Small town politics has a lot to teach us about how fragile democracy is right now. In Walden, we sit in on a beautification committee meeting and see how hard it is to make change happen–and how rural struggles are reflected in American democracy writ large.Interested in this story from The Modern West? Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an episode.
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
Early one morning back in October, hardly anyone was wandering around Walden’s downtown. My mom and I showed up late at the local cafe, the River Rock, for a meeting of Walden’s Beautification Committee. A handful of ladies had shoved a couple tables together and were already deep in discussion over their latest project. They want to hang decorative signs on all the light posts in town.
“So the size is 16 by 19. We’re guessing he gave us an original cost of–they were $50 each, but we’re guessing that they’re $60 each,” said Kathi Manville, co-owner of the local bowling alley in town, the 10th Frame. “There’s 36 light poles. We’re looking at doing six different designs.”
The goal of this committee is to figure out how to spruce up Walden to make it more “visitor ready.” But because of Walden’s high altitude and short seasons, it’s a challenge, Melanie Leaverton told me. She’s co-owner of Timberline, the hardware store in town.
“We’ve tried flowers, and the weather is so harsh up here, that it’s really hard to keep flowers,” Melanie said. “Plus, it’s hard to find volunteers who were willing to care for the flowers, and they have to be watered twice a day up here. And that’s a huge job.”
But recently Melanie saw some metal signs in Thermopolis, Wyoming’s downtown and it got her thinking that’d be a solution in Walden too. Suze Kanack works for the county on tourism stuff.
“Metal works up here,” said Suze. “So what we’re looking for is to make the town ‘purty’ because we knew that they would be changing the light posts. And we just wanted to upgrade them a little bit and give them a little spice of North Park.”
The signs would be all different images of local wildlife. Sounds like a cool plan, right? But in a small town that’s shrinking all the time, making these things a reality isn’t easy. First of all, when hunger and poverty are foremost on people’s minds, beautification is a low priority and finding money ain’t easy. The group thinks maybe the town council has about a thousand dollars for this project. But that’s not enough. So they’re planning to apply for a grant from the electric company.
“I don’t know, what do you guys think? We know we definitely need at least $3000. You think it needs to be…?” said Kathi.
“We should ask for more than what we think we need,” said Sandy Fliniau.
“What about like, five? Or maybe even six?” asked Kathi.
“Because you never know what you’re gonna run into, you know?” said Patty Shuler.
But okay, now this is where things get fun,” said Suze. “You want me to ask for six for Mountain Park Electrics? Or do you want me to ask for five with the $1000 from town?”
Listening to them, I realized the hurdles to making the project work are everywhere. I could tell they feel like they’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot with the town council.
“I’m just saying that we might want to ask the town first, because we got the cart way ahead of the horse with this project,” said Kathi. “When I talked to them, they’re like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ So that’s why they need to be in charge, they need to be on board. They need to agree to this.”
If it feels like this podcast just turned into C-SPAN, you’re not off mark. One thing I’ve realized is that the machinations of getting things done in a tiny struggling town really are a miniature version of national politics: the divisions, the bad blood, the excruciatingly slow pace of progress. And it got me wondering, what could we learn about democracy from watching it in action on the small scale? I mean, maybe we could figure out a thing or two about revitalizing our institutions by observing how it’s functioning–or not — at the microcosm. And those lessons could be one crucial reason to preserve the rural American way of life.
Ignoring Small Towns To Death
I’m a big fan of The Atlantic magazine. My dad and I have been swapping issues for years. One article really struck home, especially the subtitle. “To Erode Small Town Culture Is To Erode The Culture of the Nation.” Damn, I need to talk to this guy, I thought. So I set up an interview with the author, Brian Alexander.
“We are at risk in this country, I think, of ignoring our small towns to death and we will be the poorer for it,” Brian said.
Brian has written all over the place about rural demise, including a book called Glass House: the 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All American Town. That shattered town? It’s Lancaster, Ohio where Brian grew up. It was once famous for its glass factories. His dad worked at Anchor Hochings. You know, like that little anchor symbol on the bottom of your measuring cup?
