The other day I read about once-thriving rural Midwestern towns losing population — and a basic amenity of life: their grocery stores.
This set me to thinking. How is it that while so many rural communities wither, we, tucked away in the upper reaches of an isolated rural valley, have four grocery stores that are not only still here but also have expanded over the years?
Quality of life in much of rural America tanked during the past three decades as economies and populations shriveled. But not ours. True, we live in an attractive setting. But you can’t eat the scenery.
So how does an economically viable, amenity-rich rural community like ours really happen? I think there’s a secret ingredient in the mix: engaged citizenship.
The amenities we enjoy in the Methow would not exist without the vision and expertise of private citizens sans any official portfolio, astute elected officials, wealthy — and not so wealthy — donors, plus battalions of tireless volunteers. Got a civic problem to solve? We’ve got a nonprofit for that.
The game changer for the Methow was 1972, when the North Cascades Highway opened. Yes, much of value was lost. And gained.
Let’s take stock of some of what’s happened here.
We’re home to North America’s largest Nordic ski trail system and a year-round recreation industry, major drivers of our economy. We have bus service, first-class medical emergency response, physical therapy gym, a radio station and recycling center. The internet allows urban-based employees to live in remote locations; people move here not only to retire but to work. School district enrollment in recent years has grown from 550 to 730.
Rural economic decline? Hello? Hardly.
Just one example of how things get done around here: Winthrop, which profits most from tourism, got its skating rink thanks to initial efforts by a private citizen. There’s a newly-built Montessori School, and the town is fixing to build a new library.
Thanks to generous donors, Winthrop has two new parks. One, Homestream Park, features world-class sculptures by Smoker Marchand, commemorating the intertwined valley history of his Methow ancestors and salmon. And the unthinkable happened: a state-of-the art, first-run movie theater, The Barnyard Cinema, was purpose-built in rural, small-town America.
Twisp tanked when its lumber mill closed. Now Twisp is rebuilding. Credit the leadership of a savvy mayor and town council strategically focused on first things first: reclaiming town water rights, replacing failing water and sewer infrastructure, paving streets and sidewalks. A new city hall is in the works. An economic incubator, TwispWorks, is helping change the face and fortunes of the town.
The hamlet of Mazama is enjoying its own commercial building boom. The Mazama Store was expanded and Goat’s Beard sports store and North Cascades Mountain Guides are moving into their own new buildings.
But all this is just visible hardware expressing the software, the spirit of this place. There’s always been a confident pioneer can-do ethic here, long predating the arrival of the post-1972 “Methow Dream”-chasers.
And another important, old-timey thing: We look out for one another. The late Ken Westman, who epitomized this spirit, simply called it “neighboring.” Room One serves children and families. Methow At Home, the Methow Valley Senior Center and Jamie’s Place support the aging. The Cove feeds the hungry. Rising real estate prices spurred the nonprofit effort that’s building affordable entry-level homes in Twisp, Winthrop and Mazama.
Deservedly, we’ve earned a fierce reputation for protecting the natural ecosystem that supports our quality of life. The 1970s kicked off a 25-year legal battle against a mega downhill ski resort. This year we blocked a ruinous mining project in the Methow Headwaters. That ended exceptionally well: Congress protected 340,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands from development.
The Methow Conservancy, a legacy seeded by the ski resort fight, has quietly bridged cultural gaps that, even here, occasionally divide sometimes clueless city mice from wary country mice. The upshot? We’ve preserved nearly 9,000 acres of agricultural and wild lands and 32 miles of river shorelines.
Gratitude, and caution
It seems fitting, then, that we lift a Thanksgiving glass of gratitude to everyone, newbies and old timers, whose selflessness, persistence and generosity so enrich our community.
A cautionary word, though, about those dying Midwestern towns. Their economies betrayed them. Something similar happened in the Methow after the first bedazzled settlers arrived in the late 1800s. Things seemed to grow here without irrigation.
Among the beguiled was Harvard-educated Guy Waring, the Methow’s first uppity urban smarty-pants, who platted Winthrop in 1901. His log home is the centerpiece of Winthrop’s Shafer Museum, a jewel of the Methow with a treasure trove of illuminating tales to tell.
Waring dreamed of growing apples to ship to Europe. By 1913 his Methow Trading Company had planted 7,000 fruit trees. Today you can pick tiny, tart apples from the century-old, wizened trees that still poignantly struggle for life on his ghostly, unirrigated Land Five orchards along lower Gunn Ranch Road. Long story, short version: In 1913 the wet cycle reverted to dry. He went broke.
Today our economy also precariously rests on dependable weather, i.e., snowy winters and summers free of fire and smoke. Climate change threatens this tidy arrangement. And that threatens our economy.
So the Methow Valley Citizens Council, which spearheaded the fight against the ski resort, is again rallying the troops, this time in a proactive move to keep the Methow livable as the climate changes.
Will the can-do Methow ethic outsmart global warming?
Solveig Torvik became a Methow landowner in 1987. She lives near Winthrop.