The Pawnee City welcome sign
Pawnee City is the county seat of Pawnee County, which lost 76 percent of its population since 1900. The 2020 Census has already started in rural Alaska and will try to count every American as of April 1. Photo by Karissa Schmidt

On the edge of Pawnee City, population 824, wedged between an auto repair shop and miles of farmland sits a large tan building with a backyard filled with rows of grapevines. 

This building is home to SchillingBridge Winery & Microbrewery.

After graduation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mike Schilling came back to his hometown to start a family. With a degree in agriculture education, Schilling and his wife Sharon’s combined knowledge of agriculture business took them on several endeavors. 

Their latest venture is his favorite.

“We decided to move back to a small rural community years and years ago and raise a family,” he said. “We started to diversify by raising grapes and then decided that we could see a lot of advantages to having a winery.”

When Schilling left for college, he remembers Pawnee City filled with nearly 1,200 residents. Upon his return, he was greeted by a number closer to 800.

Schilling’s small-town experience is not exclusive to Pawnee City, though. 

In smaller places across the state, populations have been declining, some since the turn of the last century. A few places outside of the metropolitan areas in Nebraska have grown. And with the 2020 Census looming, questions about Nebraska’s demographics will soon have answers.

But some of those questions already have answers, and the trends have been the same for decades. 

Pawnee County, out of Nebraska’s 93 counties, has shown the greatest drop in population since 1900:

They’ve lost 76 percent of their population in that time. 

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The population of Pawnee was at its highest point in 1900 with 11,770 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Since 1900, the population has decreased, hitting 6,744 in 1950 and 3,087 in 2000. The population in 2010 was 2,773 and the current population is estimated at 2,641.

On the other end of the spectrum from Pawnee County is Sarpy County.  Located just south of Omaha, made up of rapidly developing towns like Papillion, Bellevue, La Vista, Springfield and Gretna, Sarpy has grown the most since the turn of the last century, growing more than 16,000 percent. 

In 1900, Sarpy had 9,080 residents and 15,693 in 1950. The population jumped to 122,595 in 2000 and continued to grow to 158,840 in 2010. The current estimated population is 181,439 — equal to the population of the 53 smallest Nebraska counties combined. Put another way, Sarpy has gone from 3.5 Pawnee Counties to almost 69.

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It is these changes in population that many researchers analyze to make predictions about the future of the state. 

David Drozd, research coordinator at the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska Omaha works directly with the data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. After 16 years in his current role, he considers himself to be a demographer, or an expert of the Census data, serving as a liaison to the Census Bureau.  

Drozd grew up in a rural town west of Columbus, so he feels that he understands the changes and challenges that rural Nebraska faces. Although some of his work is to help with these economic development issues, a majority of his work is compiling the data. 

Why conduct a census?

The first census was conducted in 1790 as mandated by the United States Constitution, just after the inauguration of President George Washington. The census survey included questions such as the respondent’s race, gender, information on the head of their household and the number of slaves they possessed, if any. 

Since 1790, the Census has been conducted every 10 years. The information collected in the Census is used for a number of reasons, one being the delegation of congressional seats for the House of Representatives. 

The data is also used for planning purposes, Drozd said, such as the aging of populations or to see diversity changes for specific ethnic or racial groups. 

Even with the decennial census collected, there is the possibility of issues with the count. 

“There’s always a kind of a trade-off between the timeliness of the data that’s released and how accurate it is, especially from surveys,” Drozd said. “The smaller the area, the broader the statistic has to be so that it’s accurate.”

Drozd has to take into account the components of the census that could be misleading. A number of residents could be counted twice if they are not in their right location — example:  college students who count themselves at home and at their college. There is also the possibility that residents ignore the census survey, missing their count altogether.

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A 2020 Census study found that on average, 30 percent of the United States population are extremely likely to fill out the census form. However, 5 percent of the population stated that they are “Not too likely” and 2 percent stated they are “Not at all likely” to fill out their form.

“Households or individuals have certain fears. Sometimes a general distrust of government, you know for prodding into people’s lives and having it be none of their business,” Drozd said.

Some do not fill out the census because they have anxiety over the repercussions of being an immigrant, Drozd said. This fear comes from the possibility of facing political persecution if this information is given. 

