Dust Bowl history, unknown future challenge residents of rural Baca County.
A few years ago, the wind kicked up on a portion of the field where Brian Brooks rotates corn and wheat about 6 miles southeast of the tiny town of Vilas. The stiff breeze peeled back layers of the sandy soil — and with it, the history of this sparsely populated county in Colorado’s far-southeast corner.
Soon, Brooks saw the skeleton of a Ford Model T poking above the surface of land he had worked for more than a decade. For years, he had unknowingly planted and harvested right over top of the vehicle until the wind, whispering memories of the Dust Bowl, revealed it anew.
“It just showed up,” says Brooks, the fifth generation of his family to farm Baca County. “I was surprised, to say the least. But then you get talking to the oldtimers, and they all knew there was a homestead there years ago.”
The past remains deeply embedded in some swaths of rural Colorado, even as time literally has shifted the landscape and presented new economic challenges. The state’s predominantly agricultural regions face their own unique circumstances that, intertwined with history, present a sometimes uncertain path forward as the urge for growth finds both impetus and impediment in tradition.
Years ago, Baca County swelled with homesteaders, cattle ranchers, farm workers and the businesses that sprang up to serve them. By 1930, the county’s population peaked at more than 10,500.
But then, the Great Depression took its economic toll just as overcultivation of natural grassland, plus devastating drought, exposed the loose, dry soil to damaging winds that gave rise to that dust-choked chapter of American history.
Many abandoned their homesteads, while those who persisted passed down stories of damp sheets hung around windows and doorways in often futile efforts to keep the invasive dust at bay. Outside, it piled in drifts that could bury almost anything — including automobiles — and shifted the landscape.
In the years since then, the county has been recast as a smarter, more efficient agricultural workhorse, but also a less populous area of around 3,700 where empty storefronts stare blankly onto Springfield’s Main Street, with one sign imploring, “Look us over, don’t overlook us!” The absence of a more diverse economy remains a point of frustration for some who see the county stuck in a time warp.
“There’s a nostalgic piece to it, people wanting to keep it the same and not bring in industry,” says Sarah Steinman, who returned to Baca County a few years ago and bought the weekly newspaper. “People don’t want to be bigger, because we don’t want to be a city — that’s the fear. The mind-set is ‘Change is not good.’ But if we could get that mind-set changed, it’s a great place to live and raise kids.”
“We like to be forgotten”
Glen “Spike” Ausmus heard the stories of the 1930s and also remembers a “mini-dust Bowl” during his childhood in the 1950s. He has seen changing demographics and the ecological fallout from that bygone era reshape Baca County — downsize it, redefine its agriculture and more sharply contrast its rural lifestyle to the urban enclaves of the Front Range.
In some ways, he defines a sense of ambivalence about the county’s economic direction. A shift toward other drivers — such as energy or establishing a retirement haven — could spark growth, he says, “but we just don’t have anything going on that would bring a lot of people back to the area.”
“We’re at the point where I guess we’re sustaining about what the land will support,” Ausmus says. “And I guess, in some ways, maybe we’re selfish. We kind of like the isolation. Sometimes we like to just be forgotten and left alone to do our own thing, too.”
Just outside a small cluster of homes that defines Two Buttes, he guides his pickup along the unpaved roads that meander among property he owns both in Baca and just across the Prowers County line. Only about two dozen yearround residents remain in the town from around 1,500 back when it was first founded and an irrigation project fueled migration.
Like many farmers here, Ausmus has cobbled together sections of land over the years, until now he has about 6,600 acres, mostly planted in wheat and milo, although he leases some acreage to a farmer who grows corn. Ausmus has balanced his farming with more than 12 years as a county commissioner — he still has a little more than three years left on what he says will be his last term — and served 16 years before that on the school board in Springfield.
“We used to have a lot of smaller farms when the populace was higher,” he says. “Now, most of the farms are substantially bigger than they used to be. It takes more acres to be able to turn a profit.”
That consolidation is reflected in comparisons of the 2007 and 2012 censuses of agriculture, which show that the number of farms in Baca County dropped from 777 to 737 while the average size jumped from 1,674 to 2,040 acres. Those operations represent many times the scope of operations in 1930, when 1,750 farms averaged 644 acres each.
The county’s agricultural economy has mixed boom times of lucrative harvests with years of drought and cratering commodities prices. For a stretch that lasted into the late 1970s, Baca County competed for the title of broom-corn capital of the world, cashing in on a crop whose strawlike tips worked well in the manufacture of both brooms and packing material.
