Hometown USA: Johnston, Iowa, Transforms From Rural to Residential
When my editorial director asked for volunteers to go back to our hometowns and report on how things have changed, I quickly raised my hand. One reason for my eager response was that I didn’t have to travel very far to go back home. In fact, I didn’t have to take a single step. That’s because I currently live in my hometown of Johnston, Iowa.
As a matter of fact, I am the third generation of Gandys who claim Johnston as their hometown. So to fulfill my contribution to this series of stories, I’d like to draw upon my family’s history to illustrate how everyday life has evolved from rural to residential over the past seven decades by sharing three personal snapshots in time.
Note: Before the city of Johnston became incorporated in 1969, the official town name was Johnston Station (named in honor of John F. Johnston, a station agent for the inter-urban railroad that ran through the area). In case you notice the two different town names being used, that’s the reason why.
SNAPSHOT 1: 1940s
My father, Wayne LeRoy Gandy, spent his high school and early adult years on an acreage in the small Midwestern unincorporated town of Johnston Station, Iowa. From 1941 to 1968, his family owned the two-bedroom bungalow home that sat on the 1-acre property. For the first seven years they lived at that address, the home had no indoor plumbing but had a hand pump in the kitchen that drew water from a well. In 1948, a septic tank was installed in the backyard, and the home was outfitted with indoor plumbing.
For Wayne, his two younger brothers (Harold and Donald), auto mechanic father (Walter), and homemaker mother (Grace), their rural home life was manual and labor-intensive: milking cows, feeding chickens, raising rabbits, tending the yard and garden, seeing to the outhouse, hand-pumping well water, cooking everything from scratch, and always working additional odd jobs. The strong work ethic Wayne adopted during this time would continue through the rest of his life.
Making Ends Meet
To help his family make ends meet, Wayne, during his high school years, worked at a small local dairy owned by Jim Scott. “Mr. Scott sold milk for 9¢ a bottle and cream for 10¢ a bottle,” Wayne remembers. “My brother, Harold, and I hand-washed those glass milk bottles after school. On the days when Mr. Scott’s regular helper wasn’t available, I got up at 4:30 a.m., rode in the bed of his old Ford pickup truck, and helped deliver milk to customers’ front doors.” Due to those occasional weekday deliveries, Wayne got to school late. But because the school principal was Scott’s wife, she excused his tardiness with a wink and a nod, Wayne recalls.
Also during his high school years, Wayne worked at a private hatchery that was located in the basement of Stew Harvey’s home. (Harvey ran the local feed store.) Wayne cleaned up, set, and sorted up to 5,000 eggs at a time. “To set the eggs, I put them in the incubator, turned on the heat lamps, and monitored them for 21 days. Any rotten eggs were thrown out. Oh, that smell just about knocked me over,” he vividly remembers. “To sort the eggs, I ran each one over a light to see if there was a chick growing inside. Once the chicks hatched, I examined each one and, with my hands, broke the neck of any deformed bird.”
Wayne enjoyed working with animals and especially liked raising New Zealand white rabbits for meat. He started with a few rabbits in grade school and had up to 100 in high school. “Dad was a pretty good carpenter, so he built three-tiered hutches for my rabbits. I kept the males in the bottom areas; the females in the middle sections; and the young ones in the top tiers,” he says. Once he bred his rabbits, it took about 30 days for the females to give birth, often producing 10 babies at a time. “Every morning, I fed my rabbits a mixture of corn, oats, and barley. For extra nutrition, I bought alfalfa or timothy hay from Mr. Harvey. In the summer, I gave the rabbits any throw-away greens from Dad’s garden,” he says. He proudly recalls that he entered one of his larger female rabbits in the Iowa State Fair and won a fifth-place ribbon.
Wayne not only raised his rabbits, but also butchered them for meat. “I tried – unsuccessfully – to make pelts from the fur,” he adds. He washed the meat and wrapped each piece in wax paper. Generally, he dressed rabbits to order and delivered them the same day.
