I remember the streets crowded with people for Pilger Days, a weekend celebration which happened once a summer. There was cotton candy, music, families walking hand and hand, a cake walk (my personal favorite), a dime toss and a myriad of other carnival games. However, now I walk through the streets of Pilger looking at the run down buildings, closed businesses, houses for sale, and the empty main street; it feels like all of the air has been let out of it, and it’s on it’s last breath. It feels like it’s dying.
Pilger is a small town in Northeast Nebraska with an ever decreasing population of 328 people. It’s your typical farm town; a gas station, a main street, a church, the grain elevator, a small park, and a big water tower. There’s one school serving 5th and 6th grades, there’s a brand new town swimming pool ,and a ball field. I guess that actually sounds like quite a lot of a population of 328.
However it’s missing something crucial, there are no kids running around playing. The park is empty and the main business which is actually still open and running on main street seems to be the Senior Center. The population of Pilger is aging.
Why do I care about Pilger, Nebraska? It’s my parent’s home town – sort of. It’s actually the closest thing to a home town they have as they both grew up on farms about 3 miles outside of Pilger. But for them, Pilger was their ‘big city’. Back then it had a population of 537, and farmers from all around the area gathered there to conduct business, attend social functions, provide their kids an education, and of course to worship.
My parents went to high school in Pilger and had a graduating class of 11 people. My dad played sports there, and my mom was on the cheer squad. The school was brimming with excitement and life. However a number of years ago they moved the high school to a bigger town as there just were no longer enough students in Pilger to keep it running. Pilger now struggles to keep its grade school running. They split up the grades and share the overall schooling with neighboring towns
I found myself in Pilger recently visiting my aunt and took the opportunity to walk around it with my camera. I of course had a few locals stop me and ask me what I was doing…they don’t see strangers walking around with a big camera every day…or ever!
The cemetery on the edge of town seems to be getting bigger and the town seems to be getting smaller. The decreasing population in Pilger has left it with an empty feeling. As I walk around, it feels no different than a town in a foreign country. In fact the lack of energy in the town reminds me of villages in the Gobi Desert. I find the whole thought a little depressing as I see this small town farming culture disappearing in the US – right before my eyes. Is this happening to all small towns in America as the big farmers/companies/cities take over?
The remaining population of Pilger is gearing up for it’s 125th year anniversary in 2012 and my aunt is on the planning committee. I am hopeful my vision of the ‘old PIlger’ will come back to life; the main street full of people and pick-up trucks, a cake walk, and farmers walking around socializing. I have a hard time imagining it now, as I walk around the edges of town surrounded by corn fields. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take for the corn fields to eventually take over the town. All that will be left is the water tower and fuzzy memories.If you ever find yourself in Northeast Nebraska – I suggest you stop in the small towns and have lunch at the local cafe – it will be a truly cultural experience you won’t forget. You’ll meet some really nice people and probably learn a little history too! Heck – you may even make it into the local paper! In all honestly – I find Northeast Nebraska’s rolling hills to be one of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve encountered in the world. Yes, not all of Nebraska is flat plains!
If you’d like to read more about small towns in America you can check out some of my other posts:
Farm-sitting – a Cultural Adventure in Owatonna
Corn and Cowboys – Mitchell, South Dakota
Sex in The City Small Town Style – Twin Brooks, South Dakota
Chasing Wabbits in Ozark, Arkansas