After learning the lessons of the Dust Bowl, the federal government launched programs to restore grasslands and encourage better soil management. One of those efforts, the Conservation Reserve Program, pumped more than $150 million into the agricultural economy over the 20-year period ending in 2014 — by far the largest farm subsidy in the county.
In return for payments that can run 10 or 15 years, farmers agree to keep parcels as grassland to preserve the soil, and sometimes to encourage wildlife conservation. Ausmus has planted trees on some of his grassland to create more bird habitat.
“The CRP program probably saved a lot of guys’ farms just for the fact that if they had their farm paid for, it gave the opportunity for a steady income without the risk,” Ausmus says. “We had a kid who worked for us when we first put some land in (the program). We let him go, and he said he thought there ought to be a CRP program for displaced farm workers. I had to agree with him. It did take some jobs away.”
Big farms, fewer people
With many farmers edging into their 70s, some could use a hand — but low crop prices and razorthin margins make it tough to offer a living wage. Also, the size and capabilities of newer planting and harvesting equipment, including Gps-guided models that can work 24/7, make it possible to run larger operations with fewer people.
Bill Brooks, whose son Brian found that old Model T poking out of the dirt, cultivates about 6,000 acres near Vilas with the help of Brian, his other adult son and a single hired hand. That kind of business model illustrates how economics and culture merge to define much of the agribusiness that still rules Baca County.
Although absentee owners account for a good portion of the county’s farmland, family operations still reflect a cultural backbone. Sweat and toil are intertwined with a hardscrabble history whose grip remains firm on those who have stitched together a life — and an expanding enterprise — section by section of available land.
Brooks becomes emotional when he tells how his father, newly married, had a chance in the 1940s to buy a half section, 320 acres adjacent to his grandfather’s place, for $5 an acre. The federal land bank would advance him only $3 an acre.
More than 50 years after coming up short, Brooks’ father saw the parcel come up for sale again — for $300 an acre. With decades as a successful farmer behind him, he wrote a check.
“It was last piece of ground he bought,” Brooks says. “We still own it today. That’s why I try to teach the kids (to) appreciate where we come from.”
Like their father, both Brian, 39, and Michael, 22, went off to college to study agronomy but ultimately chose to remain anchored to the land and a culture of independence and family values. They chose against better-paying work with one of the fertilizer or chemical companies that serve the industry.
“If you want a good W-2, you go do that,” Brooks figures. “If you want a lifetime, you stay here. These boys are making less now than they could’ve if they’d went and gotten jobs out of college. By the same token, they’re buying some land, and building some equity and getting appreciated assets. It’ll take them 30 years to get there. It’s a lifetime lifestyle, I guess you’d say.”
Decline in Springfield
About 11 miles west, truckers slow to a crawl along the main drag in Springfield, their growling engines rattling windows of mostly empty storefronts in the town that sits at the crossroads of the two highways, U.S. 385 and 160, that roughly bisect Baca County.
Behind a bright-green door, Sarah Steinman wages a battle against the economic and cultural forces that have sent the area “on a fast decline” over the past decade. After a hitch in the military and 10 years in her husband David’s home state of Arizona, she returned here about six years ago, shortly before her father passed away.
Searching for something to knit her family even closer together, she pooled money with her mom and sister and bought the Plainsman Herald, the 125-year-old weekly newspaper she feared was not only diminishing in size and circulation but sinking into irrelevance under its previous owner.
“It was a way to bring something back,” Steinman says. “We’re trying to get people to realize what they have before it’s gone.”
Steinman produces the paper — there’s no online version yet — on two computer screens at a cluttered desk in a back room of the space she currently shares with an inherited, 2-ton linotype machine. That technological dinosaur, obsolete but not quite a museum piece, has proven impossible to give away or even move from the premises.
“It’s a piece of history,” Steinman sighs, “but it’s also sort of a hindrance.”
She electronically transmits pages to the printer in Eads and each week drives three hours round trip to pick up the press run and drop it at the post office for delivery.
The family’s business portfolio also includes her husband’s carrepair shop about a block away from the paper, a retail outlet that sells school and art supplies, and an art studio. It’s all an investment not just in local business, but a small-town way of life the couple want for their two children — a sense of community they reinforce each year by hosting a free
Thanksgiving dinner for any and all comers.
“I don’t want to move again,” Steinman says. “This is my home.”
