Sunday, June 7, 2009

Update from the road: Falls City

June 7, 2009 Fargo, Neb: Today I saw the population of a town double before my eyes.

We spent the first half of the morning shooting photographs at a church just outside of Falls City. I had talked to the pastor a bit before mass and he mentioned he and his wife were planning on heading to Fargo after the service.

"North Dakota?" my professor Bruce asked when I told him what I planned to do. I looked at him for a second, sometimes I can't tell when he's joking and when he's being serious. This time he was joking.

Fargo is a town of, according to the homemade sign on the way into town, three people, three dogs and 20 cats. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the numbers (I later found out there were errors in the cat census) but I did meet the towns' three residents.

One of them was Arlene Miller, 84 year old resident of the area. As I was walking across the street to her house, the population of the town jumped up once more from six to nine (plus one more dog). Two of Arlene's nieces (and a family friend) who had never met her pulled up in their car from as far away as Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Sisters Connie and Carol had somehow found Fargo, Nebraska based on childhood memories, stories their mother told them and a little bit of help from the Internet.

It was a family reunion. Arlene's nephew from across the street came over to meet his cousins and show them an old photograph of Fargo. One of the sisters pointed to a building in the picture. "So this was the motel?" she asked. The residents of Fargo had a good laugh. "You could call it that," their cousin said, winking at me.

Apparently, Fargo was a bustling town of anywhere from 1,100 to 2,000, depending on which of the three current residents you ask. Steamboats came down the river right by Fargo, and the town based its economy off that and farming. Soon enough, the appeal of steamboats died down, and to add insult to injury, the river changed direction and moved a mile away from Fargo. People moved with the river or into Falls City. A few years ago, it was just Arlene in the town, until her nephew, the county sheriff, and his wife moved into a trailer across the dirt road.

Even when she was living alone, Arlene insisted she was fine. "I'm not scared of anything," she said, not even trying to contain the giant smile plastered across her face. These were the most visitors she'd seen in a while, and she loves visitors.

Connie and Carol, on the other hand, were practically in shock. Hearing stories from their mother, especially toward the end of her life, they were amazed to see that everything she had described was right there in front of them. Connie looked at her sister. "I thought mom made a lot of this stuff up." (photo by Clay Lomneth)

June 6th, 2009, Falls City, Neb: Someone once told me the best part about Nebraska is that everybody looks after each other. After speaking with the last two dozen people I've met, I can see that such a statement is true. With Falls City's population just over 4,000; it is easy to assume that everybody knows eachother. Because of this, they also know what everyone is doing from day to day.

Take Charles Loghry, 72, for example. Almost every day he walks through the town square of Falls City and watches the traffic go by. I caught up with him on one of his walks and within five minutes three cars drove by, each one yelling out "Hey Charlie!" Loghry is just one example of how living in a small town can give someone the familiarity that only a mayor might have in a large city. (Photo by Kyle Bruggeman)

June 6, 2009, Auburn Neb: As he picks up sticks from around his yard, and tears old Pizza Hut boxes into small flammable charcoal, his one year old dog, 'Smokey Joe' scampers mischievously around the yard of twelve inch tall grass. "I haven't mowed," Jeff Minner said. "[I'm] Trying to save the gas."

For about four months now, Minner and his wife have been living off her Managerial job at the Pizza Hut a few blocks away.

Very blatantly, and without a slight hint of resentment, he says,"Was laid off."

For quite a few years now, Minner has been laying brick and building houses with a local construction company. "It was a good job," Minner said. "[It] kept me busy."

But with the housing market in a lull and very few new construction projects being started locally, Minner and others were sent away.

Minner said he was paying a lot of attention to the economy, especially the rising gas prices. "Up 19 cents since I last filled up," Minner said. "Usually, I would go to a place like New Orleans or (places) in need of construction workers," Minner said. "I've done it before."

This year is different. He is approaching a year anniversary with his wife and kids whom all live close to him in Nebraska City. His oldest son will be starting for the Nebraska City High football team.

Minner said he wants to see him play, but if the price of gas keeps going up, he won't be able to stay. The thought of which makes Minner sad: "I don't want to leave," he said, "but who knows." (Photo by Patrick Breen)

June 6, 2009 Auburn, Neb: Omaha is not a bad place to live. It's no Kansas City or Chicago or Milwaukee, the Paris, London and Berlin of the Midwest. But it's not a bad place to live, if I do say so myself. I'm proud to be from a place large enough to have a three second spot in Michael Clayton but small enough you can accidentally run into someone you know every week.

To be honest, I never saw myself ever wanting to live in a small town. That is until we passed through Auburn. Small towns are great. There is this stereotype that everyone from a small town is jovial and helpful and always willing to let you into their homes. For all we know, residents of Auburn could turn into Los Angeles drivers once tourists are done passing through, but probably not.

Once I was done being swarmed by twenty-plus children asking me to take their photograph, I began to settle into a groove and they started to ignore the stranger with a camera. I just started to think about moving to the water slide at the pool when a commotion came from the diving board.

Someone had decided to try jumping off the high dive for the very first time, but seemed to have changed his mind once he glanced at how far down the water really was.

The high dive is a major turning point in any child's life. It's a start of something that will re-emerge later in the teen years: getting as much distance from mom and dad's rules as possible, which most people will see as doing stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things.

All in all, the high dive is a good place to start. The worst that can happen is you get some water up your nose, maybe a red stomach for the rest of the day from a belly-flop.

Everyone at the pool surrounded the deep end to see how this would pan out. Some of the younger children made wild claims, saying they would have jumped by then, and the first time they jumped off the diving board they were not afraid at all. Some of the older teen guys poked each other, saying "Someone should go up there and throw him in," laughing at the same joke every time. The girls had the opposite reaction, one even offered to climb up there herself and help the boy down.

The boy's mother showed up and started a chant, and within seconds the whole pool was yelling Bradley's name. This would only stop when he peered over the side of the board and it looked like he might jump. This continued for about 10 minutes, before the one lifeguard who seemed to be trained in hostage negotiation just climbed up the high dive and helped poor Bradley down.

I started walking back, in awe over how perfect this town was for a photographer, and I stumbled across Bradley's mother, Amanda, a portrait photographer in town. She said her family has cut back a bit, but overall, they've been doing fine. She has noticed a little bit of a change while shooting weddings, but she manages. "I have to find other ways to make money," she said.

Amanda has lived in Auburn all her life. When I asked how it had changed, I expected an answer about how it used to be two cities, about how new restaurants have come in and some have closed down, but her answer surprised me. She laughed. "Auburn's the same as it's always been," she said. "It really is."

I asked her what she liked about Auburn, what's kept her here all these years. Things are simple in small towns, she said. As busy as she gets, there's always time for her family. "Things center around family." I looked down at Bradley, who was the center of everybody's attention not five minutes ago, happily munching on an ice cream bar his mom had bought to either help him get over his traumatic high dive experience or reward him for his bravery. I suspected the latter.

"Hey Bradley," I called out as he and his mom left the pool. Winking at him, I said "You get that diving board next time." (photo by Clay Lomneth)

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