Chapter 18 – Demographics and Social Conditions

It is easy to travel the United States and be impressed
both with the commonalities of existence that all its residents share
and with the diversity that is still imposed by vastness,
the wide range of climate and physiography,
the residue of history, differences in resources and agriculture,
and variations in ethnicity and culture.
Calvin Beale 

Go west, young man.
No, north! No, south! No, go back east!

The history of Americans has been to move. We moved west because of furs, minerals, free land, weather and Horace Greeley’s bombast. Since the West was settled we have moved to wherever economic conditions flourished. Our movement has been and continues to be much more prevalent than our stability. If current trends continue, the average American can expect to move 11.7 times during his lifetime (The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1996). How many people do you know who live in the same town, city or county in which they were born?

For most of this century more people left rural areas than moved there. By the late 1960s, social and economic conditions began to slow this migration; in the 1970s there were more people moving to rural areas than away from them. That trend continues today.

For our purposes here, what is happening on a national scale is of less interest than what is happening in specific regions and counties. Some rural counties are in fact losing population, especially in the Great Plains from the Dakotas down into Texas, the Corn Belt and the Mississippi River region. Areas where rural population gains are most prevalent include the Rocky Mountain states, the Northwest, the upper Great Lakes area, the Ozarks, parts of southern Ohio and Indiana, Tennessee, parts of Georgia, Florida, parts of the Carolinas and a few counties in New England.

Peter Francese wrote “America at Mid-Decade” in the February 1995 issue of American Demographics. He noted that: “Interstate migration to the South and West are old trends. What is new is heavier out-migration from the Northeast than the Midwest, and rapid growth in the Mountain States. . . . Every state in the Northeast saw net internal migration losses between 1990 and 1995. . . . More than 550,000 residents left New England alone.”

Counties that are destinations for retirees continue to be fastest growing, and recreational counties are second-fastest growing. Slower but continued growth is occurring in counties with an economic base in manufacturing or government. Farming and mining counties continue to lose population, except those mining counties that are now considered recreation areas, notably in the Rockies. In all cases, population gains are greatest in rural counties adjacent to metropolitan counties. Apparently we want our country homes and our shopping malls, too—or city jobs are still supporting new country dwellers.

I believe that a majority of Americans will move to rural areas once they realize that economic conditions now permit. This is supported by the conclusions of the Gallup polls cited earlier. The fact that retirees are moving in such great numbers to rural areas is further evidence. Modern industry has both followed people to the country and relocated, with workers following (see Chapter 12—Making a living). The information age combined with computer technology has freed many workers to work in the country for city clients or employers. As retirees, telecommuters and others have established themselves in the country, service industry owners and employees have followed. I think of all this as The Great Migration to the Boondocks.

Immigration, ethnicity, outmigrationThe United States is spending huge amounts trying to
create a cultural presence in Latin America.
But we are doing it an easier way.
Little by little, with 30 million Latin Americans
already here, we are taking over this country.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

The ethnic mixing of America is speeding up—33 percent of 1980-1990 U.S. population growth was from immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990 allows 700,000 legal immigrants per year but 4.6 million entered between 1990 and 1995, 56 percent to California, Texas, and Florida. Most immigrants settle in cities but, increasingly, many are going straight to the suburbs. Immigrants and minorities have higher birthrates than the majority population—the sum of immigration plus birthrate accounts for the fact that the ethnic minority population is growing more than seven times faster than the majority population. Minority population grew from one in five Americans in 1980 to about one in four in 1995.

The strongest influx of immigrants is in the Southeast and the Southwest. There is very strong Mexican immigration in California, Arizona and Texas. It is predicted that the Hispanic vote will predominate in California by 2040. The dominant culture of Miami has become that of Cubans, who are also moving in large numbers to New York City and northeast New Jersey.

Asian populations are fast expanding in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego and are settling as well on the East Coast. American Demographics (10-93) reported that Atlanta’s Asian-Americans are more visible than its Hispanics. Business signs written with Oriental characters have become common in Atlanta suburbs.

Even interior areas have experienced strong immigration—during the 1980s, 15,000 Hmong tribesmen from Laos settled in Minnesota. Sizable Hmong populations are also established in Wisconsin and Georgia.

