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Statistics Tell a Tale of Two Dakotas

(NPN) — Is it mean to say that the best years of much of the Dakotas are in the past — in fact, way in the past?

A recent study by the Daily Kos has some startling statistics — of South Dakota’s 66 counties, more than half of them have seen their highest populations before 2010, the last census. The data show that most of the “heydays” for many counties occurred near or before the Great Depression — in 1920 or 1930.

It’s easy to get lost in all the glowing news of the Dakotas having the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, of Sioux Falls’ breaking building permit records, and South Dakota even gaining population, finally breaking the 800,000 mark.

The number of counties by year of highest population for S.D.s 66 counties: 1910–7; 1920–12; 1930–25; 1940–1; 1960–1; 1980–2; 2000–1 and 2010–17.

But largely outside of the Bakken range, the Black Hills and the Interstate 29 and I-94 corridors, it isn’t that there is an exodus, but the exodus largely happened decades or generations ago.

As the Mitchell Republic reported late last year, we see it in something as concrete as the growing number of combines to play even nine man football in South Dakota. We see it in abandoned farmhouses and barns. We see it in the empty storefronts of even medium sized Dakota communities.

I recently had to opportunity to interview the Poppers of “Buffalo Commons” fame on KSOO-AM in Sioux Falls. The doctors Deborah and Frank came up with their idea to empty much of the Northern Plains and return it to the buffalo and the Indians about 30 years ago. During the state’s centennial celebration in 1989, I also interviewed them for South Dakota Public TV. Many South Dakotans hated what they had to say — and seemed to hate them.

But what they said should happen deliberately is happening without planning during the intervening three decades.

Except for the Bakken oil range in western North Dakota, the Black Hills and the “Eastern Seaboard” of I-29 up the Dakotas and the I-94 stretch, things have only gotten worse. And the Poppers love this part of the country and wish us no ill will. But the numbers are the numbers. Much of the interior of both Dakotas is empty and continues to empty.

Think about this: Even major South Dakota cities like Aberdeen and Huron saw their population peaks in 1980 and 1930, respectively.

But the losses are more than just people, farms and storefronts. This is the Dakota of the heritage of many of us — growing up on small farms or small towns, being close to nature, working hard, helping neighbors, producing the food and fiber for the United States and the world.

But as the kids say, “scoreboard don’t lie.” The numbers for much of the Dakotas are disturbing and demonstrate the economic, cultural and social issues that North and South Dakotans have faced now for at least a couple generations.

Maybe Bakken oil will float more small town boats. Maybe Sioux Falls credit card processors and hospitals will continue to be dynamos. Maybe Black Hills tourism will continue to offer visitors around the world an experience they can’t find elsewhere.

But what about the rest of the Dakotas? The numbers say their time has come — and gone. Statistics suggest there are indeed two Dakotas — not North and South — but one that’s growing, another that’s receding or already has receded.

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