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In Kan. town, many resist pull to flee and stay gone

Young adults returning home

NESS CITY, Kan. -- Eric Depperschmidt faces a hard sell whenever he talks to high school students about the virtues of their hometown. He can see the wanderlust in their eyes.

''They want to run out and slam the door and never look back," he says. He tells them ''not to slam the door too hard."

In recent years, a dozen or more young adults who blew out of this small town like the south winds of summer have come back, Depperschmidt, 33, included. They'd gone to college, married, had babies, and seen enough of the world to know that what they left was what they now wanted.

They're opening businesses and toughing it out. Whether Ness City thrives or follows the path of other High Plains towns that have gone to dust depends largely on whether this small knot of ambitious people succeeds.

Depperschmidt drums up business as the county's new economic development director. Bryan Whipple, 34, is the sheriff. High-school classmate Brennan Uehling, 35 on Thursday, has opened regional chiropractic clinics and is starting a fitness center where people can work out for $20 a month. Others have returned to the family business -- the furniture store, the farm, the oil patch, the grocery, the funeral and flower concern.

They all fight a mighty pull to go and stay gone. It's so strong in parts of western and central Kansas that several communities have closed schools and auctioned the buildings on eBay in an effort to find a useful purpose for the properties.

Indeed, the 2000 census indicated that many small towns, especially in isolated stretches of the Midwest and Great Plains, are withering away. Young adults are moving from farming communities to urban centers for better paying jobs, shopping, and other amenities that aren't as plentiful in rural America.

Sixty miles from big chain stores and even a dentist, this town of 1,500 in a county of 3,400 dances a constant waltz of steps forward, back, sideways. Derricks dotting the landscape coax lucrative oil from the wells while a hot breeze rustles the corn, stressed and stunted this year in parched dirt.

At his family owned grain elevator, Mayor Gary Gantz laments the spread of a federal conservation program. It has encouraged farmers to take close to a quarter of the county's crop acreage out of production since the area was designated as a protected pheasant and prairie chicken habitat a few years ago.

They get upward of $40 an acre a year in an area where 1,000-acre tracts are common, a steady income for doing almost nothing. They can get a bit more money if they plant wildflowers or let people hunt the animals they're protecting.

At that rate, the towering bins of the D.E. Bondurant Grain Co. will soon go begging.

''There is no positive in it really for us or for downtown, unless you're a prairie chicken or pheasant, or happen to be cashing the checks," Gantz said.

The mayor is a resettler himself, having left for college and come back to join his dad at the elevator when his uncle, a partner in the business, died young. ''I'm 50 and I go outside and it's 105 and I think, oh man, did I pick right or not," Gantz says with a laugh.

He's got three sons and quotes the oldest two as saying of the youngest, ''Dalton can have the elevator. We've got to get out of here." The mayor adds: ''I hope they change their mind."

The people who come back speak of the neighborliness, the way people look out for each other, the safe streets. The last homicide was in 1970, before the sheriff was born.

Sheriff Whipple moved here at age 14 from elsewhere in the county, when his family left the farm, went into home construction, and bought the bowling alley.

After getting a criminal justice degree, he bypassed a job prospect with the state's version of the FBI and returned, buying a home with a deck, yard, attached garage, and hot tub for $40,000.

He said the vices of the big city either don't exist here or are easier to manage. In one notable case, he caught suspects on the state's ''most wanted" list when they moved in, ran a drug lab in their home, and made a stupid mistake one night.

''They were driving a car that didn't have any muffler on it," he said. ''I pulled them over. I was just going to tell them, you can't be driving around town with a muffler this loud."

He ran a check, saw they were wanted and arrested them, then discovered the drug equipment in their home.

Uehling found ''instant roots" here after moving from Dodge City in high school. After college, he labored in stiff chiropractic competition in Fayetteville, Ark., in one of the fastest growing counties in the country, then came back to open four clinics in western Kansas.

For all the service gaps in such a small place, Ness City has surprising twists: a private Catholic school alongside the regular school system, a beautifully restored Prairie Mercantile building, a tiny movie theater, a motel and high-speed Internet access. Several people who wanted to move into town had their country homes hauled off the foundations and plunked here whole.

The mayor, like others, makes two-cartload shopping expeditions to the bigger places for the things he can't get here.

But he credits local ownership as one reason the town has hung on while several others along east-west Route 96 have vanished. Places such as Heizer, Modoc, Nekoma, and Horace show on a state map as circles with a slash through them to denote all services are gone.

The existence of the Catholic school alone is ''almost a real amazement," Gantz said.

''That kind of gives you an idea of the thought process and the backbone of everybody who carves a living out of this country," he said, ''because they're just willing to do what it takes to do it. And if that's work another hour, it's work another hour. It's their own bottom line."

Ness City's ratio of one teacher for 10 students is one of Depperschmidt's selling points. The town also can provide information technology, good roads, and an economical place to set up shop.

Depperschmidt is working with an online seller of antique-car parts from Michigan on a possible move to Ness County. A manufacturer of acoustical equipment is being offered land where he can make all the noise he wants.

Still, many young people continue to leave. In eastern Ness County, the high school in Bazine closed last year after the last half dozen students graduated. A California businessman bought the 78-year-old building on eBay for $55,000 after the highest bidder backed out. Returning grads like Depperschmidt, Uehling, and the others may offer the best hope. ''All of our parents have said, go get an education, get out of here," Depperschmidt said. ''My job is to give them something to come back to."

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