Picture of Jack Coffman

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Sweeping out the Plains

Text and photos by Jack Coffman and George Anthan In 1890, the federal Census Bureau announced that the nation’s frontier was closed. It’s opening up again. The great wave of population, which swept homesteaders onto the Northern Great Plains with the promise of free land and hope for a bright future around the turn of the last century, is sweeping back out again at the beginning of this one. A culture that has been central to the history of America’s westward expansion and whose virtues of simple living, honesty, hard work, and religious faith became the core of how the United States came to see itself, is close to disappearing. This accelerating ebb of population, which covers a vast swath of America from Central Montana to western Minnesota and southward through North Dakota, South Dakota, western Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, is leaving behind empty churches, abandoned farms, closed schoolhouses, empty storefronts, and struggling communities like so many conch shells on a beach. Those still living on the rural Northern Great Plains face a daily erosion

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