Visual Storytelling

In the Heart of America

The appeal for country living is getting stronger. Over the last couple years, more and more urban Americans have been fleeing to rural America. According to experts, if there is an increase in Americans moving from big cities to rural parts of the U.S., it will be a complete reversal from what has been the norm throughout American history. Many attribute the shift to rural living as a rejection to small apartments and a desire for wide-open spaces. But it goes much deeper than that. Small town America is where the American Dream is still alive and thriving. It is where first-time home buyers can afford to purchase land and house, namely because the drastic increase in home appreciation has been a phenomenon experienced exclusively in large metropolitan areas. It is where Americans can enjoy a slower pace of life, experience work-life balance, and watch their children run and play freely outdoors in their yard. It is also where community means everything. The lower population density of rural communities puts a greater focus on community impact. It is second nature for small-town Americans to roll up their sleeves and help their neighbor without question, to volunteer with local community programs to help maintain the town and to take pride in doing so, and to work together to safeguard the land and natural habitats. And while the lower populated areas may attract the urbanites due to financial liberation and land mass, the real appeal is the people in small towns who are doing big things. They are the heart of what makes our country so great. They are the heart of America.

Ten Sleep, WY: Population 260

Ten Sleep is infamously known as a "little western town with a big western heart."
It is a community rich in history, from the Northern Arapaho Tribe to cattle and sheep ranchers. In terms of sticking to its roots, the town hasn't changed much over the last 100 years. The majority of the original ranches are still intact, owned and operated by the same families. Legend has it that Ten Sleep got its name because whether you were traveling from Fort Laramie, Yellowstone, or Casper it would take you 10 days, or 10 sleeps, to get there.

Kraig Gossens, US Veteran and Welder from Ten Sleep, WY

Kraig Gossens, United States Veteran and Welder from Ten Sleep, WY.

The phrase "That's not my job" does not exist in Ten Sleep, WY. This is a volunteer-led town where every citizen wears multiple hats, and they do it without a second thought. From the town's local newspaper, the Ten Sleep Tribute, to the town's local and wildland firefighters-these important jobs come paycheck-free, operated exclusively by volunteers. The Ten Sleep Tribute is the glue that holds their community together. It is not only the town's trusted source of local news and current events but it is an important medium for preserving free speech. And the work of a firefighter is equal parts demanding and dangerous. Yet Ten Sleep volunteer firefighters donate their time, putting their lives on the line fighting fires as a second job, such as Brant Lyman who doubles as a working cowboy and volunteer firefighter.

Zariah June Whiteplume is a teenager whose tribal affiliation is Navajo and Northern Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation who donates her time advocating and raising awareness for the crisis of missing indigenous women.

Ord, NE: Population 2,310

The top two agricultural products of Nebraska are cattle and corn. Beef cattle can be found in every county in the state and Nebraska ranks third in the nation for corn production. The cattle ranchers and corn farmers in Ord, NE are among the most tenacious of them all. With family cattle ranching running generations deep, annual corn festivals, and Ord youth returning home from college to volunteer and give back to their community, Ord continues thriving.

Laddie Bruha is an eight-four-year-old retired corn field farmer who has lived in Ord, NE his entire life. In the eighth grade, Laddie began corn farming full-time forfeiting high school to work in the field. He walked us through how he picked corn by hand before automated machinery was available to him. Laddie and his wife of over sixty years live on the same farm Laddie grew up on, and he has taken pride in passing his knowledge down to his grandson Brandon Bruha, an active corn field farmer in Ord.

Natalie Kovarik and her husband Luke are cattle ranchers in Ord, NE who are passionate about land stewardship and regenerative agriculture. With their sons, they own and operate their first-generation family ranch, Kovarik Cattle Company, sourcing their knowledge and work ethic from their fifth-generation roots. Involved in agriculture their entire lives, Luke is the president of their local chapter's Nebraska cattle association, Nebraska Cattlemen, and Natalie is an entrepreneur, advocate for women in agriculture, and a first responder.

Chimacum, WA: Population 1,457

Chimacum, WA is located in the center of the primary agricultural area of the eastern Olympic Peninsula, on the out skirts of Port Townsend. The town was named after the Chimakum group of Indigenous Americans. While Chimacum has influences of city life, they maintain their identity and roots as an agricultural community with many farmsteads, farm-stand grocers, and farmers markets in town. We partnered with Travis Gillett, a photographer from the Olympic Peninsula to incorporate images into this piece through the lens of a town local.

Peter Mustin owns and operates Woodbrige Farms, 24 acres of land in the Chimacum Valley of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Peter acquired the farm in 2018 and named it after the wooden bridge he restored that functions as the main access road to his farm. Growing up in Philadelphia and spending his youth going in and out of prison, Peter's vision with his farm is not only to grow food and flowers but to serve as a place for community outreach and education for young people, including troubled youth.

Malloree Weilheimer is an SAF Certified Forester who specializes in forest management services in Port Townsend and serving the greater Olympic Peninsula. As the owner of Chickadee Forestry, a forest health consultation and management service, Malloree helps her clients make informed decisions to ensure the long term health and resiliency of their local forests. She believes that green space and natural landscapes are a key part of rural communities and she is dedicating her life to this focus.

At the heart of the small towns are people doing big things, a notion that extends to land and sea. Residents in the Olympic Peninsula, Mike Carr comes from a fifth-generation logging and fishing family who spends his time supporting the community in the harbor and Maria Melito divides her time between Alaska and the Olympic Peninsula as a merchant marine and an aquatic artist, creating works of art that capture the beauty of the wilderness that surrounds her.