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Hardware stores like Hogen's in Kadoka are among the businesses threatened by the rural population drain. 2004 Kadoka photo by Bernie Hunhoff.
Hardware stores like Hogen's in Kadoka are among the businesses threatened by the rural population drain. 2004 Kadoka photo by Bernie Hunhoff.

Free Market Vs. Small Towns

Apr 3, 2013


I want to believe in small towns. The free market does not.

Right after blogging about how our state economic development efforts may be accelerating our rural population drain by promoting jobs in "urban" counties that are already growing, I read the depressing news that after 85 years, Chester Hardware is closing its doors. Owner Denny Benson (grandson of founder Emil Benson) understood all the good his store did for his small town. But he had to give in to economics:

"...operating a hardware store in a small town just isn't feasible anymore. My accountant has been urging me to get out of the business for six years or more. I would have liked to continue the hardware store, but the overhead in operating such a business just doesn't make sense in these times [Denny Benson, quoted by Gale Pifer, "Chester Hardware Closes Its Doors," Madison Daily Leader, 2013.04.01].

A friend tells me Hogen's Hardware in Kadoka is for sale and may close. Another connects the draining of rural population with the shift to Monsanto-based industrial agriculture—more chemicals, bigger machines, and giant farms mean too few people to sustain a vibrant local economy. A third says the decline of our small towns may be the market's correction of "rural sprawl."

South Dakota's small towns grew around small farms. The market has almost eliminated small farms. If there is no longer an extensive local agrarian base to whom small towns supply hardware, groceries, entertainment, and public services, then on what new basis can formerly agrarian small towns survive and thrive?

I want to believe we can telecommute and microenterprise our way to small-town revival, with help from the occasional big beef jerky factory. But telecommuters don't spend their whole lives online. Small business owners want to take their kids to dance classes and museums less than 50 miles away. And healthy communities need wealth and power distributed among numerous property holders (ah, Jeffersonian agrarian democracy!) rather than concentrated in the pockets of one big employer on whom the vitality of the local economy critically depends.

Until and unless a revolution achieves Wendell Berry's dream of resettling America with small independent farms selling their goods to local eaters, many South Dakota small towns will look like grim re-enactments of Children of Men. Most of the kids will leave to increase their economic opportunities; most of the residents who stay will hang on to houses that won't sell.

38 of South Dakota's 66 counties have lost population since 1980. I'm still struggling to figure out the minimum threshold of population and proximity necessary for a sustainable community. But if the free market judges small towns unsustainable, how should we fight that harsh judgment? And should we fight it?


Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.


12:18 pm - Thu, April 4 2013
Steve Sibson said:
Cory's statement that the free market does not like small towns is completely off base. Corporatism is not free market, it is a form of socialism and requires government interference.
12:27 pm - Thu, April 4 2013
Steve Sibson said:
The free market was destroyed by government intervention before the small towns were impacted. Cory's analysis is wrong.
04:51 pm - Thu, April 4 2013
There is no pure free market. But to a significant extent individuals are free to seek work and set up housekeeping wherever they wish. Urban and rural areas offer a broad market of choices. Within that market, many individuals are mostly freely deciding that rural counties aren't offering enough opportunities.

