We visited friends in a rural area of flyover country over the Labor Day holiday. We hopped in their pickup to go check on a couple of hayfields and drove through their small town.
Shuttered storefronts, crumbling buildings and once-grand homes fallen into disrepair reminded me of so many other small rural towns I have driven through in recent years.
Our friends pointed out landmarks and told stories about the old implement dealership that now houses someone’s junk and the grain elevator now owned by a local farm family.
The school gymnasium has been condemned, so ball practice was being held in an empty American Legion building. I say “was being held” because like so many other activities, sports practices are on hold in reaction to COVID-19.
The reaction to COVID-19 sounded the death knell for most of the few businesses that had remained open prior to shutdowns in March of this year. A small restaurant, a satellite bank location and one of the two hair salons in the town have closed permanently.
The elementary and high schools would be empty the next week as a preschool teacher had tested positive for coronavirus the week before, so all students and their teachers were scheduled for virtual classes for “at least a few days.”
The only remaining businesses open in the town are a hair salon and an antique store and flea market that on that Saturday morning had watermelon and cantaloupe for sale on the sidewalk out front. The only thriving economy in the community, explained our hosts, is in the methamphetamine trade.
While finishing up slices of watermelon and saying our goodbyes the next afternoon, the high-pitched scream of sirens filled the air. An ambulance sped past on the highway that runs along the south edge of our friends’ farm.
A few minutes later, other emergency vehicles followed suit: firetrucks from three neighboring communities, volunteer emergency responders with blue lights flashing, county sheriff office vehicles and at least two state police vehicles hurried toward the small town.
A phone call later and we learned that an explosion had occurred in one of the abandoned buildings in town. At least one person had been injured and the building was ablaze.
There is now one less meth lab law enforcement will have to shut down.
There are so many casualties of poor economic conditions in rural communities. It is difficult for small businesses to survive in normal conditions, let alone in the wake of COVID-19. All commerce is important, but when and if you can keep some of those dollars in your own community, it will make a difference.
During a recent funeral dinner at my country church, several of the women, who also live on farms, were excitedly telling me how they were able to order everything they needed online and have it delivered to their door. One said she might never set foot in a store again.
I believe there is room for all businesses, big and small. But if we want those small, family-owned local businesses to survive, we need to not only shop at Walmart and Amazon. We need to not only eat at chain restaurants.
Cyndi Young-Puyear is farm director and operations manager for Brownfield Network.