Our family visited a ghost town this March. Not an actual ghost town, because people still live there, rather a virtual ghost town as these days the ghost population is much larger than the human citizenry. The town is filled with many buildings and vehicles that died long ago, their presence lingering and reminding us of a more vibrant past. This article will go on a ghost hunt about town taking in some of the derelict structures and autos.
The town is Witten, South Dakota, located in the south central portion of the landlocked rectangular state, near the larger small town of Winner, not near any city non-Dakotans have heard of. The occasion for the visit was the funeral of my wife’s Uncle Kenny, 82, who lived in Witten for most of his adult life after a stint in the Army that included a complimentary tour of scenic Vietnam. A friendly and gregarious fellow, he ran what’s presently the only store in town, had a woodshop in the back, and was a member of the Witten VFD, the Witten Baptist Church, and a leader in the Winner VFW.
Kenny bought the Village Grocery Store in 1969 and lived in it for a time, until he got married and his bride got tired of living in the back of a dusty store.
The Village Store is in a building that comprises the heart of “downtown” Witten. It was built in 1930, shortly after the town moved about a mile to be on a new railroad spur. Many of the buildings were moved, but this one was new. It originally had five storefronts, with a general store in the largest middle section and a bank in the leftmost spot. The middle spot was most recently developed into a bar but has been inactive for many years now.
A look inside the bank reveals that the roof needs a few repairs. The bank closed in the 40’s, then became the post office until it was left vacant in the 80’s.
Oh, and the floor is gone, too. The stoutly built vault is still there, though.
Across Main Street is one of the four gas stations that used to service town, which currently has none. Behind that is the town park. What’s that peeking around the corner?
It’s a 1949-50 Crosley. The ultra-low-budget cars were made from 1939-52, with their best sales in 1946-48 when new cars were so hard to get in the immediate postwar years. I identified it as a 49 or 50 by the diminutive disc brakes introduced for 49, then taken off after 1950 due to poor durability. I don’t know how long it’s been waiting for repairs at the service station. It’s likely to have quite a long wait to come.
Behind the bank is another former gas station/repair shop. Looks like there is something else hiding behind it.
It’s a 1951 International M39 6×6 fire water tanker retrofitted with a massive snowplow. It surprisingly has an automatic transmission and doesn’t look to have been used in many years, as the canvas top gave way quite a while ago.
Nearby is another firefighting relic, a 1979 Chevy C70 Darley fire engine. The VFD has a newer pumper but I didn’t get to see it. This one hasn’t been out of service for too many years and is functional enough the town is trying to sell it. The number of potential buyers is limited, since a town like Witten is the last stop on a typical fire truck’s journey of service. Who would have an even lower budget looking to replace an even older fire truck?
Around the corner from that is what looks like a garage, but originally served simultaneously as the fire station and the jail. Of course, these days there’s no jail or police department. In the unlikely event the sheriffs arrested someone in Witten, he’d be taken to the ironically named Winner Jail. The pastor of the Witten Baptist Church, who officiated Kenny’s well-attended funerals (one in Winner and one in his home town of Colton), is a Winner police officer and runs the Winner Jail. How small town is that?
Just down Main St. is a commercial building that was originally a feed store, and hasn’t been anything for quite a while. I can’t tell if the 1973-77 John Deere 4430 beside it is just hibernating for the winter or permanently retired. I’m guessing the former because it has a pail over the exhaust stack and the tires all have air.
On the other end of Main St. is the former Miami Stone Company, the most prominent business in town until it closed sometime around when this collection of non-running vehicles were late models. The company made bricks and foundation stones, their Miami imprint can be found on many bricks in old buildings in the region. Kenny worked there part time for many years. It looked to me like the ghosts parked their cars and are still working inside.
There’s ghosts on the highway, too, driving a number of old big rigs, like this 1988-98 International 9700 cab-over. It has the familiar International grille, but the front axle is set back quite a bit from the front. I don’t recall seeing this style much, probably because by the time this generation came out cab-overs were falling out of favor.
The stone company building is in the background of a pretty solid-looking 1966 Ford F100. It’s next to the only industrial business still operating in town, which is a welding shop that looks like it keeps pretty busy welding tanks, trailers, agricultural implements, etc.
Behind the stone company can be found a number of vehicles, parked and forgotten long ago. Somebody had a fondness for late Fox-body sedans, with an example of both Ford’s and Mercury’s 1983-86 LTD and Marquis.