“Yeah, it was a very prosperous little town. And I would say it was a happy little town,” Brian recalled. “And unfortunately as has happened to hundreds of towns like it all over, a variety of financial shenanigans went on and some offshoring of work and so on. And the town began a long decline. It’s struggling to come back now, and I hope that it does.”
Brian said growing up there was great; he was a big fish in a little pond. From a very early age, he got involved in community life. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but he had to play sports because otherwise there wouldn’t be a team. It forced him out of his comfort zones.
I remember the same thing: getting elected as the reporter in 4-H, singing and dancing in the talent show every year. And when I moved to a city in my teens, I wasn’t afraid to keep going: editor of the yearbook, drum major of the marching band. This isn’t to say that folks don’t feel a strong civic duty in cities too. One reason my family moved away was to give me more opportunities. But once I got to the city, I didn’t feel the same social pressure to participate. My brother participated much less in urban schools.
Brian said, the American democratic system we all know and love is kept vibrant and relevant when you experience it up close, in your daily life.
“We learn how to be in a community, how to react and act with other people, and how to serve other people,” he said. “I was a member of the Key Club which is sort of like Junior Kiwanis kind of thing. You also owe things to your community. It’s easier, I think, to learn that in a small town. Again, I’m not dissing big cities. A lot of great people come out of big cities. That’s great. But small towns have a special way of instilling that sort of community and sense of responsibility in people. If you don’t have that, those small towns, a lot of that is going to go away.”
Brian said small towns teach citizens how to serve each other, how to trust each other. And by the way, he says a similar thing happens in well-run urban neighborhoods that function almost like a small town. But small towns come by this community spirit reflexively because it’s a matter of survival–kinda literally–especially in isolated places like Walden, and it doesn’t just benefit people inside the town. It benefits the entire nation.
“I liken small towns to little lagoons that are on the edge of the ocean and the little lagoon nurtures this life, and you’re born there and you grew up a little bit and then you get to head out into the big ocean. I think if we destroy our small towns, we’re going to have many fewer people who have that sort of nurturing upbringing that are then able to go out and move to a big city if they so desire and contribute.”
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Back at the River Rock Cafe, you can see that these gals have that strong sense of service to their community in spades. While we’re meeting, an oldtimer walks into the cafe and sits at a table nearby. The Beautification Committee looks up, thinking, “Ah-ha! Great timing!” Because Kent Follett is the local metalsmith who already made three of the 36 decorative signs the committee wants. They want to pin him down about producing the rest. So they gently lure him into conversation.
“Because I can help with some of the designs too, but there was a question on whether you could do a fish, an antelope and a bear along with the moose, the deer and the elk?” Kathi asked him.
“I could come up with quite a few,” Kent said.
But the more they talked to him, the more it became clear this is a bigger job than Kent thought he’d signed up for.
“What would be the soonest that you could start production on them? Next year?” Kathi asked.
“Right, so we only need 33 more,” Melanie said.
“How many?” Kent asked and the ladies laughed. “That’s turning into a job!”
“It’s community engagement,” Suze told him.
The ladies massage the situation, keeping a sense of humor about it all. I was thinking, okay, here’s democracy, down and dirty. Patti Shuler told Kent he could take all year to complete them if he wants.
“Just do them as you can,” she consoled.
“You want to think about this?” Kent said. “A year is a long time. Something might happen to me.”
“No, nothing ever happens that we don’t know about. So we’re fine,” Melanie said and everyone laughed.
“You know, you might be able to buy these cheaper than I can make them, if you look around,” Kent said.
“Do you want us to look around?” asked Kathi.
“If you want, that’d be okay,” Kent said, relief in his voice.
When these gals arrived this morning, their project at least had an artist. Now, Kent was bowing out. One step forward, two steps back. It’s enough to discourage these ladies from sticking it out. Getting new energy to keep these projects moving forward to completion is a huge obstacle, I could see. All of these gals wore several hats in the community. It wears you out just watching them.
Heart and Soul
“When my mother died, she asked me to take care of two things: my father and her community,” Suze told me. “My father was quadriplegic. He was less hard to take care of!”