The Los Angeles Times reported the most common last names of 1992 homebuyers in L.A. County. The top ten, by ranking number of homes bought, were: Lee, Smith, Garcia, Kim, Lopez, Hernandez, Nguyen, Rodriguez, Johnson and Gonzalez. Of the top 50, 17 were Latino, 11 were Asian.

University of Michigan demographer William H. Frey is concerned that a “Balkanizing” trend is occurring, with minority-dominated immigration and “white flight” leading to “sharply divergent racial and socioeconomic structure areas in broad regions and states.” Several states with strong foreign immigration also have strong out-migration to other states. These states include Texas, Illinois, New York and New Jersey. In The New York Times Magazine, 8-20-95, Frey writes: “For every immigrant who arrives, a white person leaves. Look collectively at the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Boston metropolitan areas—5 of the top 11 immigration destinations. In the last half of the 80’s, for every 10 immigrants who arrived, 9 residents left for points elsewhere. And most of those leaving were non-Hispanic whites. . . . blacks, like whites, are also leaving most of the high-immigration metropolitan areas, if not in the same numbers as whites, and their No. 1 destination is Atlanta. By contrast, the No. 1 destination for Hispanic-Americans is Miami, and the No. 1 destination for Asian-Americans is Los Angeles. . . . Consider California. It will be less than half white within a decade because of a massive influx of minority immigrants and a disproportionately white exodus, mostly to neighboring states, which are among the whitest in the nation.”

In American Demographics, January, 1996, Shannon Dortch writes about the Lone Star State, which in 1994 became the nation’s second most populous state: “Within 15 years, Hispanics and other “minorities” will be a majority of Texans.”

Ethnic groupings are a historical American condition. British, French, Germans, Swedes, Irish came to the U.S. in waves of immigration, typically settling where others of the same origin had preceded them. Within each region of the U.S. there are places of vibrant ethnicity and pervasive local attitudes, although not just from those who have come here from another country. Place creates character. The attitude of a New England farmer is strange to a Louisiana Creole shrimp fisherman. Wyoming cattle ranchers have little understanding of Alabama cotton growers.

Beyond native American differences, newly arrived immigrants bring with them characteristics and traditions that sometimes clash with local customs and laws. Language and clothing styles are the most obvious differences but others are more dramatic. Those from cultures that commonly eat dogs, for instance, do not blend well in areas where valued pets run loose. In Asian nations fishing is done not for sport but for food and requires no license.

When I was in Minneapolis on a book promotion tour, my author escort, a young woman, told of taking a walk in the woods of southern Minnesota. “Suddenly, I was face-to-face with these small brown men with painted faces, minimal clothing and weapons.” She finally realized they were Hmongs (pronounced “’Mungs”) on a group hunt. The only damage was to Eliza’s composure.

If you would have a problem living in an all-white (possibly bigoted or racist) area, if you want your children to be exposed to a racial mix, or if your Norwegian parents insist that their grandchildren retain that cultural conditioning, you will need to do extra research. During consideration of any area, write or talk to local people to see who they are, who they favor and what their biases are. The local newspaper is also revealing of local characteristics.

Prejudice and bias linger longer in the country, where tradition is strong and attitudes are less buffeted by the media. TV is not always a barrier breaker—I know people who would not allow their children to watch the Cosby show even though it was the number-one-rated family sitcom.

Beyond obeying laws, most of us treat our fellow humans with respect, as we wish to be treated. By no stretch does it follow that we should live in an ethnic atmosphere with which we are uncomfortable.

Where is everybody going?

Nearly seven million Americans move from one state to another each year. The strongest migration is to retirement counties, which constitute one-fifth of all nonmetropolitan counties. States of greatest retiree influx are, in order, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada and Oregon. Those with the heaviest losses are New York, Illinois, New Jersey and California. Non-retiree urban refugees are largely shunning the Sun Belt and are instead moving to areas of lower prices, clean air, scenery, recreation, perceived safety. The strongest migration to rural counties is occurring in the following regions.