A 1967 Chevy C20 looks like it might not be completely unsalvageable. The question is, what was it’s job? That boom could do some work, but doing what? Maybe something to do with the stone company it’s sitting behind?
Let’s continue our walk around town and see what ghosts we can find in the residential section.
Ghosts care not if the door is left open. Cold drafts suit them just fine.
The ghosts do like to have an old pickup available, in case they need to run an errand. In this case, they also have a backhoe for forlornly digging in the dirt. The trailers are unoccupied as well.
There’s a few cars available for them back there, too. I particularly liked the 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 2-door hardtop sedan. This one looks pretty far gone, but who knows, maybe there’s something there to work with. You’d have to cut out the tree growing through the engine compartment first.
Ghosts keep the front door open, as usual, but the Keep Out sign sends a mixed message. These ghosts value their privacy.
They also have a particularly cool ride in a 1952 Chevrolet Styleline Special 2 door sedan. It still has just a trace of light blue paint left.
A new roof and paint would spruce this vacant house up, but the inside is probably as bad or worse than the outside. The phantom houses tend to have their accompanying phantom vehicles, as we’ve seen. Thirty years ago, the fifth wheel camper or the school bus might have made good travel companions.
Perhaps the Queen of the town’s old cars, with a cozy blanket of snow concealing the upper surfaces, the 1971 Ford Ranchero looks almost regal. It has a “ran when parked” vibe and maybe it still does, but it’s sitting on the grass and the tires are flat.
I found this to be the spookiest house in town. Despite broken windows and inattention, it abides, stubbornly memorializing the past and all the people who have lived and died in it. It’s hard to say how old it is, but I suspect it was moved from the old town.
My favorite phantom vehicle sat in the adjacent field. It’s a 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, a most unexpected find. The last time I found a 1989 GW, I wrote a long CC article on it. One wonders what mechanical condition condemned it to taking up residence in a field. The body doesn’t actually look too rusty from 15 feet away. That’s a Miami Stone brick on the hood.
Hmmm, that MIA rear window could be trouble. Cars don’t respond well to weather and critters freely entering for years at a time.
The interior looks…not bad all things considered. Despite being over 30 years old, the GW is not the type of vehicle that tends to be left out to rot. Even in 1989 with two years left of production, they were kind of a cult classic. Today, nice ones are quite expensive. A 1989 with 7,900 miles sold at Barrett-Jackson in 2020 for $110,000.
Even in the occupied properties in town, there are ghosts. Here is a display of antique farm implements.
I thought maybe the flags in Witten were flying at half staff for Kenny, as I’d noticed the big one at the VFD station was as well. I asked and it turned out it wasn’t for Kenny, but it was his idea. The wind can blow through town pretty strong as it whips across the plains, which is hard on flags. Kenny suggested that since there is always a tragedy someplace, the large, expensive flag might last longer at a height where it would catch less wind. For the years they’ve been doing it, they’ve had to buy less flags.
Not all the empty buildings are decrepit. The Lutheran Church closed several years ago, leaving only the Baptist Church still operating in town, so if there are any remaining Lutherans they have to travel to Winner on Sundays or become defacto Baptists. The building now gets rented out as a hunting lodge during quail season, as do a few other habitable unoccupied homes.
The building has never had running water, leaving boys and girls to answer nature’s call the old-fashioned way. They are unlocked and functional, BYOTP.
For me, the building with the most ghosts is not vacant. It’s the old all-grades schoolhouse, now a private home. It was moved from the old town and served many decades in the new town, which has been school-less for a while now.
Among the ghosts I imagine is young Glenis, my wife’s mom who died in 2006 at age 60. Her parents sold their farm and moved into town when she started school. Her older siblings had previously stayed with other relatives in town on school days, but now they could walk to and from school every day from home. I imagine her playing with kids on the playground for a little while, then strolling home while dreaming of someday living someplace else. Someplace different and exciting and maybe without snow. Someplace like Arizona, where she moved with a girlfriend immediately after graduating from nursing school in Sioux Falls. She got married and raised her family in Mesa, Arizona, leaving Witten behind, as three other siblings did as well. Only youngest sister Sandy came back from college to teach in the school and stayed in Witten forever after meeting a handsome, slightly older man named Kenny.