But taking care of Walden is what Suze does best and so she seemed like a good person to ask about how viable small town politics really are these days.
“My actual job is I’m the Jackson County lodging, tax panel, marketing and sales specialist, which means that I’m in charge of the tourists,” Suze told me. Suze is from one of the oldest families in the park, the Folletts–related to Kent, in fact. In other words, she’s related to almost everyone in this town.
But still, that wasn’t enough to keep her from leaving.
“I left as soon as I got out of high school. Honey, I went to college and I made my first year through, everything was good and dandy and fine. And then my sister died. And then I was in a head-on collision. And then I went back to school, but they didn’t treat brain injuries back then. So I literally went back to school and it took me 10 years to get my degree. But I stuck it out.”
And she got a job working as the traffic manager for a Wyoming TV station, a position she kept for 25 years. Then one of her old classmates got a hold of her and said, “Hey, we really need help with the senior center in Walden.” So Suze moved home.
And now, it’s all she can think about.
“The amount of seniors up here that are destitute just breaks my heart,” Suze said. “You know, I want to help with housing and I have people that need help with housing. But I can’t go into a house and fix their water system without their electrical system coming into question, and then condemning the house and then they have nowhere to live. I’m tired of sending people out to die. And that’s all it seems that we do. And it just, it hurts.”
There’s no senior living in North Park, so usually what happens is when the elderly can’t take care of themselves anymore, “they go to Fort Collins, they go to Laramie, they go to Steamboat, they get sent out of the valley, and we never see them again,” Suze said. “And honestly, they don’t last very long. And honestly, it’s a little self serving, because I’m going to be in that position. I don’t have a family, I need a place. And I don’t want to leave. I don’t know what it is about North Park but we do. You know, that’s why we have an aging community. “
Suze told me that on the wall over her computer, she has a vision board where she’s been assembling clippings and photos of her dream for North Park’s seniors.
“I want to have condos with little garages attached so our ranchers as they come in off the ranches. All the lawn care is taken care of, all the snow care is taken care of,” she said. “So you’d have like eight duplexes, and then off of the duplexes once they get to a spot where they need assistance, where they need someone to fix meals and stuff, then you have that more of a living community where they are all going to the same meals and stuff like that. More of a living center. And from that living center, I really do want them to go into an aftercare where we actually have a place where they could stay here and die.”
So Suze started trying to figure out how to make her dream a reality. A few years back, she was at a state conference and leveraged a seat next to an organization called Community Heart and Soul, hoping they’d have funding for her ideas.
“Well, I sat down at their table and they said, ‘Well, we don’t have any money.’ It’s like, why’d I sit down? But you can’t move once you sit down. So I listened. And another county was talking about how they had paid their seniors to gather stories, and I thought if I can find money for my seniors, that would be wonderful. And then they told me how sometimes having a Heart and Soul done is better than even a financial study. Because if the community’s involved, then the places that give you grants and funding, such as our Department of Local Affairs, look at that really highly.”
The more Suze listened to what this organization had to say, the more excited she got. Their mission is to empower small towns to save themselves by teaching them how to engage the community so they can build the future of their dreams. Suze says Heart and Soul works by gathering all the hopes and desires of everyone in the community–being sure not to leave out the quieter voices– and figuring out how to make those dreams come true.
“When people start thinking their voice is heard, and there’s action plans from what they’ve said, then they get involved,” said Suze. “And they show that a lot of people then start getting involved in the elections, they start getting involved in the school system, they start getting involved, and how can we help you?”
This all sounded amazing to Suze. Maybe her vision for helping North Park elders could actually happen. Then she found out that getting into this awesome program was very competitive. But Suze, she’s not one to take no for an answer.
“I was talking to one of the assistants and the assistant went on maternity leave. And she bumped me up to her boss and her boss thought we’d already been okayed. So we literally never went through the process. We slipped in. And like I said, we don’t bring it up because it’s really hard to become a Heart and Soul community because of all the requirements. I always call it the grace, you know, because it was grace,” Suze said.
