PLAZA, N.D. Keith Hegney hadn't had much luck finding love over the past five years, so the 27-year-old slipped on a cowboy hat and went to try his luck bidding on a date.
He attended the annual singles auction at the Wabek Bar, which for rural residents of communities like Plaza can become a vital way for unmarried people to mingle and perhaps even meet that special someone.
''The guys stay home. The women leave for Fargo or other big cities,'' said Hegney, one of fewer than 200 people in this town about 70 miles from the Canadian border. ''So the best hope we have is Canadian women coming down.''
The promise of a chance to woo someone brought about 100 people to the auction earlier this month. The singles crowded into the one-room bar when a downpour hit, sipping beer and making small talk.
Some men bid more than $100 for dinner and a movie with one of the bachelorettes, and one shelled out $425 for a skydiving date. April Helwig, 23, drew a bid of $125.
''In small towns, it's hard because you don't have a lot of options. But at something like this, you can meet quite a few people,'' she said. ''If I don't find the love of my life, hopefully I'll find a good friend.''
Census figures show 32 percent of North Dakota's roughly 254,000 males age 15 and older have never been married, compared to 23 percent of the roughly 258,000 females in that age group.
That gap is wider in many of North Dakota's rural counties. In Slope County, the state's smallest county with about 770 people, census figures show 31 percent of the 344 males have never been married, compared to 15 percent of the 282 females.
Nationally, 31.3 percent of males age 15 and older have never said ''I do,'' while 25.1 percent of females have never been married, according to census figures.
Richard Rathge, director of the state data center at North Dakota State University, said more women are delaying marriage to pursue a career path, which reduces the pool of available mates.
The exodus of young people is putting the biggest strain on marriage rates in North Dakota, Rathge said. During the past decade, the number of adults in North Dakota between ages 20 and 34 fell 16 percent, from 151,888 in 1990 to 127,390 last year. Nationally, the age group was down 8 percent.
''Most people get married in their mid-20s. We're losing those people. You can see that in many of these rural areas right after high school, they leave,'' Rathge said.
''The longer one delays marriage, the more we become fixed in our ways,'' he said. ''And that's when a person is less likely to get married.''
One national group, Singles in Agriculture, is trying to help pair up single men and women who have a background in agriculture. It has 1,000 members in 41 states with local chapters that provide dances and camp-outs.
Morris Bilskie, the organization's president, said the group's events give members that extra nudge they might need to find a significant other.
''We can gather together and meet people,'' said the 63-year-old farmer, who works as a ConAgra Foods manager in Chicago. ''Maybe even meet someone and eventually become partners.''
At the Wabek Bar, owners Kim and Angie Letvin said they saw plenty of eligible bachelors, but no single women for the guys to take out on a Friday night.
So the Letvins started a bachelorette auction three years ago. Each spring, it draws men and women from around the state, this year inviting both to appear on the auction block. All proceeds go to charity.
''There's always been a lack of women,'' Kim Letvin said. ''And it's not getting any better.''
Curt Stofferahn, a rural sociology professor at the University of North Dakota and co-director of the Center for Rural Studies, has heard the stories about young farmers who are having trouble finding wives.
''If you don't find someone who was raised on a farm, they find the life rigorous,'' he said. ''It's a hard adjustment.''
Hegney said he doesn't understand why life in a rural area would be a turnoff for a woman.
''I don't expect her to start running cattle,'' he said. ''All that matters is that she's a good wife and mother.''
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Singles in Agriculture: http://www.singlesinag.org
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