April 15, 2017
As I have mentioned previously, Iowa’s history has been rather stable, with few dramatic events attending its founding and early years. But every place has its history lesson, and in Iowa’s case it’s a relatively recent one involving economics as well as history. This comes from my own residence in the Hawkeye State, and also after discussion with no less an authority than Chuck Offenburger, who may be unknown elsewhere but is a well-known figure in Iowa. For nearly 30 years, Chuck wrote for The Des Moines Register under the heading of “The Iowa Boy,” specializing in the small towns that are so much a part of the state. He is also something of a pioneer in internet blogging, beginning in 2001 and now on his website at http://www.offenburger.com.
The Iowa Boy will celebrate his 70th birthday this summer, but he comes by his moniker with justification, having been born and raised in Shenandoah, Iowa, and living outside the state only to attend and receive his degree from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He has crisscrossed Iowa hundreds of times and is on a first-name basis with literally thousands of people in every corner of the state. In my mind there is no one more steeped in the lore of what is Iowa.
We are not close friends, but Chuck and I have crossed paths on a number of occasions over the years. I was gratified when he agreed to drive more than an hour each way to meet me for lunch in the small town of Holstein, Iowa, just big enough to have two stoplights. We had a very pleasant conversation catching up on our lives and those of mutual friends, as well as the nature of my trip. More to the point, I was able to pick Chuck’s brain and gain a more complete picture of Iowa, before, during and after my time in the state.
The defining event of Iowa’s modern history is something that went largely unnoticed outside of the American Midwest: the farm crisis of the 1980s. In the eyes of the world and, more important, to Iowans themselves, the state is tied to its agricultural heritage. The numbers tell a slightly different story; in fact, primary agriculture today accounts for only six percent of the state’s GDP. But you hardly need to scratch an Iowan very deeply to find his or her roots on the farm.
The causes of the farm crisis were several and the blame is shared rather widely. The 1970s were prosperous times. The world was becoming more developed and the demand for food was growing. Prices were high and yields were increasing. Land prices were appreciating as well, and credit policies were easy. Bankers were reminding customers they were millionaires, at least on paper, and wouldn’t they like to borrow in order to expand and grow their profits.
The party began to wind down about 1980. One of Ronald Reagan’s campaign promises was to reign in rampant inflation. Chair of the Federal Reserve Board Paul Volcker, a Jimmy Carter appointee, preached belt tightening and austerity as a “correction.” The country began to edge into recession. On the demand side, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan brought sanctions against the Soviet Union, which had become a major customer of U.S. agricultural products due to its own production difficulties.
The combination of tighter credit and soft demand caused farm income to decline along with land prices. Farmers found their net worth decreasing and their debt load increasing. The banks, worried about loans they had made in the preceding years, overreacted, calling in some of them they considered risky. Commodity prices fell precipitously.
The results were devastating for Iowa. Family farms that had survived various hardships over the generations were being foreclosed. Farmers were forced to take jobs off the farm, if they could find them, or to leave the farm altogether and move their families to cities or other states where work was available. Many of the small towns that had been Iowa’s backbone began to empty out. Corporations with deep pockets stepped in to purchase farms at depressed prices. In the decade of the 1980s Iowa lost 4.7 percent of its population, exceeded only by West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Recovery from the crisis has taken 20 years or longer. The first places to show improvement were Iowa’s urban areas and especially the locations of its three state universities, which had developed more diversified economies. Some towns never recovered; the financial and population losses were too deep, and the infrastructure was no longer there. Today they exist as borderline ghost towns, supporting a few families where dozens or hundreds once lived.
However, Chuck Offenburger is optimistic about the future of the towns that remain. Population is once again growing or at least has stabilized, and he cites several factors as key to ensuing success. One is the diversification of agriculture; Iowa’s two main crops are still corn and soybeans, but there are now many specialized varieties for specific purposes rather than merely feeding animals and people. Another factor is the diversification of manufacturing to emphasize newer and more complex technologies and processes. A third is the improvement of infrastructure, especially in communication and energy. As I travel the length of the state, I witness the burying of high-speed fiber optic cables and the wind farms that bring the state ever closer to energy independence. And then there is the quality of Iowa’s educational system and of life in general. Iowa has long been a good place to put down family roots.
Not to be forgotten is the human diversity as well. Iowa cities and towns that are prospering have embraced newcomers and immigration, overcoming initial difficulties, and are beginning to welcome residents with other than traditional Midwest backgrounds and values, integrating them into the communities. In the future Iowans will not all look alike, even if they adopt a shared culture. Such is the history of America.
Today I leave the Northwest Iowa town of Cherokee (population 5000), a place that has seen better times (the population peaked at 7700 in 1960) but also survived far worse economic conditions. It cherishes and preserves its history as a former railroad center, pointing to the restored 1896 Illinois Central depot, a substantial structure, and its new role as transportation museum, community center for smaller events and offices for startup businesses. Even more interesting is what occurred after flooding on the Little Sioux River in 2013 that damaged some of the town’s historic homes. As a condition of accepting money for disaster relief, the government funded and required a detailed census of all homes in the community that were more than 50 years old (the great majority of the housing stock in an Iowa town). A consultant was brought in to work with residents, and all owners of such property were provided with detailed and attractive documentation about the history, age, design, style and condition of their homes. The result was an increase in pride and repairs and renovation, tangible evidence that a sense of history can make a difference in a community.
As in other towns I have been, I also heard an undercurrent of concern that those who have spearheaded and participated in these projects and activities tend to be older residents. The younger adults who have chosen to remain in their communities are not “joiners,” people tell me. Their lives are tied to online social networking rather than face-to-face interaction with their neighbors. When they do participate in community activities, they require specific instructions and show little initiative to continue their involvement. The older residents worry that the younger people will not put down roots and make the effort small communities need to survive and prosper. The issue is not limited to small towns, and I suspect it will need to be addressed in greater detail almost everywhere in America.
No one has a deeper, more intimate knowledge of Iowa’s small towns than journalist Chuck Offenburger:
One of my guides to Cherokee, Iowa’s local history, Jim Adamson, at the town’s restored 1896 Illinois Central Railroad Depot:
Posing in front of the Gasthaus Bar and Grille, a popular Cherokee, Iowa, restaurant and watering hole: