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Associated Press | By KELLY LECKER, ERICA BLAKE, The (Toledo) Blade | June 3, 2002

Six days a week, the entire village walks up Jack and Dorothy Cline's driveway and through a little side door at the front of their house.

They talk about the day's news, and each other: An elderly resident hasn't been seen in a few days; someone should check on her. So-and-so is sick; someone's in trouble, and a new family is moving into town.

This is also where West Millgrove picks up its mail.

The U.S. Post Office has long been housed at the Clines, for lack of a home of its own. Nowadays, it is really the only place people gather in a village whose downtown has become a ghost town. "There'll be quite a few people down here catching up on the news; eventually you'll see everyone in town," Jack Cline says. "If there's anything you want to know about somebody, you can talk to the postal people. People stand in there and gab just like it was a conference hall. That's good as far as I'm concerned."

Like many small villages in Ohio, West Millgrove - 40 minutes south of Toledo in Wood County - has lost much of what gave it its life. Once upon a time it had a hotel, restaurants, two churches and a school. Now the gas stations are long gone. Someone lives in the old town hall, and another family occupies one of two old groceries that went out of business. There are no industries left.

Many of its people are gone too. According to the U.S. Census, the town's population dropped from 171 in 1990 to 78 in 2000. It peaked at 236 people in 1900.

An exodus is under way in most small towns across Ohio and the nation.

It's happening in West Millgrove, and in Beaverdam and Alexandria and Elgin and Grover Hill too. While some small Ohio towns close to big cities thrive, the ones in remote rural areas - particularly in the northwest corner of the state - are home to fewer and fewer residents.

- Of the 264 incorporated villages in Ohio with 500 or fewer people, 156 lost population between 1990 and 2000. That's 59 percent.

- There are three times more people between the ages of 55 and 64 living in Ohio's smallest places than people between the ages of 18 and 24.

- Nearly 80 percent of the incorporated villages under 500 people lost residents 25 to 34 years old between 1990 and 2000.

- Few of the small towns had their own schools, leaving children to attend consolidated schools in larger cities.

It's not that small towns have changed too much.

It's that they really didn't change at all. When cities around them were getting superstores and new businesses, these small places were trying to maintain their quiet ways.

People who grew up in small towns love them.

"My wife and I, we have five kids. All five kids are married and gone. The same with the neighbors across the street and the neighbors two doors down," says Ronald Rumschlag, mayor of New Riegel in Seneca County, which lost 24 percent of its population in the last census. "We have a lot of single person households. Especially widows. We have that happen here and there, and before you know it you lose 50 or 100 people."

So what if Ohio's smallest towns disappeared? Experts on rural issues say part of the state's identity will vanish, too.

"I'm a strong believer of rural America. I think rural life offers many things that you don't get in the city," says Gene Jackson, executive director of Ohio Rural Development Partnership. "It's a choice, but if we eliminate the choice, those who would prefer to live in the rural areas have to live in cities."

In 1998, West Millgrove found itself $27,000 in debt. It sold its park and village hall to pay the bills, and officials moved their offices in with the volunteer fire department in the old schoolhouse.

Mayor James Carr wants to do everything he can to keep West Millgrove independent. The township's fire department and police are here, and residents are paying a monthly fee so West Millgrove can someday have its own sewer lines.

The town hasn't had trouble finding council members, but there rarely is an audience at the meetings.

"We used to, but he died," Carr says.

Last year, West Millgrove's own gas company went bankrupt.

"When that happened I asked if they wanted to stay a town or if they wanted to become part of the township," the mayor says. "They said they wanted to stay a town, and that's what we're going to do."

Gypsum, three miles east of Port Clinton in Ottawa County, is an unincorporated town with a post office. But hardly anybody lives there now. Its heyday ended when its two major businesses knocked down the company-owned homes that made up the village.

More often people in small towns move out - and nobody else comes in - because there aren't attractions to draw them in. That's why small towns are suffering most in the Plains states, particularly in Nebraska and North Dakota, a state where the majority of its counties lost population in the last census.

"Other places have mountains, lakes, etc. to draw people," says John Bailey, program director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska. "In the middle part of the country it's a whole other challenge. It's a real problem."

In Ohio, small towns flourished in the 1970s when people longed for country living. When the farm crisis hit the state in the 1980s, population swelled in cities again and rural areas suffered, according to Jeff Sharp, assistant professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University.

That loss continued in remote rural areas during the 1990s, according to the 2000 census. Northwest Ohio was the biggest loser in the state, with 75 percent of its small towns declining in populations.

"The small towns within easy commuting distance from cities are generally doing well," says Paul Lasley, rural sociology professor at Iowa State University and the head of its yearly rural life poll. "As you move beyond that commuter belt, you'll see the small towns struggling."

Florida, a slumbering village in Henry County along the Maumee River, is so small it's in an official book of Ohio ghost towns.

Like many small towns, Florida peaked way back in the early 1900s, when oil was plentiful and the railroad was flourishing. In the 1850s, it had saloons, grist mills, general stores, churches and two hotels.

"This town back then is what Toledo and Napoleon are now," lifelong resident Lyle Heilman says.

Residents now cruise past the lone flashing stoplight, on a road much less traveled now that most traffic uses U.S. 24. People still call this semi-ghost town home, but they know it's changed.

West Millgrove uses its annual fish fry, put on by the local fire department, to bring everyone together. Practically the whole town shows up for it every April.

Jack Cline says the fish fry reminds people of why they live in West Millgrove.

"It's not what you can get from West Millgrove, it's what you have to take when you're in the city," Cline says. "We're not bound by enormous city laws. We're not heavily populated. If you like that sort of thing this is the place to be."Associated Press: