Clinging to hope in rural Oklahoma

Saturday, March 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKEENE, Okla. (AP) _ In a region where small farming communities dry up like rain in the red prairie dirt, Matt Dixon is staking a daring claim.

A year ago, the 39-year-old Dixon moved his family from suburban Los Angeles to start a dog biscuit company in a treeless field in his hometown of Okeene, population 1,240 and shrinking.

His return has folks abuzz. With the business and fresh jobs, Okeene improves its chances for survival as other farming towns fight for their lives.

``You have a small community that hasn't had too much going on and they see there's hope,'' said Grayson Bottom, a regional economic development director for Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

Twenty Oklahoma counties, mostly in the western part of the state, lost almost 5 percent of their combined population in the 1990s, according to census figures released this week. The population of Okeene, 65 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, dropped 8 percent.

Most young people move on to better opportunities in urban areas, their exodus contributing to a shrinking, aging population.

Coming back made sense, Dixon said from his new 35,000-square-foot building, erected with financing from private investors.

He can buy wheat, a key ingredient for the dog biscuits, from Oklahoma farmers. He also came back for sentimental reasons.

``Most people who go to school here and leave think it's an OK place, and I had to have thought that leaving the palm trees,'' Dixon said.

Larger western Oklahoma towns such as Guymon and Elk City have prospered from new food processing industries. Alva snared a pizza dough cooperative.

But smaller towns ebb away, the tiniest of them often memorialized by boarded-up convenience stores on the rolling prairie. Bottom said small towns also face a shrinking tax base to supplement state funding for economic development.

Okeene _ from the last four letters of Cherokee and the last two of Cheyenne _ still has a flour mill, hospital, nursing home and school that provide the bulk of local employment, along with a nearby United States Gypsum plant.

The community dedicated a wheat field as an industrial park a decade ago. But nothing happened until Dixon's Mountain Country Foods moved in.

Now, corporate hog farmer Seaboard Farms is putting in a feed mill next door. The two companies could employ more than 50 people in about a year and Dixon has plans for more growth soon.

No one is predicting a land rush like the one in 1892, when the town was founded. But new jobs could prevent Okeene from shriveling to a wide spot at the intersection of Oklahoma 51 and 8, site of the town's sole traffic light.

The town still has a variety store, grocery and the headquarters for a rattlesnake roundup, but other shops and a hotel have closed. Locals routinely trek up the highway to the Wal-Mart in Enid.

Farmers sell their land and leave because they can't make enough from low grain prices to get ahead on debt used to stay afloat in dry years. And many workers have abandoned the region's oil and gas fields after the last big bust in the 1980s.

Virginia Wilcox and her husband moved in from suburban Philadelphia five years ago. The Wilcoxes stayed at a local house that belonged to her daughter and son-in-law, an Enid physician, during a one-year sabbatical. They stayed so her husband could pastor a local church.

At first, the couple laughed at local newspaper stories about visits from relatives. But the small town's friendliness and security _ doors are routinely left unlocked _ were contagious.

``When we go back there now, we can't wait to get back here,'' said Wilcox, 64, who volunteers at the library.