The former school house is the only residence in town that shows any evidence of children, fittingly, and is a small ray of hope. Most all the other townspeople are older, their kids long ago leaving home. The 2020 census lists Witten as having 54 citizens (it was 211 in 1940), which strikes me as optimistic. I didn’t count, but there is certainly not more than two dozen occupied homes in town and few house more than two people and some only one. The near lack of children is haunting and the prospects for the future are very limited.
I pray Witten will have a better future than this truck down by the creek. It, too, is somehow still around despite being harshly buffeted about. The railroad spur was closed many years ago and some might question the purpose of a town with very few businesses and a handful of residents. Defiantly, street lights come on every night, the noon siren sounds every weekday, and the streets get plowed in the winter. Wittenites love their little town and aren’t ready to leave, nor are the ghosts.
Boo!: In the lead photo, floating above the tractor is a cloudy mass that I’m not quite sure what it is. Could it be a genuine ghost?
I was stumped but I finally identified the tractor as a 46-57 Cockshutt 30. It’s a Canadian make that was also exported to the U.S. Plains states and is known for being the first tractor sold with a live PTO.
Most of these vehicles appeared to be in good condition when abandoned. Were they just permanently parked when some relatively minor issue went unrepaired? Maybe there was nobody or no money to fix them. Quite sad.
I once asked a friend who grew up in rural America why old abandoned vehicle were everywhere. He explained that there was just nothing to do with them after the end of their life. Nearby towns were like this one, with no dismantlers, wrecking yards, recyclers, etc. It just wasn’t worth it to tow a derelict vehicle hundreds of miles to a large city for disposal. They were just pushed to the side where they sat forever. There was also a culture in rural areas never to throw anything away. You never know when you might need a part off the old Ford sitting in the back.
It doesn’t take too much to “total” an old rusty car, if there are others available to replace it for minimal expense. So it makes that all makes sense.
I had never thought about the logistics of disposing of a dead car in a very rural area. Kenny left a non running 70’s Ford pickup and a running but very worn Dodge Dakota behind, which his wife now has to figure out how to dispose of.
Getting rid of older vehicles and srap metal in a rural location is a world-wide problem. I remember a trip I made to the Caribbean about 15 years ago, where I saw hundreds of stripped car bodies sitting all over St Martin. It costs far too much to remove the hulks, because the island has no scrap processor at all. So the abandoned vehicles are quickly stripped of all useable parts, even some of the flatter section of the unit body panels are cut away, and the remaining skeletons are left to rust at the side of the road.
My trips to the scrap metal dealer used to be made 3 to 4 times a year, but now with the rise in fuel costs, I tend to store various types of scrap metal in bins or 50 gallon plastic juice drums until I have a full pickup truck load, because the cost of fuel has risen to the point where it costs about as much in fuel as I get for the scrap.
Another reasons for these vehicles sitting around [but not abandoned] is because they aren’t for sale. I ran a mid-sized restoration shop and had about 6 acres behind my shop building we called the “Junkyard”. If I found an older car in settings like the ones you shared above, I would often ask if the car was available, and probably 75% of the time I was told it was a family car and not for sale, or the more common claim of “I’m going to restore it when I get the time.”
Reminds me of the far west side of Oahu in 1984 with rows of abandoned cars along the roads. Some locals, not Hawaiians, called them Hawaiian walls I recall when I asked about them. Obviously not meant totally in jest…
From what I understand, you’ve presented a microcosm of things that are happening in small towns nationwide. The young(er) folks all leave due to lack of opportunity. The older folks stay until they pass off this earth, and their relatives all visit one more time to mourn.
The will is read, and the heirs find themselves in possession of a home and/or property that has literally no value. They walk away and leave it to rot. And the downward spiral continues.
This has been happening since the 1890’s, when the rural population reached its peak due to the lack of mechanization of farming, meaning one could not farm more than 20-40 acres. And there had to be little towns every 5-10 miles or so, in the pre-automotive era, in order for all those rural folks to get their necessities and such.
I remember well in Iowa in the early ’60s seeing remnants of little hamlets, their wood buildings in severe decay. The percentage of Americans living in rural areas has been in steady decline since that peak. And eventually the somewhat larger small towns like Witten get hit. It’s just the predictable transition as farming has become ever more mechanized with ever larger equipment.
Too many Americans get all dewy eyed over this, but it’s just a very inevitable transition.
Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that this was a new phenomenon. I’m just becoming more aware of it lately, and (without getting too political) there are political ramifications of this decline. Unfortunately, none of the political originators of the US could have foreseen these changes, and they affect all Americans in ways that couldn’t be predicted nor accounted for.
