David M. Shribman
DRY FORK, W.V. — There’s nobody here.
Well almost nobody. This unincorporated community is in a magnificent corner of the world, garlanded by mountains, picturesque farms planted along the road, eight miles from not one but two ski areas and a state park that describes itself as a conference center and resort. Mostly the sounds here are of deep silences.
Some 1,085 people live here today. In 1900 — when loggers toiled amid the densely forested hills, a lumber mill sat on Red Creek, the community had its own railroad, and coal mines operated nearby — Dry Fork had a population of 3,224.
This is a fortunate part of the state, endowed with stunning beauty, a growing tourist industry and many advantages, including a median family income 10 percent higher than the rest of West Virginia and a rate of higher education double the state figure. And yet the population has fallen by two-thirds since the days when workers — the gandy dancers, as the men who worked the rails were called, or the pick-and-shovel men who dug for coal, or the logging crews from Pennsylvania and Nova Scotia who employed skidding tongs and peaveys to harvest the trees — filled the silences with their grunts. They extracted wood and coal from the area and sent the profits to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
That is the West Virginia story.
That story’s latest chapter is of fresh decline. Newly released Census Bureau data shows that West Virginia suffered the largest population decline in the country, a drop of nearly 60,000 people, or 3.2 percent in the decade between 2010 and 2020. It is one of seven states that will lose a congressional seat in next year’s midterm elections.
There are several explanations, all of them partial, all plausible. Poverty is one (about one in seven West Virginians qualify for the national definition). Job loss is another (especially in coal, which has lost more than half its jobs in the past dozen years). The two, of course are related. So is drug addiction (West Virginia has by far the highest rate of opioid addiction — four times higher than Texas, almost certainly the result of the astonishing fact that seven in 10 West Virginians have been prescribed opioids.)
Unemployment is especially severe in the coal-oriented southwestern counties of McDowell, Boone, Wyoming, Mingo and Logan, which have lost at least a quarter of their jobs over half a decade, the result of environmental regulation and the competitive cost of natural gas, a rival fuel source. In those places as elsewhere, Internet connections are pitiable, roads beyond the highways often are tortuous, and the refugees to brighter prospects out of state tend to be younger, better educated and better trained.
“The result is a vicious cycle where the losses make the area less attractive, and that drives away more businesses,” said John Deskins, who heads the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. “It is very hard to halt that. All the tools government has are better at boosting development of areas that are on the upswing than in helping communities that are in decline. They are better at accelerating growth than reversing momentum.”
West Virginia is experiencing in the third decade of the 21st century what Iowa experienced in the last decade of the 20th century, when small towns shrunk, a farm-credit crunch pinched many farmers, and broader economic changes squeezed the state’s economy. In those years, some farmers burned their barns rather than pay taxes on them.
In that period — it was exactly 30 years ago — I visited Alden, Iowa, just when Linda and Tom Jass decided to abandon the family corn and soybean fields near the Iowa River, leaving Linda Jass’s parents, both in their 70s, to tend to the sheep and crops in a town that hadn’t had a grocery store, a doctor or a police officer in a generation. Tom Jass told me at the time that he had lost “a ton of money” in the richest soil in the world. He had no idea where he was going to go, only that he was determined to leave.
I caught up with him the other day and discovered that the couple left shortly after we talked.
They relocated to South Dakota, where his wife taught sixth grade and he managed absentee-owner farmlands.
“I worry that small towns struggle,” said Jass. “But I am glad we left when we did.”
Linda Jass has no regrets. ‘We have enjoyed our new home and we love the town and we love being close to Sioux Falls,” she said. “Our kids all found great spouses and it has worked out really well. We still have family and friends back in Alden but we are settled here in South Dakota. We are staying put, right where we are.”
What struck me all those years ago, and what seems especially poignant now, are the remarks of their son Luke. “The chances that I’ll be a farmer in Alden are almost nonexistent,” he said at age 14. “Farmers are always in debt, they don’t have any fun, they work hard and they don’t get anything out of it. I’ll do anything but farm.”
He was true to his word. Though he now works for the agricultural powerhouse Cargill Inc. in Minneapolis, he is in the company’s IT department. “I never liked it there much,” he said of his hometown of Alden. “The opportunities weren’t there.”
West Virginia is determined to avoid the phenomenon that sent the Jass family fleeing north. The state legislature passed a bill to make it easier for remote workers to operate out of the state, cancelling sales and income taxes for the first 30 days of telecommuting, and lawmakers next year will consider a proposal to make the state more attractive to migrants by eliminating the income tax completely.
“This has been a big topic in the state and the driving force behind a lot of our politics,” said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “We can’t grow economically without people. As our population declines, the older and unhealthy members of our state still have growing needs.”
In the years between 2010 and 2018, 27,000 more people left West Virginia than moved in. It may be Almost Heaven, but the problem is that it is almost empty.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email [email protected] Twitter: @ShribmanPG