Rocky Mountain states

After life in the smog, former West Coasters find Rocky Mountain air exhilarating, the open spaces intoxicating and the skiing superb. Seven of the nation’s ten fastest-growing states during the 1993 to 1994 period were Rocky Mountain States. Beyond real estate agents and merchants, not all residents are happy about the invasion. As in Seattle and parts of Oregon, there is anger against California “equity refugees” who sell expensive Golden State homes and build or buy big homes in the mountains, driving up prices. Resistance to growth is growing, most strongly in Boulder and the area west of Denver. The New York Times, 11-5-95, ran a feature titled: “Colorado Tries To Keep Lid on Population Boom.” “The slow growth movement is taking hold as memories fade of the Rockies’ bitter recession of a decade ago, a bust triggered by falling oil and gas prices. With Colorado’s economy increasingly diversified, many economists believe that the state may be breaking a century-long boom-and-bust cycle. . . . In Tucson, Arizona, sign-waving protesters confronted construction workers last month. From 1991 to 1994, Arizona and Colorado each experienced about 11 percent population growth, fastest after Nevada and Idaho.”

And then there’s the water shortage.

Time (9-6-93) featured an article with a paragraph title: “Sky’s The Limit, The Rocky Mountain home of cowboys and lumberjacks has become a magnet for lone-eagle telecommuters and Range Rover-driving yuppies. So far, it’s been a booming good time.” The emphasis was water. “For all its steam, the Rockies boom has its pitfalls and built-in limitations. For one thing, it cannot go on forever in the continued absence of a general economic recovery. . . . The region’s scarcity of water poses as much of a challenge as it always has. The northern tier of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, with plentiful rivers and low population density, expects no problem satisfying its pockets of growth. The semi-arid southern tier of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, however, has to give water high priority. Denver is now judged to have only about 20 years’ worth of identifiable water sources left.” [My emphasis]

William Kettredge is a short-story writer living in Missoula, Montana. In “The Last Safe Place,” a follow-up in the same issue of Time, he says: “You hate seeing your paradise overrun by latecomers from some seaport. Many are coming to the Rockies to retire. Their children are long out of school. They’re on fixed incomes and resist supporting education. But these good folks don’t seem to give a damn about the welfare of our next generation. They want to buy into our functioning culture on the cheap. What’s drawing these crowds? It’s not so much, I think, the beauties of nature, or cheap land, as it is safety. Sanctuary. As we know, our old America fantasy—a New World and social justice all around—has gone seriously defunct. Millions of citizens in our cities quite justifiably count themselves disfranchised. Some are angry, armed, and dangerous.”

From a different perspective, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is actively recruiting “lone eagles” as part of its economic development strategy. The term describes professionals who work at home and are perceived as “clean industry” that brings prosperity to the community without any downside.

Midwestern statesSince 1940, the United States has added at least 13,000 square miles
of inland waters (exclusive of Alaska), largely in the form of reservoirs
created by dams. Whatever the primary purpose of the dams,
they have usually attracted people for both recreation and permanent living.
The effect has been particularly great in those inland states
that lacked natural lakes. For example, in Oklahoma, Missouri,
Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee, there was
a 133 percent increase in inland water area from 1940 to 1970,
compared with less than 25 percent in the rest of the United States.
The great majority of counties with major dam reservoirs in these states
have had rapid population growth.
Calvin Beale 

With beautiful scenery, four distinct seasons but moderate winters, numerous large, clear reservoirs, and low prices, the Ozarks area has been attracting retirees and back-to-the-landers since the 1960s. Even after all the growth it is still pretty much just a sprinkling of retirement enclaves and small towns in huge areas of farms and wooded hills and hollows. Not all Midwesterners opt for gentler climes. Many are attracted to the beauty and recreational aspects of Wisconsin and Michigan, still close to major cultural and commercial centers.

Southern states

From Tennessee to the coast and southward through the Appalachians, urban refugees from East Coast cities and Midwest industrial areas are following industry and staking claims to the rural dream. Georgia and North Carolina are growing at above-average rates. Florida continues to attract huge numbers of people in spite of rising prices, growing congestion and crime. The Carolinas are siphoning off some people formerly headed further south. Texas now ranks second in population.