Wow, great article! Liked the flag story……
Wow, interesting from someone who has an actual connection with one of these towns, an excellent representation of many places in this very vast country. They’re all over the place and one always wonders what did people there actually DO when it was thriving or at least getting by in the decades/century since Little House On The Prairie was set there in time….
These cars (including the GW and the Ranchero and 60s/70s pickups i.e. things that are now worth real money when working) are exactly some of the cars that show up often at the junkyards, however they generally aren’t hundreds of miles away making it uneconomical to transport them there like these. They look good from 25 feet away, more or less okay in internet photos closer up, but the reality is they are generally far, far gone from exposure and time, the value is in multiple singular parts, often small ones, rather than the entire whole.
There are towns such as this within 100 miles of the outskirts of most major metropolitan areas in the U.S., at least the more centrally located ones. In those cases the scrap value of a vehicle does sometimes make it worthwhile to schlep it to the ‘yard, especially (only) when steel prices are high.
I’ve been within 40 miles or so of Witten (albeit un-Witten-ly…, had to map it) when we came back from MN once via I-90, spent the night in Murdo (a relative thriving metropolis of under 500 people but where most can’t imagine staying for more than one night), and then turned south on US83 towards I-80 just to see more of the country – the biggest memory was that doing 100mph+ on the straight parts of the road with miles of visibility was easy, simple, and frankly boring with nobody else in sight for very long stretches of time – Ironically making better time than on the Interstate in the summer with their frequent construction zones.
So this though brings us to the inevitable question posed about many junkyard finds – Did Kenny have a running or non-running car and if so what did you guys do with it, did you place a Facebook ad and wait around for all those supposed buyers to call/message and buy it or were there other family members nearby that were able to make use of it? I’m guessing driving something back to Texas was not in the cards.
As I wrote in my comment reply to Evan, rural population peaked in the 1890s and has been in decline ever since, due to mechanization. So there used to be work for them, but it evaporated increasingly in the dust of ever larger and more efficient equipment. And now that tractors and combines are becoming autonomous, there will be even less need for labor.
I guess that was precisely what I was curious about, what did the people that remained do for the last 100 years. Kenny bought the grocery store 53 years ago so there was obviously (ok, hopefully) still some opportunity in that case, but who were his customers? Especially since the 1980s when smaller family farming really started dying out, that area of the country hasn’t been a hotbed of anything really. As you touched on in another response in another thread, the US hasn’t really had much of smaller industrial establishments in decades, if ever, it’s all ever been about huge growth, selling, leveraging assets, centralizing, etc. resulting in vast dead or dying areas of the country with a huge disparity in wealth, not helped of course by those often directly affected that continue to vote against their own self-interests due to misused, misunderstood, and frankly weaponized words like “socialism”, among other misinformation…
The big business in town I think was the elevators that filled the trains when there was a train line running to town. Now some of the elevators are rented out for storage, but probably not much. I mentioned the defunct stone company. There was probably a fair amount of servicing of farm and other vehicles. Also the few stores and restaurants serviced the surrounding area.
I would guess the 80’s is when the railroad left and the town really dried up for business. The grocery store is now barely even a convenience store, really, and according to Kenny’s wife it hasn’t made enough to pay for much more than the electric bill in years. It sells beer, cigarettes, snacks, and soda. The few grocery items are quite dusty. A few of us had a fun game of “who can find to oldest expiration date?” The winner was some pickling spices that were best used by 1982.
US83 runs just a bit west of Witten and Winner, the latter being more like Murdo and other very small cities that have a functioning economy and most all the buildings are occupied. I wouldn’t say Winner is as prosperous looking as some other small midwestern towns I’ve been through, but it’s not bad.
Kenny left a non running 70’s Ford pickup and a running but very worn out Dodge Dakota. I don’t think his wife has gotten that far yet. She also has to do something with his many wood and other tools and other stuff. Kenny wasn’t known for his organizational skills. My wife stayed an extra week just to help her deal with some of the stuff. And she wants to sell the store, which actually has at least one party interested in buying. Widows/widowers often have a tough job, beyond the emotional challenge.