Other families simply forget to fill out the form. 

“You know other people just see it as junk mail or don’t have the time or whatever. So it just kind of gets lost in the shuffle of day to day life,” Drozd said.

To combat this, the Census Bureau will try to go back to households that have not yet completed the census and collect that information from personal interviews. 

The information provided in the census allows for projections about the population in the coming years. What Drozd found is that the overall population of the state of Nebraska is increasing. Yet, the increase in numbers come from the urban populations, with rural populations on a decline or plateau. 

It’s not all about a decline in population

Brian Depew, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, works with rural communities on several levels, including community development, policy changes that might help rural places and helping businesses get started. 

Although Depew’s work is with rural communities and their population sizes, his work goes beyond analyzing the number of people.

“There is no question about the demographic trends in Nebraska, Greater Nebraska, and also the Midwest and Great Plains around shrinking populations,” Depew said. “One of the things I’ve come to learn, though, is to separate community vibrancy from community size.”

Depew and the Center for Rural Affairs’ work focuses on the vibrancy, or pride, that a community holds. The available infrastructure like education, health care and businesses are all important factors of thriving, prideful populations. Taking into account that population changes are likely, if not inevitable, Depew finds that the vibrancy of a community is a better criteria to judge a town on. 

“There’s a narrative that declining population means declining community and I don’t think it has to mean that,” Depew said. “And the truth of the matter is, a lot of communities — small communities in this part of the country — are not likely to grow and are not likely to return to the populations that they once were.” 

With his work, Depew tries to stress the importance of measuring communities not solely by their population size but by the health of the community overall.

Pawnee County is still alive

Even after 35 years of living there, Pawnee City library director Lola Seitc said she will live in Pawnee County until she retires. However, she realizes that many of her neighbors do not have this same goal.

“You see some things grow. You also see lots of things leave,” Seitc said. “You know, our numbers are going down in this area, both county-wide and city-wide.”

Seitc does her best to make the library a hub for the town, a place for Pawnee City residents to visit. She hosts a summer reading program that awards the children with ‘bucks’ that let them shop in the library store. 

She also arranges competitions between the grade levels with surrounding schools. Other initiatives with the library include storytime for the pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners and the accelerated reading program for all age groups. 

The decreasing population of the town means a decreasing population in the schools, which often means budget cuts due to a lack of incoming funds.  

“We try to work with them as often as we can … I know that sometimes their budgets get cut, and [the library] is the first place they’re going to cut,” Seitc said. “So I’m saying [to the schools], ‘Talk to me, tell me what you need and I’ll try to get it here at the library so the kids still have the opportunity.’” 

The library has helped the community by providing a place to play games, do research and support the schools. A large component of the library is the computer lab, which Seitc said is important since not everyone can afford to pay for their own internet. Seitc shapes the library around this collective community feeling.

Duane Westing enjoys living in Pawnee City for that very reason. Westing was on the Pawnee City council for four years and was the mayor for eight.  Now, as the pastor of the First Christian Church and United Presbyterian — the combination of two churches — Westing’s favorite part about Pawnee City is its residents.

“I just kind of fell in love with the people. I’m actually going to be 70 — I’m going to retire a year from now. I’ve been here 20 years. I’m a Democrat in a Republican area,” he said. “I think I appreciate that about the town. We can disagree, but we can still be friends.”

The tours that saved the town

Yvonne Dalluge, Pawnee City Historical Society & Museum supervisor, attributes the decline in population to the lack of housing in the county and believes it to be part of the reason for the unwillingness of people to move back to the town.

“There are only a few decent houses. The rest, people have left and moved out so they are falling apart,” Dalluge said. “The city tried to take care of these houses but it costs a lot of money to repair them.”

With this in mind, Dalluge brought about her own initiatives to bring money into the town. 

The Pawnee City Historical Society & Museum has always been a big part of tourism. Before Dalluge took over, the museum had just 15 buildings that needed some work, she said. After some fundraising and work on the buildings, there now stands 22 buildings on a plot of land that holds the history of Pawnee City within its walls. 

The biggest contribution Dallgue believes she brings to the town are the bus tours that take visitors around the county. 

