It's Saturday morning and Sherry's Place, the only bar in Keytesville, Missouri, is full of life. Kids are playing pool as adults enjoy beers at the bar.
But just outside, the street is desolate. The only sounds are caused by an eerie breeze — the waving of an American flag and the creaking of sheet metal patched over a missing window.
This is Keytesville’s business district. It’s literally one block. Next to Sherry’s is a closed bargain store where floor-to-ceiling junk is practically falling out of the missing front door. Across the street is an abandoned hardware shop where Styrofoam ceilings have crumbled to the floor.
Keytesville is the Chariton County seat. Earlier this summer, the New York Times published an interactive report, based on a study out of Harvard, revealing that various counties across the country have a causal impact on whether or not children raised there will go on to climb up the income ladder. Chariton County in particular, stood out in the top 90th percentile, meaning that growing up there gives you a greater chance of making significantly more money later on in life.
Beth Howerton, bartender at Sherry's, simply doesn't believe this news. Rose Johnson, also a life-long resident of Keytesville, is shocked.
“The people that have done good, they don't live here," Johnson says. "And the people that have lived here, they worked elsewhere in another county. They didn't make their money here. There’s just nothing here.”
From the middle of this abandoned corner of Chariton County, it’s difficult to imagine that this has ever been one of the best places to grow up.
But over in Brunswick, about 12 miles west, things are a little busier.
Kaitlynn’s Deli is one among a handful of new and popular businesses on Main Street, including Sew Sweet Quilt Shop and a bed and breakfast down the road. The deli is owned and run by 24-year-old Kaitlynn Reichert. Faced with the decision of going away to college or staying to open a business, Reichert stayed.
“I had a customer in the other day and she's like, 'You stayed here?' I’m like, 'Yeah I [did]!'" Reichert says. "I’m related to half the town. Both my brothers have gone off to college, but I really enjoy being in the small town.”
Carrie Fogle, on the other hand, moved away after high school. She now lives with her husband and two daughters in Washington, D.C. She never really considered spending her life in Chariton.
“It was never my plan. I didn’t feel like there was a lot of opportunity here for myself," she says. "Most people with college educations either drive somewhere else to work, or they teach. I just thought there was more out there.”
Fogle was born in 1980. The core sample of the research consists of children born around then, whose income was then measured when they were about 30. And as for moving away, Fogle wasn't alone.
“We are experiencing what so many, many small counties in Missouri are experiencing, and that’s a tremendous loss of population,” says Lowell Newsom, director of development for the Chariton County Economic Development Board.
Newsom lived away from his hometown for 35 years and after moving back two years ago, he can’t help but notice how changes have taken their toll. Since the early 80s, the time period that produced the sample population for the Harvard study, population in Chariton has dropped by a third to about 7,500. With it, schools and businesses closed down.
A place that may have fostered a generation of success stories from that time period might not be able to do it again if those people moved away. Kaitlynn’s mother, Tina Reichert, is the Brunswick Chamber of Commerce president. She witnessed the impact of that generation's departure.
“When I first got involved probably about 10 years ago, it was just really sad," she says. "Most of the businesses on Broadway were empty buildings, and falling down, and it was just kind of discouraging to see our community going by the wayside.”
But in recent years, the county seems to be witnessing a change in tide. Those of Fogle's generation who moved away for education and career, are now moving back to raise families.
“They decided Chariton County was an awfully good place to live, they’ve come back, and they’re doing very, very well," Newsom says.
One man in this demographic started an internet service company from his home in Salisbury. Another young couple moved back to start their family and are now raising capital to start a farm-to-table food program.
Meanwhile, a handful of dedicated long-term residents have been working hard to revitalize the conditions of the place. Tessa Tate-Mauzey is the co-owner of the Brunswick Distributing Company and the local Anheuser-Busch wholesaler. She and her sister, Shelly Kussman, recently began to invest in the community.
“Our roots are here so we’re planting them deeply you might say," Tate-Mauzey says. "We've bought some lots and cleaned them up around town."
They purchased the space next door to Kaitlynn's Deli and opened UpRiver Urban Exchange, a clothing and gifts shop, and Plantation Antiques UpRiver. They also bought a vacant building down the road and transformed it into three upscale apartments. Other locals have even bought old abandoned houses just to tear them down.
All of this may speak to factors the Harvard study can't shed light on, factors that data and numbers don't exactly reach, like the impact of a tight-knit sense of community, dedication to family, or efforts to support local business. Aside from the patterns they've recognized across the country, the Harvard researchers don't know exactly why Chariton County might excel so significantly beyond other counties. All they know is this:
"Where you grow up matters," Harvard researcher Jamie Fogel says.
And it will continue to matter, perhaps even more, in Chariton County, with greater efforts in place to improve the county as a whole. Fogel says that anyone with a stake in local policy can make a difference.
Over the years, the county's economic development board has partnered with a couple of statewide programs, including the ACT Certified Work Ready Communities initiative and the University of Missouri's ExCEED program. These programs are designed to match townspeople with jobs, promote entrepreneurship and create opportunities to keep young people around, especially in rural communities.
“Planning and strategizing are OK, but most of life is in the trenches," Tina Reichert says. "It’s just a lot of hard work, commitment and you’re never done."
"There's significant room for cities, for counties, for states to have a really positive impact on their citizens in terms of their incomes," Fogel says. "We don't necessarily explain what they can do, but we show that further research into the best ways for them to have an impact is valuable."
Further research, for example, into ways to promote better education and the local economy, a few more recent and therefore immeasurable things that Chariton County, in particular, seems to be doing very well.