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Tuesday, April 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dwindling rural towns are offering free land

The Washington Post

MARQUETTE, Kan. — There's not much in this one-stoplight town to attract people enamored with the 24-hour convenience of urban life. The town cafe is closed on Mondays, the barber cuts hair from 8 a.m. to noon, and the nearest video store is a dozen miles away.

But houses are rising like weeds, and new neighbors — once a rarity — are stopping by the library, soda fountain and post office. Mayor Steve Piper, between stocking shelves and tending customers at his grocery store, can hardly keep track of the people from as far away as New York and California who call him daily.

The frenzy surrounding this community of 600 stems from its decision to borrow an economic-development idea instituted by Abraham Lincoln: Give land away. The lots of less than an acre, next to the rodeo arena, are not big compared with the 160 acres that more than a century ago lured former slaves and waves of immigrants to settle the Great Plains.

But the deal — improve the land and it's yours — remains the same. And a handful of central Kansas towns, including Marquette, have embraced modern-day homesteading as an elixir for their ills. Over the past two decades, hundreds of rural communities across the country have watched their schools and churches die out as residents, particularly the young, made a beeline for jobs and opportunity in larger cities.

The continued flow of jobs overseas has convinced leaders in many remote areas that cheap land and incentives aren't enough anymore to attract would-be job creators such as factories and big-box retailers. Instead, some have turned their attention to nurturing natives who want to start businesses, and attracting new residents, often one at a time.

Worries about the future usually start with the schools. Marquette's decision to offer free land, for example, came out of the disturbing prospect that the town's seventh- and eighth-graders — like their brothers and sisters in high school — might soon be bused out of town every day. The pain of losing the local high school in 1985 to anemic enrollment caused so much trauma that many residents said they couldn't bear losing another institution.

So last spring, town leaders purchased 50 acres of wheat fields for $100,000, divided the land into 80 lots and started giving them away to anyone willing to move here and build a home. The results have been immediate. Twenty-one lots are gone, and more than 400 people have inquired about those remaining. This fall, Marquette expects to gain at least 20 school-age children — a major influx in a town that currently has 127 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"It's been a wild time for us small-town boys," said Piper, 51, a third-generation grocer whose family settled here in 1922. "I get calls every day from people wanting information. They see central Kansas as a safe haven and a good place to raise their families. And it is."

The tiny towns such as Marquette that dot the Heartland owe their existence to the Homestead Act of 1862. It took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, the same day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and brought many a landless dreamer to the Western prairies clinging to the romantic notion of being a farmer.

Of the more than 2 million who applied for homesteads from 1863 until the program ended in 1986, only about 40 percent were successful.

Those who toughed it out built counties such as Ellsworth, which has 6,500 residents spread across 717 square miles in communities with outsize reputations. The town of Ellsworth, the county seat, earned status as a tough cattle outpost. Another town, Wilson, became the largest settlement of Czechs in Kansas. And Kanopolis, founded on a former cavalry post, was home to one of the state's largest salt mines. Like many communities, the jurisdictions saw their biggest surge in population around the turn of the past century and have struggled since to stay afloat. Giving away lots is the latest idea, one borrowed from their neighbors. Nearby Minneapolis, Kan., has been successfully giving away lots since 1999.

There, applicants put up a $1,500 deposit and agree to break ground on a new home within a year. With 2,087 residents, Minneapolis has added to its population for the first time in years by offering the land. "It was to build our tax base," City Manager Lowell Parish said.

That's exactly what Ellsworth County officials want to do. In addition to property, the towns of Ellsworth, Holyrood, Kanopolis and Wilson are offering free water and sewer hookups, a year's worth of cable and even cash payments to people who move from outside the county. Already, six new students — worth about $6,000 each in state aid — have been added to Ellsworth County's two school districts. Although small, any increase is welcome in a state where two-thirds of the districts have declining enrollments. The biggest selling point to interested parents is that their children will get individual attention and are unlikely to be rejected for extracurricular activities.

"We're not the large school where you get lost in the shuffle," said Doug Moeckel, superintendent of Unified School District 327, which has 600 students. "Our teachers know students by name. Here, you can be in a school play, sing in the choir and play volleyball. Large schools are breaking themselves into smaller schools. We're already small."

But as cozy and neighborly as they are, smaller Great Plains communities from North Dakota to Texas have been steadily losing population, with nearly one-third of the nation's rural counties losing at least 10 percent of their people. To ease the exodus, Congress is mulling a new Homestead Act that would, in lieu of free land, offer business tax credits, establish a $3 billion investment fund and pay half the college loans of people who relocate to hard-hit areas.

Experts who study the emigration from the Plains applaud efforts such as Marquette's but doubt that many sparsely populated towns are healthy enough to save themselves.

"If we were to settle the Great Plains again, we would not have as many communities and as many counties," said John C. Allen, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "We're probably going to continue to depopulate the frontier towns. Some will go away."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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