Mortuary may give small town new life

PRESTON — Like hundreds of small towns across rural America, Preston has boarded-up storefronts lining its Main Street. The roof has fallen in at the long-abandoned high school, while peeling paint and broken windows disfigure once stately, now vacant homes. This central Kansas town of 170 people is dying — and an Arizona undertaker has a plan to bring it back to life.

Two massive concrete grain elevators mark this as an iconic Kansas farming community, a cluster of homes tucked among undulating fields of wheat, corn and soybeans in Pratt County. For all its simple beauty, the county has slowly hemorrhaged residents: Since 1930, nearly 30 percent have left, making it an all-too-common anecdote of a fading prairie population.

But for Arizona transplants Ken and Donna Stanton, it's the perfect place to build a mortuary and crematorium, the unlikely cornerstone of an ambitious community revitalization plan that features Old West-styled building facades, old-time street lights and faux-board sidewalks.

Joining the couple are more than 30 relatives and friends who plan to establish their homes, businesses and a non-denominational church in the town.

"What is happening to Preston is truly a godsend," said Mayor Wayne Scott, who graduated from the high school's last class, in 1966. "I don't know too many towns in rural America, across the country, that are having an opportunity like this take place for them. I personally consider it a blessing this is happening in our town."

For the Mesa, Ariz., couple, Preston has become a labor of love borne of deep-seated family roots. Donna Stanton's late father, Don Cox, grew up in Pratt County, and her uncle, Dean Cox, still lives in Preston. The Stantons have taken family vacations in the town for 30 years.

"My father-in-law loved it here. He had a dream to see this little town revitalized and we kind of caught the vision," said Ken Stanton, 53. "It was kind of dwindling and drying up. I thought this was an opportunity to provide a service."

In its 1960s heyday, Preston boasted a post office, restaurant, hardware store, drugstore and two grocery stores. Today the only businesses left are the grain elevators and a butcher shop, along with City Hall and a senior citizens' center.

Like other small towns, many of its residents left for jobs in bigger cities, and small businesses dried up along with its population. Shopping in Pratt, 12 miles away, or Hutchinson, 41 miles down the road, was an easy drive.

In November, the Stantons bought a shuttered bar and grill — a brick building built in 1915 — to remodel as a funeral home that they hope to open in December — the first new business in their ambitious plan. The crematorium will be the only one in the area and they expect it to draw business from a 50-mile radius.

The family also bought two residential city blocks for homes, a second downtown lot, and are looking to buy another downtown building for a '50s-style restaurant.

They said the biggest expense — labor — will come from family.

Preston is the latest Kansas small town to get the makeover treatment. The Kansas Farm Bureau started its Kansas Hometown Prosperity Initiative in 2008, picking as its pilot projects the towns of Sedan, Onaga and Atwood.

The bureau's stimulus program aims to develop community leadership, promote small business entrepreneurship, engage youth and stanch the transfer of wealth that leaves rural counties when aging residents die.

Ken Stanton said that amid the excitement, some in the community are apprehensive about his plans.

"I hope people will see it is not our heart or desire to invade or take over," he said. "We just would like to see the town come to life."