The idea of leading these tours came from a vacation in northern Australia. Dalluge and her husband paid $100 each for an aborigines tour, a bus that took them out to an area to observe aboriginal dance and food. It was the experience Dalluge had on the tour that sparked the idea to create a similar tour for Pawnee County. 

The first two buses came through Pawnee County in 1994 and they have been increasing in size ever since. She takes the tourists to the different charming spots in Pawnee City, such as local businesses, museums, murals and even out of town to visit the Amish communities.

Over the course of 25 years, Dalluge estimates she brought in roughly $83,000 through her bus tours. While she believes many residents of Pawnee City don’t see the point of these tours, Dallgue stresses the importance of bringing in outside money rather than just exchanging money in the community. 

Even with the growing popularity of these tours, she recognizes the town still has a lot of needed improvements and added attractions to urge tourists to visit again. 

“You just have to keep hoping that you’ve got new things opening up all the time because if they’ve been here once and it’s the same people coming back, they don’t want to see the same exact thing again,” Dalluge said.

Residents of Pawnee County — Pawnee City in particular — have been making efforts to update the town by rebuilding businesses. 

Both Dalluge and Seitc have been involved with the Pawnee County Promotional Network (PCPN), a 501(c)(3) foundation that has helped the six towns in Pawnee County for over 25 years. The PCPN works to improve Pawnee County by “promoting tourism, economic development, historic preservation, cultural events and educational projects,” according to its website.

“Sometimes you kind of wrap your head on what you can do for some small towns that don’t have a lot,” Seitc said.

What started with the renovation of the Harold Lloyd House in Burchard, Nebraska turned into several initiatives by the PCPN to support the county.

Dalluge and her husband worked with the PCPN to plant flowers along Highway 50 in Pawnee County. She also worked to create placemats with notable spots in the county to sell as a fundraiser. These fundraisers include anything from spaghetti dinners to pancake feeds.

“The churches all have fundraisers … if we didn’t have everybody do that, everything would just fall apart,” Dalluge said. “You wouldn’t be able to have these buildings or, you know, keep everything going.”

These initiatives by the PCPN and the communities of Pawnee County are what help the county thrive, Dalluge said. Seitc, however, is thankful for the infrastructure Pawnee City provides.

“You know this town’s very fortunate it has two banks yet, only one gas station and Burchard still has a gas station,” Seitc said.

The heart of a small town

The charm of small-town living is often the community of people and what makes up the streets. Local businesses can play a big role in this. Groceries stores can be a place of friendly conversations and meeting others in the town. 

Support of these local businesses can be crucial in helping the town compete against larger stores in urbanized areas. 

“I like the intimacy of a small community,” Depew said. “I like the fact that our main street is dominated by small businesses instead of by big-box retailers.”

The Center for Rural Affairs notes that local grocery stores are not just a preference of some, but can benefit the entire town. Customers who choose local stores over large corporations are helping keep the money in their town, along with providing jobs and tax revenue. Towns that still have their local businesses can also help attract new residents. Local stores also ensure that residents have access to fresh, healthy food.

This decision between buying locally or driving several miles to a larger store with cheaper prices is one that many small-town residents must make. However, it’s not always easy.

“It’s not really cheaper to live here. Because in your small stores and stuff here, their prices aren’t as reasonable. So the cost is up there for that,” Seitc said.

When populations decline, there are fewer residents to shop at local businesses, which Drozd considers this to be a “vicious downward spiral.” He notes that when populations are growing, there is increased demand for goods at local businesses. 

Some owners rely on residents from out of town to stay in businesses. Even with a successful microbrewery like Schilling’s, he notes his business depends on customers from out of town. He estimates that about 98 percent of his customers come from bigger cities like Lincoln and Omaha. 

“Populations decrease like pretty much every rural community, every year. Within a few miles of the metropolitan area here, you’re in a decline,” Schilling said. “[The microbrewery] brings people in, brings income into our community.”

Funerals and babies are predictors of changes to come

For a number of communities, the changes in population over time is attributed to the ratios of younger generations leaving, along with the deaths of the older generation, according to Drozd. The reality for many small towns is the youth don’t always come back after they leave for college. 

“[Towns] are just going to be fighting that dynamic of having young people leave and then not come back,” Drozd said. “That’s the way it’s been over the last several decades, and while there’s a lot of effort to try to retain and attract new people to the rural areas, they just have not been able to fully counter that outflow of people for college.”

