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Hard Times

North Dakota’s history has always had booms and busts – robust settlement in the days of Dakota Territory, the hardships of the Great Depression, oil booms and oil busts. In the 1980s, the state was wracked by the farm crisis and drought. Small towns were shrinking as people moved away. North Dakota had more residents in 1930 than in 2000.

This sad trend of decline was featured in a New York Times article on this date in 1990. McClusky and Sheridan County in North Dakota were the focus. The story described “a withering Main Street” with closed storefronts. McClusky’s mayor compared the decline to “sitting there dying and waiting for someone to set the date for your funeral.”

The Times’ story looked at what economic development solutions were available and the limited resources of state governments to help out. Governor George Sinner said the state could only do so much: “The state wants to keep every community it can. But when you have a declining population and tax base and have to keep the schools going and the highways going and the medical services and the nursing homes, it’s going to be almost impossible to keep these communities alive. The state just can’t do it all.”

It was a difficult time for North Dakota, which had just celebrated its centennial. But like other annals of state history, another chapter lay ahead. The Bakken oil boom of the late 2000s set off a fast-paced period of growth, bringing a whole new slate of concerns, from housing to infrastructure to law enforcement. Some small towns saw a rebirth with the boom as new businesses and housing sprang up. But not every community has seen such growth. Recent issues of small-town decline have ranged from maintaining volunteer emergency services to sustaining rural grocery stores. And there’s a census coming this year. What will North Dakota’s new count reveal?

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The New York Times. 1990, Jan. 3.
Rutland Herald. 1990, Jan. 3. Page 1.
Globe-Gazette. 1990, Jan. 3. Page. 1.

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