The prairie is made up of wide expenses of grassland and cropland. There are pretty much two areas of the prairie: “the country” and “town”. The country is pretty much the entire area that is not town. Today I’m going to talk about the little towns on the prairie.
I was recently lamenting that every time I go somewhere local (which isn’t often) people know who I am. I get lots of “Hi Laura”s and “How’s Kevin?”s and I have no idea who these people are. I stick out.
“That’s just how [that town] is,” the person replied. “I’m from [ACertainOtherPrairieTown]. It’s different there. It took me a long time to get used to [that town]. I know what you mean.”
I tried to explain that no, you don’t. ThatTown or ACertainOtherPrairieTown are the same really. They are both dippy prairie towns. I’m from New York, as in New York City. You cannot compare New York City with a prairie town. The person doesn’t see it that way.
I may be stupid, but it has taken me a long time to “get” prairie towns. I’m going to share what I’ve learned about prairie towns, the “rules” if you could call them that. I wish someone had handed me a pamphlet with these rules when I moved here. It would have helped. It’s taken me seven years to figure this all out. So here are the “rules” that prairie towns seem to follow, in no particular order:
1. They started as railroad towns. Not every town is along a current or defunct railroad line, but the majority are. They have a rich railroad heritage. Railroads out here predate the homesteads. Eastern Colorado was roving gigantic herds of cattle and railroad towns for a while. The Homestead Act did not open this particular area until around the 1870’s. The farmers are newer than the railroads. The towns had all the earmarks of historic railroad towns and the remnants of the railroad heritage remain, even if the tracks themselves are gone (as in the towns along the Rock Island Line).
2. A Grade A Town contains a post office, grocery store, and school. A Grade A Town means nothing really. It’s a term I made up to distinguish a happening (by prairie standards) town from a town on its way to being a ghost town. It seems when they take out the post office, the grocery store or the school, the other two may shortly follow.
3. The town itself is less than three square miles. There are smaller towns that aren’t Grade A Towns that are perhaps a few blocks, but even big towns are very small.
4. The term Big Town refers to the population, not the geographical size of the town, and its not really big, just bigger. “That’s a big town,” they might say. I’ve learned that, no, it really isn’t, that it’s just a little more crowded, the key words being little more. Town1 might have a population of 600. Town2 might have a population of 1500. Town3 maybe even tipping the scales at 4000. Town3 is a “Big Town”, but it’s not really a big town at all. For example, Spotswood, NJ, where I lived as a teenager is 2.5 square miles and has a population of 8000. That’s a very small town Jersey-wise, but it’d be a thriving metropolis out here.
5. Most of Eastern Colorado is “unincorporated”, a term that basically means not in a town. This took me a long time to wrap my head around. A town out here does not border another town. For example, there will be TownA, a great big expanse of nothing and then TownB. In New Jersey, I could stand on the town borders and literally have one foot in one town and one foot in the other. That will not happen here. Even though TownA is the next town from TownB, there is a great expanse of unincorporated county in between.
6. A lot of actual towns in Colorado are technically “unincorporated”, too. I really don’t understand the political structure here, just that these terms are used.
7. Zip codes and school districts are independent of town borders and each other. I have personally known people who have Ramah zip codes, for example, that live in three different counties. Some live 30 miles southeast of Ramah and some live 30 miles northwest of Ramah. Ramah itself is maybe 1 square mile if its lucky and does not have a school. People with Ramah zip codes probably live in four or five different school districts.
8. A good way to measure the size of a town is by the size of its graduating class. School districts here are literally hundreds of miles large. The towns themselves are maybe three square miles, tops. The country (unincorporated areas) are so sparsely populated that they seem to contribute little to the size of the school class. So the school districts will be hundred of square miles large, yet maybe 75% of the students live in the actual 2 square mile town. A “big town” will have 25 people in its graduating class, while a small town will have 12 and a town hanging on by a thread (without a grocery store or post office, see my theory above) may have two or three. Still, even a “big town” school has a minuscule graduating class.
Years ago in Jersey, I remember going to my sister’s graduation. She graduated with 500-something from the public high school. It was on their football field. The name readers read the graduates’ names in tandem and there were two lines of graduating kids with two degree-givers. The name reading still lasted forever it seemed. Her graduating class was about three times the size of the entire local school district out here (which is hundreds of square miles large). This is far away from the prairie in more ways than one. A big town really ain’t a big town.
9. There is both a camaraderie and a rivalry between the towns. The rivalry is with the schools and the sports. The camaraderie is that in a way, we’re all neighbors. For example, I am equidistant between a certain town and Colorado Springs. The people in the far away prairie town got my back. They might know my husband or if they don’t they know his uncle or cousin or their uncle or cousin knew Kevin’s grandparents. They know my last name and they know that [insert my last name here]s come from outside the town we come from. People in Colorado Springs are probably unaware of the prairie towns’ existences. It’s just different. It is also considered a local drive to drive 100 miles from one prairie town to another, but not 100 miles to Aurora.
