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Homeward Bound

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URBAN SPRAWL. CRACK. CRIME. THE homeless. Headwaiters. Traffic congestion. Drive-time radio. Fast food. Pollution. You’ll find them all in almost any big city, but you won’t find a one in Arthur County, Nebr. Listen to Sheriff Bill Simpson, the law in these parts: “I can’t recall the last time the phone rang,” says Simpson, who has a one-room police office. ” ‘Course, I’m never here. Maybe it rings when I’m not here.” Simpson—who also runs the general store in Arthur (pop. 101), the county seat—wears his uniform once a year, at the county fair, and never carries a gun, for what seems an eminently sensible reason: “They’re dangerous.”

Arthur County exists on the map, and—if you’re a city dweller—in your mind, though you may not know it by name. It’s the place you think of when you’re caught in a traffic jam, steamed about your boss or beginning to question the wisdom of the industrial revolution. In the lower 48 states, the spaces seldom get more wide open than in Arthur County.

“You look people in the eye in Arthur County. Folks expect that,” says Dr. Tim Knott, the only veterinarian. “And if you’re at someone’s house at dinnertime, it’s expected you eat with them.” Since the county’s 28,000 head of cattle outnumber its people by better than 60 to 1, Knott eats out a lot. For the other human residents, though, life in Arthur County can be less than lavish. When rancher Margaret Hawkins broke her finger, she set it herself because there is no doctor in the county. Yet Hawkins, 63, who has been running her 11,000-acre ranch from the saddle of her horse since 1959, is un-fazed by the rigors of the life she has chosen. “If I had $10 million, I’d still do this,” she says. “And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

Arthur County has no hospital, pharmacy, motel or movie theater. No McDonald’s. No mall. A single two-lane highway runs north and south through the ancient Sand Hills and miles of prairie that are as untouched by the plow as they were 10,000 years ago. There are no stop signs on Route 61, and there are no intersections, for the simple reason that there are no other paved roads.

Arthur County’s 720 square miles are home to just 461 people. It is a place cut off from the march of 20th-century America, a place where the frontier still lives. It has been eight years since a new house was built in Arthur County. Nobody filed for divorce in 1990; nobody was born and nobody died. Anyone who wants to watch TV has to have a satellite dish. The county’s only newspaper, the Arthur Enterprise, sometimes doesn’t even bother using last names. One recent issue told readers that the Extension Club, which met “at Dottie and Harold’s,” had talked about appointing a committee to recommend a size for a new quilt project.

In the town of Arthur there is just one gas station, one video store, a veterinary clinic, a saddle shop, a meat-processing plant and the Country Inn, a bar-restaurant that also sells night crawlers.

The Reverend Glendon Epp, pastor of the Arthur Baptist Church, has 70 people in his congregation. The only other church in town, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, has 12. “Funerals are a really big event,” says Pastor Epp, 35. “We put mourners in the basement, and we’ve had them standing outside. The reason is that people are really important here, everyone takes care of each other. We rely on one another because of the great distances between ranches.”

The Arthur County High School has about 20 students, the lowest enrollment in its history. The Arthur County Wolves play six-man football and must travel hundreds of miles, sometimes to Colorado or South Dakota, to find other six-man teams to play. On a typical Friday night during basketball season this year, the boys’ and girls’ teams traveled 70 miles to Madrid to play the Wheatland Spartans. Pastor Epp drove the bus.

Sheriff Simpson went too. He drove his wife, Peggy, their son, Wyatt, and a couple of friends. Simpson says that if anything criminal happens in Arthur in his absence, people know to call Lola Aufdengarten, his 70-year-old mother-in-law, who is an unpaid, unofficial deputy. “But that never happens,” he says. In fact, Sheriff Simpson can think of only one instance of criminal behavior in his six years in office. “Someone broke into the garage once and stole $20 worth of oil,” he says. “I think it’s someone from Broken Bow. Can’t prove it, though.” Any list of suspects in Arthur County has to be small; the telephone directory is one page long.

And, unfortunately, it may be even shorter in the years to come. Arthur County is part of a vanishing America. “I’ve five kids,” says Swede Daly, 64, the county treasurer. “None of these kids live here because there’s nothing for them to do. Used to be, a person could make a living on a section [640 acres] or two of land, but not now you can’t.” Land that sold for about $300 an acre in 1985 in Arthur County now goes for $75 an acre. Bedeviled by high operating costs and flat livestock prices, smaller ranches were swallowed up by big ranches, jobs became scarcer, and young people began moving away to look for work. “Used to be when parents would retire to town, the kids would take over the ranch and it would pass to the next generation,” says Lola. “Now, with the kids leaving, that’s all changed.”

Indeed, there is a movement afoot back east to have places like Arthur County incorporated into a vast park-like refuge where the bison and the American Indian could once more roam their native lands. “A new frontier is emerging in places like Arthur County as the whole region empties of people,” says Frank Popper, chairman of the Urban Studies Department at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He and his wife, Deborah, also a Rutgers professor, have proposed that the federal government buy up 139,000 square miles in parts of 10 states for the refuge, which they call the Buffalo Commons.

But the folks of Arthur County aren’t ready to give up their way of life just yet, thank you. Margaret Hawkins, the 63-year-old rancher, says, “This is our home. I know how the Indians felt when they got run off their land. Now someone’s talking about running us off.”

Hawkins, widowed in 1977, works her ranch all year long. And in Arthur County, there is no easy season. The bitter winter that stretched all the way from Halloween to Easter gave way to a cold, windy spring that was at best a brief respite before summer turned the county into a parched griddle.

Right now. Hawkins and her daughter, Virgilene, are busy breaking horses and branding newborn calves. Soon. they will begin cutting and baling the hay and alfalfa that will carry their livestock through next winter. Then, as winter rolls around, Margaret and Virgilene, 28, will hitch two draft horses to a wagon and roll across their 11,000 acres of prairie to feed their 600 head of Angus cattle. “People that like their work get to play all their life,” says Margaret, who is very much one of those people. “I say fun is how you define it. I get on my horse and ride through these hills, and I’m in touch with my God. And I’m having a great time.”


BILL SHAW in Arthur County