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Hometown USA: Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough Communities Do
Thursdays are Tenderloin Day at the Mill Creek Café in Clarence, Iowa. Farmers flock to the restaurant to enjoy the sandwich and each other’s company.
As in most small towns, farming and the businesses on main street are the pulse of the community. And like many towns in ag-centered rural America, Clarence has had to rebound from the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Rural America is at a crossroads. The trends portend a shrinking population base and a changing demographic. Successful Farming magazine covered this topic in our July cover story and is following up with compelling stories from our editors revisiting their hometowns in South Dakota, Iowa, New York, Maryland, and Nebraska.
Clarence is located in eastern Iowa.
History of Clarence
The first permanent settlers in the area made homes along the banks of Mill Creek northeast of Clarence in 1844. They named the little village Onion Grove because of the widespread growth of wild onions along the banks of the creek.
In 1858, the railroad known then as the Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska (now the Chicago & Northwestern) was graded and track was laid south of Onion Grove. With the arrival of the railroad, the few buildings in Onion Grove were moved to the present town site. In 1862, a merchant suggested changing the name to Clarence, in honor of his native town of Clarence, New York.
The population of Clarence has waffled around 1,000 people over the past few decades, with many families going back for generations. I grew up on an acreage a mile south of town. My family has been in the mortuary business in Clarence since 1947; my nephew is the fourth-generation Chapman Funeral Home funeral director. I graduated from Clarence-Lowden high school in 1982. Since then, two more towns joined the rural district, creating North Cedar. The district is now split between four communities: Clarence, Lowden, Mechanicsville, and Stanwood.
After high school, I left Clarence for Iowa State University in Ames, three hours away. After graduation, I remained in central Iowa, got a job, and felt helpless as the farm crisis began to take its toll on those dear to me in my hometown.
Mark Dewell was raised on a farm north of Clarence, and our families were great friends. Unfortunately, the Dewell crop and livestock farm was a casualty of those awful farm crisis years, and his dream of farming seemed to be over. But it didn’t stop him. He got involved with the Clarence Co-op, which is now a branch of River Valley Cooperative and has become a location manager.
“As a whole, I think everybody in the area has pretty much rebounded,” says Dewell. “We have our bad times and then we have some really good times, and hopefully that offsets to where it keeps everything in flow.”
The co-op’s concrete grain elevators on the east side of town used to be well-known as the Clarence skyline. That skyline changed dramatically when the elevators were torn down six years ago. They had stress fractures and cracks that could lead to an explosion if grain was put in them, explains Dewell. They were a safety hazard not only for employees, but for the town as well. The decision was made not to rebuild.
“It did hurt. A lot of farmers did not like it,” says Dewell. “But we didn’t want to rebuild in town because we could run into a lot of dust issues.”
Bob Hasselbusch’s family has been farming in the area since 1886. The 78-year-old and his wife, Arlynn, raised crops, cattle, and sheep. When tough times hit in the 80s, it was family that helped them through.
“We had family support from both sides, so we didn’t have to pay loans at 17%,” says Arlynn. “Everything that helped us, we hope we’re passing on.”
The farm crisis also affected the livelihood of folks who lived in town. Bob Hunwardsen’s family has lived in Clarence since 1921, with most of those decades spent in the construction business. Bob says there is a Hunwardsen-built home on nearly every street in Clarence. During those lean years in the ’80s, their business was down – but not out, he says.
“We ventured out to keep our help busy. We decided to build a couple of spec homes and sell them,” says Hunwardsen. “It wasn’t the best investment, but it worked out. The interest was high for us, but we were able to keep all of our help busy. They had families, and we wanted to do what we could for them.”
The Effect on Main Street
Highway 30, the Old Lincoln Highway, crosses the entire United States. Clarence is one of only two towns in Iowa that can call Highway 30 “Main Street.” After the farm crisis, Main Street deteriorated. Businesses closed. Clarence lost its only grocery store. About 3,500 cars go right through downtown Clarence every day, but there isn’t much to stop for.
Lifelong resident Lynn Butterbrodt was on a committee hoping to bring a grocery store back to Clarence. The effort was not successful, but the townspeople have adapted. Clarence has evolved from a self-sufficient agricultural town to more of a bedroom community today. People are moving in from larger cities for the safety and inexpensive housing that a small town offers. They work in cities such as Davenport, Iowa City, or Cedar Rapids, all about a 45-minute drive away.
“I’m not sure how a grocery store would do here right now because we have a lot of folks who work out of town. I’m one of them,” says Butterbrodt. “When I go past a Fareway or Hy-Vee, I stop.”
Clarence Is Clawing Back
A core group of leaders is pushing forward. In 2017, the city joined the state’s Main Street Program, which provides technical assistance to help with revitalization efforts. In 2018, the town was awarded a $100,000 Catalyst grant that will be used to kick off downtown renovations, starting with the near-century-old Clarence Motor Building.
Eight years ago, Jamie Wilhau and Marsha Syring opened Mill Creek Café in that building. There are two homemade main course offerings, sides, and desserts that change daily, except for the ever-popular Tenderloin Day. Wilhau says their plan for the grant funding is to add space for a couple more businesses in the front, an event center in the back of the building, and if money allows, rooms on the second story for a bed-and-breakfast-type of offering. The hope is that the project will encourage more building renovations and business development.
Tami Finley is the Clarence Main Street Director. She is optimistic that every building on Main Street can be filled.
“There are 54 Main Street communities in Iowa. I think they’re all feeling the same thing: It’s like people are going back to the downtown, looking for destinations, looking for ways to spend time in town,” she says. “I think what we have learned is that there is more support out there for what we’re doing than what we ever thought there would be. For the first time in a long time, we are pulling together for a similar cause.”
Rural communities that survive adapt with the times. No longer can Clarence residents and farmers buy everything they need in town, but specialty businesses and destination experiences are what Finley believes will be the economic boon for Clarence. She says there are plans to turn the vacant old creamery building into a vintage car museum, and to reconstruct a long-gone bandshell to host concerts and other community events.
A rock shop on the west edge of town peaks the curiosity of many travelers who stop to check it out, and then of course, they need lunch.
Maybe they’ll get to experience Tenderloin Day, and they’ll be back.