He says the 1- and 2-pound dressed rabbits were the most tender, and he saved those for his regular customers. “Bigger rabbits tended to be tough and were best in stews that simmered a long time to make them tender,” he says. He remembers that he started out selling the meat for 50¢ per rabbit, dressed. “Thinking back, I probably could have charged more, but I didn’t,” he says.
Living Off The Land
Walter bought a calf and a hog each year to butcher. In the fall, Grace cold-packed the meat so her family would have beef and pork all winter. “That cold-packed meat was good eating,” remembers Wayne. They also had two milk cows for daily milk, butter, and cream. Walter did the morning milking; Wayne attended to the evening milking. Walter also bought 100 chicks from Stew Harvey’s basement hatchery each spring and let the birds grow. The chickens provided eggs and meat for the family throughout the year.
Every spring, Walter borrowed neighbor Bea Stone’s team of mules so he could plow up the dark black soil for a .5-acre garden plot. Walter hand-planted the 2-pound bags of seed he bought at Harvey’s feed store. For potatoes, he used sprouted potato slices saved from the previous year and buried them in dirt mounds. Under the hot, summer sun, Walter tended his crops without complaint – unlike his future granddaughters. His garden wasn’t a hobby or a pleasant pastime; it was serious sustenance for the year.
When harvested, Grace prepped the vegetables by washing them in water that she hand-pumped from a well. “From that produce, Mom canned 100 quarts of green beans and tomatoes and anything else Dad grew,” Wayne recalls. It’s important to note that growing sweet corn in family gardens was not encouraged during this time. Pioneer, a major employer in the community, provided free sweet corn to the residents and even delivered it to doors. Wayne says the company didn’t want to risk cross-pollination of its famous hybrid corn.
The Gandys of the 1940s didn’t have fancy seed packets to compare their vegetables to, didn’t have prepackaged foods to speed up dinner preparations, didn’t know what it was like to not have endless manual chores. But they did have strong backs, pretty defined farmer’s tans, and a deep-rooted love for their self-sustaining rural lifestyle.
Note: Wayne Gandy will turn 93 on December 26, 2018.
SNAPSHOT 2: 1960s
I grew up on an acreage in the small Midwestern unincorporated town of Johnston Station, Iowa. From 1955 to 1967, my mechanic father (Wayne) and homemaker mother (Mary) owned the two-bedroom bungalow home (built in 1900) that sat on the 1-acre property. This home was across the gravel road and down three houses from where my father grew up in the 1940s and where his parents still lived.
The house had well water, indoor plumbing, no air-conditioning, and a six-person party line telephone.
While my father labored at his full-time job, my mother’s life was filled with manual domestic chores: washing clothes in a wringer washing machine, hanging laundry on the outdoor clothesline to dry, ironing a week’s worth of washing, baking bread from scratch, cooking three meals a day, keeping the house clean, sewing clothes for her family, gardening, canning, and mowing an acre’s worth of grass in the summer.
On the other hand, for my two sisters (Doris and Joan) and me, life was pretty simple: no soccer practices or dance classes, no hanging out at the mall or going to Girl Scout camp. Other than doing a few chores around the house, we spent our time riding our bikes up and down the gravel road, bickering with each other, and climbing our favorite apple trees.
That was before my mother decided we were old enough to help her with the garden.
It Looked So Easy
Mom gathered us around the kitchen table where we studied the glossy pictures on the seed packets – plump red tomatoes, brilliant yellow corn on the cob, bulging pea pods, leafy lettuce, and slender green beans. The three-sentence planting instructions implied simple, no-fail success. We were eager to grow our own food!
But first the ground had to be tilled. A neighbor with a disk on his tractor plowed about a 60-foot square patch. The deep black dirt clods practically glistened in the sunlight.
