Professor’s Introductory Comment:

The blog-post that follows is not only insightful and interesting, it represents writing and thought of a very high order, and definitely the best essay I received from a student to this point in the semester. Next week, I will be posting Tyler’s follow-up essay, which is even better than this one. 

Tyler Stewart

My grandfather climbs into his red pickup, lifts the “Eskridge Grain Co-op” baseball cap off of his head, and wipes the sweat from his brow.  He rolls his window down with eight cranks of the manual handle.  George, my grandpa’s cousin, does the same in the passenger seat.  I run ahead to open the pasture gate and watch the truck pull out of the field and onto the dirt road.  After pulling the wire loop over the aging wooden fencepost, securing thirty cattle in their pasture at the Trout farm, I jump into the back of truck.

The three of us are exhausted after a long morning of working in sweltering heat.  Since dawn, we have fed cattle, built a corral, and fixed a broken section of fence in one of the pastures.  The August weather in Kansas is extremely dry and our pants are covered with a layer of filth as a result.  It hasn’t rained in weeks, but we have no time to complain.  The cattle auction is in a few days and we must be ready to send our calves for sale.

A cloud of dust erupts in our wake as we drive along the dirt road towards town.  Up front, I see my grandfather’s left arm out the window and his right resting comfortably on top of the steering wheel.  He lifts his pointer finger off of the wheel in salute to the passing driver; the man responds with the same gesture.  In back, I pull my t-shirt up over my mouth in preparation for the impending swirl of hot dust and dirt.  Minutes later we make a rolling stop at the only stop sign in town, where Route 99 crosses Main Street, and pull up in front of the Coffee Cup Café.  The sun is high and hot as we walk inside for lunch.  The tables are nearly empty.

Eskridge, Kansas, a small farming town with a population of 527, used to be a busy place. Trucks rolled along Main Street at 15 miles per hour.  Farmers and ranchers crowded into the cafes to escape the hot sun and fill up on lunch before heading back to the countryside for their afternoon work.  My great grandfather ran the corner gas station, where he kept huge tubs of Tootsie Rolls and bubblegum to hand out to the kids as they walked through town.

Just twenty years ago, Main Street in Eskridge was home to a bank, a post office, a hardware store, a grocery store, and two or three cafes.  As kids, my sister and I loved to sit on my dad’s lap to help him drive the car to the ice cream shop for chocolate malted milkshakes.  We took two dollars from our grandma to buy local eggs for the next day’s breakfast.  We could find everything we needed right in town.

Today, however, Eskridge is struggling.  Main Street is nearly abandoned; the Coffee Cup Café is the last remaining restaurant.  The grocery store and ice cream shop are closed.  The people of Eskridge drive 45 miles to Topeka to buy milk and clothes and anything else at Wal-Mart.  Most farming and ranching families have moved away from the Kansas Flint Hills, others try to hang on and find jobs in the closest cities.  In recent decades, Eskridge, like so many other small farming towns in the Midwest, has lost its identity.  Families in the Flint Hills region of Kansas no longer live on farms and ranches and support themselves by cultivating 80 acres.  As a result, Eskridge’s future is uncertain.

Born and Raised

James Warren, my grandfather, was born in Eskridge, Kansas.  My grandmother was also born in Eskridge, Kansas. They grew up together and both went to school in Eskridge.  Today, my grandfather owns the house where he was raised and runs a cow-calf operation, the first of three sectors of the beef cattle industry, on 1,600 acres in the countryside surrounding the town.[1]

My grandparents don’t live in Eskridge full time.  My grandpa’s career took his family all over the world, and they settled in near the Goodyear headquarters in Akron, Ohio.  Unlike most who leave Eskridge, however, my grandparents keep coming back.  They constantly drive 15 hours from Ohio back to their hometown to look after their house, see family, and take care of the cattle.

My grandpa currently owns 14 farms around Eskridge, each one named after the family who previously lived and survived off of the land.  On a typical morning, we may work at the Meeker farm, the Baker farm, or the Trout farm in a couple of hours.  But according to my grandpa, 80 to 100 acres could support a family when he was a child growing up in Kansas.

The period of the sustainable family farming was Eskridge’s golden age.  The town was the commercial center for all of the farmers and ranchers in the region.  On Wednesday and Saturday nights, families would come into town and meet along Main Street.  Farmers would sell their crops and people would spend hours socializing and dancing.  Local produce exchanged hands and people survived on sustainable goods.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays, Eskridge was the place to be.

That all changed with the tractor, says my grandpa.  Family farms began to grow and people began to move away.  Next, large hog farms bought large plots of land from some families and moved into the region.  As farms got larger and the number of farmers decreased, the town lost its life.  There was a consistent decline in consumers for the cafes and shops along Main Street until, finally, most of them closed.

 What’s next for Eskridge?

In the 1950s, about 44 percent of Americans lived on farms and in small towns.  That number has been cut in half and continues to decline.  Today, farming employs just 2 percent of Midwesterners.  As technology advances, machines take work from the farmers in the small towns, and people are drawn to the metropolitan areas to find jobs.

My grandpa worries that Eskridge’s young people will never truly see Eskridge as a hometown.  The median age in Eskridge is 42 years old, ten years higher than the Kansas median age.  He says that kids don’t play outside in Eskridge like they used to in decades past.  Eskridge’s children no longer have their own school.  Instead, they are bussed to Mission Valley School in a neighboring town.  Their families no longer own the land surrounding the town, and they travel to Topeka to have fun.  Without a fundamental shift in identity, it is likely that Eskridge’s population will continue to decline.

Even as businesses close and people leave, all 527 residents of Eskridge, Kansas know the rule.  Whether or not it was written in the Eskridge City Code back in 1861, everyone in town drives with one hand on the top of the steering wheel.  When another car passes, the citizens of Eskridge salute to each other by simply raising their pointer finger.  A wave isn’t necessary, nor is a nod.

This sense of community is all that Eskridge has left.  The movie theater is gone.  There is no place to go out for ice cream.  The family farm is no more.  If the people of Eskridge can pass this sense of community on to the next generation, the town may turn this decline around.  My grandpa is doing his part.  He loves Eskridge.  He appreciates its history, and has passed that along to me.  For some of us, Eskridge will always be the “Gateway to the Flint Hills.”

[1] There are three primary sectors of the beef cattle industry: cow-calf operations, backgrounding, and finishing.  Cow-calf operations produce one calf per mature cow per year.  The calves grow 6-8 months until they reach a weaning weight of 350-750 pounds.  At this time they go to market in a sale barn where they are purchased by backgrounding operations.

About the Blogger:

Tyler Stewart is a third-year law student at Seattle University School of Law. Prior to attending law school, he earned a BA in economics from Kalamazoo College (Kalamazoo, MI), where he played basketball for the Hornets and wrote his senior thesis on the economic viability of family farms in Kansas.  Recently, Tyler has gained experience working in environmental law, natural disaster law, and agriculture law.