So who wants to live in the Little House on the Prairie?

The rural communities of North Dakota are targeting a new breed of pioneer to fill their depleted towns and schools. Rupert Cornwell reports from Divide County
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The Independent US

Something most unusual happened in Divide County last year. The number of its inhabitants rose by three, to be precise from 2,205 to 2,208. The visitor to this remote corner of north-western North Dakota, it should be said at once, is unlikely to notice the difference. Even after the increase, population density remains at just two per square mile. Here on the Great Plains, modern American man, for all the changes he has wrought - the extermination of the buffalo, the tearing up of the wild prairie for farming - remains an afterthought. The marks of his civilisation are but the tiniest dots on one of the emptiest, most haunting landscapes on earth.

Something most unusual happened in Divide County last year. The number of its inhabitants rose by three, to be precise from 2,205 to 2,208. The visitor to this remote corner of north-western North Dakota, it should be said at once, is unlikely to notice the difference. Even after the increase, population density remains at just two per square mile. Here on the Great Plains, modern American man, for all the changes he has wrought - the extermination of the buffalo, the tearing up of the wild prairie for farming - remains an afterthought. The marks of his civilisation are but the tiniest dots on one of the emptiest, most haunting landscapes on earth.

Locally, however, this statistical blip is a cause of much rejoicing. Whisper it not, but a dismal historical trend may have begun to reverse course. It may be a false dawn. But it could signal a first breakthrough for a campaign to reverse a sad but little-noticed demographic trend of the contemporary US, the depopulation of the Great Plains. Divide County is one of several communities offering free land and other incentives to persuade people to do what they did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and settle there.

The US is in the midst of an immigration boom. But the newcomers are heading for the coasts and the south, ignoring America's great mid-section that stretches south from the Canadian border to Texas, from the Rockies to the Missouri river. There, populations are stagnant at best. North Dakota, where the population of Northamptonshire is spread over a land area one and a half times the size of England, lost 1.2 per cent of its inhabitants between 2000 and 2004. Of the towns on the plains, nine out of 10 have fewer than 3,000 people. More are haemorrhaging away every year.

For Fortuna, one settlement in Divide County, it is probably already too late. A few decades ago, before a local air base closed, the town, wedged up against the silos and the railroad tracks that carried the local grain to market, had a population of over 200. And now? Beverly Sather, who runs the local Border Tavern which serves as miniature city hall and public library as well as dispenser of refreshments to those that remain, counts them on her hand before answering. "21," she says after a moment.

True, not quite everything is gone. As well as the bar, Fortuna has its fire station and post office, a seniors' centre and a curling club, with a couple of lanes. "On a curling night, as people come in from nearby farms, the bar might attract a dozen people," Bev says. "But the hardware store has closed, so has the grocery store and gas station. Once there were four churches; now only the Lutheran one remains."

Given its wretchedly depleted human resources, Fortuna looks amazingly neat and well-tended, with a newly mown playground. But for how much longer is debatable. The latest problem is a state demand that Fortuna cleans up its water supply, which contains too much arsenic. "It'll cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix, which we obviously don't have - so what do we do?" asks Bev. "I joke sometimes that I'll be the one that turns out the lights. There are times when I just feel like giving up, but you get over it. Basically, I still love it here."

For Bev and the others who have stayed, these desolate plains have a magic of their own - the vastness of the land and sky, the friendliness of the people, the closeness with nature, the spring and summer, the coyote howls, and the spectral reds and greens of the northern lights.

But there is no escaping the cycle of decay that afflicts the Great Plains. The farms grow bigger, requiring fewer workers. The young are the first to go, increasing the average age of the remaining population (the median age of Divide County is almost 50, one of the very highest in the US). Deaths exceed births, the population shrinks further. Schools, shops and restaurants close for want of custom, and basic government services close. In the end, a community dies.

This part of northwestern North Dakota has some things going for it. The area retains some of the trappings that at the height of the Cold War would have made the state, had it seceded from the US, the world's third largest nuclear power. At Minot Air Force Base, 100-odd miles south of Crosby, B-52s still wait by the runway. Every now and then you come across a fenced-off site with a sign like J-10, denoting a silo with one of 150 Minuteman IIIs in the 91st Strategic Missile Wing - capable of being launched at 30 seconds' notice to hit a target 7,000 miles away within half an hour. Paradoxically, the 2001 terrorist attacks have also been a boon, bringing extra staff to man the borders.

The surge in oil prices has helped too. Oil has been extracted from North Dakota for half a century, but today new finds that would have been marginal could now be lucrative. Leases are selling fast, and drilling companies have rarely been as busy.