Really appreciate this post. Growing up in a small town that has turned into a large UPSCALE city which has demolished so much of historically significant buildings, it’s kind of nice to see this frozen in time story. As a kid we visited elderly couple living in an old house where bales of hay were placed around foundation in winter. Although there were only a few houses at this crossing of two railroads it did have a name HASKELLS . Family friends died years ago. Often think of trying to find it ,but don’t remember how we got there and not on the map. Doubt anyone lives there now. A friend in MAINE has told me of someone who buys a new car every few years then gives the previous car to the same person. That person simply parks all of the t next to his barn! 🚗 🚗 🚗 😔 😟! Many other similar stories. This video reminds me of both versions of song 🎵 This OLD 🎵 HOUSE.🎵 the original 🎶 was supposedly written after an old man was found dead in his shack with his faithful dog guarding him 🐕
Thanks! That would be interesting to try to track down the town of Haskells. Maybe Eddie stole it.
I didn’t know you could put emojis in comments here. Nice!
I actually found HASKELLS on an old map. Eddie was definitely someone who would have had Town named for his INFAMY! 😉. Old dog 🐕 still not great with technology. A year ago, I did not know what an imoji was 😔 😟 🙁 😥! They say one 🤔 picture is worth A thousand 💵 words. Appreciate your 😆 😄 🤣 reply! Remember an old joke, Mrs Cleaver saying, Gee, Ward ,you were a little hard on the BEAVER last night 🌙 😳! 😉 😜.
Nice. The arc of the story is beautifully scribed, tying the loose ends together at its terminus. Bravo.
It reminds me of my four years spent in Providence, RI, encompassing the change of decades from the 1960’s to ’70’s, when my college, and the entire North End were surrounded by ghost homes and businesses. I enhanced my spartan apartment with old pieces dragged out of empty buildings, including a 1920s Philco “Super Heterodyne 7” console radio, that I gutted and re-animated with a stereo speaker. It’s hard to look at these pics without feeling compassion for the last days of the folks who outlived the heyday of the settlement.
Barry, you should come back and revisit Providence. You’d find that there are currently few ghost homes and businesses. It’s a happening place. 🙂
The CC effect is strong – in the recent piece by Joe Dennis of the “chestnut” colored 1962 Ford, someone remarked that although the color continued into 63, it was rarely seen. Then what do we get today!?!
Some of these little areas have survived so long as there were jobs within commuting distance – often a small factory or such. But those have been drying up too.
Some of those ghost vehicles look quite savable.
Wow, I missed that earlier conversation, so quite a good CC effect in action! It’s kind of a cool color. Very 60’s.
I think the red 6X6 tanker with a snow plow might be a GMC M-135. They were the only military 2.5 ton 6X6’s that had automatics until the much more recent M-35A3. Curved fenders were unique to the GMC’s as well. Very interesting assortment of vehicles and buildings.
You could very well be right. My wife’s cousin and I were trying to ID it from pictures. It had a date on it, but no other ID, and I do not know military trucks for squat. Thanks.
I believe Bob B. is correct in his identification of the truck. The M-39 was a later truck, and only the early versions were built by International, for about 6 months before Kaiser took over production. All M-39 versions were manual Spicer gearboxes.
This M-135 is rare today, and in demand by military vehicle collectors. It’s very possible this was built as a water tanker when new, and would benefit from more research into it’s history. The GMC trucks were equipped with the HD version of the 4-speed Hydramatic transmission, either the 302 or the later 303 Hydramatic.
When the USA got involved in the Korea action, there was an immediate need for trucks, and an order was placed for REO’s all new version of the 2.5 ton 6X6. This came as a surprise to GM, who quickly put together their own design that used many of the WW2 CCKW 2.5 ton truck’s spare parts, as GM knew the Army had huge stocks of CCKW spare parts left over, but the new GMC vehicles used the modern & more powerful GMC 302 Cu In 6 cylinder engine with Hydramatic. The realization that the military already had millions of Dollars worth of spare parts already in the supply lines, caused the switch to GMC instead of REO. [Source – Military Trader & Vehicles website.]
If you are back there again, or know someone who can take a closer look, I suggest you check the right side of the dash panel, that’s where the Army placed the ID plate that will display the manufacturer as well as the year. For example, I’m attaching a photo of the ID plate for my Studebaker-Packard 6X6 truck from 1962.
If you can get a photo of the ID plate, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll do further research. If it’s an original M-135 water tanker, it will probably be the most valuable vehicle in town!
