RURAL HATTON, N.D.-Mike Littlefield was 34 when he settled in Hatton 24 years ago. That was the 35th move in his life.
The retired Air Force major is a satellite automotive technology teacher for Grand Forks' Red River High School who has worked in Hatton, Northwood and Mayville. His family tree is rooted in farming, and he enjoys the quietness of country life.
At any time, Littlefield and his wife can turn off the lights and look at the stars with no interference from city lights.
"Isn't this nice?" the 58-year-old veteran asked as he told stories of his career and life. "If you want to have some peace and quiet, you can sit on the porch, and you don't have the neighbor next door tuning up his hot rod ... or the kid down the block playing his stereo as loud as he can."
The percentage of total residents living in rural areas, like most of the Midwest, has declined over the years. The U.S. Census estimates rural areas make up 97 percent of the nation's land area, but only 19.3 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas. The portion of rural residents has declined since 1900, when 60.4 percent of U.S. residents lived in rural areas.
It's important to put those numbers in context, said Benjamin Winchester, an authority on rural populations and behaviors from the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Until about six years ago, he said, the actual number of people living in rural areas typically increased in recent decades, and he encouraged people to look at all data before grabbing numbers that fit one narative-the rural drain theory.
"I think a lot of people have this common idea that rural areas are dying," he said. "Yes, we have gone through significant changes, but ... we tend to be drawn to interpreting data in certain ways."
Percents versus population
In 2010, about 59.5 million people lived in rural areas in the nation, an 11 percent increase from 53.6 million in 1970, according to his presentations. However, the rate of growth of cities grew faster, with the total U.S. population jumping from about 203 million in 1970 to nearly 309 million in 2010.
That meant the percentage of people living in rural areas decreased from 26 percent to 19 percent in the four-decade period.
Though not as pronounced, rural population estimates in North Dakota have stayed stagnant for the most part, according to numbers from the state Department of Commerce. The sharpest drop came from 1990 to 2000, when the rural population fell from 185,857 to 170,527.
The numbers have gone up and down since then, with 2016 estimates putting the state's rural population at 198,941. The state's city population went from about 453,000 in 1990 to an estimated 586,452.
Since 2002, North Dakota's population increased every year except in 2017, when it lost about 155 people, according to census estimates. That means the state has about 755,400 people, according to a news release from the census.
The census describes an area with fewer than 2,500 residents as rural, said Kevin Iverson, a U.S. Census Bureau manager for North Dakota. The census reported 78 North Dakota cities gained residents, 275 lost people and four remained the same from 1990 to 2015.
"The losses tend to be small, the gains tend to be big," Iverson said. "The growth has tended to be in the urban areas more than the rural areas."
North Dakota has 53 counties, 39 of which are considered completely rural-fewer than 2,500 residents, according to the five-year estimates from 2015. Grand Forks, Cass, Ramsey, Burleigh, Morton, Stark, Williams, Ward, Pierce, Stutsman and Barnes counties are considered mostly urban-more than 50,000 residents.
Four cities in North Dakota have dissolved in North Dakota since 1990, Iverson said. Still, there are small cities with governments.
"One of the cities listed has an estimated population of two people," he said. "I'm not sure what is going to be downtown."
The notion that rural areas are dying based on percentages doesn't tell the whole story, Winchester said. It's easier to notice people and businesses leaving smaller communities, he added.
"We have found that there has been a pretty consistent pattern of people in their 30s, 40s and 50s moving to rural communities," he said.
But he said cities need to change from the mindset of losing young residents and look at who they are trying to attract, like young families. Recruitment and quality of life should be prioritized over retention, he added.
"It's going to be difficult to keep people who have their eye looking somewhere else," he said. "We want to recruit residents. We don't just want to recruit workers."
Veterans have a history of living in rural areas, Winchester said. Iverson attributed that to veterans in North Dakota being from the Vietnam War era, meaning they are older.
Littlefield and his wife, who also is a retired military member, are part of the 42 percent of North Dakota's veterans who live in rural areas, putting the state in the Top 10 for states where veterans prefer rural areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 24 percent of the country's veterans live in rural areas, according to the bureau's American Community Survey five-year estimates from 2011-2015.
"They are reaching their retirement age now," Iverson said. "Many of those people went back to where they came from and established roots."
The opportunity to transplant to a rural area in North Dakota fits naturally with military personnel based in the state, said Shaun Shenk, a spokesman for Grand Forks Air Force Base and state commander for the North Dakota Veterans of Foreign Wars. For example, those who are based at Grand Forks Air Force Base, like Littlefield was before he retired in 2005, may choose to stay once they retire.
Shenk also noted the state's commitment to taking care of veterans.
"I can't emphasize enough that the Fargo VA (Veteran Affairs) is one of the best health care systems in the United States," he said. "When you are looking for a support system that is already there for veterans, and a community and state that concentrates on veterans and makes it veteran-friendly, it makes it easy to make the decision to transition into North Dakota and continue your career here."
It appears the number of veterans in smaller communities is steady, but the count in larger cities like Williston is growing, Shenk said.
Hatton isn't in a remote area, Littlefield said-it's about 40 miles southwest of Grand Forks. Unless forced to move by a medical condition or to move closer to his sons if they give him grandchildren, Littlefield doesn't foresee himself moving anytime soon. He said Hatton and his church in Mayville have accepted the Littlefields as one of their own.
"We've always felt welcome in the community," he said. "I've been places where you might live there 50 years and you are still an outsider."