Ron Bennett was 15 years old when his town started to die a little.
He huddled with his shivering neighbors and watched the Golden Pheasant Cafe and the Spencer Implement Store go up in flames."Until that fire on Main Street, on both sides there was a business in every place," Bennett recalls. "Those two holes on Main Street were never replaced."
That was in 1953.
Over the next four decades, those holes got bigger and bigger, leaving only the bank and the post office on the north end of Main Street.
Last Saturday, a tornado finished off those two buildings, knocking them down like bowling pins. In a minute of fury, the tornado killed six people in Spencer and leveled the homes of nearly all the other 320.
And now, at age 60, Ron Bennett is again standing with the townsfolk, wondering whether there's anything left of Spencer worth replacing.
From the looks of it, Spencer has already joined the list of the dead. Many small towns scattered across the Great Plains have ceased to exist. Like Medary, S.D., where nothing is left but a marker describing what used to be. Or Newark, S.D., a ghost town where the old school is used as a grain elevator and the gymnasium is pumped full of wheat.
Will Spencer be just another name on a faded road sign directing motorists to nowhere? It's hard to imagine anything more. Spencer is gone.
The tornado destroyed all but a dozen houses in the northeast corner of the six-block-by-five-block town. Everything else is rubble. The twister stripped the bark from the trees and blasted the paint from the walls. The churning winds sent 42-ton tractor trailers loaded with corn seed flying through the air like Frisbees. I-beams strong enough to support skyscrapers were wrapped around trees like taffy.
Founded by 19th century immigrants from northern Europe, pre-tornado Spencer had two-story Victorian houses with well-tended flower gardens. Cottonwoods and cedars shaded yards for summer picnics and buffered the prairie gales.
In the early days, at the turn of the century and for another 50 years or so, Spencer thrived with more than 600 residents. Spencer boasted three grocery stores, two hardware stores, a barber shop, a lumberyard, a variety store, six or seven gas stations, a Ford dealership, and a pool hall.
Teenagers worked at the drugstore, the movie theater or the stone quarry just outside of town. But even in the 1950s, Ron Bennett and his friends had to drive 18 miles to Mitchell if they wanted a stylish flat top. For swimming lessons, they were bused to Salem, the county seat.
Autumn in Spencer meant a homecoming parade down Main Street. Summer meant the traveling carnival would set up the Ferris wheel in the park next to the bank. Winter was so cold that tears would freeze on the faces of children as they walked to school.
But a decline had set in long before nature flicked its wrist at Spencer last Saturday.
Family farms that once thrived on a quarter section of land began to consolidate. Farmers soon needed 1,000 acres instead of 320 to turn a profit. Fewer farms meant fewer families coming into town to sell grain, buy groceries or drop in for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.
Less business downtown meant fewer jobs. Fewer jobs forced young people to move to big cities like Sioux Falls 50 miles away for work. Over the past 10 years alone, one in four people moved out of Spencer. Bennett, for instance, left after high school and now lives in Salem.
Interstate 90, built in the 1960s, bypassed Spencer four miles to the south, leaving old South Dakota 38 with no traffic. The motel and coffee shop on 38 were forced to close.
By the 1980s, Spencer and towns like it came to consist of little more than widows and vacant lots.
State economists say Spencer probably is not worth rebuilding. But don't mention that to Gov. Bill Janklow.
"Those people are idiots," Janklow said Tuesday while touring the town. "It's not economical to rebuild California every five years after earthquakes or Florida after hurricanes, but we're going to do it anyway. This is a community. It's home to a lot of people."
But Spencer people find it hard to share the governor's unflagging optimism.
Even before the tornado, on each visit to his mother, Bennett would find Spencer a little more dead.
The school was bulldozed three years ago, and the few remaining students are bused to Salem. Just two months ago, when the last grocery store closed and the Club Cafe was shuttered, Bennett's mother and her lady friends moved their daily kaffee klatch to the gas station.
"It started to go down and down and down and get worse and worse and worse and now it's really worse," said Frances Nafziger, 82, stepping gingerly over the remains of her house, looking for pieces of her grandmother's treasured china.
Now, even the gas station is gone. So is City Hall, where she attended monthly meetings of the Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliary. And St. Matthews Lutheran Church, where she prayed each Sunday, is nothing but sticks.
"We'll have to get an apartment - a furnished apartment," she said. "Spencer was a great place to live. It was really home. But you gotta go. There's nothing you can do."
Around the corner, Todd Kirby tried to salvage the corn seed and soybeans that spilled from his felled grain elevator.
"I'd like to think we'd rebuild," said Kirby, who was still looking for an auger and fertilizer spreader that blew away in the twister. "But there's so much destruction here it's overwhelming.
"If there's nothing here. . . ." he paused and looked at the huge metal storage tank that landed on his office. "We just don't know."
Don Sieverding, whose family has been in Spencer for five generations, believes the town will follow Kirby's grain elevator.
"If he don't rebuild, I don't think anyone will," said Sieverding, 61, whose family lost four of five homes in town.
Rose Marie Hoiten, a mother of four, is more optimistic.
"The town's been in the hands of the elderly for years. But I guess it's up to us now - the young families," she said. "When we lost our cafe and grocery store a couple of months ago, we asked, `What do we have here?' Now I realize we have family, friends and support. I don't know where else I'd want to go."