The Highland County Maple Festival, the county’s annual celebration of its Vermont-like maple sugar farms, will take place this year without one of the traditional staples: There will be no Maple Queen.
The organizers canceled the pageant after only three girls indicated interest; the rules called for at least five contestants. “Unfortunately, participation in the pageant has been dwindling for years,” a pageant spokesperson told The Recorder, the weekly newspaper that serves Highland. The chamber of commerce, which runs the pageant, increased the scholarship money awarded to finalists. It changed some of the rules. It extended the deadline. “There was not enough interest from the eligible pool of contestants themselves to proceed,” the chamber spokesperson said.
About the Highland Maple Festival
Dates: March 11-12 and 18-19
What: Tours of syrup-producing “maple camps” and other festivities.
For more information: See the Maple Festival website.
There are lots of reasons why girls today may not be as interested in pageants as they once were – changes in cultural values and all that. However, there’s another factor at play here, and it’s contained in that phrase “the eligible pool of contestants.” There simply aren’t as many girls in Highland County as there once were.
This is a small county to begin with – population-wise, the smallest in the state, with 2,232 counted in the 2020 census. That’s down from a height of 5,647 in 1900. Not only is Highland County getting smaller, it’s also getting older – dramatically so. In 1980, the median age in Highland was 34.4. By 2019, it was 59.3, the oldest in the state.
These are two trends – a dwindling population, and an aging population – that we see throughout rural Virginia. They just play out more vividly in Highland County when the county can’t find enough girls interested in being Maple Queen.
Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, walked me through the census numbers. In 1940, Highland County saw 100 births, in a county that was then home to 4,875 people. By 2000, Highland’s population was down to 2,536, not quite half of what it had been in 1940 – but births had dropped even more precipitously, from 100 a year into the teens per year. That’s a reflection of both an aging population and a national decline in birth rates – women are having fewer children, and there are fewer women in child-bearing years in Highland.
This decline happened gradually – until it didn’t. Highland’s population hasn’t changed that much from 1980 to today, down about 700 people overall, but the number of births has fallen from 56 in 1980 to 30 in 1990 to 16 in 2000 and has generally been in the teens ever since. “Not coincidentally, the number of births in Highland reached a record low of only nine in 2006,” Lombard tells me. “The handful of females born that year would be in the age range to compete in the Maple Queen Pageant. Since then, the number of births have rebounded a bit in Highland and are now in the upper teens, hitting 20 in 2016 for the first time in two decades.” In 2021, Highland saw 17 births.
Big picture: Demography really is destiny and a drought in births 17 years ago is now catching up with Highland’s Maple Queen pageant.
It’s not alone. Colleges are worried about the same thing. This is the so-called “enrollment cliff” that they fret about. I’ve written before about that – how declining college enrollment isn’t because colleges are doing a poor job, but because declining birth rates simply mean there are fewer college-age students to go around. You can’t enroll students who were never born. You can’t put a Maple Queen crown on them, either.
Highland’s inability to field enough contestants for Maple Queen may not be the most important consequence of our changing demography but it’s an easy illustration of what happens when there are fewer people in younger age cohorts. More significantly, with fewer young adults, communities face shrinking labor pools (which makes it hard to recruit new employers, which in turn helps accelerate out-migration) and slower economic activity (young adults setting up households and raising kids tend to spend more than older adults).
Let’s use Highland’s lack of a Maple Queen as the jumping-off point to look at how much births have fallen in other communities. Let’s start with Roanoke, because its population in the 2020 census was almost the same as it was in the 1980 census. In between, the city’s population fell but is now coming back up. The Star City counted 100,220 people in 1980 and 100,011 in 2020. Even though those two populations are about the same, the number of births fell – from 1,485 in 1980 to 1,190 in 2000. That is why we see these two things today: the city school system planning for declining enrollment (even though the city’s population is growing slightly) and an entire economic development apparatus in the Roanoke Valley that’s trying to increase the number of young adults. Think of it this way: If Roanoke’s births in 2000 had equaled the births in 1980, the city would have 295 more people about to turn 23. Many of them would just now be graduating college and entering the workforce. Now think of all those “now hiring” and “help wanted” signs you see.
This is demography in action. The figures are even starker in some rural areas where the population is declining.
The most dramatic example is in Buchanan County, a coalfield county that has seen the steepest population declines in the state. In 1980, when coal was in demand following the “oil shocks” of the previous decade, the county’s population peaked at 37,989. By 2020, the county’s population was just over half that – 20,355. The decline in births is even bigger.
In 1940, Buchanan County saw 1,146 births. Obviously families were bigger then but it’s a good statistical marker to lay down. From 1940 to 1980, the county’s population grew, but births declined to 616 in 1980, just over half of what they were with a smaller population four decades earlier. Since 1980, Buchanan’s population has plummeted by 46%. But its births have plunged by 73% – from 616 to 166.
Dickenson County next door has seen similar trends. In 1950, the county had 734 births. Dickenson’s population peaked in 1950 at 23,939 and fell through the next two decades before rising again in 1980 to 19,906. Since then, the county’s population has fallen to 14,124 – a drop of 29%. Births, however, have fallen by 66% – from 302 in 1980 to 104 in 2021.
This is why those localities have closed schools.
Some other localities to look at: Henry County and Martinsville. Last year the hospital in Martinsville shut down its labor and delivery unit, saying there wasn’t enough business to support operations.
Here are the figures:
Births in Henry County peaked in 1960 at 1,045 and declined to 811 in 1990. Since then they’ve fallen by a little more than half – to 402 in 2021.
In Martinsville, births peaked in 1950 at 1,072. In 2021, the city saw 132 births.
Now, just for fun, let’s look at some localities where the population has been growing.
Roanoke County: Population up, but births down – from 914 in 1990 to 836 in 2021.
Montgomery County: Population up, but births down – from 894 in 1990 to 649 in 2021.
Lynchburg: Population up, but births down – from 1,050 in 1990 to 960 in 2021.
Granted, some of those drops aren’t that big, but any decline, against the backdrop of rising population, illustrates something else: Our age structure is changing. We have more people in older age cohorts and fewer in younger age cohorts.
Statewide, the number of people 60-64 is almost the same as the number 15-19 but those statewide numbers mask vast regional disparities.
To go back to our Highland County example, there are four times as many people 60-64 as there are 15-19. “While Highland is extreme even for rural Virginia, only 13 of Virginia’s 95 counties have more residents between 15 and 19 than 60 to 64,” Lombard says.
Even Arlington County, which has one of the youngest median ages of any non-college town in the state, has slightly more people 60 to 64 than 15 to 19.
In Roanoke, the gap is a little wider – 6,326 in the older age cohort, 5,327 in the younger one. That’s a fairly youthful distribution in our part of the state. More typical would be Bedford County – 6,795 older to 4,665 younger. Or Pittsylvania County – 4,938 to 3,379.
In some counties, the gap becomes wider. In Buchanan County, which we looked at earlier, the gap is 1,652 in the 60-64 cohort and 998 in the 15-19 group.
In Surry County, the 60-64 age cohort is more than double the 15-19 cohort – 639 to 299.
And then there’s Highland County, where there are 274 people in the 60-64 age group and 65 in the 15-19 age group. And only three of them wanted to be Maple Queen.