New business brings new dollars, and some of them will be spent in Crosby, seat of Divide County. With its population of 1,100, it is a veritable Manhattan compared to Fortuna, 20 miles of arrow-straight, gently undulating highway to the west. Crosby's most remarkable feature is its imposing county courthouse with a glistening silver cupola, built in 1917 as a monument to the conviction that the newly settled region would soon teem with people.

There are Lutheran churches with their slender white steeples, a country club, two schools and three banks. But even Crosby has had its recent disaster. The local wheat is of the durum, or hard, variety used for pasta. So, the city fathers wondered reasonably enough, why not build a factory to make the pasta locally? They did - only for the $9m plant to close in July 2003, barely a year after its opening, with the loss of 50 precious local jobs.

The unused plant, still in mint condition, stands on the edge of town, as ghostly a monument to dashed dreams as the deserted wooden farmhouses, and the unfenced graveyards with their headstones bearing the Norwegian and German names of the first homesteaders, dotted across the windswept flatlands.

One proffered explanation for the closure was the transient but unhappily coincidental fad for the Atkins diet, under which carbohydrates were shunned.

Whatever the reason, Crosby, like other rural counties on the Great Plains, learnt the lesson of industrialisation the hard way: however much a town or county woos companies, it cannot stop them relocating or going bankrupt, leaving the local community to foot the bill, in terms of lost jobs and revenue.

As a result, Crosby has changed its strategy. "The people we are targeting now are young professionals with kids, telecommuters or planning small business start-ups," says David Olson, head of Divide County's Jobs Development Authority who has led the incentives campaign. "We want to to fill our schools, and for that we need to get young people moving back here." So, to borrow the headline of the website launched by Divide and five other counties in northwestern North Dakota, to lure newcomers, "Do you have what it takes to be a 21st century pioneer?"

The northern Plains are not for everyone. The winters are long, dark and intermittently ferocious. A windy April day is one thing; the same wind in January means a blizzard with wind-chills of 30 or 40 below. If you want to dash out for a Starbucks, or do some impulse shopping, catch the latest film release or just browse a bookstore - forget it.

But there are compensations. Cable television, satellite radio and the internet link the Great Plains to the outside world as they never were before. Never again in your life will you be stuck in a traffic jam. There is no crime to speak of, nor even much noise (apart from the ever-present howling of the wind).

The hunting is terrific, while outdoor activities abound. And of course there are those views that stretch to the end of the earth, coupled with a sense of comradeship and community that has been all but lost in American urban life.

Cecile Wehrman, now the chief reporter for the local paper, happily gave up the sophistication of Californian big-city life in San Diego to marry her North Dakotan husband. "People who live here don't expect other people to do work that needs to be done - everyone pitches in. In a big city you don't trust anyone. Here you know everyone, and their kids. Bad guys literally get run out of town. If you cross the line of being a good citizen, you wouldn't want to stay, you'd be too conspicuous." And if you take the plunge, there's a lot on offer. The tiny town of Ellsworth in central Kansas is offering free land, tax rebates, incentives for small business, even the promise of high-speed internet access. If you want to build a home and settle in Crosby, the town will provide the residential lot for free, and throw in a one-year free membership of the local curling, ice hockey and golf clubs, plus $500 worth of certificates to spend at local stores and businesses.

Incentives could be on the way from Washington as well. The original settlement of the plains owed much to the Homestead Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, one of the great social building blocks of the modern United States, offering free land to settlers. Indeed, some of the very last homesteaders came to this northwestern corner of North Dakota, to Crosby in 1903 and a few years even later to Fortuna.

Lincoln's Act was repealed in 1976. Now, however, Byron Dorgan, one of North Dakota's two Democratic senators in Washington, has co-sponsored a $30bn "New Homestead Act" that seeks to promote a repeat of what happened more than a century ago. It offers special tax credits for homebuyers and small business start-ups in rural America, and the repayment of student loans if a graduate settles in a declining area.

The bill has foundered twice in Congress, in part because urban states with the majority of seats have other priorities. But Mr Dorgan is more hopeful this time: "A generation ago, our leaders called for 'urban renewal' and committed billions of dollars to the cause. We should do the same for the rural towns fighting migration in the Heartland." But will this well-meant bribery work? The response thus far, in Crosby at least, has not exactly been overwhelming. Between December and January, the Divide County website received 3,000 enquiries, but thus far only a very few families, most with existing ties to the area, have come.

The Plains are fighting history and economics. The packages on offer are welcome mats, says Ms Wehrman, "but incentives alone will not make the vital difference, and the town leaders know that. People are going to do what they're going to do. They must have some other reason for coming here, not just to save money on local taxes."

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