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The small town of Valentine, Neb., lies within a region that for decades has seen more people leave than come. But Valentine has a plan to break that cycle. It starts with a brewery. NPR's Kirk Siegler stopped by the Bolo Beer Company on a recent road trip through the Great Plains.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Chris Hernstrom was brewing in the craft beer mecca of Bend, Ore., when an ad caught his eye. Want to live some somewhere gorgeous and make beer for a small community, it said.
CHRIS HERNSTROM: You know, it just seemed like an interesting challenge to kind of come out to basically the exact opposite of Bend, someplace where the brewing industry is still in its fledgling stages.
SIEGLER: That place is the cattle ranching hub of Valentine, Neb., population 2,700, tucked into the Niobrara River Valley in the rolling sand hills where Hernstrom is now head brewer at Bolo Beer Company.
HERNSTROM: Do you know what you want?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. I want a coffee and an Aquifer.
SIEGLER: With its modern pendant lights and bar made of reclaimed wood, the newly opened brewery looks like it'd be more at home in Seattle than rural Nebraska, and that's no accident. When he arrived, Hernstrom noticed there were a lot of 20- and 30-somethings moving into or back home to Valentine.
HERNSTROM: They know what they like about those other places they've lived, and so they're trying to make that happen here in the small towns.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I went in there. And made my husband - we loved it. And you know, when I walked in, I'm like, I feel like I'm, like, in a city, like, you know...
SIEGLER: A few blocks away from Bolo, Whitney Mayhew says the brewery is quickly becoming a community gathering place. And it supports other new businesses in town like hers, this boutique clothing shop. Mayhew's husband grew up in Valentine, and the couple decided to move back from Columbia, S.C., to be closer to his family.
WHITNEY MAYHEW: Oh, yes, it's a big difference. We had Target seven minutes away. So I miss my Target.
SIEGLER: It's more than a three-hour drive now to the nearest airport. But Mayhew doesn't miss the traffic in cities and the crime, she says. People here don't lock their doors, and everyone knows everyone else.
Now, what's going on in Valentine - while it's way too early to call it a trend - does get at this broader cultural thing I'm noticing in parts of rural America. Young people who grew up in small towns and have been seeing them struggle feel this sort of calling to move home. Even Valentine's own mayor, 35-year-old Kyle Arganbright, moved back a few years ago.
KYLE ARGANBRIGHT: I just thought there was a lot of opportunity here and obviously...
SIEGLER: And it's not like Valentine was dying. It's doing way better than many other isolated towns its size. But a lot of jobs are government or seasonal, built around the growing outdoor recreation industry. The mayor shows me the brand new golf course. There's hunting and canoeing the Niobrara.
ARGANBRIGHT: And then of course the rifle range so people can shoot their guns.
SIEGLER: Arganbright is an investor in the brewery. He says ag will always be king here, but rural America should capitalize on the artisan economy, too.
ARGANBRIGHT: I think that's a big question right now. If you're not growing, you're dying. Like, you can't sit there stagnant, particularly when all these urban populations are exploding.
SIEGLER: Well, the idea of a craft brewery as a model for small town revitalization is actually being tested across the Midwest with some early successes - Carson, Iowa - Ottawa, Ill. Chris Merrett heads the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs.
CHRIS MERRETT: I would hate to over-promote this as the panacea for every small town.
SIEGLER: But Merrett says it has potential in places like Valentine that already have natural amenities and attractions around them.
MERRETT: It really needs to have, you know, some good local leadership, entrepreneurial spirit.
SIEGLER: Well that at least is in full effect at Bolo Beer, where they're hoping to soon add a beer garden and kitchen. Now, they've had some obstacles. It's harder to get supplies. Business drops when the tourists leave. And head brewer Chris Hernstrom told me a craft brewery is a pretty big change for some longtime locals.
HERNSTROM: We're also the weird people that ride bicycles around. And we've convinced a lot of people to start riding their bicycles more.
SIEGLER: Chris the Brewer, as he's now called, makes good beer, too, and that never hurts.
HERNSTROM: I'd love to be able to look back one day on this and map the growth of Valentine.
SIEGLER: For now, Bolo is just focused on hiring its first full-time employees. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Valentine, Neb.
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