My hometown. If you've found your way to this page and you're from Joplin or the Hi-Line, leave a comment and say hi. I found this essay in the county library. It was written in 1988 by Karen Johnson-McWilliams who grew up in Joplin and left sometime in the early 70s:
BIGGEST LITTLE TOWN ON EARTH
By Karen Johnson-McWilliams
From the time a motorist sees the sign "The Biggest Little Town on Earth" until the sign disappears behind the taillights of the car, about seven to ten seconds will pass. If he's inclined, the driver can look over the half mile or so of wheat field to the four grain elevators dwarfing a few scattered and almost hidden buildings. But there's little inducement. Nothing sets this particular tiny town off from the string of other tiny towns along U.S. 2, all nearly colorless except for those rare times when nature looses her stranglehold of arid bleakness on northern Montana.
And even if he lets his curiosity get the better of him, the motorist would see little to pique his interest: a bumpy railroad crossing with a set of security gates, an ancient depot, patches of knee-deep weeds, two service stations, the inevitable bar, a tiny general store looking everyday it's age, an almost hidden post office, a school and football field, and a single church. The few scattered houses are of rather uncertain architecture: some very old with numerous add-ons, a few new doublewides planted in former wheat fields by children of the children of the oldest occupants of Joplin, my hometown.
Those occupants are noticeably absent from the streets, for the most part. Censuses place the population at 200 or so. I know that more live there in the winter when the farmers from near the Canadian border move into town so their children won't have to face hour-to-hour-and-a-half bus rides in sub-zero temperatures, huddled in blankets going to and from school in the dark. Sports also call the farm families in, and bring the most stir the town ever sees. But mostly, if a visitor wants to see a gathering of locals, he'll have to go to Bill's Big Sky Husky. There he can listen to the farmers swapping stories about crops or equipment, local sports or weather, to the accompaniment of the noises from the shop and the clanking of dishes from a small restaurant in the rear. It's a quiet town with a barely perceptible pulse, not sleepy like a conventionalized Southern town, more absent, it's energies channeled outward to the mile-after-mile checkerboard of farmland.
In that land and in the lives of the three and sometimes four generations of people who live to make that land something other that a giant grass field lies the peculiarity of the town. It's purpose is to fuel folks in their task--give them groceries and mail, supply them with petro-chemicals, store and ship their grain, and offer education for the next generation of farmers.
A few of that next generation will find Joplin a deadly place from which escape becomes a desperate desire. Some will find it a haven and a home. Most will find it too small for any employment or for their ambitions. I was among this last group. Since my family didn't need me to tie myself to the farm, I sought life elsewhere, quite ill-prepared for a larger world.
In the ensuing eighteen years, I've lived in towns of thousands and cities of millions and missed the friendship of the hundred I grew up with. As a human among teeming humans, I've been passed with less concern that the farmers give rocks, and I long for the mutual respect, the genuine pleasure in seeing another person that was a part of my childhood. I've read countless books and studied history for three successively higher degrees, yet I still treasure the history I learned from my grandmother and the other homesteaders who tackled the empty plains with little more than a cow, a couple of chickens, a wagon full of boards and nails, and sheer grit and determination of the sort that will always inspire me.
In short, I know what a casual visitor to the town might never find out: that an invisible magnet of concern and love tie those scattered people into a sort of huge extended family, of which, in spirit, I am still part. I feel loyalty and a fondness that extend both ways, an exclusive bone that only a long-time resident--or past resident--can have. It's a sense of base that a coast-to-coast wanderer like me finds stabilizing. And because time has nearly forgotten Joplin, it's a sense that I can revitalize with a visit, though the faces are older and small residents eye me with the look reserved for outsiders.
In the quiet dusty streets, I can relive incidents with very little new to jar them. In an age of too much change, I can know that my roots go deep and remain strong, tied to a people not easily blighted by hardships, barrenness, and reverses. It's a comfort stronger perhaps because of my absence from Joplin's daily trivialities and trials. It's a sense of home that stays with me however far I wander from Joplin.