I drove south for an hour from Lawrence. East of Iola, I turned left, then south again at a yellow blinking light. There I entered a vanishing world. It was Bronson, Kansas.
You could call Bronson a "company town." The Bronson Locker -- which processes poultry, hogs, cattle, deer, goats -- is the town's principal employer. Three generations are at work there -- grandparents, parents and kids. It's not anyone's idea of glamorous work. But opportunities are few.
And it pays the bills.
Bronson is a paragon of the small town that you can find all over Kansas, all over the world, in fact. A hundred years ago, 90 percent of America's population lived in the country. Since then, of course, country folk have fled to the cities. Suburbs are devouring the countryside. Small towns and farms are withering away.
Bronson celebrated its centennial in 1981. The town "came into being in the middle of a corn field," according to an article written for the event. It owed its birth to the railroad's need for customers and was named after a railroad promoter.
Fifty years ago, Bronson had three grocery stores, two blacksmiths, four filling stations, a newspaper, The Bronson Pilot, a three-story hotel and a theater. The first World Champion Horse Shoe Pitching Contest was held there in 1909. It was a "hub of excitement" in those days.
Colossal grain elevators and a water tower still give the town a sense of grandeur -- a skyline of sorts. But the last train stopped at Bronson in the 1970s. The grocery stores have folded. The Bronson School was lost to consolidation. The sidewalks are spawled and strewn with concrete crumbs. But Bronson and the Bronson Locker carry on.
It was with a sense of embarrassment that I delivered my pathetic cargo -- four chickens -- two summers ago. The locker routinely processes 300 birds an hour. A special run for four birds was hardly cost-effective. But management gamely filled my order.
With scarcely a squawk of protest, my birds disappeared into the hiss and clatter of the assembly line. I had a couple of hours to kill. I decided to explore the town.
Across the street from the locker, a stylish, somewhat Italianate bank building caught my eye. I thought I saw plants inside -- a sign of renovation, some interior decorator's touch. A closer look revealed that the roof was gone. A tree was growing in what once was the lobby.
Circumnavigation of the metropolis took less than five minutes. I returned to the locker and listened to some big-time poultry operators talk shop. "Marketing is everything," one of them said. I took a nap on the seat of my truck.
In the afternoon, while my chickens were cooling, I watched the youngsters in their rubber boots and plastic aprons lining up to collect their pay.
"We're not cutting checks today," the boss lady said. "Didn't you know today's a holiday?" Stunned looks passed over their faces, draining them of their youth, followed by grins when they figured out she was joking.
"Can you work next Thursday?" the lady asked a pretty teenage girl.
"I can work Thursday, I can work Wednesday, I can work any time there's work," she said. "I have to work."
My birds were ready. I paid the bill: Five dollars, $1.25 per bird.
"I didn't know whether to do it for free or charge you so much you wouldn't come back,'' the lady said with a chuckle.
I returned last summer with a more impressive haul: 15 birds. When it came out that I was from Lawrence, a gentleman asked me if I knew Brit Kring.
"Know him?" I cried. "I'm his best customer." It turned out I was talking to Chub Bolling, who owns the locker with Helen, his wife. Brit Kring of Kring's Interiors is their nephew.
The Kring connection was an "open sesame." I was treated like a visiting dignitary. My 15 birds were precious treasures. The workers began referring to me as "the guy who knows Brit."
"Do you want the gizzards and the livers?" they asked. "Do you want them wrapped for freezing?" I had achieved insider status -- a Bronson Locker regular.
I walked outside. The handsome bank building was gone. At City Hall I was told it had been torn down. The other bank in town had been turned into a funeral home.
"When a town dies, you need a mortician," a denizen of Bronson quipped. A photo on the wall showed Bronson kids in front of their school. All the boys were dressed in overalls. It was 1923.
When my birds were ready, I apologized to Aunt Helen for bringing only 15. Racoons had gotten four, and five had perished from the heat, I explained. I offered to pay for the two dozen I'd promised.
"Nonsense," she said. "We don't do things that way here. You pay for what you get."
I commented about the industry of her young employees.
"The kids use the money they make here to buy their school clothes," she said. "In a small town like this, they can't just go to McDonald's and get a job."
A young man was recruited to help me carry my coolers to my truck. I tried to slip him a couple of dollars. He recoiled as if I was handing him a snake. Where else in the world could you find a teenager who'd refuse to pocket a tip? In Bronson, they don't do things that way.
Surprisingly, Bronson is holding on. The town recently won a grant to build a new community center. Its population has remained steady for the last 40 years.
"There are 306 or 307 of us," said Aunt Helen. In 1914, it boasted 800.
Back in Lawrence, I reported my encounter to Brit at his shop. His eyes lit up. He remembered how he spent several weeks every summer in Bronson when he was growing up.
"Aunt Helen would cook breakfast every morning," he said. "Sometimes 10, sometime 15 people would show up." At night after the grownups went to bed, the kids would sneak out and play in the streets past midnight.
"I never realized how lucky I was," he said. "It was an experience my kids will never have.
It was safe. There wasn't any trouble to get into. We were free."