It's Sunday morning and Norris Rud is singing hymns in the tiny white clapboard church he has prayed at since the days of lantern light. His pew offers a view of flat, frozen, endless prairie. But his eyes see something else:

Family history.It was a mile down the winding gravel road, past the shuttered, rotting one-room schoolhouse, where his grandfather Nels planted the first trees more than 100 years ago, staking claim to a chunk of America's frontier.

It was at the same altar where Rud takes communion that he was baptized one morning 73 years ago.

And it's just outside the frost-covered stained glass windows where his kin - Ruds and Hendricksons, Norwegian emigrees who journeyed by ship, then by rail to this windswept land - now lie buried among clunky weathered gray headstones.

The small cemetery at Grandfield Lutheran Church is growing.

Most everything else around here is not.

The congregation numbers 37, compared with 62 just six years ago.

The nearest town is Sheyenne, 272 souls. In 1970, the population was 362. It has a gas station, a grain elevator, an implement dealer, a beauty parlor and a summer Tastee Freez. But its cafe and gift shop are closed. So is its bar; the owner recently died. The grocery is up for sale.

It's a familiar scenario for many miss-'em-if-you-blink towns across the Great Plains: Younger people are leaving, older people are staying, schools, churches and stores are struggling, farmers are giving up or being gobbled up. Small is getting smaller.

And fears are growing that some places now are just a generation away from extinction.

"Our countryside is just emptying out of people," says Roger Johnson, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner. "It's just scary."

The reality doesn't escape Rud, a spry, wiry man who still farms though he and his wife, Gloria, now live 10 miles away in the big city, New Rockford, pop. 1,525. Like most members of their 112-year-old congregation, they are in their autumn years.

"We'll have to close someday," says a philosophical Rud, who remembers when his church echoed with the squeals of 80 children in Sunday school, a program shut down long ago.

"Families are getting smaller, the older people die and everything else is shrinking," says Gloria Rud, a former teacher. "The church is like Sheyenne. We're just hanging on."

A DECADE AGO, two East Coast professors triggered a raucous debate when they argued that settling the Plains was one whopper of a mistake: There were too many towns, too few people, too much dry land, too little investment.

This land of homesteaders and buffalo, Sitting Bull and Wild Bill Hickok, of big sky and open prairie, had become, in their view, America's steppes: too hot or too cold, with too short a growing season. So the academics offered a modest proposal to stem the decline:

Turn the land into a home for the buffalo to roam.

Frank and Deborah Popper dubbed their vision the Buffalo Commons, a long-term plan that called for less farming and more tourism and parklike preservation. That idea irked so many natives that the couple received death threats.

But today, Popper is convinced he was right, with one caveat: He thought the federal government would have to step in, but, instead, changes are occurring on their own.

"We predicted there would be depopulation in the rural Plains with younger people," he says. "That's come true. We predicted economic difficulty. That's certainly come true. We predicted the rise of tourism in some of these places and the emergence of buffalo. All that's come true."

The Nature Conservancy, for one, has acquired more than 100,000 acres in the Plains in the last decade for preservation.

There's a bison boom, too, (see related story on A17).

The Plains have never been short of elbow room for man and beast. In 10 states spanning a fifth of the territory of the lower 48, the 1990 population was 6.5 million - slightly less than that of Virginia.

Since then, the region has gained population as a whole, and unemployment in some states is so low that jobs go begging. But growth has blossomed largely in urban areas, bypassing remote rural hamlets: 61 percent of towns with fewer than 2,500 people in the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska have lost people in the '90s, according to government figures.

For towns smaller than 250 people the figure is worse: 71 percent are declining.

In 1990, Kansas had more "frontier" land - defined as counties with fewer than six people per square mile - than it did a century earlier, Popper says. And 90 percent of the area in Nebraska and South Dakota that was frontier in 1890 remained that way 100 years later.

"This is a place we tried to settle and it just didn't work," argues Popper, of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The problem, some say, was too much settlement: Towns 10 miles apart made sense for horse-and-wagon travel. Cars changed that.

Today, neon clusters of Wal-Marts and Hardees dot the interstates, but two-lane blacktops are the gateway to an open-air museum of the past:

Thousands of abandoned farmhouses sag like squat wooden scarecrows on the prairie. Faded storefronts with paint-chipped signs stand like tombstones on main streets.

Nearly 40 percent of the counties in the Plains have been losing people continuously since 1950, and the migration has been largely young people.

Decades ago, combines and tractors replaced many workers on the farms. Nowadays, droughts, blizzards and low cattle prices force farmers off.

Fewer farms mean fewer families, fewer kids. The grocery closes; jobs move on. The school closes; teachers move on. The hospital closes; doctors move on.

Folks here may have to drive 20 miles to a pharmacy, 60 miles to a shoe store, 100 miles to a major hospital. Teachers do double duty; a superintendent may teach driver's education. Ministers become circuit riders, juggling three, four, even five congregations.

And the towns? Small to start with, they became atom-sized. Of 365 communities in North Dakota, the least populated Plains state, 100 have fewer than 85 people, says Richard Rathge, a North Dakota State University professor.

But he says just as technology shrunk the Plains, it can be its salvation.

With the Internet, anyone with a computer modem can start a business in the most isolated stretch of land. One example: Gateway 2000, a mail-order computer company, is based in a small town in South Dakota.

