Friday, August 2, 2013

Fredonia, KS: A Desert in the Oasis

©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. ”

Monday, July 29, 2013

Gettin' the Heck Into Dodge

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard


Saturday July 27 Pueblo, CO to Dodge City, KS

I leave the hot high desert of Pueblo after an enlightening and enjoyable week in Colorado. Last night I slept on a bed of gravel in Lake Pueblo State Park; that’s all they have there except for the rugged prickly desert floor. Gravel is still better than baby cacti. Unfortunately, I lost the function of my self-inflating air mattress so it was a restless, sleepless night and I am moving slowly. Nonetheless, it is time to leave Colorado.
I gathered some terrific stories here and enjoyed time with dear family and friends. I still love this state, might have to settle here one day. Now it’s back to business.
Young Corn
I am driving east on U.S. 50, paralleling and crisscrossing the Arkansas River rather than super-speeding along I-70 to the north. It doesn’t take very long to reach the vast wide-open spaces of the high prairie. About 25-miles out of Pueblo I begin to see the occasional cornfield and a few very large cattle operations, harbingers of the nearing Kansas State Line.
This is certainly what they must mean by “hardscrabble farming;” the earth is a light tan, very dry and, I’m certain, difficult to plow. I can sense how tough it must be to survive here even during good times. I also gain new respect for the pioneers who first settled this unforgiving part of the country.
I slowly lose elevation as I near Kansas, dropping more than 2,000 feet from Pueblo’s 4,200+ feet. Now there are many more cornfields, very large cornfields. These are family farms, some with newer equipment, many with rusted skeletons of previous machinery sitting around. After a long day on the road, I drive into Dodge City, KS on what else, Wyatt Earp Boulevard.

First and foremost, Dodge City was a cow town. It thrived in the beginning when the Texas Cowboys drove their Longhorns up the trail to ship the cattle by rail.
An old 1950s TV sits in the
Boot Hill Museum running
an endless loop of "Gunsmoke."
Dodge, as the locals call it, is all about Earp, the town’s other famous lawmen (Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman, for example) and one mythical marshal by the name of Matt Dillon.

Wyatt Earp Statue on
Wyatt Earp Blvd.
Wyatt Earp is one of my Old West heroes. Not the Wyatt Earp of TV and pop culture. That Earp was too good to be true. The real Wyatt Earp wasn’t always the good guy, wasn’t always on the right side of the law and was sometimes a scoundrel. His motivation in life wasn’t always law and order. It was more about the money, either by earning a percentage of the taxes he collected as deputy marshal (contrary to pop culture, he was never THE marshal in Dodge City) or by running gambling tables in the saloons. That’s my Wyatt Earp but that’s not why I’m in Dodge City.
This is also Farmville and happens to be on the map as I meander my way toward the East Coast. I am interested in its current history.
In spite of myself, however, I am excited to be here. I will stay several days to also soak up the deep, iconic history of Dodge. How can one not visit the real Boot Hill? In another life, I probably lived on a ranch in Texas or Oklahoma. Why else would a kid who grew up in New York City love the smell of horse pies?
Sunday July 29, Boot Hill, Dodge City
Yes, there really is a Boot Hill here and, it is the original Boot Hill of the Old West – a cemetery for drifters, bad guys and those without family and/or the means for the traditional burial grounds. Today it is the center of the tourism industry which is about 40 percent of Dodge City’s economy, pouring in about $150-million annually.
Penny is a 63-year old native of Dodge. She tends bar at the replica Long Branch Saloon on Boot Hill. She says Dodge City is a mixed economic bag. She explains there’s been a long drought that predates the recession and it’s affecting agriculture. 
In 2008, she says, a big tornado touched down in a nearby community bringing construction workers into the area and keeping employment steady. A new casino west of town also helped. Tourism, though, did take a hit.

As an interestingly dry side note, Trooper and I are staying at the “Water Sports Campground,” a very nice, clean and quiet place but I call it the “Non-Water Sports Campground.” It used to sit on the shore of a large sparkling lake. Now it sits on the edge of a large drought-driven expanse of wild brush.

Seventy-year old Sally Brim has run the old ice cream parlor on Boot Hill for 12-years. She tells me before the recession they’d see about 90,000 visitors a year. Recently, she says, it’s dropped by about 20,000-30,000, a figure confirmed by the local visitors and convention bureau.
It’s taken a personal toll as well. “Grocery prices have doubled,” says Sally, “and because I live about 20-miles away gas prices have been especially rough.”
Monday July 29, Just Outside of Dodge City

Agriculture makes up the lion’s share of Ford County’s (and Dodge City’s) economy and today I am driving the brown dirt section roads that divide the fields, mostly corn and milo, not too far outside of Dodge (sorghum, also called milo, is a crop raised for cattle feed). There was a steady rain last night – not enough to affect the drought but enough to turn parts of these roads soft and slippery. 
What is this city dude thinking (slaps forehead!)? While I am getting a feel for the countryside outside of Dodge, there is nary a farmer in sight; they are all out working the fields . I need another source of information on the state of the agricultural economy. Surprisingly, I find the source back in town.
The Feed Store is that Little Building on the Left
Brian Brower has run the feed department for Pride Ag Resources in Dodge for 17-years. The feed store is small compared to Pride Ag’s main business, a monumental white 1.8-million bushel grain elevator sitting just across the way. 
Brower says the company buys about $12-million worth of grain per year – corn, soybeans, milo and wheat – and re-sells it to millers across the region.
“Even with the drought and the recession,” he says, “we’ve stayed pretty decent but we’re just now starting to see the affects of both on our economy.”
He explains that agriculture usually runs about two or more years behind the rest of the economy and bad times are just getting here.
“People aren’t buying near as much feed, there isn’t as much livestock as there was even a year ago. With grain for example, this year we are taking in half of what we normally do in the wheat crop. So we are now starting to feel the affects of the recession.”
Brower also runs a small cattle farm outside of town. “Like a lot of cattle ranchers, I’m considering whether or not it’s worth it to keep on going.”