Around the time Charles Dickens penned his epic Tale of Two Cities, another historic tale of Midwestern frontier villages began to unfold. Separated by 20 miles and the untamed Missouri River, Rock Port, Missouri, and Auburn, Nebraska, were mirror images of what was taking place everywhere from the Mississippi to the Rockies.
This is a tale of two rural towns with everything in common. It’s a story of settlements that evolved into hubs of agriculture and trade just miles apart. It was the best of times for some. Others merely survived. For many, like the river-bottom settlement called Sonora in northwest Atchison County, Missouri, that disappeared into the rampaging Missouri River one day, it was a biblical worst.
Dickens might have called it duality.
Settlers like my great-great-grandfather Enoch Scamman, who traveled here from Maine in 1844, had dreams of more than rock-free farmland. They dreamt of settlements becoming towns. Enoch’s plan was that his town, Union City, would be populated by offspring, family, and followers.
Scamman land grants and families stretched up and over the hill to the edge of the early 1851 settlement of Rock Port. But Rock Port’s growth outpaced that of Union City. It didn’t help that two of Enoch’s daughters rode the Brownville, Nebraska, ferry across the river to be wives of farmers there. That defection to bachelor pioneers aside, Enoch’s hopes were dashed when, following the Honey War between Missouri and Iowa, the state line officially shifted and the county seat of Linden suddenly found itself too close to Iowa. By law, the county courthouse had to be moved closer to the center of the county, and Rock Port got the honors.
All that remains of Linden today is a well preserved Christian Church, and a cemetery.
My parents and their parents lived and died within a few miles of Union City. Today there is no evidence Union City ever was, unless you count me and my cousins.
The early 1900’s are known as the golden age of farming, when prices of farm commodities created profits for all the farmers who raised them. The current Atchison County Courthouse was built in 1919 near the peak of farm profitability, on top of a hill overlooking Rock Port.
Directly across the Missouri from Atchison County is Nemaha County, Nebraska, which formed officially in 1857. It’s current county seat, Auburn, was established in 1882 when two towns, Sheridan and Calvert, merged into one (some say for the purpose of creating a town large enough to move the county seat from Brownville). Auburn still retains traces of two separate towns joined by one diagonal bricked street called Courthouse Avenue, leading up to the town square.
The Nemaha County courthouse was built during what would be the best of times, in 1900, on a hilltop.
Today Auburn, Nebraska, and Rock Port, Missouri, are joined by an 18-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 136, running east to west across the Missouri on the Brownsville Bridge.
Running north to south, Rock Port has I-29, which provides a speedy connection to Kansas City, Omaha, or Sioux City. For Auburn, U.S. Highway 75 offers a route north to Nebraska City, Omaha, and Interstate 80, or intersections to the south in Kansas at U.S. Highway 36, I-70, or I-35.
Railroad mainlines pass near Auburn and Rock Port on both sides of the river.
The towns have everything in common.
Auburn and Rock Port share some of several hundred jobs at the nearby Nebraska Public Power District nuclear power plant known as Cooper Nuclear Station. Welcome signs done in school colors at the edge of those towns bear a striking resemblance. That’s because Cooper Nuclear erected them as a gift. A ShopKo in Auburn served residents of both towns until it closed last summer. That vacant building remains a symptom of what ails rural communities everywhere. Both towns have 7-Elevens of the Midwest, Casey’s General Stores near major intersections, and modern, well equipped volunteer fire departments.
Auburn is an hour away from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and within a few miles of a state college at Peru, Nebraska. Rock Port is equally close to Peru, but also just 30 miles from Northwest Missouri State University at Maryville, Missouri. Both towns still have their own public schools at a time when multiple rural towns or even whole counties have consolidated. But after a short-lived boom in the 1970s when student numbers soared above 700, Rock Port K-12 enrollment today has shrunk to 340. Auburn enrollment is more than twice that at 800.
From the 2000 census to 2010. Auburn grew from 3,350 residents to 3,460, 1487 households, with a median age of 42 years in a state with a median age of about 36. Rock Port’s population shrunk during the same time from 1,395 to 1,318, 588 households, with a median age of 46. Missouri’s overall median age is 38.
It’s not just rural towns that are old. Their people are too.
Rock Port like Auburn has fast food jobs, restaurant jobs, jobs at the Casey’s convenience stores and other fuel stops, and repair shops. State-of-the-art communication through the Rock Port Telephone Co-op, which provides jobs and internet access via a growing network of fiber, is the jewel in Rock Port’s crown. But Rock Port hasn’t had a manufacturing base since the old chair factory south of town closed in the 1950s. Rock Port had hundreds of jobs at the Missouri Beef Packers packing plant west of town, which benefitted workers on both sides of the river, and up north in nearby Iowa towns. Like the chair factory, MBP was established by local investors. But after a takeover by Cargill Inc., it was closed in the 1980s.