10. The school and sports mean everything. Your average Joe-Schmo-resident knows the colors of the local high school and the colors of the nearby prairie towns’ teams, which are all rivals. They know the stats of the team. They know who plays what sport. They go to high school sport games for fun. Homecoming is a major thing here. People actually come ‘home’ to their alma mater, people who now live hundreds of miles away. (I totally don’t get this.)
11. These towns all have limited access to medical care and commerce. Being far from real doctors, real hospitals and real stores is just a way of life for the prairie town residents. It doesn’t phase them, and it’s been their way of life for generations.
12. The towns have declining populations and are in various stages of decay. The prairies have been loosing population. There are empty falling apart houses and empty falling apart business buildings. This is all very sad.
In 2010, I worked for the census. A certain census employee seemed the type who, um, marched to his very own drumbeat. The crew leader for his area sent him to a certain prairie town.
“That guy is committing fraud,” the crew leader said. I was the crew leader’s boss. The crew leader continued, “That guy went to [ThatPrairieTown] and every single one of those houses, he marked as vacant or uninhabitable. He didn’t even check.”
“That guy is weird,” I said. “I wouldn’t put that past him at all. Go out to [ThatPrairieTown] and maybe spot check him, or redo a few of his areas.”
The next day or so the crew leader called me. “That guy might be weird, but he’s accurate. Every single one of those houses was empty. It was apparent no one’s lived there for twenty years.” We both didn’t realize just how decayed ThatPraireTown was.
There are some bright spots, here and there. One example is the Hugo Improvement Partnership. They have been slowly buying up some of these abandoned falling apart buildings. They level the buildings or fix them up and resell the lots. They have drastically improved the look of Hugo. It is a slow process, a very gradual progress by these volunteer community members, but their efforts have severely lessened the decay in Hugo. Perhaps other prairie towns can model their efforts.
13. For the most part, town residents have lived in and around the area for generations. There isn’t too much “new blood” that comes in. My blood is new, for example, but I married into my husband’s family, who has lived in and around here for over 100 years. They are not unique. People don’t move here. Plenty of people leave (hence the depopulation) but for the most part newcomers don’t come.
They’re not inbred, however, many families have many connections. My husband’s grandmother might have been cousins with his grandmother. Or sisters-in-law. People are just very connected.
As a matter of fact, when I met That Guy from the census, the weird guy mentioned above, his first words to me were, “Oh, you’re a [insert last name]. You live near Hugo.” Yup, I am. Or I married one, I guess. That Guy lives about 50 miles from here, yet he knew that [my last name]s come from Hugo.
14. The landscape, predominant architecture types, streets, and surroundings are all pretty similar. If I was in Hugo and you kidnapped me, blindfolded me and dropped me in, let’s say, Cheyenne Wells, I’d probably never know the difference. Cheyenne Wells is probably about 80 miles from Hugo, too. They’re all surrounded by prairies, where there are vast fields of grazing cattle, wheat and corn. They have some trees now and then, but they’re not predominant. The environments are pretty boring here, for hundreds of miles. The towns do not have suburbs. It’s town or it’s prairie and that’s about it.
I lived in Northeastern Pennsylvania for 2.5 years. I could probably write this same blogpost about the former coal mining towns there. There are bigger cities, like Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Hazleton, but also smaller ones like Lehighton, Nanticoke and Coaldale. They all look the same. They all have similar histories. If I was in one, kidnapped and blindfolded and dropped off in another, I’d also still never know the difference. There are many commonalities with the coal mining towns, just like there are many commonalities with the prairie towns. I suppose that each region of the country is that way.
Or maybe it’s that as an outsider, I see more of the commonalities than the differences. All I know is that the prairie and its towns are different worlds from the former coal mining communities of northeastern Pennsylvania and certainly different worlds from the Staten Island and Central Jersey of my youth. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were all parts of different nations. So getting back to that same conversation that I mentioned in the beginning… I really don’t see a difference between Prairie Town A and Prairie Town B. I’ve outlined the “rules” here that the prairie towns all seem to unknowingly follow. I am still getting used to it all. I’m sure if I was from a prairie town, I could probably distinguish the differences a little better, however, being that I am a Jersey girl homesteading in Colorado, the biggest difference is Jersey to the prairie and not prairie to prairie.
Posted in Culture Clashes of a Jersey Girl on the Colorado Prairie, Touring Eastern Colorado by Laura with no comments yet.