The Shift: Small South Dakota Towns Weather Different Fates
It’s pretty common knowledge Sioux Falls is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest. Population is projected to reach nearly a quarter-million in the next few decades. Much of that growth comes at the expense of smaller communities that once sponsored school and town teams, offered stores and goods within walking distance of people’s homes, and took pride in living and working in the same place for a lifetime. As South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Gary Ellenbolt reports on this segment of “The Shift,” some towns are able to survive in the 21st Century—while some barely hang on.
There’s an interesting—and maybe somewhat sad—bit of trivia concerning Dennis DeNeui, Samantha Jacobson, Jill Johnson, and Haley Jorgensen. Those four young people got together on a spring day in Hurley in 20-12, and received the final four diplomas awarded from Hurley High School. The Hurley school district consolidated with nearby Viborg for all classes and activities the next year. Viborg has the elementary and high schools, while Hurley’s fairly modern school building hosts a couple grades of middle school.
Tracy Hummel is the city clerk in Hurley, which is now home to just over 400 people. She says the town dynamic has changed since she began working for the city 23 years ago.
Hummel remembers, “Friday night, when I first moved here—Friday night in the bar after the game. People would stake out a table so they’d have a place to sit after the game. The kids would come in for the cheese balls and then go what they do—but you know, you don’t see that anymore. Which is not so much the drinking part, but just the camaraderie, going to the game—talking about the game, parents getting together on Friday nights, so you don’t see that as much.”
Hurley has never been mistaken for Sioux Falls—it’s largest population count was 586 in the 1930s and 40s. Marilyn Jorgensen moved to Hurley from her home town of Sioux City, Iowa, in 19-51. Five years later, she was hired as the town librarian. She still has the position. Jorgenson sits and visits in the City Hall, her husband Waldo by her side in his cap and casual clothing—looking every bit like the retired farmer he is. Marilyn Jorgensen says the town and the school started losing steam when farming changed in the area.
She says, “It used to be, there’d be three, four, and sometimes five little farms on a section. And now, there’s sections with nobody.”
At one time in Hurley, several gas stations and grocery stores were able to thrive. Those merchants would extend their hours on Wednesday and Saturday nights to cater to farmers. Hurley now has a convenience store on Highway 19, a bar in town, a post offices and a couple of other businesses that hold more regular hours. Marilyn Jorgensen says she has also noticed the changing demographics in the library.
Jorgensen says, “We don’t really have a summer reading program anymore; most of the parents have a babysitters and they both work in Sioux Falls. And the babysitter can’t bring the kids, because they have to drag the baby up there and back; we used to have 15 or 20 kids in the summer reading program; now they’re at babysitters.”
Hurley’s population fell to a low of 372 in the 19-90 census. But City Clerk Tracy Hummel says the town is seeing a small comeback.
“Especially in the last year or two," Hummel says, "a lot of adult children who grew up in Hurley—moving back here, buying houses; so you have three or four generations of the same family living in Hurley. buying homes, getting married, having families and continuing—so there’s reason and hope, and they want to come to a small town where they have nice parks and a good school and everyone’s happy.”
City leaders hope the growth leads to job opportunities—that hasn’t happened yet, but a community business owner, appraiser Doug Stanage, says an employer would do well to check the town out.
Stanage says, "The first thing I would look at would be the reflection of the people that would live in Hurley, that would live in the smaller communities. You’ve got Parker eight miles to the north—you’ve got Viborg seven miles to the South. You’ve got Davis—I would say that the pool of employment that you could get from the people would be beneficial to the company. They know we’re an agricultural community—and to make that work, you have to be hard working.”
Granted—Parker has its advantages over all other towns in Turner County. It’s location as the county seat gives a nearly guaranteed source of employment. The town also is known for one of the premier county fairs in the state. One school serves every grade in Parker—the district is supervised by third-year superintendent, Donavan DeBoer.
“You know, we’re a 25-minute drive from Sioux Falls; and I think you can get the best of both worlds. You get to be the small school—the small school feel, where the high school student can be in Quiz Bowl, Math-a-Thons—you can do cross country and football at the same time, simply because we’re a small school and we need the numbers to do that,” DeBoer says.
DeBoer has taught, administered and coached in several school districts—stops before the Parker district included Newell and Rapid City Stevens. Parker is his first opportunity to lead a district, and he has been impressed with the town from his first day there.
