Pockets of grief in dying town
Seattle Times staff reporter
Editor's note: In the months since Sept. 11, we've been exploring the people and places that create today's America. Join us for another of our "postcards" from the road.
There might still be small farming towns whose residents come together in barn-raising unity over the death of a native son, but Wilbur isn't one of them.
Wilbur is a small farming town of the 21st century, which is to say, a dying town. And dying towns sometimes don't have the energy, or will, to come together as a whole, even to mourn.
This isn't to say that the death this week of Sgt. Nathan Hays, 21, killed with six other Marines in a plane crash in Pakistan, went unnoticed in this remote cluster of Lincoln County farms an hour west of Spokane. Or that it didn't bring the conflict painfully close to home. Hays was an upstanding young man from a respected family.
Wilbur High School, where he graduated in 1999, and where older students remember him well, held a ceremony and put up a hand-painted sign in his honor. Some families in town are in deep mourning.
But these are pockets of grief. His death hasn't seemed to shake the entire web as you might imagine it would a hamlet of 900 people.
There might have been a time, four or five decades ago, that Wilbur was the kind of idyllic small town that some of us like to romanticize: with deep-rooted families that go back generations, that farmed and prospered together, whose kids grew up to take over family homesteads.
The town sits on a flat plain between two bluffs, which are only slightly less flat than the plain. Straight lines define the horizon in every direction.
For a century, wheat drove the local economy: if you didn't grow it, you hauled, processed, packaged or sold it. Or you supported those who did.
In its prosperous years, Wilbur — named after a frontiersman named Samuel Wilbur Condon, locally known as Wild Goose Bill — supported six gas stations, three hardware stores, two-car dealerships and a number of grocery stores.
Today, only one gas station remains. The dealerships have long gone. The largest supermarket, the IGA, closed a month ago. Scattered throughout town are empty houses, abandoned or for sale. Frank Stedman, publisher of the weekly Wilbur Register, says about 30 homes are for sale in the area.
Two clusters of grain elevators hover over a bleak downtown. "Wilbur's dying," said a cheery Louise McMillan, stepping out of the Cut-N-Curl, her hair newly done.
Even dying towns have individual residents who are absolutely vibrant. Wilbur High's principal, Tom Johnson, would fall in that category. As would the head of the local VFW, Tim Savage, a newcomer in town at age 60.
The day after news broke of Hays' death, Savage, a bushy-brow, twinkly-eye retiree, walked over to Wilbur Drugs, bought eight yards of black elastic bands and made 35 memorial ribbons in honor of the young soldier. He passed them out all over Main Street.
Hays himself, from what residents unanimously say, was a "100 percent good guy" with energy and promise. But as old farming communities go, Hays and his family were relative newcomers, too. The family moved to Wilbur in 1990 and then last year moved again closer to Spokane for job-related reasons. Jim Hays is a State Patrol trooper.
The family, in seclusion, has told Wilbur residents they plan to hold the memorial service at their new church, in the Medical Lake area near Spokane.
The vast majority of Hays' classmates did what young people do in dying towns. They moved away, many of them to attend trade schools or community college. At least one joined the Air Force. A number of his friends are in different branches of the military. So those who knew Hays best, who feel the loss most deeply, no longer live in Wilbur.
If grief over Hays' death feels diffuse, it's because his "community" has dispersed.
This is a place in flux as the new century shakes itself out. Families come and go. Retirees from the cities move next to lifelong farmers, nothing in common between them. Others live here and work elsewhere — in Spokane or Coulee City, Grant County.
What may have once been a single community is now a collection of disparate microcosms sharing the same ZIP code. When a community member dies his close circle grieves, but for the rest of the town, it isn't like the loss of a brother so much as the loss of a second-cousin they sort of knew. Still bad, but not the same.
Things move on, as Wilbur will. Dying can take decades, and the town may yet surprise. The Lions Club recently put new lights around the high school's sports field. Over by the baseball diamond on the east edge of town, a new-looking scoreboard stands over the grass, clean and bright.
Hays raised the money for it, built and installed it — his Eagle Scout project three years ago. It was a gift to the town. No doubt, even with all the changes in store, people will be looking at scores on that board for a long time.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-8133, or email@example.com.