So my fundamental question here, dear readers, is this: Should we fight that free-market judgment against our declining rural counties? (A more charged way to phrase that question: is the free market wrong in Chester?). And if we should fight that erring free market, how do we do so?
05:57 pm - Thu, April 4 2013
Steve Sibson said:
"Should we fight that free-market judgment against our declining rural counties?"Again, the people are leaving rural areas to go to urban areas to work for corporations. Corporatism is a form of socialism. The French cheesemaker is coming to Brookings because our state government is subsidizing its costs. In a free market, the government would not be granting favors to a French cheesemakers with tax dollars collected from small South Dakota cheesemakers. Second, the French cheesemaker will be taking milk supplies away from the small cheesemakers, and so small South Dakota cheesemakers will be put out of business.The source of that problem is not the free market, it is the government taking away form the small producer through taxation and giving subsidies to the corporate international corporation thus destroying the free market.The solution is to reduce the size and scope of government so that it has less interventionist capability and then a return to a true free market can again be possible.Cory is twisting reality in order to promote "sustainable communities" which is an Agenda 21 policy that is being promoted by the international corporate establishment that will end up enslaving us all.
09:26 pm - Thu, April 4 2013
Paul Johnson said:
Very nice article, Cory. I don't think there is any way to escape the inevitability of small, isolated towns declining even further, as people move near to population centers in order to make a living. This death spiral began with the automobile. I doubt it's going to look like Children of Men; most small towns will continue to slowly tumble down into patches of Round-up resistant greenery.
05:49 am - Fri, April 5 2013
Steve Sibson said:
Paul, unfortunately I believe you are right. It would be nice if South Dakota would resist the changes and instead provide an oasis from the rat race of the "global economy".
07:37 am - Sat, April 6 2013
Thanks, Paul. I'd like to think there could be some sort of new Homestead Act that could entice lots of people to come settle in each sparse rural county in South Dakota to raise the population back to the critical mass needed to be self-sustaining. But without good farm land (and that's the problem in much of western SD, right?), we can't create a bunch of Jeffersonian/Wendell Berryan self-sustaining ag communities. Do some counties even have the water resources necessary to sustain larger populations?
10:57 am - Sat, April 6 2013
dave tunge said:
It would be far cheaper if the government would issue IBT cards to residents and non-residents alike. They could be used for food, shopping at hardware stores, appliances, ad infinitum...........but only redeemable in areas of SD that would be deemed at risk by the Threatened and Endangered Species Act.
08:29 am - Sun, April 7 2013
Dave, maybe you should leave the satire to Jon Stewart. I'm hoping to find real solutions, not second-rate ideological axe-grinding.
06:58 am - Wed, April 10 2013
Bernie said:
In our travels we find that some small towns are actually doing -- if not fine, then at least ok.

They seem to be the ones that are working very hard to find a new purpose. Most were built to serve farmers and ranchers, and that need has greatly diminished. Some have been revived to some degree with small manufacturing plants, tourism, assisted living centers, and a combo of the above.

And haven't you also noticed that most would have a thriving downtown if the churches, shops and stores that are now spread out along the highway were still clustered together to benefit from the town square concept that was used 100 years ago?

Not only has the auto enabled the small town residents to shop for tomato juice and lawn chairs 30 or 40 miles away, but it has also hurt the towns by making it feasible to push all the businesses a quarter mile apart. The cooperative spirit has really been hurt.

But I'm not a pessimist. I think towns with some leadership and a willingness to change will survive, maybe even flourish at some point in the future. Heck, all our towns are infants in the civic years. They are babes, dying in their infancies. In Europe, towns come and go for hundreds of years before you really know if they are taking root.
09:29 pm - Thu, April 11 2013
Jim said:
The comments of Mr. Tunge may not be all satire. I can think of several state and federal programs intended to support declining rural population. Soon we will subsidize lawyers to join us in the outback.Doctors and attorneys are important, but sheep shearers and mechanics also improve our quality of life. Maybe they can receive some incentive as well. I would also include large animal veterinarians, dance hall proprietors and honest real estate agents but you can make your own list.Unfortunately most of the counties we are talking about started losing population around 1930. An 80 year trend that is unlikely to reverse.I do not see federally owned buffalo commons in the future. There are too many successful businesses out there. Each proving its not the location or the business that matters, its the people that run them.All this seems inevitable right now. I am sure they said the same things in North Dakota a few years ago.
07:35 pm - Mon, April 15 2013
Whew! Bernie! The European perspective! Hundreds of years before a town takes root -- that's such a paradigm-buster for us homesteaders' children.

The town-square effect -- would it be worth convincing so towns to push more more dense zoning and not to spread out into the vast wide open around them?

Jim, we can keep the North Dakota example in mind, but we can't really bank on it, can we? The development up there was a wholly unexpected lucky roll of the geological dice. And even if we could dig up some black or yellow or other gold, is raw-material extraction the kind of development we want? Can it sustain small towns?
12:37 pm - Wed, April 17 2013
Jim said:
Raw material extraction can bring long term viable communities.Consider Lead and Deadwood.
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