Even before the pandemic, we all heard stories about people moving from the big cities to smaller ones around the country. Some people were moving to return home, or to be near family, or to seek places where life was more affordable and balanced. Since the pandemic began, there were more reasons for people to consider moving, and we began to hear stories about people moving to states or suburbs or communities where schools were open, space was ample, weather was better, and life seemed gentler and safer. And for still others, where mask mandates were scarce, businesses remained open, and Covid numbers were low (until they weren’t). Studies and numbers are coming in, like here and here and here.
Early last summer, when my husband, Jim, and I visited De Smet, South Dakota, to learn about the revival of its local newspaper, we also heard about the arrival of a new family in town, one that seemed to fit a scenario of pandemic migrations. That was the Fields family, who had packed up their four daughters in the fall of 2020, to head for De Smet, renowned as a childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, population about 1000.
Everyone who makes such a move has a unique story. This is the story of one family’s move. And it is also the story of what these migrations have meant for the towns and regions where people are moving in and settling down.
For a few years, Amanda Fields, an independent consultant in direct sales and her husband, Dave, a government contractor in the intelligence community, had been thinking about making a move from suburban Baltimore. The family was happy, but a few things about life there had made them uneasy. Some reasons were specific: Dave’s long work commute, a high cost of living, worries about safety (a bike stolen from the garage, a few of their daughters witnessing a drug deal in front of their house, anxiety when the kids were playing outside.) Some reasons were general: a kind of discomfort that as a conservative and religious family, they would sometimes feel at odds with the morals and values of their community.
Then Covid hit and as with most other families, work slowed, social life and activities stood still, and school shifted online, which was better for some of their four daughters than for others. While the pandemic spurred many families to take another hard look at their lives and priorities, for the Fields family, it was the nudge they were waiting for.
Jim and I walked the few blocks from our downtown B&B to the Fieldses’ new house at the end of a small street that hugged the big road at the edge of town.
We sat along sofas with the six of them, plus dogs and the pet bearded dragon, in the common room next to the busy kitchen. Amanda Fields described the moment they decided to move this way: “God laid it on my heart. It was time to go. We prayed about it, but we were eerily calm. “
The last comment – eerily calm — was too much for Eva, the youngest, who burst out: “We weren’t calm. I started crying! It was My Entire Life.” Her three sisters, Isabella, Calliana, and Charlotte, piled on: “We were 15 years in the same house! It was all Eva had ever known! Calli moved there at two or three!”
Two moving trucks, three days, nearly 1400 miles later, they arrived in De Smet. The girls dramatic version of the move: “It was an awful drive! A horrible drive!” As listeners, we were quick learners and knew from these wholly exuberant and disarming girls, the drive was probably – no, certainly – a whole lot of fun. The siblings played off each other in the way that those of us who grew up in smaller families imagined (right or wrong) that life in bigger families was like.
Their arrival was mixed. Neighbors and the high school sports teams showed up to help unload and unpack. Amanda Fields said the town seemed excited to have them. “We put the population over 1000!” is what they told her. They met school administrators and teachers. The entire 4th grade class sent welcome letters to Eva.
For the Fields, there were some bumps: They tossed out their original idea to buy a B&B in town. Dave couldn’t replicate his work remotely. But then, the previous owner of their new house suggested that the town could use a good bait and tackle shop, which he opened and we visited. Business was getting going and Dave had plans to add another building, which he could expand to sell guns and ammo. The older girls found jobs as waitresses, and as a lifeguard. Amanda told me that for a while, she was lonely and missing her friend-life in Maryland. So, she offered to help a local restaurant with their marketing, soon began cooking there, and as her daughters say, ”Now she runs the place.”
For the girls, life was in the details. They rattled through all the advantages of De Smet, and could hear their comments ending in verbal exclamation marks: “I could go on the teeter totter! We could play Dodge Ball! And ride our bikes. I got my license at 14! I got my unrestricted license with just a piece of paper! In school biology, they dissect baby pigs! Sports are much easier to be part of. Eva qualified to go to state in BB shooting three months after she started! And tumbleweed; we have tumbleweed in our backyard! We went to our friends’ backyard to howl with the coyotes. Just howling back and forth! And I went raccoon hunting. They pay you $10 for a tail!
Life was looking pretty good for the Fields family. How is the influx of visitors and residents looking from the other side, from the communities inside South Dakota?
Increased number of tourists and visitors and residents is mostly a good and healthy thing for towns to experience. But the pandemic also brought twists to this generally positive experience. We’ve heard about schools bursting with Manhattan kids in tony Long Island communities. And about worries of meeting healthcare needs in rural areas. Or cultural clashes and expectations when city and country folk meet. I heard about a number of the strains in towns with a population influx during nearly a year of zoom calls with people from dozens of small towns in South Dakota.
