Another year is coming to a close and we look forward with both hope and trepidation but with a watchful eye on what is to come. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our small towns and where they stand at this point in their history compared to where we have been the last fifty to one hundred years. When I was a wee lad I once remember an old timer saying that probably within my lifetime we would see Des Moines creeping through the farmland between here and there and suddenly we would find ourselves part of the metro rather than small bedroom communities just far enough away to not be overrun with yuppie tree huger types.
I’m not sure I ever quite believed that, but earlier this week when I was out doing the last of the Christmas shopping I drove off the Interstate at the Hickman Road exit and drove the old highway 6 back to Dexter. As I drove along what used to be farm ground and neared the stoplight next to the Coca-Cola plant at Alice’s Road I thought of all the trips we took as kids into Des Moines and realized I couldn’t remember where the old Superior Pop Corn building that sat on the north side of the highway was located. It really was more of an old giant corn crib and probably was the first time I ever imagined myself running a restaurant rather than my life dream of being a disc jockey, truck driving farmer. I always thought that was a building that should have been repurposed for a restaurant and that a unique dining experience could have really taken off there. Some years later the Iowa Machine Shed would come to time and pretty much steal my 8 year old brains idea but none the less as I drove on further there were more buildings and sites from my youth that have since disappeared from the landscape.
How many of us remember places near Ortonville, or the Horse and Buggy in Adel? Further west the Triangle Inn, the grain elevator at Kennedy and Chinberg’s DX are now just memories. It amuses my children at times because we can date ourselves by how we give directions around here. It may also depend on which side of the Interstate you grew up on. Do you call the exit east of Earlham Bentler’s or the KOA exit? In less than fifty years we have watched farm ground buried underneath of concrete and convenience along the way and land converted to houses more than I ever imagined. It has happened in somewhat smaller amounts in our towns as we have seen new homes built but we also don’t have to look very far to see store fronts that we visited as children now used for other means or sitting empty.
I often wonder if we will ever see full store fronts in our towns again or if the scales of our world shrinking and the ability to be more mobile have tilted so far that small town businesses are a dying breed in themselves. That really is a shame in a way as though it may seem very easy to go to a big box store and get everything one would want, there is a loss of that personal touch that means so much, not to mention the health of our cities economies. Have we made it so hard to get startup capital or do we no longer have individuals who are risky enough to take the chance to dream big and attempt to start a small business here? Maybe we need to rethink those civic minded groups who gathered together to help entice new businesses to start here. If we think for a moment that we can do without small town stores, then we must also be willing to live with the collateral damage that comes with the loss of small businesses. When you lose that feeling of community and residents find it just as easy to go elsewhere for their needs that feeling of belonging sets off a ripple effect that hurts our schools, churches and community groups.
I’m pretty sure I don’t have any answers here, maybe though, there is someone you know who has looked at an empty building and it planted the seed of a dream that just needs some encouragement and support. Without either of those you and I will end up driving down roads filled with more places that are simply a footnote in our memory banks. See you next week….remember, we’re all in this together.