Ready to plant our garden, my mother staked off one row. She tied a string around a stick at the north end, then secured the other end of the string to the south-end twig. Her guide made, she took the hoe and furrowed the dirt straight along the taunt string. Following her example, we girls joined in the staking, stringing, and furrowing. It was quickly determined that Joan was too young to perform these tasks.
This was harder work than Doris and I anticipated, and we complained. We grumbled that our backs hurt, the sun was too hot, and we just couldn’t understand why we needed perfectly straight rows. We were eager for the “fun” part to begin.
Planting The Seed
At long last, the rows were ready to hold the seeds. Mom tore open the packets, positioned Doris at the beginning of one row, me at the beginning of another, and instructed us how close to plant each seed. Carefully calculating the distance, we placed each seed in its cradle. Mom followed us, tucking in the seeds under a blanket of dirt.
Somehow kneeling in the soft soil with a handful of seeds and an image of a bountiful crop, our backs didn’t hurt so much and the sun wasn’t so hot.
Each morning, we girls ran to the garden to see if any plant had popped through the dirt. It was the day after a good night’s rain that we discovered a prolific outbreak of tiny green plants. We were breathless as we ran back to report our wonderful news to Mom. Not only did our perfectly lined, carefully placed seeds come up, but thickly dotted between the rows were hundreds of “bonus” plants!
A Never-Ending Chore
Over the next several weeks, Doris and I became weed-identification experts. Every morning, we were assigned rows to weed. Endless hours (or so it seemed to us) were spent sitting between the mounds, absently pulling those “bonus” plants of buttonweeds and crabgrass. Again, we grumbled that our backs hurt and the sun was too hot. Those seed packet instructions never said anything about weeding.
As we reluctantly tended our ever-growing garden, the plants bloomed and soon we recognized tiny peas, beans, and, eventually, tomatoes. We remembered those perfect seed packet vegetables and weeded with renewed vigor.
Worth The Work
It was little sister Joan who ate the first sun-warmed tomato. As she sank her teeth into the red-ripe skin, juice squirted down her arm and chin.
That summer, my sisters and I discovered the simple enjoyment of eating a plump tomato, sprinkling salt on every bit; unzipping pea pods, running our thumbs down the shells and popping raw peas into our mouths; picking a “mess” of green beans, snapping off both ends, watching Mom as she boiled them with strips of bacon, and then eating a plateful for supper.
Just like Grandma Grace, Mom canned jars and jars of green beans and corn and tomatoes and relish and pickles. To my mother, our garden wasn’t a hobby or a pleasant pastime; it provided serious sustenance for the year.
For the Gandys of the 1960s, we didn’t care that our vegetables didn’t mirror those pictured on the seed packets. Our tomatoes were lopsided, and the ears of corn had crooked rows. But to my family, our garden contained the finest-tasting vegetables we’d ever eaten. As a result of our hard work, we had strong backs and suntanned arms and a growing love for our self-sustaining rural lifestyle.
SNAPSHOT 3: 2018
In 2006, I moved back to my hometown of Johnston, Iowa, into a new residential development called The Neighborhood at 86th Street (shown at right). Although the 26 homes in my little two-block cul-de-sac are reminiscent of 1950 suburbia with big front porches, close proximities, and shared driveways, the truly rural, self-sustaining lifestyles that my grandpa, my dad, and I grew up with have been tucked into the past.
Oh, there are pockets of rurality in the older section of town still peeking through: like the ditches that line some of the blacktopped roads; the handful of homes that still have gravel driveways; a lone soybean field on main street that is bookended by an artisan beer company and a veterinary dermatology clinic. These rural reminders are slipping away, however, in the name of economic development.
These days, Johnston – with its I-80/35 exchange traffic of 95,500 daily vehicles, a city administrative staff of 95 full-time workers, a continuing population boom, and the obligatory Starbucks or two – is generally considered a suburb of Des Moines (population 634,725 per the 2016 census), Iowa’s capital city.