Northeastern states

Some areas of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York have filled with second homes and permanent residences for refugees from the Boston-to-New York area who choose to stay in the region. In Vermont, the proportion of native-born residents has fallen from nearly 72 percent in 1960 to just 57 percent today. Most of the Northeast has net outmigration; only more births than deaths are causing the population to rise slightly.

Social habits

Traditional rural social habits follow patterns established by work and religion. In most rural American areas today, as in yesteryear, natives’ social habits revolve around home, work, community, schools and church. The tendency is to socialize with those individuals that one meets locally and whose values are shared.

City migrants bring their social habits with them, subject to place conditions. A common newcomer lament is how far one has to travel to socialize. In the country everybody is farther apart and the space condition definitely contributes to less socializing. In our area residents typically cherish visitors but are loathe to leave home. The common end to conversations is “Come visit us—we’ll be home.”

Some rural areas have conversational distinctions—not making eye contact, avoiding a controversial issue, prolonged goodbyes—that you may find awkward or frustrating.

After the fast pace and congestion of city living some rural immigrants feel lonely and isolated. I know of more than one person who left our area because they could not adjust to living far beyond the sidewalks. If socializing is a prime requisite for you, you may wish to locate in or close to a town of some size. Put that on your criteria worksheet.


It is incorrect to assume that culture is lacking in the country. Founded in 1957, the Santa Fe (population 65,000) Opera has risen to become one of the top ten opera companies in America. John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene have a section in Megatrends 2000 titled “From Broadway to the Boondocks.” “One reason behind record-breaking audiences for opera, theater, and symphony is that people in small and medium-size cities and in rural areas can attend hometown productions in some very impressive places. . . . In remote Orono, Maine, private contributions built the stunning $7.5 million Maine Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus. In 1986 the 1,628-seat concert hall opened with a gala bash featuring musicians Isaac Stern and Yo-Yo Ma. During intermission audiences can walk through the museum of pre-Columbian sculpture that encircles the hall. Best of all, locals can attend world-class performances in their own backyard instead of driving five hours to Boston.”

City residents are acting out their country desires by decorating their homes country style, square dancing, line dancing, wearing cowboy hats and boots and driving four-wheel-drive vehicles. Country music stars pack city amphitheaters. Even the stars are changing their habits. Nashville has long been the country music capital of the world, but with over thirty big-name performers now based in town, tiny Branson seems destined to inherit the title. In 1994 Branson hosted nearly six million visitors.

Most rural places do offer far less “high culture” than metropolitan areas. Your lifestyle criteria should reflect whether you need to find a country home within reasonable driving distance of cultural events.

CrimeAnother innocent bystander shot in New York yesterday.
You just stand around this town long enough and be innocent
and somebody is going to shoot you. One day they shot four.
That’s the best shooting ever done in this town.
Any time you can find four innocent people in New York in one day
you are doing well even if you don’t shoot ‘em.
Will Rogers 

Crime is the number-one concern of urban Americans with good reason. U.S. federal and state prison populations in 1970 were 196,000. By 1996, 1,164,356 Americans lived in 1,560 federal and state prisons, with nearly four million on probation or parole and half a million in local jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Over 5.1 million American adults were in serious trouble with the law, more than the population of Wisconsin (American Demographics, February, 1996). Even more graphically, at year-end 1980, one in every 450 U.S. residents was in jail; by mid-1997, one in every 155 of us was behind bars (American Demographics, March 1998). The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation in the world. One in every 118 American men are in jail (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 6-22-97). In addition to the adult figures, nearly 600,000 juveniles were in some type of correctional program. The American Humane Association reports that since 1988, American teenage boys are more likely to die from gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined. In 1995, California and Florida spent more on prisons than on schools (Justice Policy Institute).

Shame, shame on us.