But I couldn’t help having a niggling doubt. Was this program really everything Suze cracked it up to be? Had it actually worked in other places? I decided to find out.
I called the Community Heart & Soul organization and talked to Jane LaFleur, their national P.R. person. Jane’s from up in Maine where a lot of small towns have been losing factories to globalization. She said one example of where she’s seen this model work is in Bucksport, Maine.
“This is a town that had a paper mill in the middle of downtown and it closed a couple years ago, and they lost 40% of their tax base. And they lost I think it was 500 jobs,” Jane said. “They took on Heart and Soul because they said we’re not going to feel bad about ourselves. We want to have a positive plan for the future because that paper mill was not going to come back. And so they took on Heart and Soul and there’s so many things that came out of it. They came up with a set of nine Heart and Soul statements about what matters most to the community. They came up with an action plan that the community members are working on. So there’s, I think it was 82 ideas for action. At first I said, maybe you should focus on the top 10. And they said, no, these ideas came from the community, we want to take on all of them. And some of them are short term, and we can do them in a couple of months. And others are long term, they may take years, but we know that these things came from the community. And we’re gonna do them as a community.”
But I still didn’t quite understand how it worked. I asked Jane to break it down for me.
“There’s steps, what we call Getting Started steps,” she explained. “So there are discussions you have in your community about who lives, works and plays in this community. And really finding out, you know, what the community is about? And who are the organizations and who are the formal and informal groups?”
This step is super important, Jane said, because in a lot of towns some groups of people don’t feel invited to get involved in stuff.
“It’s about finding missing voices, people that haven’t normally been involved. I’m in Maine, and you know, a lot of our communities in Maine have the same old people routinely making decisions and being involved. And there’s burnout. I mean, they want new younger people to step up and get engaged, and they want the next generation to care about government and care about the community and care about things happening as much as they do.”
Some of those missing voices she told me are harried parents, minority groups, artists, veterans, homebound seniors–all those voices that get lost in the shuffle. It made me think of the Beautification Committee, whether it was maybe hitting roadblocks because it’s almost entirely older white women attending. To get more diversity showing up for these things, the Heart and Soul coach starts by inviting other people’s opinions. What do they love about their town, what would they change if they could?
That last question though, sometimes people get resistant at this phase. Especially in a libertarian-leaning place like North Park.
But Jane said, it’s a fact of life. Change is inevitable.
“People often say, you know, I wish my community was like it used to be, but things disappear,” Jane said. “Like one of the things I’ve seen a lot in small towns is a gathering space is lost. And people really are sad about that. And maybe they can never bring that specific gathering place back. But they can find another gathering place that solves the same or addresses the same need in the community.”
Yeah, like Walden’s Elkhorn bar and cafe where the dancehall once filled with people on New Year’s Eve. Where the oldtimers used to meet every morning. Where we all played pool late into the night. There’s a gaping hole there. Jane said letting people tell the stories of those places is a big ol’ healing step in the process for towns. And those stories of our town? They’re welling up inside us, like seeds in need of a place to grow.
I saw the truth in that at the Beautification meeting. They started talking about how to celebrate an upcoming anniversary–30 years since the town delivered a Christmas tree to Washington D.C.
“Because so many people were going back to Washington DC with it,” Patti Shuler remembered. “I mean, it was like, the 4-H club, people from the bank, the Postal Service. It was a big deal.”
“There was just one airplane that actually went,” Sandy Fliniau added. “And they divided Walden up because they knew if it went down, Walden would be out of people. And no kidding, they did. They didn’t put all the people on one plane.”
Walden doesn’t have its Heart and Soul administrator yet, but Suze stepped right in at that moment, figuring out how to turn this cherished story into community action.
“Those kids, 30 years ago, it’d be fun to invite them back,” Suze said.
The committee decided to invite the town to celebrate the anniversary. And that’s how this program would work, turning town patriotism into innovation.
But Jane admitted, just like in national politics, people don’t always agree on the way forward.