When conducting the census, college students are instructed to count themselves at their college, or the location that they “live and sleep most of the time,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau website. This includes students who are visiting home during the time of the census.

This can be seen in counties like Wayne County, the home of Wayne State University. Unlike other rural areas, Wayne County has seen a fluctuating population over the decades, which mirrors the university’s student population changes.  

Wayne County is an outlier in the data — the infusion of young people makes it very different from other rural counties. But many rural counties send their young people to college, only to see them not come back. To combat this, many residents, like Seitc, feel the need to find ways to bring students home. 

“‘What is the incentive that we can do to bring him back?’ You can think you can come up with the idea and you think you can get that interest,” Seitc said. “But in the long run, you know, they’re going to turn around and leave. It’s just hard to bring them in and keep them.”

Besides college students and the chances they come back to their hometowns, Drozd said the number of funerals is a factor in population changes. He refers to this as the birth to death ratio. A high birth to death ratio means that for every death there is an equal or greater amount of births to level out the population. Areas with a low birth to death ratio, or more deaths than births, are likely to have a decrease in population over time. 

Some rural counties, particularly the counties south of larger areas like Lancaster County like Johnson, Pawnee, Nemaha and Richardson counties, are experiencing an extremely low ratio, Drozd said.

“They have not had, as a group, births exceed deaths since the baby boom ended in 1964,” Drozd said. “So, that is like 55 straight years of what we call natural loss, or death succeeding birth, so that area has literally died out. 

“Not figuratively it has literally died out.”

Populations change, but the reasons can vary

However, while factoring in the birth to death ratio, Drozd also takes into account the in-migration and out-migration of residents. He defines out-migration as residents who leave the county to other parts of the state or country and in-migration as residents moving in. Because of this, Drozd sees migration as a “wild card” with no set answer.

From 2000 to 2010 and 2010 to 2018, the urban areas of Nebraska like Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney experienced large quantities of in-migration. Of the 93 Nebraskan counties, only nine of them have more people moving into them than out consistently.NE County 2018 Vintage NetMigr image 1024x791 - "It's just hard to bring them in and keep them."

Because of its unpredictability and varying factors, Drozd describes the combination of the deaths to births ratio and the outmigration of people as a “double whammy.” 

Depew “does not try to predict the future” but said he expects the population trends to change throughout the next decade or two. Some of his own knowledge stems from the work of Ben Winchester, a Minnesotan demographer. Depew finds interest in what Winchester defines as the “boomerang generation” or the “brain gain.”

“Now even in some communities where the populations have declined decade over decade, there is a larger than anticipated number of 30-year-olds in those communities,” Depew said in reference to Winchester’s work. “[Winchester] hypothesizes that people are returning to rural communities when they decide to have a family and raise kids.”

What the future holds

The future can be a mystery, but researchers like Drozd do their best to make predictions based on past trends. 

“When we do population projections, it’s always hard to try to predict the future,” Drozd said. “But we can take a look at what happened in the past, and then say ‘OK, well if these past events have happened, or continue to happen as they have in the past, here’s what we expect to happen.’”

The overall state population is projected to be around 1,943,452 in 2020, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research’s Nebraska County Population Projections. This number is estimated based on past data and the current population of the age groups. 

“[The data isn’t] always going to be perfect, but it does give us the best sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Drozd said.

Throughout his work, Depew has learned it isn’t always easy to make predictions about the future. 

“Rural areas are complicated. There’s rural areas that are in decline, and there are areas that are not in decline, just like urban areas,” Depew said. “Whatever happened in the last 20 or 30 years, it doesn’t necessarily predict what’s going to happen in the next 20 years.”          

At the turn of the decade, the 2020 Census will bring out more data and information to make projections about the future of Nebraska. Behind each set of numbers is a community of Nebraskans. For a county like Pawnee and many other rural communities, Depew believes it is not the population that defines the town, but its people.    

“What I’ve learned to do is focus our work through a vibrancy lens and ask, what do these communities need to be vibrant at the size they are now,” Depew said. “Think about community success through a vibrancy lens rather than through population growth.”

Senior journalism and sports media communications major from Shawnee, Kansas