Vienna Lee reckons there hasn't been a new home built in Rolla in at least a decade.
"It may have been 15 years ago," she says of the town of 400, which is in the semiarid plains of Morton County in the far southwestern corner of Kansas.
Rolla is about a 45-minute drive from the closest "big" city of Guymon, Okla., which has a population of more than 10,000 people. And it's in these parts that the blowing dirt of the 1930s caused some in the heart of the Dust Bowl to move away.
On Black Sunday in 1935, a man climbed to the top of the Rolla water tower and took a picture of the billowing cloud of dust that was heading toward town. He then sent it to the president of the United States, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum.
"Dear Mr. Roosevelt, Darkness came when it hit us. Picture taken from the water tower one hundred feet high. Yours Truly, Chas P. Williams."
That, however, was more than 75 years ago.
There are few dark days in Rolla, except when an occasional storm cloud rolls in. Moreover, folks here are investing in growth, says Lee, the county's economic development director.
Morton County resident David Light donated 10 lots inside the Rolla city limits a few years back to give away free to anyone who would build a home there. Then he went to the bank and asked officials to set aside $1 million in financing.
Meanwhile, the county commission extended its tax increment financing to include new homes, Lee said.
The effort is comparable to what a few other communities across Kansas are trying - luring residents to town with free land if they build and maintain their property. It also, in essence, echoes the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered pioneers ownership of a quarter section if they improved the land.
The goal is to attract residents and businesses to rural communities in an effort to boost population and support small-town businesses and schools.
City officials now have one taker, Lee said. The new home being built by Jason Larue, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent, and his family, is 30 days from competition.
"We have nine lots left," Lee said. "It has been so exciting. I know other small communities have given away land, but I didn't know how successful it would be for us."
The venture could also help sustain the town's Class 1A school, she added.
Rolla is not the only town in the county benefiting from rural reinvestment. Morton County took advantage of Gov. Sam Brownback's Rural Opportunity Zone program that helps repay student loans to those who move into a designated county. Elkhart, the county seat town with a population of 2,200, now has a new physical therapist at the county hospital, Lee said.
"This definitely helps" rural Kansas, Lee said. "Any incentives we can offer that people can take advantage of are an asset."
Those interested in the free lot program can call the city at (620) 593-4777 or visit www.rollakansas.com.
Other revival efforts
Community efforts across Kansas Across Kansas, other towns are finding ways to stop decline and stay viable.
Here are a few of the efforts.
"Check out the Neighborhood Nook," says Mark Goehring, executive vice president of the Farmers State Bank in Oakley, population 2,000, of a new eatery in his city, noting it has good eats as well as homemade pie and ice cream.
Those stopping by the city also should see the student-run theater, Goehring said. The Palace Theatre closed in 2001 and remained closed until 2003, when community members purchased it. Each year, a new group of seniors takes over the theater management. This year, 11 students are involved in accounting, ordering supplies, advertising, paying bills, and employment. They are learning the skills it takes to run a business.
In 2009, the Palace switched to digital and can now play 3D movies.
In the Graham County town of Morland, population 160, the Morland Community Foundation is in the process of reopening a closed rural grocery store. The old store building has been renovated. The original hardwood floors and tin ceilings are still in place. Morland lost its grocery store in 2006 when its owners retired and closed the store.
Morland Community Foundation President Faye Minium said volunteers are still working to get refrigeration equipment installed in the building. Then they will begin to look for a manager.
"We're in hopes we can be open sometime in the second quarter" this year, she said.