Vast changes have happened since the small town of Johnston Station incorporated on December 11, 1969, and became the city of Johnston. A big factor for the move from rural to residential can be tied to Pioneer Hi-Bred’s incredible growth and commitment to the area. Although it operates under a new parent name now, Corteva Agriscience, the once-small ag company that Henry A. Wallace started in the 1920s by doing hybrid corn experiments now headquarters a worldwide network of 13,500 employees (2,800 are employed in Johnston).
According to the Johnston Economic Development Guide, good-paying jobs that require high-level degrees have contributed to median home values in the $262,900 range. Good-bye gravel roads and ditches. Hello cemented triple-wide driveways.
To illustrate how far the city has developed, the charts below show a fun comparison of various aspects from my grandpa and dad’s time (1940s), my childhood time (1960s), and today (2018).
|1940s:||Since Johnston was unincorporated, specific records are not available.|
|1960s:||2,236 (1970 census after incorporation)|
|2018:||20,460 (2016 census)|
|1940s:||It is not known what Walter Gandy bought the home at 6485 NW 56th Street for (shown at left below)|
|1956:||Wayne Gandy bought the home at 6520 NW 56th Street for $8,700 (shown at right below)|
|2018:||Current assessments for 6485 is $117,500; for 6520 is $132,000|
|1940s:||1 school (K-12)|
|1960s:||1 high school (7-12); 1 elementary school (K-6)|
|2018:||1 high school (10-12); 2 middle schools (6-7 and 8-9); 5 elementary schools (K-5)|
|1940s:||20 students in 1944|
|1960s:||49 students in 1962|
Main Street Surface
|1940s:||2-lane brick road|
|1960s:||2-lane cement street|
|2018:||5-lane cement street|
Main Street Stoplights
Main Street Gas Stations
|1940s:||Otto’s Deep Rock with 3 pumps|
|1960s:||Otto’s Conoco with 3 pumps; Al’s Texaco with 2 pumps|
|2018:||QT with 8 pumps; Hy-Vee with 16 pumps; Casey’s with 12 pumps; Kum & Go with 16 pumps|
|2018:||Hy-Vee, Fareway, Price Chopper|
|1940s:||Hy-Line Int’l, Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company, Camp Dodge|
|1960s:||Hy-Line Int’l, Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company, Camp Dodge|
|2018:||Corteva (Pioneer), John Deere Financial, Camp Dodge|
As is evident in the statistics above, Johnston has grown into a thriving city. Having large employers in the area is a big part of Johnston’s continuing development.
According to the city’s website, growth is also due to its unique situation of being close to downtown Des Moines and close to nature. Its people are drawn to city complexities, yet they yearn for rural simplicities. Entwining rural with residential, the Johnston Economic Development Guide says strong schools, good jobs, more than 35 miles of trails, responsive government, friendly neighbors, low crime stats, and wide-open green spaces are what make Johnston a great place to live.
Mayor Paula Dierenfeld agrees that Johnston offers a quality of life that is unsurpassed anywhere else. “Johnston continues to be one of the fastest-growing communities in the state of Iowa and regularly ranks among the best places in America to live. We have great schools and great employers, and an ever-expanding park and trail system. It is a safe place to live and to raise a family,” she says. “As Johnston has grown, we have maintained that small-town feel that is important to our residents. Our community is a place where neighbors know their neighbors and look out for each others’ children.”
As a third-generation Gandy in the 2000s, I don’t grow my own vegetables from fancy seed packets, but I do stop every now and then at a farmers market to pick up locally grown produce – especially tomatoes – from nearby small family farms. These days, my rural-root efforts go toward maintaining a backyard pollinator garden to help increase the declining monarch butterfly populations. I can’t say I have an especially strong back or suntanned arms due to my labors, but I continue to cultivate a love for my hometown of Johnston – as I remember what was, experience what is, and anticipate what will be.