But Steinman’s return runs counter to Baca County’s recent population trend. From a little over 4,000 people in 2005, the county reported only about 3,600 residents in 2015. One forecast predicts that many impending retirements from the workforce will open jobs enticing to millennials, generating a gradual increase back above 4,000 by 2050.
Some locals with grown children, including Ausmus, find that scenario optimistic. Of his five adult kids, only one has returned to the area. Scenarios such as that help explain how the county’s median age has crept upward, from just under 40 in 1990 to 49 in 2016.
“Most of our young people, when they graduate from high school, they go on to college and never come back,” he says. “We raise a lot of smart kids who go somewhere else and do very well. Wish we could find a way to keep some of those kids in our community.”
Sense of community
Still, he suspects the population decline has at least stabilized, and Baca County remains a place where even shrinking towns retain a strong sense of community.
Ausmus, who graduated 50 years ago from a 600-student K-12 school in Springfield, points out that now there are five schools in the county that, combined, do not have that enrollment. And although on the school board he saw some economic wisdom in paring down the system, he quickly learned to pick his battles.
“That C-word — consolidation — you didn’t even mention that,” Ausmus recalls. “These smaller communities, they didn’t want to lose their identities.”
Ask locals about other issues that most concern them and — apart from near universal angst over health care — they quickly zero in on something that sharply defines the rural-urban divide: regulation.
For a few years now, the state health department has engaged Baca County about how to bring its landfills into compliance with state regulations, but locals pushed back against rules they regard as unrealistic, unfairly expensive and environmentally questionable. The county recently reached what one state official termed a “truce” that will close some landfills and bring others into compliance.
“The problem is there’s a onesize-fits-all mentality surrounding a host of issues down here,” says Peter Dawson, a county commissioner from Walsh. “We feel like we’re being hustled.”
Steinman, who, in addition to her business pursuits, heads the board of the only licensed day care in the county, says state regulation puts unreasonable constraints on a facility that recruits staff from a relatively shallow pool of qualified talent and can barely afford to pay minimum wage. Even when it pays to get applicants certified, they soon leave for better-paying locations.
One regulatory visit “just annihilated us,” Steinman says, and dinged the facility for transgressions that left it unable to seek grants until it restored its rating.
“The way they treated us,” she says, “they have no idea what we go through.”
But people here show remarkable resilience, and they work hard to fend off forces that threaten their way of life.
The town that “won’t die”
In Walsh, a collection of about 500 residents 20 miles east of Springfield, a determined grassroots effort resurrected a closeddown grocery after the brutal winter of 2006-07, when a 3-foot snowfall and blizzard conditions made the going tough.
“We didn’t have a grocery store that winter,” recalls Alan Packard, a board member of the coop. “To drive to Springfield to get a gallon of milk was not a very popular thing.”
So a group of locals coalesced around the idea of a cooperative and sold shares for $50 each en route to raising the money that, with a matching, $160,000 interest-free loan from Southeast Colorado Power Association, enabled it to revive a store that had closed the previous fall. It even got a short write-up in People magazine.
“At $50 a share, that’s a pretty monumental task for this little bitty community,” Packard says. “There’s a lot of people that were from here that have moved away, and they wanted to help. Baca County people from far and near helped support in buying the shares.”
Packard notes that some have described Walsh as a town “that just won’t die.” But the trends don’t bode well.
“There’s more older people dying than babies being born,” he says. “It’s tough to look at the future optimistically. But we’ve got to do what we can do to preserve what we’ve got.”
On his expanse of sandy soil near Vilas, farmer Brian Brooks continues to cultivate a livelihood around and on top of artifacts from a bygone era. He has unearthed uncharted fence posts, remnants of old wagons, ancient farm implements and leather “horse stuff” that once helped plows churn the ground. His kids call it “treasure hunting.”
And then there’s that Model T. “All those years, we planted crops across it and never knew it existed,” Brooks says. “It’s still there today.”
Bobbie Bakun and Seth Brown help his parents move from their home in Springfield on July 20. Brown’s parents, who have lived in Baca County for much of their lives, are now moving to Lamar for a job. “It hard to find work here,” said Brown, who now lives in Pueblo.
Bill Brooks walks back to his truck at his farm near the town of Vilas on July 20. Brooks is a fourthgeneration farmer in Baca County.
James Gourley, 98, waits for his wife to finish making supper in Two Buttes. The couple, who have been married for more than 70 years, have lived in Baca County for much of their lives.
Youths dive into a hot summer day at the city pool in Springfield.