Like many places across the western plains of America, where the water table and agriculture are in steady decline, the unincorporated hamlet of Swett, South Dakota, has emptied out. The current owner of Swett, Lance Benson, and his wife are the only remaining residents; around 40 people once lived in the community which sustained a grocery store and post office decades ago.
Currently, Swett features a workshop, three trailers, a house (the Benson’s residence) and the Swett Tavern (the only watering hole in a ten mile radius); the town’s population burgeons with cowboys and grain farmers when the bar is open. Lance is asking $400,000 for the entire packaged deal (a fraction of the price that would fetch a single home in some neighborhoods in the Twin Cities).
The Great Plains, especially the western (and drier) half, have been experiencing a steady decline in population since the Dust Bowl. Many counties reached their peak population in the 1930 census; hundreds of ghost towns (or half ghost towns) testify to a massive agricultural failure. Some playful investors (with a bit of extra time and money on their hands) have been known to purchase abandoned bank buildings and schools among these ruins on Ebay; often they don’t sell for much more than a few thousand dollars each.
One population that hasn’t shrunk during the depopulation of the plains has been that of Native Americans (coincidentally just down the road from Swett is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation). Many Native American reservations and other private groups have been interested in creating a Buffalo Commons which could produce large amounts bison meat on the original (and sustainable) short grass prairie; bison need less shelter in the winter, less water in the summer and less medicine as well.
Maybe Swett is destined to be different type of watering hole.
Photos by: Jimmy Emerson