“When I came, I was immediately embraced by people who wanted me to be successful. And I think people in our community want each other to be successful. And they want a strong community and they love their town.”
One goal DeBoer had when he came to town, was to change the culture. He says it wasn’t bad, but wasn’t that great, either. DeBoer became known through a couple of video announcements he made, calling off school due to bad weather.
One of the announcements included a high-ranking state official--Governor Dennis Daugaard.
According to DeBoer, “I’ve always said I want an experience for the kids; I want it to be a partnership between the teachers, the students and the community; not just ‘Here’s the teachers, here’s the students, here’s the community; but we’re here to make an experience—to make our school an experience so they enjoy it and they have great memories when they graduate.”
This school year has brought a lot of success to Parker—both the Pheasants boys and girls basketball teams qualified for state class B tournaments. The girls finished sixth in their tournament—the boys team was mere seconds from a third-place finish. Tami Jurgens is the girls basketball coach—she’s taking a break from her fourth-grade class to visit with her daughter, Raelin. She’s a sophomore on the Pheasants’ girls team. Enrollment growth in Parker is bringing Raelin Jurgens and her team a new challenge—next year, the school moves to Class 9-Double-A for football, and Class A in other sports.
“We play mostly ‘A’ schools during the season, so it’s mostly going to be like a repeat of what we’ve been doing the past few years. Just picking up some—like—during regions and stuff, is gonna be a little difficult, but I think we can get through it,” Raelin says.
Raelin’s mom and head basketball coach, Tami Jurgens, says she loves the small-school atmosphere; she grew up in nearby Viborg, taught and coached in a larger school in Keokuk, Iowa, and came back to the area as soon as she had a chance. Tami Jurgens says in a smaller school, her team members are well-known, and meeting players is often considered a brush with fame.
The Coach laughs when she says, “Absolutely. We have a couple of bulletin boards with newspaper clippings of the girls this season. We have the girls come down throughout the day, just checking in or asking questions, and the fourth-graders eyes are as big as saucers; they’ll ask them questions. A lot of the girls are mentors; they see them in the hallway all the time, or they’ll get pulled out for some one-on-one work with them—and they think that’s just great stuff right there.”
Coach Jurgens is not the only person to feel the magnetic pull of a small community…Jim Vogel has turned what he thought would be a short stay in Parker into a 30-year career. So—why did his family’s plans change?
Vogel admits, “I’m not really sure. We came expecting to stay a few years and do something else, like most young people do. Nice town—population of about a thousand, which has mostly maintained –the reasonable cost of living, and so on. Homes have gone up since then, which makes me happy—but no; nice folks, good school system, good business population and so forth.”
Obviously, when you’re the business manager in a school district, more home value means more aid from property taxes, and that’s a good thing. Vogel says Parker is doing very well for itself.
“I guess I can’t put my thumb on one thing," Vogel says. "You know, we’ve gone through our own population decline; and naturally, as a school district you follow—kids mean money. Our high point was about the year 2000, just short of 500 students. We rolled back down to about 325 in latter 2009, 2010. Since then, we’ve come back to where our population is close to 420. Why we did it—open enrollment’s part of it, but just a population shift. You know—sometimes, some families come, and sometimes, some families go. And we’ve just been fortunate that we’ve been able to grow and maintain here over time.”
That growth means a good life for Parker business leaders, too—Tony Jensen and his wife, Lori, co-manage the town’s grocery store. They’ve operated the business for nearly two decades; and their store complex includes a major pizza franchise, a bank and a gas station.
“We’re on a major highway here, at the junction of highway 44 and 19 here; and Highway 44 is the fourth-largest traveled highway in the state, I believe. So we get a lot of folks stop by here, and they say ‘What a nice store you have—there’s everything you need here,” says Jensen.
Parker is a community that takes advantage of its opportunities and strengths, and to this point, has remained somewhat insulated from losing its population, and the businesses and schools are doing well. Can towns like Hurley have their own period of re-growth? Hurley librarian Marilyn Jorgensen is not optimistic.
“The biggest thing in these little towns right now is, property’s so cheap compared to Sioux Falls or something. A lot of people live here and work in Sioux Falls. But it’s not gonna make it—little towns aren’t gonna come back,” Jorgensen says.
Despite that thought, leaders in Hurley are working toward what they hope is a positive future—a walking trail, work on city parks, and infrastructure improvements are on the way.