Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ties That Bind


Things keep changing up home. Populations shrink, those that stay are farther apart geographically, but the ties that bind are as close as ever...

Little Powerhouse on the Prairie
New York Times 12 Sep 2007

The northwestern Minnesota towns of Stephen and Argyle, populations 708 and 656 respectively, are separated by nine flat miles of soybean and wheat. The highest point between them is the mounded dirt that elevates the railroad tracks connecting their grain elevators. Since consolidating their schools in 1996, they have dominated nine-man football, never missing a state semifinal.

With a state-record winning streak and four consecutive nine-man state championships, the Stephen/Argyle Central Storm has the characteristics of a high school football powerhouse. Carrying the weight of two small, declining farming towns on its shoulders, the team also manifests much larger challenges confronting towns like these throughout the Midwest.

The impact of changing demographics and farming technology in this region is apparent in the student body and, on Friday nights, on the football field.

Consolidation has brought Stephen and Argyle football glory, but the towns are shrinking and growing older. The average age in Marshall County, home to Stephen and Argyle, is 40, 10 years older than the state average. Almost a fifth of the population exceeds the age of 65, a 50 percent jump above the state average.

''It's young people moving off the prairie and into the city,'' said Tom Gillaspy, the state's demographer.

The change is seen most starkly in the school populations. The Stephen/Argyle student body for 7th through 12th grade was 50 percent larger a decade ago, falling to about 180 from 270. It is no different in other rural towns in Minnesota.

''Boy, there's just so many school districts with multiple names,'' Gillaspy said. ''You get to the point where you start adding three names, or four names, and then they become initials, or a region, like Norman County West, and eventually it will just be Norman County.''

One of Stephen/Argyle's biggest rivals is Kittson County Central, composed of Lancaster and Kittson Central, which is a combination of the towns of Hallock, Kennedy, Humboldt and St. Vincent.

In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner said the American frontier was closed. But, as the Great Plains Restoration Council pointed out, west of the Mississippi River, the number of counties with six people or fewer per square mile has increased, from 388 in 1980, to 397 in 1990, to 402 in 2000.

''Many places are turning back to frontier,'' Gillaspy said.

Just after dawn in Argyle one day in August, with the lights still on and the northern Minnesota fog hanging over the practice field and the wheat stubble that spreads beyond it for miles, offensive lineman Kolby Gruhot crouched his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame into a three-point stance. The fingertips of his calloused right hand dug into wet grass. His right calf extended to a prepped foot ready to push off, and where his left calf would be, a metal rod picked up dew before disappearing into Gruhot's black cleat. Having lost part of his left leg in a lawn mower accident when he was 3, Gruhot wears a prosthesis below his knee.

After the cadence, he sprung up, blocked a defensive end and barreled ahead. The rod revealed itself only after his sprint, on his way back to the huddle, in a slightly leaned gait that looked something like a strut.

When Gruhot opens holes on the line for the senior running back Kyle Gratzek, he leaves him with something like frontier to run through: up to 99 yards of short grass and only five men to the goal.

Nine-man football is the province of small towns in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. ''It's simple,'' said Nic Thompson, the Storm's defensive back coach. ''Nine-man just doesn't have tackles.''

In Minnesota, it began in the mid-1960s after teams evolved from six- and eight-man football. Now, with 81 teams, it represents the state's largest class. To qualify, high schools need to have fewer than 165 students. Stephen/Argyle Central has 111, 68 of whom are boys.

''Good for football,'' Coach Mark Kroulik said. ''Tough for finding a prom date.''

Three quarters of those boys play football. ''That is why they're winning: They're not missing an athlete,'' the former coach Warren Keller said. ''And even if you don't play, you're still a part of the team.''

Gruhot embodies the power football that defines the school's success on the field and the hard work that defines its agricultural traditions off it. The Storm pounds the ball. In last year's state championship victory over Wheaton, the team threw one pass and ran the ball 61 times for 380 yards.

And so during a recent morning practice, with temperatures in the mid-60s, the players finished sprints and sit-ups and started blocking drills.

''We'd start an after-school practice with 30 and end up with 13,'' said Al Larson, who coached Argyle from 1965 to 1977, when many of the students had farming chores in the afternoons and evenings. ''Their dads would drive up in a pickup and wave, and they'd be gone.

''I sat the kids down and said, 'Figure out when we can practice,' '' he said. ''They said, 'In the morning.' ''

When school is in session, the players hit the field before 6 a.m., even though only a third of them still work on farms. The coaches like the morning practices, they say, because the players are not thinking about girls yet. The parents like them because their kids go to bed early.

''A couple of guys have hit deer,'' Kroulik said. ''But other than that they work out really well.''

On Aug. 21, Gruhot left the practice field at 11:30 a.m., then showered, grabbed a sandwich and drove a combine until 10 p.m. ''I'm helping out my neighbor,'' he said.

On the few thousand acres where his family farms wheat, sugar beets, soybeans and corn, he drives a combine, a tractor, a plow and a mower.

''You get pretty tired after practice,'' Gruhot said. ''And we don't have autosteer in our combines, but one of our tractors has a G.P.S. with autosteer. That's pretty nice after practice because you can just sit there, hit a button and listen to the radio.''

Technology has changed the family farm. Fertilizers provide nutrients to allow plants to grow bigger and more quickly. Genetically altered crops allow spraying that kills everything but the plants.

The families that run farms have become smaller because less manual labor is needed to bring in the crops. There are fewer families around since the farms have increased in size and decreased in number. In the last 30-plus years, the number of farms in Minnesota has decreased to 80,000 from almost 100,000.

''When this county was opened up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they homesteaded 160 acres,'' said Howard Person, the county extension educator. ''Now if you are just going to raise crops, you better own at least 2,000 acres.''

Though consolidation is most visible in the schools, it has affected every aspect of rural life. ''It's the same thing that's happening with everybody that supplies to farms, from machinery dealers to fertilizer dealers,'' Person said. ''They become regionally owned.''

The stresses of decline are alleviated by football championships. [Stephen/Argyle is 2-0 this season, extending its winning streak to 56 games on Sept. 7 with a 41-14 victory over Red Lake County Central.]

''Parents call and want to know when the state playoffs are, because they are planning their fall,'' Kroulik said. ''And I say, well, we got to win first.''

At the end of practice, Kroulik called the team together. He closed with a statement that suggested that the tradition of winning here has less to do with the fame of Friday night lights than the hard work of weekday morning lights.

''Good job today, but we still have a lot of stuff we need to clean up and do,'' Kroulik said. ''We'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning.''
The year after this article was in the New York Times, the Bearcats were in the state playoffs.