Many small towns across rural America continue to see population declines as the farming generation dwindles and the younger generation moves to bigger cities. But one small western Kansas town is getting help from an unlikely source: an Arizona undertaker who plans to revive the dying town by catering to the dead.
'Everyone Got Quite Excited'
The tiny town of Preston, Kan., once boasted a very active Main Street with two grocery stores, a post office, a cafe, a drug store and a filling station. But now they are gone — along with the town's high school and church. In fact, only 170 people live here. Boarded-up buildings line either side of Main Street. A City Hall and senior center remain within view of two towering grain elevators.
Ken Stanton plans to change much of that. The 53-year-old mortician with a warm and easy smile has been in the funeral business for 18 years. He is no stranger to Preston. For 35 years, he and his wife, Donna, have come here to visit relatives. Donna Stanton's father dreamed of a revitalized Preston, and Ken Stanton embraced that dream.
"I saw this little town, and I saw some pictures of it back in the early 1900s and saw what it was, and believed that this town could thrive again," he says.
So a year ago, he bought the run-down bar and grill on Main Street to turn it into a mortuary and crematorium. On a recent day, Stanton and brother-in-law Mike Saldan are surveying the gutted 94-year-old brick building. The goal is to complete construction and open the facility by January.
Mayor Wayne Scott, a student in the last graduating class of Preston High School — in 1966 — acknowledges that news of an undertaker investing big time in Preston was at first met with some skepticism.
But Scott says that changed after Stanton attended a City Council meeting and started requesting permits and acquiring properties around town, including on Main Street. "We realized that it could possibly be a reality for us, and then I think everyone got quite excited," Scott says.
A Family Affair
Donna Stanton plans to work alongside her husband in the mortuary and support her son's new business: a 1950s-style restaurant to be built down the street. It's not just Ken and Donna Stanton coming here — it's more than 30 family members and friends.
"My sister from South Carolina is coming in with her husband, and she'll be staying out here; and my other sister came with me; and then, of course, my brother-in-law and my other sister is in Phoenix, so they'll end up here," Donna Stanton says.
Although some Preston residents are welcoming them here, Ken Stanton says others aren't so sure.
"I think there's a group of people that are kind of wondering, 'What are these people trying to do — come in and take over the whole place?' " he says.
Mike Snell, the longtime branch manager of the Cairo Co-Op in Preston, says he hopes the Stanton clan can jump-start the town.
"The city of Preston is just about a dead town," Snell says. "We got the co-op here and a local meat plant, and there's just not a whole lot going on in the town anymore."
Although Preston is tiny, Stanton plans to draw funeral business from a 50-mile radius. He also wants to encourage others to give small towns a second look.
"Metropolitan communities are getting so packed with people," he says. "So many people are out of work. People are starting to gravitate farther out, where housing and things are a little bit less expensive. So I think there's an opportunity for growth and things to happen in small communities and small towns, if people will just be willing to be ready for some change."
And whether Preston lives or dies may rest in part on the success of the funeral business.