LACROSSE - The sign on the road into the rural town welcomes visitors to LaCrosse, population 415. These days, however, fewer than 100 people live in this town in southwest Whitman County, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Like LaCrosse, small towns in Eastern Washington are emptying even as the state and larger cities are growing, the Spokesman-Review reported.
“It’s a shame,” said Whitman County Commissioner Patrick O’Neill. “My opinion is that the small towns of America are what made this country great.”
More than a dozen towns in Whitman County lost people, even though the overall population has grown in the last decade due mostly to an increase in Pullman’s population.
Two of the state’s 39 counties – Garfield in the southeast and Pacific along the coast – saw a population decline.
But people have been fleeing small towns for at least a century. The 1910 census was the last to count more rural Americans than city dwellers, the newspaper reported.
Small towns had sprouted to serve the influx of farmers, loggers, ranchers, miners, railroads and travelers. But tractors and new plows, bigger farms and the automobile ushered in a new day.
In LaCrosse, there hasn’t been a town doctor in more than 45 years and the nearest dentist is in the next town over. The only grocery store closed a few years ago, as did a machine shop.
“We’re not dead yet,” said LaCrosse Mayor Larry Burgess.
You can still buy cold beer at the local tavern, and a few bucks will get you a hamburger. The town’s neatly kept school has more than 150 students from the town and the surrounding area. A few businesses keep people employed, and the surrounding hills support big wheat farms and fertilizer sales.
A group of local business people are trying to finance a new grocery store. And there’s talk of efforts to sell a rural lifestyle and hard workers to attract new business.
Some blame a popular federal program that pays farmers to leave their land idle rather than plant crops for the population decline in small towns.
The voluntary Conservation Reserve Program last year paid Washington farmers $84.6 million to leave 1.4 million acres for wildlife habitat and erosion control.
Greg Partch, a Whitman County commissioner, said the program is “killing our towns.”
He says the federal payments stifle local economies. When farmers take conservation payments rather than plant crops, they don’t buy fuel or fertilizer and don’t hire help.
Judy Olson, state executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency office in Spokane , acknowledges the criticism, but said the program has helped thousands of farmers and landowners hang on to family property during down years.
“Used to be around here that the town would get some sales tax money when farmers would spend a few million dollars on new combines,” Burgess said. “We miss that.”
Verne Strader, mayor of Endicott, said small towns are struggling. “But people are proud, and we’re not going anywhere.”