This is happening all over rural America; there is a small town in northwest Missouri named Craig where my parents were born and grew up in. The population of the town peaked in 1900 at 775, and started steadily declining after that. I spent a lot of time there in the 1950’s-my grandparents lived there-by then the population was about 500. The population now is about 104, in 2019 the nearby levy broke and flooded the town. The last time I drove through the town there was a restaurant open, all the other stores were long gone of wiped out by the flood. Most of the town looked like a war zone the survivors had fled from. It is sad, but there is little opportunity in much of rural American now.
I love these places. I lived in South Central Kansas for a couple years and loved everything about being there. The town had a population of 100, which included everyone within a 5 mile radius + cats and dogs. Two paved roads in town. Just off Hwy 30. Rode my horse into town and tied her up in front of the general store and the bank across the street. I was in the volunteer fire department and knew a lot of the empty structures that peppered the town site. I loved it.
With today’s internet, anyone can live in these places. The challenge is the need to be self-sufficient, healthy enough to make it to the nearest hospital, and love wide open spaces, have a good storm shelter, a nice set of guns, electricity and water – and be friends with everyone you meet. The people there are fantastic. I grew up in Chicago, attended university in Colorado, and ended up in the middle of nowhere – and discovered a wonderful casual relaxing way of life.
I spent hours driving an old Ford Falcon over the sand roads, past vast empty fields and old farms, over old bridges with the windows down without a care in the world. Nearby in Hudson, the famous Hudson Cream Flour is milled. It is in the middle of nowhere, but it is perfect where it is too. You get to know everyone. You wave to anyone you meet on the road. You learn to network.
Where I lived peaked after WWI. There was a farm house every other mile. The towns are ten miles apart as the railroad demanded, and that’s still too many towns. So there’s plenty of empty places that once held complete communities that are now ghost towns.
I would still be there if it hadn’t needed to return home to Chicago. I honestly believe that the reason so many young people leave these places is because they want to see the world – as they should. Then they get all tied up in suburbs and all, build families and stay.
As for South Dakota – the population is growing. The Southeastern corner of the state is growing. Its just that people want to be around other people, leaving little empty towns to people like me who like being with our thoughts and in the fresh sunshine.
Great write-up! I’ve never been to Witten, but I’ve been mighty close, having driven across South Dakota on US-18 (through Winner) back in 2018. I love South Dakota, and thanks for the tour of this town.
Old car spottings in the northern plains are some of the best anywhere – I like the collection of vehicles you found here. The one I’m most attracted to is that cabover… surprising to see it there. Oh, and those LTD and Marquis sedans weren’t forgotten about that long ago, since they have the South Dakota license plates that were issued in 2016.
And I wouldn’t count out Witten or towns like it quite yet. Rural demographics haven’t entirely been on a downward trend in recent decades, as retirees have reversed that trend in many places, and then their increasing numbers tend to bring supporting industries along as well. Many folks aspire to retire to rural or semi-rural places that not too long ago were considered shriveling by demographic standards, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see some of that retiree population shifting to affordable corners of the Midwest in the coming decades.
I hope you’re right. As has been mentioned, technology has enabled many to be untethered from having to live in a specific place for employment, so there is a lot of potential for movement and unconventional location choices. The largest cities are, or may in the future become, unappealing for various reasons, so if one can make it work in a rural place, it could be an increasingly popular choice.
Yes – like VanillaDude wrote above, South Dakota is growing. 16,000 households moved to SD last year, most of them from places pretty far away (almost 10% of them from California). The allure of rural and semi-rural places is strong, especially like you noted, for people looking to get away from urban areas that have lost much of their appeal.
50 years ago, most demographers thought that the rural parts of the US would be largely depopulated by now, and the migration of people to rural areas took a lot of people by surprise. I think there’s a fairly good chance that that trend will intensify in the coming years/decades.
I’m glad what demographers predicted 50 years ago didn’t happen. I’d be even happier if they’d stop teaching today in universities as correct, those predictions which have turned out to be wrong.
Don’t hold your breath for that! But seriously, part of the reason for those gloomy predictions was that people assumed that rural areas would remain underdeveloped in terms of amenities that were by then common in urbanized areas (like electricity and indoor plumbing, etc.).
Once rural areas caught up in those regards, people started migrating to rural areas for industrial purposes, and also for resorts/retirement and so on. That population growth was uneven (i.e., many rural areas continued to experience population loss), but the overall trend was notably different than what had been predicted. One could make a similar parallel to internet connectivity now, and the wide availability of rural internet could have the same effect that electrification did years ago.
