Black Trim to Brighter Horizons: The Quest for Rural Renaissance Amidst Year of Decline

By Blake Hurst

My hometown of Tarkio, Mo., looks like hell. The housing stock is declining and Main Street is full of empty spaces where businesses once stood. I’ve used the analogy of dentistry by methamphetamine to describe the few remaining businesses standing among the vacant lots on Main Street.

The local slumlord paints all of the houses he owns with black trim, a perfect indication that the house will never again have a roof repaired or a rotting porch replaced.  My hometown has been declining in population since 1900.  That’s a pretty strong trend, anyway you cut it. 

I’ve spent time thinking about our problems over the years, and I’ll never forget an interview that I did with a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, who told me that Tarkio would last as long as its housing did, and would cease to exist when it ran out of livable housing. That quote made me mad when I was in my 30s. In my 60s, I’m more or less resigned to the inevitable. 

Last summer, one of my neighbors pulled one of those pre-fab garden sheds into his front yard, ran an extension cord out the front door of his house to a window air conditioner in the shed, and somebody lived there all summer long. And yes, the house supplying the electricity is white with black trim. If people are willing to live like that, I suppose our housing stock can last for a very long time.

Which is not to say that we haven’t seen some green shoots of rural development here. We’re ground central for wind power, with over three hundred windmills in the county. Our schools are very well funded from windmill property taxes, and the wind companies have added quite a bit of employment for the folks who maintain the windmills.

Some local visionaries have taken over a few buildings on the campus of our former college, which went bankrupt in a series of lawsuits and national news stories, and are starting a trade school. We have a large hog farrowing operation here, which brought a lot of controversy when it arrived, but has been a steady source of economic activity.

Each of these businesses is a blessing to our community, and each has slowed the decline in economic activity and population. It is hard to imagine where we would be without these businesses. 

Rural Development is hard, but necessary. While government support should never be considered the ultimate solution, targeted programs can help jumpstart a bleak situation at the risk of reigniting discussions about subsidizing residents of rural America. The fact is, there are a number of programs at both the federal and state levels in Missouri that can help breathe new life into rural towns like Tarkio.

The USDA Rural Development program offers an array of financial assistance initiatives tailored to rural communities. These programs extend a helping hand to small towns by providing support for essential services and vital infrastructure enhancements. This encompasses crucial areas like healthcare, education, emergency response services, and more.

At the state level, the Missouri Department of Economic Development has taken a proactive stance with the initiation of the Community Revitalization Grant Program. This strategic endeavor channels investments aligned with local priorities to foster economic recovery and fortify resilience. So, in the intricate dance of rural revitalization these programs play a pivotal role.

If recognized and harnessed, the identity and spirit of local communities can also be a driving force for positive change. Collaborative efforts between government agencies, private organizations, and community members can lead to innovative solutions.

Farming is the economic driver of our community, or at least it was, but even when the farm economy is strong, it doesn’t seem to drive economic growth in our town. The last implement dealer in town closed down a generation ago, and what used to be the John Deere dealer now houses the local garbage company. A metaphor there, I guess, and not a happy one. Maybe a better answer is to take advantage of our local ag production for locally-sourced, value-added enterprises like renewable energy production or food and dairy processing.

While some might point out a lack of amenities, I happen to find beauty in cornfields and enjoy watching the colors of the land change with the seasons. If only more people who site manufacturing plants and large distribution centers or folks looking for a place to retire felt the same way.

I’m convinced that the only sure-fire way to develop a rural economy is to import mountains or impound a very large body of water. Sometimes, however, lightning strikes and a talented entrepreneur can absolutely turn around a small community, as a quilting company has done in Hamilton, Missouri. The quilt company now brings 8,000 quilters a month to Hamilton and employs 450 people. 

One of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve been involved in various failed efforts to jump start our local economy, including a biodiesel plant, a dairy, and a small start-up making garden ornaments, is that not everyone acknowledges our economic decline, or even if they do, has any interest in economic growth if it inconveniences them in the smallest way. Traffic, smells, migrant labor, dust, and in the final analysis, change, all are reasons given for opposing something new. I’m resigned to the fact that many of my neighbors are perfectly happy with the way things are, even as our town slowly dies.

Julie and I did start a successful business among our failures, which employs a few people and has brought our family, or at least two-thirds of our family, back to our small town.  Hasn’t helped Tarkio much, as far as I can tell, but it’s sure made our life better. We’re busy three to four nights a week watching grandkids play football, basketball, volleyball, act and sing in the school play, and play in the high school band. Decline never happens all at once, and we can live pretty well for a very long time in a place that may never be what it once was.

There’s been a lot of talk about a digital revolution breathing new economic life into rural towns, perhaps attracting family members who have flown the coop for opportunities elsewhere. It opens avenues for local economic growth and allows remote workers to choose a more peaceful rural lifestyle with less traffic. Rural entrepreneurs can also tap into wider markets for both talent and customers.

I would rather my town not be resigned to the fate of fading away, but before a spirit of resilience can be kindled and hope can take root, there needs to be a spark of ambition to make things better. Caring enough to do something is the first step. At this point, it will probably take a dynamic, transformational vision to ensure a longer life for Tarkio. Programs and technology seem to be in place, but right now potential is all there is; that and a whole lot of houses with black trim.


Blake Hurst farms and operates a greenhouse with his wife, Julie, in northwest Missouri. He is past president of the Missouri Farm Bureau and is a member of Stratovation Group’s Board of Advisors.