It is most difficult to stay alive in Texas, California and New York. In 1994, 4,096 murders were committed in California. In the past decade California has built and opened 16 new prisons and several maximum-security camps. Four more are under construction. State officials are asking for 25 new prisons. According The New York Times, 1-28-96, New York City killed 1,182 of its own in 1995. In 1997, Texas executed 37 convicts, more than all other states combined.Every year when it’s Chinese New Year here in New York,
there are fireworks going off at all hours.
New York mothers calm their frightened children by telling them it’s just gunfire.
David Letterman 

North Carolina is often held up as the new ideal form to which our society is evolving. North Carolina has estimable resources: a university with many satellite campuses, high rates of employment, a good highway system, a great diversity of homesite choices including nearly every type of rural setting. Yet on National Public Radio (11-5-93) I heard a piece on a serious North Carolina crime problem. It seems that there is insufficient jail space to incarcerate new criminals, so inmate sentences are being shortened or curtailed. “Build more jails,” the injured and fearful citizens implore. But there are inadequate state funds to build new prisons.The issue is the extent to which Americans are becoming a country of
separate communities walled off inside their fortresses.
It’s too bad we need gates to protect ourselves from each other,
but on the other hand, it’s really nice to know that you can go for a walk at night
and not get hurt.
Jeff Butzlaff, city manager of Canyon Lake, California 

Construction costs for new prisons can cost states hundreds of millions of dollars. The average cost to taxpayers for keeping each criminal in prison is nearly $15,000 per year.

Nina J. Easton and Ronald J. Ostrow wrote in “Ms. Reno Objects,” Los Angeles Times Magazine, 10-31-93, that U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno “worries that tough, mandatory minimum sentences have filled limited jail space with two-bit crooks, enabling more dangerous criminals to get out early because of prison overcrowding.”

Back in North Carolina, the governor’s office reports that 60 percent of felony parolees are back in jail within three years, convicted of new felonies.

Crimes occur in rural areas but with less frequency than in cities. Family values and discipline, school discipline and community disapproval of hoodlumism are typically stronger in areas far from cities. Moreover, criminal activity is not as profitable in sparsely populated areas. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that there is four times as much violent crime per capita in the cities as in the rural communities of the U.S.

Writing this stuff depresses me. Let’s take another humor break.Anybody can be good in the country; there are no temptations there.
Oscar Wilde 

Potential social and community challenges

Some old-timers resent newcomers who arrive with big money, fancy cars, city attitudes and seemingly try to “take over.” Others are simply amused. It’s amazing how place creates values—after a few years in their chosen home, old newcomers often share the same attitudes toward new newcomers as natives. You may, too.

Private property rights are often ignored in the country where large private holdings contribute to a public land image. Established patterns often conflict with changing needs. Our farm was owned for 15 years by city people who used it only for summer vacations and occasional long weekends. The natives used the stream road, which passes about 150 feet in front of the house, to travel through the hollow and hunt for deer and turkey. For many years one neighboring property owner took city hunters through the property to a part of his land remote from his house. The first year we were here we allowed the activities to continue because we wanted to be good new neighbors. But the hunters’ trucks driving through before daylight woke us up and the shooting destroyed our peace and quiet and caused us safety concerns, so the next year I stopped it. The deep resentment from that neighbor continues even now, many years later.

Determining the complete nature of communities is sometimes difficult without spending substantial time there. We have friends who bought a place on a North Carolina mountain, worked hard for two years building their homestead, and then, when they had time to socialize, discovered that the natives in their immediate area were not at all friendly—in fact, they were downright hostile to newcomers who showed intentions of staying. After enduring various insults and even threats of violence, they went looking elsewhere. After they identified their next area they ran the following ad in the local paper:

SITUATION WANTED Mature, responsible couple experienced in rural living seeks small farm or country home to caretake for absentee owner. Maintenance and protection of your property in exchange for living quarters and garden space.

They received several offers, chose one, moved there and lived rent-free for a year while they assured themselves that this time they had indeed found their ideal place. They and I recommend a lease agreement signed by all parties that spells out the terms of the caretaking agreement. This ensures that there will be no surprises, like being told to move out on short notice. Offering references should favorably impress the owners that you are good people and may eliminate the requirement of a security deposit.

During the seven years between finding my place and moving there I had two caretakers. They received free rent in return for minimal maintenance and improvements. The first was a family who had purchased an acreage nearby that lacked a house. After living at my place for three years they decided to sell their land and move closer to a city. The second caretaker, a single woman, later bought land nearby. In both cases, they and I profited by the experience.

Living in an area for a year, either caretaking or renting, provides time to develop income, experience the climate and the community and look at lots of properties, thereby becoming aware of values. If you will take the time, it is a low-cost way to verify that you have indeed found your ideal place.