“What we found is that by sitting down with somebody and asking them–not political questions, not negative questions– but questions about, what do you love about this community? What brought you here? What keeps you here? What would make it a better place? What would you miss if you moved away? And when you see other people’s stories, and you realize that you have much more in common than you thought, the divisiveness moves away, you realize that there are some things that you agree on, and usually it’s this love of this community,” said Jane.
It made sense to me, galvanizing the identity of a community, holding a mirror up so the community can see how beautiful it is. But until now, there hasn’t been a clear channel for that here. Suze said Walden is still in the gathering stage but soon it will be time to decide what projects to act on together. Maybe the senior living project, maybe just a litter clean-up day, whatever they choose, do it as a united front.
“We’re never going to be that rich. But as a community, we are that rich in heart,” Suze told me. “So if we can get together we can do this, once we make up our mind. But getting people to the table because they all think that their ideas are so different. They aren’t! We all want safe schools, we all want safe streets, we all want the security. And once we start talking to each other about what we have in common–the county people and the town people–then things can start happening.”
A Failure Of Faith
But a lot of people told me the whole process falls apart when government starts elbowing in and bossing small towns around. Here’s Jane again.
“We’re gonna do this as a community,” Jane said. “And that doesn’t mean government. It means community members doing these things, community organizations coming together, the people that cared about this idea, supported it and worked on it.”
Danny Manville, the county commissioner, said change sticks better when it’s community-driven, not government-driven. And Mayor Jim Dustin says even small town governments can make a mess of things
“Some people say we should have tax incentive for private industry and I’m absolutely against that,” said Jim. “If a company can’t make it without tax incentives they probably shouldn’t be in business. There’s a town in eastern Colorado is offering free land to any business that will move there. It’s kind of dangerous because you become dependent on that tax base, on that employment base.”
But all this anti-government rhetoric worried me. The problems are humongous in Walden. Is it really realistic to think a town can just circle the wagons and solve all their problems in isolation? Brian Alexander, the author I talked to, he’s like me, not so sure that small towns can dig themselves out of their slide into decline alone.
“I think the government at all levels does have a role to play. But it’s got to be a cooperative role that is tailored to the community.”
For instance, Brian said only the government can help protect towns from predatory corporations growing fat on the debt and gutting of rural economies. But right now, government isn’t doing much of that. Brian said small towns have been forgotten. And that’s led to widespread neglect and denigration of rural people.
“One thing that upsets me is when I hear or read what I call the smarty pants set who want to pigeonhole small towns and rural places as being this monolithic, white, throwback retrograde place without having actually spent any time in them,” he said. “The county may go a majority for somebody like Donald Trump, but there’s still an awful lot of people that don’t love Donald Trump in those places. They may be a little quieter about it but they’re there. There are artists and musicians and gay people and transgender people in rural places, just like there are everywhere else.”
But it’s also fair to say that lots of these groups suffer in small struggling towns and end up leaving, further drying up that lagoon Brian talked about. In Walden, a lesbian couple I knew who served the community in lots of amazing ways finally left because they didn’t feel welcome. And that’s a big reason that Community Heart and Soul insists, first thing, on giving these underrepresented groups a place at the table.
So yes, some rural stereotypes are real. But Brian said the constant stereotyping has translated into something that only makes things worse: economic disrespect. Companies like his father’s glass factory that racked up huge debt and shoveled big dividends into the pockets of CEOs, all the while cutting employee wages or shutting down factories altogether. And that kind of disrespect has damaged the very spirit of America.
“The workers don’t trust the owners of the factory anymore. And people don’t trust the owners of the factory. People began to think that the foundations upon which their community was built was really made out of sand,” Brian said. “People begin to feel like they have no real future. So younger people–and I noticed that especially in younger people–they don’t really believe in anything. Because why should they? Why should they believe that what somebody tells them is the truth or that somebody is going to look out for them? Or that if they work hard and do what we usually say is the right thing to do that good things are going to happen in their lives? Why should they believe that when they have watched their parents obey the rules and get screwed in the end, which is exactly what happened?”
So, yeah, that impulse of my town to circle the wagons? Flip the bird at the outside world? It comes from a feeling of abandonment. And then, to rub salt in the wound, small towns are blamed for their own ghost towning.
