weekly attendance of 40 to 50, mostly older. Only about half live in town. The weekly children’s sermon brings an average of three or four forward to hear .. enticed by a little candy afterward.
There are well-known reasons for the approaching Act III curtain. Farms have grown much bigger, farming equipment as well. Landscape of empty farm homes and buildings. Stacking small bales rarer than rare. Farms not just larger but less diverse. Raising chickens or hogs or milking cows passe. That’s done by large corporate industries. Labor mostly by low-paid immigrants, I’d guess.
In our area, what was once a job-creating oil patch has shrunk dramatically — fewer wells, fewer employees. In the past, the petroleum industry and farming employed many people who shopped and used local businesses. We live in a highly-corporatized, industrialized, urbanized, plutocratic world.
Not too many years ago, a trip to a larger city was relatively rare. Vehicles were less reliable and slower. You could buy locally about everything you needed. Now, more and more village businesses have vanished. It is common and in one way cheaper to drive miles away to buy it, or via Amazon. But at a social cost seldom considered: the death of “Our Town.”
As a former teacher and coach, I often think of all the little schools that have closed because of shrinking enrollment and decaying villages. Those where villagers once routinely cheered their neighbor’s kids at local ball games. Where they attended school plays by walking just a block or two. Where they knew everybody in town by their first names, what kind of cars they drove, what church they went to (or didn’t but should). Who chatted often at the local bank or grocery store or filling station or post office. Knew who cussed and who didn’t. Who needed to lose a few pounds, but you didn’t remind them. Knew who was in the hospital, and who just got out. And who probably wouldn’t. You helped where you could.
Bogue is special. If you live in a special village too — and despite all human shortcomings — you love it — you know what I’m talking about. You wish you could help save your own “Our Town.” You’re just not sure how to do it. Or whether that’s even possible.
I understand. Me neither.
Bob Hooper is a fourth generation Western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.