Already, interactive videos are uniting people: Teachers lead students in classes hundreds of miles away. And rural doctors now consult with big-city colleagues, who can zoom in with cameras to study X-rays, monitors or patients themselves.

This technology and the importance of agriculture - grain and beef - ensure the Plains are "not going to become a pasture for buffalo roaming thousands of miles," says Don Adam-chak, a professor of sociology at Kansas State University.

North Dakota is the nation's top wheat producer. Kansas is No. 2 for both cattle and wheat. Hundreds of meat-packing plants dot the Plains.

"The world is becoming too populated, it needs to depend in part on the Great Plains for food and fiber."

LIKE MANY TINY towns, the glory days of Havana, N.D., are tinged in sepia.

This town once had two main streets (one on each side of the railroad tracks), a butcher shop, a hotel, a lumber yard, a meat locker plant, a creamery, five groceries, five grain elevators, two gas stations, even a hat shop.

Before World War I, Havana's population was about 500. Today, 118 people call it home.

Only a few businesses remain, including a self-service gas tank (50 people have their own keys).

And, of course, there's the Farmers Inn. It is Havana's raison d'etre. The nonprofit cafe, owned and operated by locals, opened in 1984, two months after the former proprietor called it quits, claiming there weren't enough mouths to feed.

Without a meet-and-greet place, Havana's death seemed imminent.

"We figure this cafe has kept the community alive," says the redheaded Murdean Gulsvig, a 74-year-old retired farmer who runs the place with a ready quip, a lip-smacking pork sausage recipe and dashes of a Hollywood agent's promotional savvy.

Murdean is both unofficial town historian and cafe publicist: He plugs the $7 cookbook featuring local recipes, ranging from Portuguese bean soup to torsk (fish). He points out the wisecracking slogan on the place mats: "The first to complain cooks tomorrow."

Longtime cook Pat Enderson drives the school bus, as does her husband, Arvin, a waiter. Their son is a regular customer. He's also the mayor.

The part-time dishwasher and keyboard player? Meet Vicki Rau, who is also the new Lutheran pastor. She concedes this itty-bitty world isn't for everyone.

"Sometimes it's tricky being single," says the cheery 44-year-old. "There are times you feel isolated, lonely."

Though folks come from 30 miles away for the $4.95 five-course dinner (drinks are extra), there's a tacit understanding that the future of Havana and the cafe are one and it may be twilight time for both.

Illness and old age already have pared the volunteer staff from 30 cooks to five. Murdean and his wife, Doris, pull duty 12 days a month. There's no new generation to plug in. All the waiters and waitresses are in their 50s.

With no schools here, there's little lure for young families. And the silver-haired set already does much of its shopping elsewhere.

"It's hard to get younger people or anybody to move in a town like this," Mayor Mark Enderson says. "Hopefully, some people will move in and pick the community up. All you can do is hope."

EVERY TIME David Schneider glances at the walls outside his school office, he sees the future.

Year by year, the senior graduation pictures in Edmore, N.D., have fewer and fewer smiling faces.

Schneider's own face is grim as he bluntly summarizes the trend: "Slow death."

His school district spans 400 square miles and draws kids from five towns, but enrollment is just 147 from kindergarten through high school.

"Ten years from now we'll be lucky if we have a high school," says Schneider, who has been superintendent for 32 years in this district, an hour's drive from the Canadian border.

Summing up, he says, "It's damn bleak, that's what it is."

Right now, Schneider has enough kids to field a basketball team, but for track and football, forget hometown pride. Edmore joins forces with other towns.

Schneider's plight isn't unusual.

In a 1997 article in The Atlantic Monthly, a Nebraska official, Harlow Hyde, warned that declining birth rates had created a "child famine" in parts of the Plains.

For example, he said that in 1995, South Dakota had fewer than 10,500 births - fewer than in any year during the Depression. And in Hayes County, Neb., there were five births, compared with up to 72 a year during the baby boom.

"The problem is the next generation is not being sown; in 2025, who will do the reaping?" asked Hyde, of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

North Dakota already is facing that question with its continuing farm exodus. Fewer than 10,000 kids under 18 are expected to be living on the land by century's end, according to Rathge, a state demographer.

Still, no one wants to shut a schoolhouse door.

"The perspective is if our school closes, our town will die," says Tom Decker of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. "The truth is the reverse of that. If the town hadn't failed to produce students, the school would remain open."

IT'S LATE SUNDAY morning in Sheyenne, and Pastor Neil Lindorff is on his second sermon of the day.

He'll repeat the prayers, the hymns, even the joke he used for the Grandfield congregation. His intern, meanwhile, is conducting services nearby.

Together, the two lead five congregations. Lindorff's plum-colored Jeep Cherokee already has logged more than 120,000 miles.

But the man who dons green and white vestments over brown cowboy boots enjoys the life of a country preacher.

"It's just a totally different mentality," he says in his lilting voice. "Here, you automatically do things for people. That's the way we have existed."

Mike Loe, a 52-year-old town council member, agrees. He returned in 1975 to raise his family.

He remembers when there were more stores, more people, more things to do in Sheyenne. One night, he says, he and his 26-year-old son, who has left town, "went driving around, counting people not in their houses anymore."

But Loe is committed to Sheyenne. "The only thing we can do is survive and keep going," he says. "Where would we go?"