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Population decline hits rural areas hard

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

WOONSOCKET — Lindy Peterson used to know every resident of Woonsocket by name. “Now, it seems like half the people I don’t know,” said Peterson, 66, who is in his third year as the town’s mayor. “There are a lot of new faces.”

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And yet, between 1980 and 2012, Woonsocket’s population declined more than 19 percent, from 799 to 646, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Population decline in rural South Dakota was a common trend in the 1980s. Sanborn County, of which Woonsocket is the county seat, is one of the prime examples.

The county had a population of 3,213 in 1980. By 2012, Sanborn County’s population was estimated at 2,324, nearly a 28 percent decline from 1980.

Why then, as Peterson said, are there so many new faces in town?

“It seems like we’re getting a lot of younger families,” Peterson said.

While it may seem that way, the numbers show Sanborn County’s younger population has actually declined and its older population has increased.

In 1980, about 45 percent of Sanborn County’s population was 29 years old or younger and about 18 percent was 65 or older. By 2010, the share of Sanborn County’s population 29 or younger fell to about 34 percent and the share 65 or older increased to about 20 percent, even as the county’s total population declined.

The number of students in Woonsocket School District’s graduating classes has been erratic since 1980, according to statistics provided by Superintendent Rod Weber. Though class sizes vary from year to year, the average size of the district’s graduating classes was about 19 students in the 1980s, about 23 students in the 1990s, about 19 students in the 2000s, and, so far, about 11 students in the 2010s.

“You see a little bit of a roller coaster,” Weber said. “I think we hit a little bit of a down in the last few years.”

Getting young people to stay in town after high school is difficult, Weber said.

“It’s a challenge not only for us, but for any small town in South Dakota,” Weber said.

Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce and Mitchell Area Development Corp., agrees. Most rural counties in South Dakota were reeling in the 1980s as young people, many unable to find jobs, left in droves, Hisel said.

“They just were not returning,” he said. “There just weren’t jobs available for them.”

Only one county — Brule County — in The Daily Republic’s print circulation area gained population from 1980 to 1990.

“The more rural you were, the worse it was,” Hisel said.

Ten of the 17 counties in The Daily Republic’s print circulation area lost at least 10 percent of their population from 1980 to 1990 — Aurora, Bon Homme, Douglas, Gregory, Hanson, Hutchinson, Jerauld, McCook, Miner and Sanborn. Another three — Charles Mix, Jones and Lyman — lost at least 5 percent.

In many of those places, population decline is a continuing trend.

In 1980, Miner County’s population was 3,739. By 2012, the county’s population had plunged to an estimated 2,326. That’s nearly a 38 percent decline.

Two more counties in The Daily Republic’s print circulation area — Jerauld and Jones — experienced population declines greater than 30 percent from 1980 to 2012. Another six — Aurora, Douglas, Gregory, Hutchinson, Tripp and Sanborn — lost at least 20 percent of their population.

‘Economic misery’ in Mitchell

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mitchell’s economy was hit with a major blow when three of the city’s biggest employers — Hormel, Herter’s and Owatonna Manufacturing — left the city in quick succession and took hundreds of jobs with them.

“When those three got hit, a lot of the development work that was done in the ’60s and ’70s was wiped out,” Hisel said.

The economic impact of those lost jobs was compounded by the 1980s farm crisis, a time of double-digit interest rates, low crop prices and plunging land values.

“There was enough economic misery to go around for everybody,” Hisel said.

Mitchell’s population declined about 1 percent from 1980 to 1990, from 13,916 to 13,798. The last time Mitchell’s population fell from one decade to the next was during an era that included the Great Depression, when the city’s population fell nearly 3 percent from 1930 to 1940.

In Davison County, of which Mitchell is the county seat, the population also declined from 1980 to 1990, from 17,820 to 17,503, or nearly 2 percent.

“You had an exodus of people from the loss of those jobs,” Hisel said. “You had people losing their farms.”

Many young people left and migrated to larger cities as a result of the economic situation in Mitchell and the surrounding area, Hisel said.

“Those impacts live on to this day,” he said. We lost part of our population because we didn’t have enough employment.”

While Davison County’s population increased nearly 10 percent from 1980 to 2010, certain segments of the population have undergone different changes.

In 1980, about 50 percent of Davison County’s population was 29 years old or younger, while about 20 percent was 65 years old or older. Both of those segments of the population have gotten smaller, even as the county’s population has gone up. About 41 percent of Davison County’s population was 29 or younger in 2010, and nearly 17 percent was 65 or older.

The segment of Davison County’s population between 30 and 59 years old was about 29 percent of the county’s population in 1980, but grew to about 37 percent of the county’s population in 2010. Many in this segment likely endured the tough economic conditions in the 1980s, Hisel said.

“You had some people that decided to stay, but they had to start and create their own income, or business,” he said.

The population losses of the 1980s in Mitchell and Davison County, and in other areas of South Dakota, reflect a troubling period in the area’s economy, Hisel said.

But the population increases that have taken place in Mitchell in the decades since indicate a rebound, he said.

“These were the best of the best that made it through that period,” Hisel said. “It was a shake-up, is what it was.”

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