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Arts and Culture

Podcast Gives Life To Dying Towns, Stories Across American West

A wide image of a ghost town.
Noah Glick
/
KUNR Public Radio
Bodie, Cali. is one of many ghost towns scattered throughout the American West, representing former bustling towns that are now left lifeless.

Ghost towns are a common sight across Nevada and the American West. Now, a podcast from the region is exploring what those towns mean to our identity and culture.

Melodie Edwards is the producer and host of the Modern West podcast, produced by Wyoming Public Media and PRX, and she spoke with KUNR Morning Edition host Noah Glick about the project.

Noah Glick: Tell me a little bit about the podcast. What is the show about, and what are you exploring here?

Melodie Edwards: The podcast is about my hometown of Walden, Colo., and about how since I was a kid growing up in the 80s, my hometown has shrunk almost in half. When we first moved there back in the 70s, it was a bustling little town. We had a sawmill, we had a coal mine, the timber industry was going gangbusters.

Over the course of the last few decades, all of those things have kind of just passed away. So, it’s left the town really struggling. I use my hometown as an example of the kind of thing that’s happening in all sorts of towns all across the American West: Small towns that are really struggling economically, and how that’s led to a lot of rural despair, mental health problems, and all sorts of other social issues.

The question that I start with at the beginning of the podcast is, “Is it worth trying to save these towns, or do they, sort of, deserve to die?” Some people have said, “Some of these towns, well, they didn’t diversify their economy, they let the boom and bust cycle hit them, and so maybe it’s ok if they die.”

So, I’m just asking that question, whether or not these towns are worth saving and what it is that they do for American society, small town life. What is it that is valuable?

Glick: What have you learned so far, just in some of your reporting and some of the work you’ve done? What are people in some of these towns saying?

Edwards: It’s kind of amazing because these little towns really have a will to survive. And I’m really starting to see that there is kind of a movement that I don’t think we’re seeing or hearing about very much that there is in these small towns, just lots of people working very hard to save their hometowns. And they want to save them because they do represent what home means.

I think that all of us have roots in some small town someplace. In our history of America, we all came from a small town. And so, that history is really valuable to us.

Glick: The theme of the podcast is ghost towns, so how would you distinguish between a ghost town – which I think most people probably picture this desolate, empty space – versus some of these smaller towns that still have people, community? When does it cross the line into a ghost town?

Edwards: I interviewed an economics historian, Samuel Western, and he gave this really great definition of what a ghost town is. He said that a town becomes a ghost town when it loses its school and when it loses its Post Office. So, I started with that definition at the beginning of the podcast, and over the course of the podcast, I kind of came to some realizations. There’s at least one other thing I’d like to add to that, and that is a newspaper.

I think that a small town newspaper, when that shuts down, that also is a sign that a town is ghost towning.

So, for instance, in my hometown of Walden, Colo., the Post Office is fine, but my elementary school is boarded up. There [are] just hardly any families, and the town is aging rapidly. We have, in my county, there is the highest number of people per capita over 90 than in any other county in the state of Colorado. So, it’s aging rapidly, and the number of kids is shrinking rapidly at the same time. So, that is a big sign that a town is starting to ghost town.

You can listen to full episodes of the Modern West podcast at themodernwest.org, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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