That’s when school enrollments here began a steady decline.
But this is a part of rural America where agriculture still reigns. Agriculture and farming influence nearly everything in some way, even today. You can’t leave town without seeing it.
Atchison County covers 550 square miles. Nemaha county is smaller at 410 square miles. Nebraska ag land taxes are considered repressive, approaching 2% effective rate. In Missouri property taxes are about half that of Nebraska and considered some of the lowest in the nation. Farm property taxes support schools, roads, and law enforcement as well as other things like libraries, ambulance service, and fire departments. In the last agriculture census in 2017 Atchison County’s average net farm income was $123,000 on 401 farms. Nemaha County’s average net farm income was much less, at about $75,000 on 411 farms. Ironically, that’s about the same as the $75,000 national average farm income.
Farm income is one of the few areas where Atchison County remains above average.
It varies, but as a rule of thumb, net farm income is about 20% of the gross. For a farmer in the Midwest to earn $100,000 he/she has to have $500,000 in sales, if times are good. These days, with depressed prices for cattle, corn, and soybeans, government support is the only road to profit. President Trump likes to write those taxpayer-funded checks. That’s one reason so many farm groups support him.
The average age of the U.S. farmer today is 58 years old. The average age of a beginning farmer with less than five years’ experience is 47. That’s even older than the median age of Auburn or Rock Port.
Farm ponds are not fountains of youth.
In Atchison County, cattle are about the only family farm-raised livestock in viable numbers ($4,041,000 in sales). Those numbers are in decline. Nemaha county’s cattle and calves sales are about 50% higher at $6,187,000. Some farms still raise hogs in Nemaha County, where 2017 sales were $1,453,000 compared to across the River in Atchison County with just $6,000.
Farm raised hogs in Missouri have been replaced by large corporate owned CAFOs, like one in eastern Atchison County, about 20 miles from Rock Port. Most businesses that move to rural counties seek and are granted concessions to their local tax liabilities. Even ag based ones. But farmers aren’t able to negotiate.
Atchison County at times has been one of the top three diversified agricultural counties in the entire state – sometimes even the biggest. But all the things that made us great, our family farms, our youth, our livestock and local markets, have been slipping away. Statistics show that farmers here can still earn a great living, ($123,000 net income on average), but that comes at the price of fewer farmers and a declining community. Nemaha County farmers don’t make as much money as Atchison County farmers ($75,000 average) but they seem to do that on less land while enjoying more diversification and a larger community. Plus, having a job base in town makes it easier for Mom and Pop farms to survive when one or both spouses can hold down a position with fringe benefits including health insurance and retirement.
Maybe that’s why Nemaha County and Auburn, with more employment opportunities (two manufacturing plants, a hospital, implement dealership, car dealership, etc.) have more farms and smaller farms, even with lower farm income.
Generally speaking, even a CAFO worker has more affordable healthcare than a 58-year-old family farmer if all the farmer does is farm.
The Nemaha County fair, with deep roots in agriculture, is a homecoming of sorts. Auburn swells with children, grandchildren, and their parents, all of whom come home for the fair. The fair parade that meanders down the hill from up near the square, north onto Highway 75 to the fair grounds, takes nearly an hour to complete. Parking anywhere near is impossible to find as reunited families literally walk the town hand in hand.
The high point of Atchison County’s fair is the fund-raiser auction where baked goods and craft items are donated to raise money for upkeep of the fairgrounds and next year’s fair. Livestock exhibitors, our youth, sell their show calves, lambs, and hogs bragging rights for “premiums” to supportive bidders. That premium plus selling price of their animals combined is as close to receiving parity, or being a profitable family farmer, as many will ever come.
Here in Atchison County, the livestock/farmland ratio is turned on its head. Most of the higher farm income that Atchison County grain farmers enjoy over Nemaha County farmers isn’t spent in Rock Port at local retailers. It’s spent in other larger towns, like Auburn, that still have farm supply stores and dealers of implements and automobiles who are happy for the business.
Both banks in Rock Port were established by local citizens. One of those was Enoch Scamman’s son. With three banks in Auburn equally welcoming, that means there is access to credit, which is mandatory for most farms and home buyers. Of course, Walmart is a half hour to an hour from both towns. After starting out with fully stocked main streets, routinely driving away from town for consumer goods is now the loyal rural citizen’s only option.
Outland towns like these are always on the look out for something, anything that offers prosperity and more jobs. Over the years it’s been farmers moving to town who have taken those jobs. But with farmers and farm numbers in steady decline, and neighboring towns with steady or shrinking populations, the only advance seems to be age. Where will we find people to take new jobs if business makes an offer?
That’s why people who don’t know our story call this the middle of nowhere.
But I call it home.
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.