©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Tuesday July 30 Dodge City to Fredonia, KS
The 240-mile drive from Dodge City to Fredonia, KS is straightforward, very straightforward. Except for a few gentle curves, U.S. Rt. 400 is a straight shot across the flat terrain of Kansas. Cornfields and small towns whiz by while the skyline is dotted with freight elevators
|A Gigantic American Flag Overlooks|
Fredonia From One of the Few Hills in Kansas
If you’re a film buff or a Marx Brothers fan, Fredonia is Duck Soup. If you’re a geography pundit, Fredonia is any number of small towns across America. If you live in southeast Kansas, Fredonia is an economic desert in the middle of an oasis.
About 97 miles east of Wichita, Fredonia is enough off the beaten path that the recession almost passed it by. Unfortunately, almost is the key word; the recession changed its mind and came back with a vengeance starting about two years ago. Its location a few miles south of U.S. 400 works against Fredonia’s recovery.
Small rural towns like Fredonia often depend upon agriculture and local industry to fuel their economy – not so in Fredonia. Location and nature conspire against this town of 2,480. That population number, by the way, is down almost five percent from the 2000 census and there are those who say it is still dropping.
I call this stricken town a desert in an oasis because the farmers and cattle ranchers just outside of Fredonia are thriving. The problem is they don’t spend their profits here; they buy most of their equipment and supplies in the nearby larger towns that sit along major transportation routes.
I won’t identify my source for the above – and following – information because it might hurt his standing amongst his peers. In a major media market he’d be called “a well-placed source.” Let’s just call him Tom.
|Fredonia's Co Op Grain Elevator|
“Don’t believe a word those farm boys say,” Tom says, “they’ll always tell you they’re starving. Hell, we just had the best wheat crop ever.”
He quickly turns to an old adding machine sitting on his table and fingers fly across the keys. “Prices are strong. Ya get $15.00 for a bushel of soybeans. Let’s say ya have 40 bushels of beans, that’s $600.00 an acre and it may cost him $300.00 an acre. Say ya got 2,000 acres of soybeans, ya made $600,000 on your soybeans.” A fraction of that money makes it to Fredonia.
Record flooding in late spring 2007 tortured southeast Kansas, washing the region’s economy away. Recovery almost came two years later with a small economic boomlet but the rest of the country was in the deepest throes of the recession and things merely leveled off here. One by one, local communities fought back, helped by their agricultural strength and rebounding local industries but fate was not kind to Fredonia. The cement plant, the towns largest industry and employer, closed in 2011 after more than a century in business. That’s when the recession turned around and revisited Fredonia.
One sign of how the economy is doing is sales of big-ticket items like appliances. Jack Studebaker owns the only appliance store in town, specializing in air-conditioning and heating. Over the last year, he says, sales have dropped 30 percent.
“I’ve always been conservative,” he tells me, “savin’ for that rainy day. Looks like it may start rainin.’”
There are no big box stores in Fredonia and few franchise businesses, save for the fast food places near the highway, and downtown tells the tale. Almost every other store on every block is closed and empty. The downtown streets are quiet, almost bare. Interestingly, just after the 2007 floods, unemployment in Fredonia was a miniscule two-point-nine percent. Today it is a few ticks over nine percent.
There is some optimism glimmering around the clouds but it is guarded. An oil production company came into town about a year ago with plans for new drilling. Since they arrived, they’ve built a large headquarters outside of town, employing local construction workers and, with the people they’ve brought in, pumped more than $500,000.00 into the Fredonia economy in the last nine-months, according to Chad Estes, Senior Vice President at the National Bank & Trust.
Estes warns, however, “This place was drilled for oil years ago and a lot of the old-timers say if there was anything left, they would’ve gone out and got it. This outfit has a new process, though. Maybe…” And, he leaves the sentence hanging. In the meantime, the recession still lives here.
That’s not to say that everyone is hurting here. Indeed, there are blocks and blocks of very nice houses, some of them very large and all of them well kept. Alas, there are many For Sale signs. Estes also points out, “There are a lot of dilapidated homes in town that need to be torn down.”
How bad are things in Fredonia? Thirty-six year old Amy Booth is the children’s pastor at Fredonia’s First Assembly of God Church. As such, she also deals with families and has a strong sense of what’s going on in the community. “I’ve seen a decline for several years but last year it accelerated and I can tell this year will be worse” she says.
“We send out our vans to pick up kids every day, not just church kids. We can see that family life is changing. It’s not uncommon for the kids to have one or both parents in jail; thievery is on the upswing. I see more abuse and neglect with the children, a lack of discipline.”
“The schools are stepping in and feeding families, as are the churches. The number of families we feed each week has almost doubled. And, families are leaving town. Over the last few years we’ve lost 25% of our congregation.”
This all takes a personal toll on Pastor Amy. “I’m just waiting on the Lord,” she says. “God works miracles. I’m ready to see Him provide and I pray all the time. More and more, though, when I pray I am also crying. ”