ABC News online

By Siobhan Heanue

As the Occupy Wall Street protests rage on in cities across the United States, there is a different response to the continuing fallout from the dipping economy in other parts of the country.

In rural areas suffering just as badly, people are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with rebuilding their small communities.

Ely, Minnesota, with a population of 4,000, is one of these communities.

In the northernmost reach of the Midwest state, it was built on mining and lumber in the late 1800s. But those industries have suffered a slow death in the region.

Right near the Canadian border, it is the gateway to pristine wilderness.

Many residents have built isolated homes in the woods, or by lakes that freeze over in winter. But while the homes are isolated, the people are anything but.

Most townsfolk are actively engaged in community life.

In recent months, the federal and state governments have cut back on different kinds of social aid and community projects in a debt-minimising frenzy.

The townspeople of Ely have had no choice but to step into the breach and fill the gap with their own generosity.

Pitching in

The local Habitat for Humanity chapter builds about five homes per year for people facing financial hardship.

The head of the Ely effort, Caroline Owens, says the money and labour comes from local volunteers.

It makes a real difference to the families that get a roof over their heads.

"The occupants pay off the home, interest-free, at about a rate of $300 a month," she said.

"There's never been a foreclosure," she added proudly.

Small businesses also chip in, providing construction services or supplies, and a few medium-sized banks support the house-building project in the region.

But it is the people of Ely who get things moving.

They are also the ones stocking the shelves at crisis centres, where families and single people struggling to feed themselves come for assistance.

Anne Swenson, the publisher of local paper The Ely Echo, said there was a strong spirit of self-sufficiency in remote American towns.

"If the county roads are snowed under and can't be cleared quickly, people just stay put," she said.

"They can deal with it. They know how to hunt and how to fish. If they have to be self-sufficient, they know how."

There is patience, a sense of shared responsibility and a steely resilience that is hard to miss in towns like Ely.

Siobhan Heanue is an ABC journalist. She is visiting news outlets and cities in the US as part of a United States Studies Centre-World Press Institute media fellowship.