Dust Bowl his­tory, un­known fu­ture chal­lenge res­i­dents of ru­ral Baca County.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Simpson

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.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

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.

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