Since we are largely rural here, there are some spots in Arkansas that fully qualify as The Middle of Nowhere. After all, our friends from beautiful, downtown Ben Hur have to travel 37 miles of mountainous roads to get to the county seat; and when they get there (Jasper), the town has a whopping population of 466.
Nothing in Arkansas, however, quite compares to western Nebraska. There we find a block of eight contiguous counties, none of which has a population of more than 763 - that is for the entire county. The smallest of the eight is Arthur County (pop. 460), which just happens to be the fifth-least populous county in the nation. The county seat (and only incorporated town) is Arthur, population 117. (County and town were named for President Chester A. Arthur.) The next-closest village is Martin, 25 miles to the south, with 92 whole residents.
Suffice it to say, there are not many folks out there. I suspect that “neighbor” is very much a relative term. When my daughter’s family lived in Lincoln, I thought on one visit that I might drive to Arthur, just so I could say I had been there. But I still had 300 miles to go from Lincoln, so I shelved that project.
People from a major city might come to Booneville or Charleston and ask snidely, “What do you people do around here?” You probably have heard that question. But really, what do you do in a town of 117, when you are the only town in the county? Naturally, people are resourceful, and they find entertainment just as pioneer families did generations ago. With modern electronics, it is not difficult. Youngsters out there probably spend their time enlarging their minds by doing what they do around here – playing with their cell phones.
Sports Illustrated did a video which featured the Arthur County High football team. The high school at that time had 34 students, of which 19 were boys, of which 16 were on their six-man football team. ESPN did a feature on Nebraska six-man football, which mentioned the travel times that the wide open spaces impose upon the teams. Five-hour trips to games were nothing unusual at that time (2008), because there were only thirteen six-man teams in the state.
I first encountered Arthur County in an article in National Geographic years ago. It brought out some of the problems that communities face when the population just completely dries up, for whatever reason. For instance, how do you keep the normal functions of society going? There are a certain number of governmental and educational positions that have to be filled, and some portion of the population are minors or elderly, who cannot fill them. If a large portion of the adults are in government, that does not leave many to be governed.
It does get cold in Arthur. The record low temperature is 35 below zero. Even in April, the record is nine below. The average annual snowfall is 33 inches. And, of course, you have that wind. But their record high is 113, so it also gets pretty warm.
Arthur County has a few claims to fame. Their courthouse is billed as the smallest ever built in the United States. It is the northernmost county in the nation in which a majority of the residents identify themselves as Baptist. And they do have a municipal airport, which handles about 25 flights per year.
Arthur may not be the easiest place in the country to live, but folks are still there, still getting on with their lives. I think they have earned a tip of the hat.