LACROSSE, Wash. – Small towns in Eastern Washington were in the spotlight last year after U.S. Census Bureau figures confirmed the raw truth of what’s happening across much of rural America: People are leaving for cities. LaCrosse, for example, once had a population of 1,000; today it’s about 310. That decline comes with a list of “no’s,” as in no grocery; no doctor; no jobs.
Abandoned houses and buildings dot LaCrosse, and the streets are so empty that some of the remaining residents buzz around in electric golf carts.
But a group of townsfolk in this southwest Whitman County community have decided that LaCrosse and its legacy are worth saving.
“This is not an impossible situation, but a situation full of possibility,” said Randy Myklebust, a wheat farmer who recently bought and is restoring one of the community’s older homes.
Myklebust joined a handful of others to create LaCrosse Community Pride, a nonprofit organization determined to turn back the troubling trends and perhaps serve as a template for other ailing small towns.
The group has solicited and received $150,000 in funding from government, corporations and townspeople. They leveraged that money to buy buildings and currently are working on luring new businesses, as well as adopting community cleanup projects, pressing politicians and regulators for something as simple as better road signs, and ultimately sparking a sense of pride that seemed to have drifted out of town along with the population.
A big push came from Alex McGregor, one of Eastern Washington’s most influential businessmen. His family began raising sheep more than a century ago outside Hooper, a nearby community long linked with LaCrosse. Later the McGregors sowed wheat on the surrounding Palouse hills and then began experimenting with nitrogen fertilizers. The McGregor Co. was born as the area’s wheat industry became world-renowned.
Despite all the problems plaguing Eastern Washington’s small towns, agriculture is still a bright spot, with wheat farmers anticipating another big year.
In the spirit of their rugged pioneer ancestors, McGregor and others in LaCrosse have joined forces “to prove the pessimists wrong,” he said.
LaCrosse Community Pride has coaxed hundreds of hours of labor from businesspeople, college students, retirees and craftsmen.
After the local branch of the failed Bank of Whitman closed last year, LaCrosse Community Pride lured Spokane-based Sterling Savings Bank to open a branch office with a favorable lease agreement, the pledge from more than 100 locals to open new accounts, and the promise of new farm loans.
The organization also bought and refurbished a building that volunteers hope will house a grocery store, medical clinic, small library, coffee shop and meeting area. Though no businesses have yet signed up, LaCrosse Community Pride believes if opportunity can’t find the town, the town will go find opportunity.
Grocery store’s closure a tough blow
The multiuse building is seen as the cornerstone of LaCrosse’s future.
“When we lost our grocery store, it made living here much harder,” said Jeannine Larkin, who runs a hair salon in LaCrosse several days a week.
“You can’t even get a pack of gum in town,” added resident Scooter Lyle.
The progress, the atmosphere of possibility, has returned gumption to a town that has had its share of bad luck, and, as some bluntly put it, an equal share of self-inflicted damage.
The LaCrosse Market – the building that has now been refurbished – closed several years ago. The grocery had fallen on hard times and didn’t keep stocks of fresh foods on the shelves. So residents began shopping 30 miles up the road in Colfax.
The local tavern still provides cold beer and good hamburgers, and also sells milk, bread and eggs.
And the Tea Pot Cafe serves a hearty breakfast and 85-cent coffee.
Another store sells dog food and kitty litter.
After the grocery closed the town’s hardware store followed suit. A farm machinery company withdrew its sales staff.
Tedd Nealey, a hay and wheat farmer who considers LaCrosse home, contends that LaCrosse had some opportunities but succumbed to fear.
He recounted an offer long ago to consolidate schools with nearby rival Endicott.
The agreement, Nealey said, would have kept the high school in LaCrosse and put the junior high in Endicott.
LaCrosse torpedoed the idea, Nealey remembers, and soon afterward Endicott joined with St. John.
“Huge mistake for our town,” Nealey said.
LaCrosse’s graduating class last year was five students.
The school draws students from the nearby communities of Hay and Hooper, and combines with Washtucna to field sports teams, including its successful eight-man football squad. The Tigercats – a merger of LaCrosse’s Tigers and Washtucna’s Wildcats – set a state record with 49 consecutive wins on the way to four straight state championships from 2002-’05.
Washtucna has problems similar to LaCrosse. It lost its bank, grocery and even its post office as the population declined.
Decades ago there was a chance to put a LaCrosse Grain Growers terminal on the Snake River as the dams were being built and infrastructure was being put in place.
“Didn’t happen,” Nealey said.
Today the grain-grower cooperative has been taken over by Ritzville Warehouse, one of the larger grain elevator companies in the state.
Larkin said LaCrosse was in the running to land the new state prison that eventually ended up in Connell.
“People were worried they would lose control of their little town,” Larkin said. “And there was a contingent that didn’t want growth for fear of the outside world.”
Nealey rattles off some other missed opportunities for economic expansion.
The town didn’t embrace the building of a golf course and small housing development outside of town.
Nor did it want to be home to dairies. Or a large hog farm.
“People raised a stink about it,” Nealey said.
And the town refused to chase a business interested in moving to town to make and treat wooden poles used in vineyards and orchards.
Nealey acknowledged that people are often wary for good reason.
He noted a group a farmers who were snookered when they invested in a strawboard plant proposal years ago that collapsed.
‘Free-range kids’ one of attributes
It’s not too late for LaCrosse and other small towns, said Myklebust, the wheat farmer, whose professional background includes two decades as a psychotherapist in the Moscow, Idaho, area.
He believes people want to live in small towns.
“But you have to have those basic services: a bank, a grocery, good schools …,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
He talks of a richer lifestyle, a place where children get to be “free-range kids,” riding their bicycles and running around town without the need of a hovering parent stressed about their safety.
The schools remain excellent. Gary Wargo, the local superintendent, recently talked about second-graders who put together PowerPoint presentations as part of a year-end academic project.
Fundraisers and study efforts earned the high school students a trip to Hawaii.
“There are opportunities for people in these small towns to do great things,” McGregor said. “And I believe technology is the key to better farms … and that’s all going to come from places like LaCrosse.”
LaCrosse will attempt to broker its agricultural heritage as a draw for motorists speeding past on nearby state Highway 26. The highway used to course through the heart of town. Now LaCrosse is an out-of-the-way turnoff for traffic barreling east and west.
Myklebust hopes to convince a friend to open a fortified spirits distillery.
Making local brandy and cognac, he said, would be an instant attraction for the legions of people interested in regionally produced wines and beers.
“It will have to be a mix of things,” Myklebust said, to make LaCrosse a highway stopover or destination.
“We think the historical aspects of our community can contribute.”
In a speech delivered to townspeople, McGregor recounted how fire swept through the downtown district in 1914.
The town sprang back.
Though the problems that have swept through LaCrosse and other small towns are just as destructive, McGregor and others describe themselves as a feisty bunch who are up to the task.
“We’re going to make this happen,” he said.