Country people have a different focus than city people. They are more attuned to nature and natural rhythms. It is unlikely that you will be able to engage in conversation about the latest best-seller list in a neighborhood dominated by long-established subsistence farmers . If one of your treasures is a lifetime subscription to the New Yorker or if you find discussions about the weather incredibly boring you may be disenchanted with life in the country lane. Your criteria worksheet should reflect this.

That is not to say that country folk are less intelligent or even less well-read. I think the fact that they were living and surviving in the country first says a lot for their smarts. It’s just that city living tends to be faster, more tense, more focused on what’s hot and what’s not. Country living smoothes one out. Rural folks tend not to get very excited about fads. I suspect there were few sales of pet rocks in the Ozarks. On the other hand, if you know anyone who would like to buy some rocks real cheap, why, send them on by. For no extra charge we’ll even give each rock a proper name.

If an area has been losing population or gaining very slowly, then the cultural makeup of the citizenry is likely to be that of the natives. But if the area has been growing rapidly you can expect to find a large number of people just like you who have moved there from the cities. Certain areas are so popular with urban refugees that the newcomers outnumber the old-timers. The resulting community culture is that of city people learning how to live in the country.


Country culture, attitudes and habits are the result of people finding out what works. Land creates the human character—the harder it is to extract a living, the tougher and more independent are the residents. Country folk had to be independent to survive—a commonality between peoples of sparsely populated areas. Independence sometimes evolves into isolationism. Ozarks natives have a deserved reputation of low regard for “revenooers,” a result of moonshine and tax collectors not mixing well. A government agent was killed downhollow from our place in the 1950s because he got too close to the still in a cave up one of our side hollows. The farmers around Mechanicsville, Iowa, have exhibited similar qualities. In Broken Heartland, Osha Gray Davidson reveals: “In 1931, when the government began testing all dairy cows in Iowa for tuberculosis, scores of armed area farmers vowed to shoot the first son-of-a-bitch to touch a Cedar County cow.”

The farmers thought the testing was a good idea—they just didn’t like being told that they had to do it.


Rural citizens are usually conservative, especially regarding finances. When cash money comes hard, the tendency is to not part with it easily. With the city-to-country movement now in its fourth decade, some rural areas are showing the effects of increased numbers of liberal voters. In some counties, newcomers have become the majority. It saddens me that natives in those places are losing control.

City visitors are surprised to learn that the old-timers in our county, many living below the so-called poverty level, overwhelmingly vote Republican. They are astonished to learn of the poor couple who refused to sign up for an assistance program urged on them by university researchers. The scholars were disconcerted by the response: “Why, that would be like taking charity, wouldn’t it?” Entitlement was not the issue. Values was.

Political leanings can quickly be uncovered by reading the local newspaper and talking to local people. Feed store operators, restaurant workers, the person repairing your flat tire—one or two carefully worded questions may give you more information than you expected. Voting history can be found with the county clerk. When in the area, listen to talk radio. You are guaranteed to get at least one side of the political community.

ReligionThere is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.
George Bernard Shaw 

Rural churches are typically small and numerous, spaced according to horse-and-buggy days when trips were necessarily of short distance. Judging from the number of cars out front on Sundays, Ozarks’ congregations may be as few as four or five families. Denominations reflect those found in nearby towns and cities, which typically have larger facilities.

Nationally, the areas of strongest church affiliation are Utah, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Iowa, western Kentucky, eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, southern Georgia, Massachusetts. The most godless areas are California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, southern Montana, Michigan, southern Indiana, West Virginia, Maine, Florida. (Based on a map in American Demographics, August, 1995. Great map. The upward-bound are shown in heavenly blue, those headed for hell in fiery red.)

If finding a church of a particular denomination is a high priority for you, write it on your criteria list, next to demographics. You can learn of the churches in any area through the local newspaper or the chamber of commerce.He charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.
Mark Twain 


Years of sybaritic California living conditioned me to shopping habits that don’t work in the Bible Belt. Shortly after moving to the Ozarks I inquired of a clerk in the local grocery store where I might find the beer. I may never forget the sight of that fine young man drawing himself to his full height and proudly declaring: “Sir, it is the policy of Town & Country Supermarket to not sell alcoholic beverages!” When pressed, his good manners prevailed and he did tell me where the town’s only “package store” was located.