Dakota Resources, a statewide economic development network to support local leaders, launched regular zoom calls and webinars as a way to keep their far-flung community members together, and I was fortunate to be able to join them. As tired as we may all have become of the hours of zoom, it was a lifeline for me to be able to transport myself from my four walls in D.C. into living rooms and kitchens around South Dakota. One member usually called in from his tractor, and gave us ag reports.
They shared stories about strains from the pandemic and how they were addressing them. Some of these were traditional small-town strains that existed pre-pandemic, but they rose to the top of the list with new urgency. The influx of many tourists and new residents is one of the pressure points I heard about most. Here are some of the realities.
Housing: How to meet the demand of tourists and new arrivals in towns. Motor home sites were bursting. Hotels and rentals ran out. People from out of state were buying houses sight-unseen, even rentals that were not on the market for sale, at prices irresistible to homeowners, but often leaving them with nowhere to live themselves. It seemed like every community had a story. People were arriving from Virginia, Ohio, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, New York; out of state license plates showed up in the school pickup lines.
Housing commissions stepped up. In Lemmon, population 1200, as in other towns, the Housing and Redevelopment Commission is trying to buy some of the vacant housing, and do the necessary rehab to sell them. They recently bought a long-vacant home/beauty shop and are turning it into a duplex. A double-wide or two showed up in town, which was one creative answer to the shortage and high price of construction. Some towns saw opportunity, for example: how about building new storage units to house some of the goods from the homeowners who sold perhaps too quickly.
Jared Hybertson, with the development corporation in Centerville led a walk-through of what it took to rehab a single house in the community. He described the complicated steps of assessment, contractors, financing the partners, risks, value to the community. The last house, he says in his presentation, ultimately cleared a profit of only $3000, but even a few rehabs made room for newcomers and brought soft value, like pride of place, to the community.
Quality of life: Stepping up the game for current and new residents. Lifestyle issues are important to keeping local residents happy and young families in town, and also to enticing tourists to visit and newcomers to stay. We know the wish-list by now: walking paths, fitness options, gathering spaces, local shopping, farmers markets, options for kids, restaurants, public art, brewpubs. And the must-haves: adequate health care options, childcare, transportation.
Here are a few of South Dakota communities’ answers:
- Splash pads are an inexpensive alternative to swimming pools. Doland, population 180, and hometown of Hubert Humphrey, installed a splash pad in a vacant lot on Main Street. Burke, population about 650, is building one as well and has done an extensive master plan for a public park.
- In Hartford, outside Sioux Falls, the Buffalo Ridge Brewery was made from a longtime dream and a commitment to being an anchor in the community.
- In communities around the state, small-business owners and community members pooled talents to keep businesses afloat with an online presence, new marketing, ordering services, and other ideas.
Keeping the Welcome sign out for new businesses was not a given. While some people saw a second coffee shop in town as exciting, others saw the arrival of a new business as unnecessary competition for the old guard.
Broadband: the need for high speed internet access. The scarcity and unevenness of high speed internet access in the U.S. is nothing new. According to the Pew Research Center, some 23% of Americans still lack high speed internet at home. That number is even higher, 28%, in rural areas. During the pandemic, we all embraced fast internet for telehealth, online education, remote work, and commerce and recognized the inequities when it was missing.
Towns knew that fast internet was a prerequisite for those considering moving to their towns – the remote workers, entrepreneurs, those opening businesses, and families. Making it happen is harder. In the meantime, public libraries, for example provide stopgap solutions by leaving their wifi running for outdoor access for schoolkids, workers, and shoppers.
Food and supplies: How to accommodate basic needs for spikes in population. Some towns were traditionally prepared for surges in arrivals. Sturgis, with its famous annual motorcycle rally, knew how to handle feeding its episodic, seasonal population. But for other towns, the tourists, visitors, and potential residents showed up unexpectedly in unprecedented numbers, imposing a shock effect on the supermarket shelves and supply chains, where remote deliveries might come in weekly.
In a year or two, we’ll be reading stories and statistics about what happened to the Covid migrants, like the Fields family. Did they stay or return? Did other families follow? And what about De Smet and other towns that received Covid pioneers. Were they able to ramp up their broadband? Did they build more housing? Let’s keep watching.
[Note: South Dakota’s “open for business” policy through the pandemic has been attractive to some people in the state and beyond, and a deterrent for others. Assessing the overall effects of the policy is beyond my scope here. This is a report on some of the ensuing changes, on the local level.]