Established: Feb. 26, 1867
2010 population: 2,928
Julie Winters had a good life. Good enough to feel guilty about, she said, then added, “I’m paying for it now.”
That morning, like every morning, she visited her husband. They married fifty-three years ago–high school sweethearts then and great-grandparents now. The visit with her husband had lasted about an hour, and she would go back twice more that day, as per usual. Sometimes, he is aware enough to smile, and sometimes even to hug her. Other times, he recognizes his dementia and lays in depression; but other times, he believes his hallucinations. Most often, though, Julie simply sits by his bed and helps him eat.
Julie stopped by the library on her way home. Proud member of the town’s beautification team, she took a bucket and a hoe from her trunk and set to work on the front flowerbeds.
I plodded up the hill, fully backpacked. “When does the library open?”
She glanced up from her weeding. “Not until ten. You’ve got a while.”
I wiped sweat off my forehead The day’s heat hadn’t started, but I guessed it was still above seventy. “Want some help?”
I took off my backpack and Julie and I weeded the flowerbeds, me hoeing and her bucketing. When we finished, she offered to buy me coffee, so we drove the six blocks to White Field’s, a downtown cafe half a mile from US Highway 36.
The rest of downtown housed the new courthouse (the old one burnt before Julie’s time) and three-screen movie theatre, as well as the bar, a handful of restaurants, a few secondhand stores, and several other businesses, their storefronts built together like rows of teeth. Vacant buildings interrupted the occupied ones like cavities.
In the cafe, we joined Irene Maybell. Irene had spent sixty-seven of her ninety years in Norton. Julie’s first Sunday in town, she and her husband tried the Methodist church, where they picked the same pew as the Maybell couple.
“I said ‘you’re stuck with us, now,’ and they were.” Irene took a shaky sip of coffee. “Now, we’re the only two left in that pew.”
The women talked about the town’s flowerbeds, its home-owned fair, the new Dollar General up by the highway.
“We need more stores downtown,” Julie said. “No one has a reason to come here, anymore.”
“There aren’t any stores left,” Irene agreed.
After coffee, I wandered back to the library to meet the Norton Chronicle’s general manager, advertising director, and reporter: Dana Paxton. A middle-aged hunter, mother of three, and small town supporter. The interview went both ways, and for every detail I shared about my trip, I learned two more about the town.
Its biggest employer: the prison. As in many small Midwestern towns, the prison offers many well-paying entry-level jobs, as well as possibilities for promotion. Norton’s prison is medium-low security. Earlier, the building served as a low security facility; even earlier, a mental institution; and when it was constructed, a tuberculosis sanatorium. Norton citizens take pride in the building, more than a hundred years old.
Valley Hope, a national U.S. rehab service, started in Norton in 1967 and also provides jobs, as does Prairie Dog State Park, the hospital,and several local manufacturers.
But the economy really depends on agriculture. That agricultural base saved Norton from the recession. While the rest of the country suffered, crop prices stayed high and small-town Kansas flourished. I rode with the owner of a drywall company and learned his business had grown throughout the recession years, with 2010 as its best year on record. When farmers have money, everyone has money.
Recently, though, farmers haven’t. Drought limited the wheat harvest to twelve bushels an acre last year–down from the expected forty–and crippled upland game bird populations, too. According to Dana, a hunter can fly in for a solid week and come away with just two pheasants. And her father, who raises buffalo, had to cut his herd for lack of food. People are desperate for rain, Dana said. “Everybody’s mood depends on the weather.”
Even with a slow economy, Dana likes a small town. “In a city, you can’t walk out and see the stars. You can’t hear the coyotes crying.” She laughed. “And here, people will either rat on your kid, or they will watch out for your kid. I feel safe here.”
So do many in Norton. I heard of numerous teenagers who left town, chasing work or excitement, only to come back with a spouse and children ten years later. But in that gap between high school and childbirth, Norton offers little attraction. Jobs are scarce, and life is boring. Just 6.4% of Norton is between 18 and 24 years old. Comparatively, Topeka is 9.8%; Denver, 10.7%; and Chicago, 11.2%.
I found one of Norton’s 6.4% in a secondhand store–a twenty-three year old named Valentine, with a business degree and a management position with one of the local manufacturers.
“I guess it’s a good town, but everything is at least an hour away,” she said. “And Denver’s five hours away.”
The county sheriff had a similar complaint. Discover your Sunday afternoon project requires a special screw or an extra brace, and you’ve got a two-hour hardware errand that consumes the rest of the day. And the local stores’ cramped hours make even basic supplies difficult to gather, with only a narrow window open for supply runs.
“There aren’t really options here,” Valerie continued. “I mean, I’d like to try ice skating, but that’s not even a possibility. And you only have five or six restaurants, so after a while, you know everything on the menu. There’s just no variety.”
Some of Valerie’s friends host board games nights, but she mostly spends her free time walking her dog or watching movies. “The bar’s pretty popular, but I’m not into that, and I don’t hunt or fish, either. The lake is fun, but the water’s been low for a few years. Really, Norton’s not a good place for people my age.” She hopes to move to a city soon, employment permitting. “If you want to go somewhere in life,” she concluded, “you have to leave the small towns.”
I stayed until the evening. I again rendezvoused with Dana, this time for a shower and dinner with her daughter, and then she dropped me off along Highway 36 in the north part of town. There, Dollar General, fast food, and miniature strip malls attracted drive-by customers and once-downtown businesses.
Just before nightfall, I caught a ride with a minivan full of five boisterous ladies: three sister grandmothers and two of their daughters. One lived in Norton; another, a nearby town; and all had grown up in small-town life. None matched any definition of old, aside from wrinkles and dyed hair.
“We’re five bored ladies in Norton, Kansas! We’re gonna drive you to the next town!”
I jumped in. Three family stories erupted at the same time. Laughter ricocheted throughout the van, and I shouted answers to a benevolent interrogation.
One daughter called her husband. “We’re taking a road trip to Oberlin! … A hitchhiker! … We just found him!” She lost service and the call dropped. “That’s not good. He’ll be worried now!” She giggled.
Two others remembered a prank, and the story exploded with shrieks and shouts and laughter.
In a lull, one of the grandmothers leaned toward me. “You have to make your own entertainment in a small town,” she explained. “Remember, no one is too old to blow bubbles.”
“Or too old to play in the median!” her sister yelled.
That is Norton. Add some drug addicts and partiers, and a few old families entrenched in social superiority. Throw in the nation’s only gallery of unsuccessful Presidential candidates, remember the annual picnics and auto races, listen to the uproar over the first annual Biker Bash and wet t-shirt contest, and you have Norton, Kansas.
It has history–not the majestic London type or the Very Important Washington DC type–but a simple one. It has diversity–limited, of course, to three thousand varieties–and it has its eccentricities and its dramas and tragedies.
They might not be the kind that impact the United Nations or get taught in the next generation’s classrooms, but they’re a manageable kind. When I walk through Norton, I can get a sense of things. I can put my fingers in the dirt and feel the town breathe, and I can dive for stories without drowning. Norton does not lead or boast or stun–but it can be known. And in that, I find comfort.