We first met the people of Hope, Kansas, ten years ago when Keith and I were looking for a way to illustrate how the drought was affecting the state's farmers. Hope seemed the ideal prototype, a speck of a town that had depended on the land for more than 100 years; the kind of place where everyone from the barber to the school bus driver felt the impact of a dry spell.

"We're all farmers around here," the owner of one of the town's handful of businesses had said. "It doesn't matter what you do for a living, you're also a farmer."

Hope had -- still has -- a Main Street with a grocery store, a bar and a barber shop. There are also remnants of a heartier past: an abandoned five and dime and a TV repair shop that didn't open one Monday after the owner decided he was too old to work.

At the time, we worked for The Topeka Capital-Journal, which sat a few blocks from the Capitol Building where lawmakers were wringing their hands trying to figure out how to boost a sluggish farm economy. We went to Hope with a kind of self-importance that is not uncommon among journalists, especially those who hail from a city, however humble, and travel to a small town to "document" their lives.

For about five months we made intermittent visits. We noted the town's sagging economy. We talked to farmers who fretted over the dusty ground, then so dry it cracked like shattered glass. We spoke with housewives who were hoping to earn Christmas money raising extra pigs. We talked to teenagers whose dreams, at the time, were far away from Hope.

We wanted our work, a 16-page special section, to help urban dwellers better understand the trials of eeking a living out of a land so dry wheat shriveled to dust.

The people we met, seemed to us, oddly optimistic. In the face of parched fields and fading ponds they held on to their faith that better times were just ahead.

We checked in with one of the Hope families again, ten years after we'd published stories about their lives. How are things, we wanted to know.

"We could use some moisture," Lynn Jacobson, the wife of a Hope farmer, said.

Indeed, with a November that has seen an unprecedented string of 70- and 80-degree days, rain is what the people of Hope most need now. And while it may seem as if nothing has changed in Hope, that's not the case at all. There haven't been sweeping shifts in the economic landscape, that's true. There aren't any new businesses in town, for example, but none have closed either. Some farmers, the Jacobsons among them, have even increased their acreage a bit.

And while it may seem like a small thing, those teens who once dreamed of a life far away from Hope are now wishing they could make a living on the farm, dry years and all. The Jacobsons' son, Mike, is hoping to take over the family farm one year. In the meantime, he's the town letter carrier. And their daughter, Trina, lives in nearby Salina but wishes she could raise her newborn daughter in Hope.

"That's what all the kids say. That if they could do it, economically, they'd be farmers and raise their kids on the farm," she said.

What they pine for is a kind of life that few on the outside could ever really understand; to live in a place where you know everyone from the barber to the school bus driver and more importantly, to live in the same place your parents did and theirs before them.

When Lynn Jacobson looks at Hope's Main Street she remembers how it looked when she was a child.

"Businesses up and down both sides of Main Street," she said. "I remember Saturday night band concerts when the stores stayed open and our parents sat on the streets and visited.

"I look now and I realize how deserted it is...We've lost a lot and yet there is still a sense of community -- a sense of pride that we're still out here.

"We've come through a lot of changes....But we're still holding on. And we'll continue holding on.

"We'll be here."

 

 

story by Nancy Mays
photos by Keith Mays

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