But just where in South Dakota are they moving to? Not dead little hamlets like Witten, but to the larger cities and towns like Sioux Falls and Rapid City, Spearfish, Hot Springs, Sturgis and Yankton. Places that have amenities or near outdoor activities, scenery, accessibility to medical care, etc.
Yes, in the West and other places where the scenery and outdoor amenities are high, people are moving there. But if you think folks are going to revive the dead little former farming hamlets of Nebraska, the Dakotas, and lots of other similar places, I rather doubt it.
I’d like to see rural America make a comeback, if the infrastructure could be modernized-broadband, new roads and bridges and such I think a lot of people who like to work remotely would return. But I sometimes think so many of the remaining people in these small communities are so afraid of change they would rather see everything collapse.
In this country theres not really anywhere now thats too far away to dispose of old cars Mitimiti in the far north used to be a giant junkyard with dozens of cars parked on every property the rarely maintained gravel/dirt roads in that area killed cars fairly rapidly and towing something to the nearest repair workshop wasnt feasable, just get another one, however the roads out there are now paved much to my surprise and the scrappers harvested all the old cars when metal prices made it worthwhile, On my last trip thru the rural back waters up that way huge collections of dead cars were reappearing but they are all used EX JDM imports.
There is a property in Witten that is basically a car junkyard. Kenny’s wife said he was a car hoarder. There’s a few dozen cars, and not all that old (15-25 years). People in town are annoyed that he moved away and left the cars there. Hopefully if will be worth his or someone else’s while to do something with them at some point.
Yes, a great write-up. I will add Winner on to my list of places that I need to visit.
Two comments related to some of the other comments prior to this. 1) Yes, folks in rural areas just had a different way of thinking about how to dispose of old cars. I’ve alluded in posts and comments to how my mom’s family – who lived in upper Montgomery County MD from the late 1920s until the early 2000s – tended to just park their ex-cars on the property (100+ acres). This resulted in a mini-junkyard of around 20 cars by the time the last of the family died. As a child, I was oriented to believing that these cars were “worth saving” (e.g., several mid-60s Impala SS cars, a Corvair Spyder convertible) but in fact that was nonsense. The fact is that they just left the cars there because they had the space and felt as so many do that something that had cost “real money” (and that pretty much defines a car for most American families) was too valuable to simply get rid of. They also were infected with the notion that “all car dealers just want to rip you off” and therefore never pursued trading in cars. Ever. I know…this doesn’t make sense to me either. But it represented a particular “country” perspective that I feel was enabled by having the space and the privacy (their land) to indulge in their particularly dysfunctional (unique) world/economic viewpoint.
Anyway, the truth was revealed when my mom announced that we could just park the 1961 Plymouth there permanently once its time had come. At which point I realized that they were operating their private junkyard. By default. Because they could. It happened in Maryland. I’m sure that it made even more sense in South Dakota.
The second point relates to (my understanding of) Jim K’s comment about how the U.S. has been able to permit the practice of essentially allowing (encouraging?) a policy of constantly plowing forward, leaving the destruction of rural areas and small towns in the wake of what is deemed to be progress. I totally agree. Rather than taking a political standpoint on this (not that I don’t have one), I will just say that this is something that we here in the U.S. have historically had the luxury to have. We in fact are blessed to live in such a huge nation…with seemingly vacant (relatively) regions…that we have never had to grapple with the ramifications that our progress leaves in its wake. This belief started with Colonialization (where our forefathers believed that the land was endless and theirs to take…oh, and God wanted them to do this) and has continued to this day where it’s deep in the national consciousness to disbelieve that our geographic and natural resources and sheer ability to win in the end are not limitless. This is changing, but we have a ways to catch up to folks in other places where geography has conspired to illustrate that nothing is endless and the only way forward is to learn how to take care of each other in the tiny space that we actually have.
Interesting car story. Clearly, it would have been better financially to sell that old car for however little it would bring than to let it sit forever. But as dysfunctions go, it’s not too severe. Might have cost them several hundred dollars over the years, and deprived industry of some raw recycled material.
In the 90’s I got to spend a summer in China, including some driving through the countryside to various destinations. I was struck by how they used every bit of land to grow crops. Like EVERY square foot that didn’t have a building or road on it, including ditches, within a couple feet of roads, on steep hills, you name it. Americans have long had the luxury of relatively low population density and reasonable land prices in much of the country, even in fertile areas.