“Nothing annoys me more when some fancy thinker says, ‘Well, these small towns have outlived their usefulness, they deserve to die.’ Certainly there are cases you could say, you know, a gold rush town for example, when the mine is played out, well, the town disappears. This is not like that. These towns have long histories. They have multi-generational families.”
These towns are the American identity. Even if you live in a city, go digging in your ancestry and you’ll likely trace it back to a little town somewhere. Saying these towns deserve to die is self destructive to the nation.
Maybe it sounds quaint, but the fate of Walden’s downtown wildlife signs project–it matters. Because if a little town can’t organize itself to make itself “visitor ready,” then can it organize itself to conduct a free and fair election? Can it make sure it isn’t vulnerable to attack from political action groups? Can it promise to protect candidates who express unpopular opinions? This danger, it’s real. And it’s on our doorstep.
“My Roots Run Deep”
And I can see the strain happening in real time on institutions in Walden. A few months after I attended the Beautification Meeting, I reached out to Suze to see how the metal wildlife signs project is coming along. They haven’t applied for the grant yet and still haven’t found a metal artist but are hoping high schoolers might produce them by using some equipment from a neighboring town’s high school.
“What they plan on doing–and we have to do this quickly, because school is running out– is they’re gonna go over to Soroco, who has the equipment, and these kids are actually going to learn how to do this metal cutting off of a machine, which will be wonderful,” Suze said. “I like hands-on education. Every time I think about doing something I say, and how can we bring our students in?”
But Suze also had some bad news to share. The town council recently dismissed her entire board, the Jackson County Lodging Tax Panel, and appointed a whole new one. Now, her new bosses have cut her pay.
“I do know they kind of overspent their budget,” she said. “I actually took a cut in my pay trying to make the budget work. But they didn’t quite understand business to governmental budgets.”
She had been making $30,000 a year, barely a living wage to start with. Now she’s making only $10,000. So Suze is currently looking for a new job. Dreading her answer, I asked her, is she looking outside North Park? Without Suze, it’s hard to imagine the Community Heart and Soul project succeeding.
She said, no way, she’s too stubborn for that.
“Why is it important to be here? Because in my kitchen, in my bathroom, my drawers are made out of dynamite boxes that my grandfather put in there. I live in the house my grandfather built. So you know, there’s that …roots. And in my root world, my roots run deep.”
Suze plans to live out her days in North Park. To get by, she plans to write a grant to pay her to realize her senior center dream. Plus, she has to stay here to see the Heart and Soul project through too. She doesn’t blame the community’s current leaders; she said the real problem is a lack of participation by everybody else.
“This is what I wish–and this is one of those things that Heart and Soul is supposed to help with–is that more people would get involved in the politics, that we had more people running for the positions,” she said. “I mean, honestly, the two commissioners we got this year, no one ran against them. Well, if there’s no competition, and no one’s on the other side, finding out what can be changed, that’s when you get the blind spots.”
Blind spots that the community just never gets around to facing. And then those blind spots turn to crazy talk about how ‘We don’t want people moving here. We like it just the way it is.’ I asked Suze about this resistance to change.
“I have heard that my whole life, I kid you not,” Suze said. “I have heard that since I was a little kid. And I’m saying fine, dandy, are we going to let our community die without having new people come in and new ideas and new breath? I’m sorry, a baby’s the best thing for a family. It gives you purpose. It gives you a reason to go on to the next generation. And in our community, we don’t get so many babies. So maybe we need more people moving in that have other ideas. And the thought to not grow? We’re either growing or dying. What do you want to do?”
Suze is an optimist. She’s still a believer that politics are functioning in Walden. And if small towns are microcosms of what’s happening nationally, then that’s good news for us all.
But me, looking in from the outside? I’m nervous. If small towns are lagoons feeding the ocean of American democracy, those lagoons are in dire need of nourishment. Right now, small towns are cannibalizing the vitality of people like Suze and Kathi and Patti and Sandy and Melanie. It hurts to see them spread so thin. And their dreams for their hometown just right there, out of reach.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
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