Under a Broiling Kansas Sun, History is Celebrated

Descendants come home by the score to visit family, friends and memories in Nicodemus

Today is Homecoming in Nicodemus, the biggest day of an annual weekend celebration that brings the descendants of one of, it not the only, surviving Exoduster communities in America, home for a visit.

At its peak, this town was home to almost 800 people, all of whom farmed the land in Nicodemus County and some of whom also worked outside jobs in the nearby towns of Bogue and Stockton or traveled further to Hays and Phillipsburg.

Today, only about 40 residents of Nicodemus are left. But on Homecoming weekend, the town is populated at nearly its peak. And today is no different. There is food in the fryers and music in the shelters, speeches in the township hall and baseball at the park.

Nicodemus was founded as an African-American community and it still primarily is populated by African-Americans. But it struck me as I visited with returning former residents and their families how very, very much it reminds me of the small farming community where I grew up.

From the memories of the one-room school to chores before and after classes, talking to Earlice Switzer-Rupp whose father died only two weeks ago and whose mother still lives in Nicodemus, revealed how alike our childhoods were -- a home full of siblings, a classroom full of cousins, a town full of people who know just who to call if you misbehave and plenty of work to keep you out of trouble.

And it struck me that the fate of Nicodemus, which began to decline when the railroad didn't come through, has been ultimately the fate of dozens of other small Kansas farming communities: no jobs for the next generation graduating from college to come home to and a steady loss of population.

This is not a decline of the past, but also one of the present. And nobody seems to have a real answer on making it stop. No matter how many times you say, "we need something BESIDES farming" nobody seems to know what that is. Ethanol? Biodiesel? Internet-based home business? Wind farms?

We're running out of time to put something definitive at the end of those question marks.

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