Preston, Kansas USA
Who are you and what do you do?
'I was born in Great Bend, Kansas, about fifty miles from Preston but my parents and I moved to Preston when I was two years old. I married a local young farmer when I was eighteen years old and we were together for sixty years until his passing in 2013. I was a farm wife, school teacher and I gave piano lessons for over fifty years. As I said, my husband is deceased but I still live on the farm.
My paternal grandfather moved here in the late 1890s and my father was born on this farm. After my grandparents moved from the farm, the house and land were rented for twenty-five years while my father ran grain elevators in the area and the Preston grocery & hardware store during WWII. After the war, my father moved us from Preston to the farm two miles away, when I was twelve. After I was married, my husband and I built a house about one-hundred yards from my parents. All of the farm and pasture land that I own is rented out to other (younger!) farmers.'
Why do you choose to live in Preston?
'This is home and I do not want to leave the farm or the area. I've told my children I will move when I can't drive any more. This is where I am most comfortable.'
What's your favourite place in Preston and why?
'My favorite place in Preston is the one that exists in my memories, from a time when we had many friends and family in the area and the town was self-sustaining.'
What is Preston proud of?
'Preston used to be a thriving community. In the 1940s I remember three grocery stores, two hardware stores, a drug store, a doctor, three gas stations, two restaurants, three churches, a beer hall and two establishments to purchase grain. Preston was built at the crossroads of two major rail lines: the Rock Island and the Missouri Pacific. In the early days of the town, a farmer could raise a family on a quarter (160 acres) of land. The area surrounding Preston was also thriving with several small school houses and churches within ten miles of town. You could say that Preston was the hub of our own little farming ecosystem. Now we only have two self serve gas pumps and a grain elevator that is only open during the harvest seasons. We have a small storefront church that has an attendance of ten or so each Sunday. Other than that, we have no remaining businesses in Preston proper.
We have an annual event that keeps those memories alive. We still have a high school alumni reunion for Preston High School even though the school closed in 1966 for lack of students. We have met for seventy-eight years, although not in 2020 because of the virus. Anyone who ever attended (or would have attended) school in Preston is invited. Our high school closed in 1966 and the grade school shut in 1974. Most of the school age children attend in Pratt, the county seat about twelve miles away. Our school alumni always meets on the last weekend of May, Memorial Day weekend. As we were a small school, everyone knows everyone. We all get together to swap the same old stories, discuss failing body parts, and catch up on the obituaries from the prior year.'
Tell us something about Preston that people won't know?
'The last big thing to happen in Preston was our big centennial celebration in 1987. Main Street (one block long) was packed with people. We had a parade. We played games. We had lunch for everyone. We had a live band playing music and lots of time for visiting and seeing old friends. This was the last 'big hurrah' for our little town.
The story of Preston can be summarised as the end result of agriculture automation. As I stated above, one farmer used to be able to raise a family on 160 acres. The family would typically have some livestock, chickens, and raise grain to sell for cash. In turn, all of those families relied on towns like Preston to have hardware stores, grocery stores, churches, entertainment venues, etc. As agriculture machinery got bigger, more powerful and more reliable, a single farmer could manage thousands of acres without much help. The big farmers got bigger and the small farmers got squeezed out. As our rural population collapsed, towns like Preston went with them.
Most of the people that live in Preston today work elsewhere. All of the old churches have been torn down and the school building is in a terrible state of disrepair and should be demolished as well. The automation and ease of travel took away the need for local connection that bound our little community together.
I am still happy where I am. I have an abundance of friends and social media allows me to stay connected with those that have moved away. I expect that little towns like Preston will continue to fade away but the memories will stay with us.'