WESKAN, KAN. -- It was as fine a parade as I've seen in my hometown, with more than a dozen horse-drawn wagons, a costumed Cavalry unit, a fleet of vintage automobiles and Cousin Chuck in derby hat and sleeve garters, precariously balanced on a turn-of-the-century two-wheeler.
And as the spectacle passed by, it didn't matter for moment that the throng on Main Street was cheering a ghost.
Behind the crowd, storefronts were boarded up and weeds were sprouting through the sidewalk. The hardware store was closed; the lumberyard was gone. The corner filling station sat vacant, staring blankly at a highway that sees mostly local traffic these days and an occasional trucker barreling through on the way to somewhere else.
For the residents of Weskan -- population about 200, counting rural route customers and stray dogs -- the untended stores are as much a fact of life as the unending prairie wind. The plywood over the windows is already weathered, the locks beginning to rust.
But for a displaced native, returning last weekend for the town's centennial celebration, the yawning emptiness of Main Street is a painful confrontation with the new reality of rural America.
This town is dying, not in anguish but with a air of resignation and dignity that makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Outside of town, where the sweep of prairie and sky make even the most scenic eastern vista look like the picture on a 15-inch television screen, the cattle are still grazing and the corn is lushly green. On Main Street, there isn't so much as the bang of a screen door.
The plight of the nation's heartland has been dutifully reported in the East: Farmers are struggling, buffeted by low crop prices and declining export markets. The general lack of prosperity spills over into their communities. Banks flounder. Stores close. People leave.
The problem is debilitating enough in the moderately populated farm counties of Iowa and Illinois. In Wallace County, Kan., population 2,000, it is devastating.
In Sharon Springs, the county seat 12 miles east of here, the variety store, drug store, highway cafe, sandwich shop and hardware are closed and boarded. The county is down to one grocery store, one doctor, one beer hall.
"It gets a little worse every year," said Dennis Smith, a cousin who farms north of Weskan.
In truth, Weskan was struggling long before the latest farm crisis hit the front pages. The fledgling prairie town was settled in the 1880s, mostly by Swedes from the larger cities of the Midwest, brought here under the auspices of the Swedish Colonization Co. to homesteads offered by the federal government.
By the time Weskan got its post office in 1887, the settlement was as close as it ever came to thriving. Main Street then boasted a bank, a livery stable, a dry goods store, a couple of boarding houses and a newspaper, the Weskansan.
But its most important attribute was the Union Pacific railroad track, soon joined by U.S. Highway 40. The highway and the railroad paralleled each other, connecting Kansas City to Denver and Weskan to the world. Freight trains whistled through on regular schedules; a steady stream of trucks and cars plied the highway. At one time, the town had six service stations.
There were Green Rivers (lime phosphates, for the uninitiated) and fountain Cokes to be had at Paul's Hall, where the town barber snipped away behind one plate glass window and the town elders played four-point pitch behind the other. There were two cafes for hamburgers, Reazin's Grocery for ice cream, the stockyards for exploring.
Then came the late '50s, with the simultaneous decline of the rail industry and the opening of Interstate 70 through Goodland, 30 miles to the north. The new interstate followed old U.S. 40 faithfully except for that fateful jog, which sliced off six Kansas communities and as many in eastern Colorado.
But it was a political decision, the town agreed, and there wasn't much that could be done about it. The service stations closed.
Wasn't much that could be done about the farm situation, either.
Some farmers here have heeded the advice of the policy-makers and taken part of their land out of production. The government pays them not to farm, and it makes more sense than losing money on a crop in the ground.
But it doesn't do much for the fertilizer salesman or the implement dealer or the fuel supplier or the cafes and stores where all those people might have sipped coffee or bought socks. So the economy stagnates, and stores close, and the dust devils whip down an empty Main Street.
The politicians couldn't make it to Weskan's centennial. "I'm kind of surprised," mused Ed Harold, president of the Weskan Preservation Society, formed a year or so ago to organize the party. "There were more than 1,000 people here. It would've been a good opportunity for some glad-handing."
Gov. Mike Hayden (R) sent his regrets. So did Sens. Robert J. Dole (R) and Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) and Rep. Pat Roberts (R), who represents the district.
The town didn't mind -- politicians are busy people, after all -- and there were letters from each of them tacked up on the school bulletin board, offering their best wishes and hopes for a prosperous future.
President Reagan sent a letter, too, telling Weskanites how fortunate they are to live "in a nation of strong and proud communities where everyone has a chance for success" and urging them to "preserve the spirit which has forged America into a land of wonder."
There was, perhaps, more truth in the statement than the president intended. They're doing a lot of wondering in Weskan these days, mostly about how much longer there will be anything to preserve.