Interesting! I think you just made me consciously realize that our society, so often (correctly) lambasted as a “disposable” one, has also very much done and is doing so with the land and peoples thereon for decades if not hundreds of years. As in if there is something better to do, then just leave it all behind or bulldoze it and leave a brownfield for someone else to do with – rather than be stewards of the land and leave a place or a thing better than you found it to begin with. Many corporations as well as many individuals are clearly guilty of this. Perhaps that comes directly from being a “land of plenty” and many didn’t feel a need to bother since there was always “more”, and we are seeing it again today with a lot of denial in many places and many people, lots of whom I believe haven’t seen or simply turn a blind eye to what can actually be done and that there may be better ways to live, i.e. ignorance is a deadly disease – A pig seems perfectly happy to roll in shit all day long when that’s what they are given as their lot in life, yet when a pig is kept as a pet in clean conditions they don’t seem to seek out the shit to roll around in but appear quite content to live in a better and cleaner place.
“Progressive” and “progress” are bandied about as curse words in some circles, yet those whose panacea is/was 1950s America ignore that much of 1950s America included a strong national urge to actually progress and elevate and move forward first with the jet age, then the space age, and clearly evident in all kinds of expression including automotive and architectural filtering down to basic household items. Few in the 1950s thought that it was the be all and end all, well, maybe those pining for the glory days of the 1890s or something when women darned all day and men often lived to the ripe old age of 40-ish…such a paradise. Same thing. Those who fondly remember and wish we could go back to the 1950s would likely not have reached their current age had that been in the 1950s, they’d be lucky to make it a couple of years past 65. We’ll likely get back to that sooner than you’d think given that some even here think the only way to live happily in a small town requires an arsenal of guns, presumably to shoot anyone who pulls in their driveway by mistake or knocks on their door. Fear of something, likely other guns, is literally killing people. The irony is laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.
Everyone needs to get off their ass, in other words, and take a good look around. It starts inside oneself.
“It starts inside oneself.” There are forces at work desperately trying to divide us for their own benefit and often times with success. We have to be smart enough to see through their bullshit and shut them down. I recognize that pickup truck puzzler but I still can’t identify it!?!?
I think that I figured out the mystery truck. It’s been driving me nuts all day. I think that it is a late 30’s International!!!!
That’s not what I was thinking, but I don’t know for sure. I was thinking late 40s Chevy.
I looked it up and I think there’s an excellent probability you’re right. Looks like they made that design from 37 all the way to 49. Also kind of looks like a 41-47 Chevy, but I think the International looks closer.
Witten still looks bigger and more prosperous than the last “ghost town” I visited, Granite Oregon, population 38 was light on curbside classics but did have one building under reconstruction, one old store for sale for an astonishing sum and one convenience store cum bar open, plus another store that opens in the summer. Granite also has a municipal ordnance governing operation of snowmobiles in town and a groomed snowmobile lane on the road connecting it to Sumpter.
Less people but more stores. I like the snowmobile lane idea.
This is a lovely tribute, thanks for sharing it.
Another well written article that touches close to home .
I spent much of the mid 1960’s in a hamlet called East Rindge New Hampshire and much of it was like this except for far older junkers & klunkers .
I occasionally spend some time on you tube looking at dead or dying towns like this and wonder why no one bothers to create retirement communities .
As mentioned, the city could bring in the internet and as more folks moved in the tax base would go up again .
Me, if I never have to live out of town again it’ll be too soon but I also understand and value the quite rural life and miss being involved with the local volunteer fire brigade .
Beautifully written and photographed; so evocative! I think most of us can relate to the decline of small towns in rural areas.
Living in Central Virginia just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I’m aware that farms were established well before the introduction of railroads. This means that the small towns could be very close to each other, sometimes only a mile or two apart. In my area I can think of several, still marked by small signs, such as Midway, Aroda, Radiant, and Quinque. Often, the only other indication is a road intersection, although in the case of Quinque (pronounced “kwin-kwee”), there is still a tiny post office, feed store, and what used to be a general store, now a convenience market.
Enjoy reading your articles buddy. That little place has grown on me some and I am hoping to head out this summer to work around some of the issues Ken left, not sure when but am trying to make a time work. Would be cool to see if that old M39 fired up again along with that International but that is way over my head haha. No idea what the white puff would be above that tractor but the white stuff on the ground was a hit with y’all. Blessing to y’all!