I am fascinated with ghost towns. I’ll never forget driving through Picher, Okla., after the government buyout and before the demolition of many of the empty homes and former businesses there. It reminded me of one of those fabricated 1940s-1950s “towns” built for A-bomb testing. The buildings were there, but the people weren’t.
In Newton County we have many “ghost towns” though their evidence has all but vanished. Nothing here was quite as big — or ended as dramatically — as the Picher and Cardin, Okla., communities, which suffered relatively sudden deaths due to mining waste contamination and subsequent federal buyouts.
Many of our “ghost communities” were never much more than names on a map, though some once boasted a number of businesses. All had one thing in common, however: There was once human activity there.
Some places, like Dessa in southwest Newton County, I grew up around. Others, such as Pepsin in northeast Newton County, I’ve merely visited on a lark. Still others, such as Stinsonville, also in northeast Newton County, I’ve only heard about.
Some started out with a post office. All had a general store. Dessa’s general store was once the center of a lot of activity in those parts, and across the street were Saturday night dances. There were also baseball games. I use Dessa as an example because it is good representative of what I’m talking about – a crossroads community with the general store as the hub. And long since gone. Oh, in Dessa’s case the building is still there, but it was later converted into a home and the store front was covered up. It is now vacant and falling in. One sad day I will drive past and see it has been torn down.
Pepsin, meanwhile, at one time boasted three stores, a barber shop, a canning factory, a sorghum mill, a blacksmith shop, a post office, a school and a church. The school is now a community center and the church building is abandoned.
Go to either Dessa or Pepsin today and you won’t know you’re there unless you ask someone. There are quite a few similar ghost communities in Newton County. Some of them you may know, some you may not: Almeda, Aroma, Art, Belfast, Berwick, Boulder City, Burch, Cartwell, Cave Springs, Chester, Ergo, Fairbanks, Gates, Gibbonsville, Grangeville, Gregg, Jollification, Hornet, Iron Switch, June, Kent, Lodi, Log, McElhany, Monark Springs, Newstead, Nobleton, Park, Prairie View, Shoalsburg, Spurgeon, Staples, Stinsonville, Sweetwater, Talmage City, Thurman, Tripoli, Virvins, Waddill, Wall, Wanda, Wentworth, and more.
Spurgeon was actually a little bigger than most of the rest mentioned, having experienced a mining boom. Today, however, all that’s there is a small country store – fortunately in operation, as far as I know.
I think it very interesting that a place can come into being, be baptized in human activity (life and death), and then die. Today many of these places seem like they were never really there. And what do we care? We go on with our daily lives, raise our children, and eventually die ourselves (harsh as that reality may seem). But imagine that the community you now live in, or nearby, was one day no longer there. We spend our lives in a place and that place becomes important to us, partially because we are all a little narcissistic and wherever we are must be important, right? It’s the center of our world. But 100 years from now that place may be gone from all but memory – and maybe even that. Speaking as someone who grew up in a very small community — and that was actually five miles away — wherever you are is indeed important to you. Maybe that isn’t narcissistic after all. I can only imagine what it must be like to see the place where you spent a big part, or all, of your life disappear.
The places I listed lived and died for different reasons. Some were old railroad stops for passenger trains that have long since quit running. Some were mining communities. Some were berry stations during that boom. Some were centered on a grist mill — once very important to scratching out a life here. Some were just there because travel was once so limited that people had all their basic needs handled within a very short radius of where they lived. Many of these places are actually much newer than the villages and hamlets that still exist today. They appeared and then disappeared in a relatively short period of time.
Many of these latter communities sprang up in reaction to a very specific activity, such as mining or strawberry picking. When the action died, so did they.
I think consolidation and elimination of the rural schools probably played a part in killing many of the hamlets. Without a school, the places didn’t have much left to hold them together. That’s just a guess, though.
I’m sure there were many factors that probably vary place to place as to why these communities are more or less gone now. Oh, many are still listed on a map. But a church is the most one can hope to find there.
These places all have stories, simply because people interacted there — people just like you and I. All were once important to many folks. Perhaps they still are.
Wes Franklin writes a weekly column for the Daily News.