Some counties south of us in Arkansas are “dry” and most ban the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday. Some counties actually have laws prohibiting the transportation of more than a modest amount of beverage through their counties even though legally purchased in more liberal counties. Do not take such laws lightly—if stopped for a traffic violation your car may be searched. Rural law enforcement personnel tend to be very serious about their authority. It is not inconceivable that they will strike you as humorless.


Rural adults take role model responsibilities seriously. Traditional rural values include matter-of-fact but not “modern” attitudes toward sex. Children who regularly see animals breeding lack the curiosity of city kids. But attitudes toward talking about sex are conservative. If you are coming from one of the more liberal cities be aware that in many rural areas modern, open sexual conversations are considered totally unacceptable, especially within hearing distance of women or children.

There are sexual distinctions that may seem archaic. In our county it is a custom for drivers to acknowledge approaching cars with a wave. (I find it not only neighborly but nostalgic—reminds me of my early sports car-driving days, when MGs, TRs, and Healeys were uncommon enough that we elite waved—only—at each other.) I quickly adopted the practice. But I noticed that female drivers rarely returned my wave. I finally deduced that it is inappropriate behavior—such provocative communication from a man to a woman one does not know and who is away from her spouse.

Homophobia is prevalent in the Bible Belt and what fairly are called redneck areas, both of which tend to be conservative and traditional. Homophobia exists so strongly in parts of our county that two prominent business people finally left the area after continued, serious threats, rumors of deadly threats and a partial boycott of their business.

Some rural areas have an imbalance of the sexes. Herman, Minnesota, population 485, has an excess of 68 bachelors aged 20 to 50 over eligible women in the same age group. The town is especially interested in attracting a plumber, a lawyer and an accountant. Check it out, ladies.

Some readers and talk-show hosts have advised me to write more about sex. I should, they say, point out that sex is better in the country. They urge me to point out how clean air, increased privacy, fewer distractions and romantic scenery all contribute to higher sexual energy and pleasure. I’m not sure Mom would approve of her son writing about sex. Besides, I figure my readers are way ahead of me on this subject. So I won’t embarrass myself by pointing all this out.


Even today, in areas isolated by topography and poor roads, there are groups of people who are far out of the mainstream, are culturally unique, who live in the shadows of civilization. They may exhibit simplistic attitudes and behavior, may have intermarried, may be clans distrustful of others, as evidenced by the earlier story about our friends’ experience in North Carolina.

While remoteness increases this likelihood, there is no way to know for certain whether such a condition exists without visiting the area and talking to shopkeepers, the sheriff, residents and, ideally, local census takers, whose duties have taken them into the most remote areas.

Radical groups

Clans, cults, militants, other secretive groups and individuals like to headquarter in remote country where their unique ways will not attract attention. The local sheriff will be aware of such groups and their location. Ironically, such people are often considered decent neighbors by those who live near them; the primary anger of dissidents is usually with federal government agencies and laws. In our county, a group calling itself The Arm, the Sword & the Covenant lived without incident while committing crimes in other states. Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski was considered a decent, law-abiding neighbor in the Montana community where he lived while carrying out horrendous mail bombings. Oklahoma bombing conspirator Terry Nichols was a respected farm co-op manager in his Herington, Kansas community. There are likely exceptions to all of these examples. Follow your instincts and make local inquiries to satisfy yourself of unusual individuals or groups in the area you are considering.

On your criteria worksheet . . .

Of all criteria, the social nature of a place is the one most likely to be overlooked and the one that could most easily destroy your happiness in an otherwise ideal place. Consider well your needs and preferences and next to demographics write them down.Don’t be fooled by what you see today.
The present trickle will accumulate into a river, then a flood.
Try to imagine the eventual transformation.
In the next century, most middle-class
Americans will be living in the penturbs. . . .
Penturbs—the fifth region of opportunity—is the new frontier.
Jack Lessinger 

Go back to Chapter 17 – Community lost and found.
Go on to Chapter 19 – Services and taxes.
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