Small Town, Big Trouble: Is It Too Late for Early, Iowa?

Early, Iowa celebrated its 100th birthday four years ago with fireworks and pomp. Janet Dailey, romance novelist (This Calder Sky) and Early’s most famous native, came back to lead the parade down Main Street, and most of Early’s 670 or so citizens were there to celebrate. To many of the folks who live in Early, however, it seems as if everything’s been going downhill ever since. The farm crisis that has struck much of rural America has cut deeply here. Early’s population has dropped to fewer than 600, its Main Street is usually empty of traffic now, and storefronts with “For Rent” or “Closed” signs outnumber by two to one those open for business. Chicago Bureau Chief Leah Rozen visited Early and talked to residents about the changes in their town. Among those she visited was Josephine Pullen, 73, who was born and raised near the farm her grandfather started more than a century ago.

When I was growing up, the downtown was very much the same as it is now. But it was a very lively, busy, happy town with something going on all the time. There were always church activities and choir. We had picnics and went out to the river. We went to firemen’s dances, and in the summertime we staged amateur theatricals on the upper floor of the barn.

We used to have a movie theater, what we called the Opera House. It burned down, but that was where we used to have community talent shows and dances. That was a big deal, though nobody’d remember except me—it must have been 1917 or ’18. It was the center of activity at that time. My mother took me to see Alla Nazimova, an actress in the early films, and all I can remember is this lady in a black bathing suit and black stockings.

I graduated from high school here, and then I moved to Ida Grove, the next town over. My husband started the rural electrification program there, and I taught art at the school. I moved back here 12 years ago after my husband died. It was the cutest little town, and it had everything you could want, the cutest little grocery store, everything. But you can’t say that anymore. In four years it’s just disappeared. Nobody has any money now, the bank went broke, the Payless Cashway [a lumber and building supply business that was the town’s leading employer] closed, and now we even have to go out of town for our groceries. It seemed like it happened by magic. All of a sudden everything was gone, and it was kind of frightening.

You see, we’re completely dependent on the agriculture situation. We still have some seed dealers and grain elevators, but everyone’s teetering on the edge. Some of these families have lived on their farms for a hundred years, and even those have been lost, mostly because some of these men tried to help their sons get started in farming when times were high and land prices were up. The people who are going out of business are not the bums. They’re the ones who were trying to build for the future, and then times changed and they got caught in the middle.

I think what all these farmers are in horror of is that someday somebody’s going to own this land who doesn’t love it, who’s just there to make money. I hope I don’t live long enough to see that day, to drive out some night and look over this valley and just see five or six lights that belong to one big farm. If it ever comes down to five or six, I hope I’m dead and gone, because my husband spent his life helping all those country people get lights and electricity and lighting up those houses. If those people are all gone, what a tragedy it’ll be. Neil Mason, a 39-year-old father of three, represents the fifth generation of his family to farm in Early. Last year he and his wife, Anita, 39, gave up 140 acres of land in order to pay off debts.

Neil: Nothing’s ever the same any two days in a row on a farm. One day it’s the hay that needs to be mowed, the next day the combine breaks down. That’s the beauty of it.

Anita: What I like is the closeness of the people. If you ever have any problems, you know the people will stick with you.

Neil: Last fall a farmer’s wife around here got caught in the grain auger and lost her leg. The farmers in the neighborhood all got together and harvested their crops. It needed doing. In the winter when there’s a blizzard, we don’t even lock the house, because somebody might have their car break down, and the way the wind’s blowing, we might not hear them knock.

Anita: City people think of farm people as hicks. On TV they always show the oldest farmstead they can find, the worst machinery, the worst hog pen.

Neil: What we do is real sophisticated. You get in a combine today, it’s all computerized. I have to know what kind of fertilizer is used in each field, when to use it, how to mix it. A lot of farmers handle more money after supper than what the school board handles all year, and the board’s on a $700,000-some-thing budget. But if you’re a farmer, if you handle, say, $500,000 to $700,000, you’re lucky to end up with $10,000.

The past five years we’ve had some bad crops and some bad prices. We try and get value from the crops by feeding them to the livestock. Then livestock prices went bad. Now there’s the grain storage problem. Basically, it doesn’t look like the government cares. The first tractor I bought, I paid $5,000. That tractor would be $35,000 now, and we’re paid less for some crops than we were 20 years ago.

Anita: We’ve cut back on a lot of things. We don’t buy new things for the house or the farm. We take vacations that don’t cost us much.

Neil: You talk to your neighbors, and everybody’s having a rough time. You can buy the most beautiful house here for $30,000. Everything’s down—land, housing, everything—only nobody’s got the money to buy. I don’t think people in New York could live like this. There’d be riots. We’ve learned to cope, because we’re all so close, although sometimes we think, what are we fighting this for?

Anita: You just keep thinking things’ll get better.

Neil: And if we move down to Missouri or Texas and things go bad there, who’s gonna care? You’ve at least got your family and relatives here.

Joyce Landgraf, 27, is a farm wife who last year took a job in town reporting the news from Early for a local newspaper. I started more or less for the money. I’m here at the newspaper office Monday and Tuesday, and my husband does the farming and watches our 4-year-old. I’m pregnant now. I’ve asked John what he thinks, and he says I’ll probably have to keep working. I’d rather stay home, but I felt lucky to get this job because there aren’t that many in Early.

My husband was born here. We’re on the farm his father farmed for 40 years before he retired. I’m glad his father got out when he did, because I don’t think he could stand it the way it is now. In January everything we had had to go to the FHA to pay off our loan so we could farm this year. We were on food stamps for about four months, starting in February. It was hard to do, but the way I see it, we’re not getting paid for our crops, so the government can pay for me. A lot of the farmers are on food stamps, more than the people in town realize. The grocery stores even have a push button on their register that says you’re paying by food stamps. They don’t even blink twice.

My husband, he has a four-year degree in Agricultural Business. We could go someplace else and be making money, but we want to live here. We don’t really care if we ever get rich, but we’d like to make a decent living, enough for expenses and to put a little away for retirement. My husband loves farming so much he can’t see doing anything else. I think of what we’re up against, and faith is the only thing that helps.

Alan Mattice, 32, runs an insurance business in Early and heads the Early Promoters, a local booster group. Basically, our job is to just build up a positive mental attitude in Early, to put a little faith in the future. Everybody’s going through a big change in life, and we all hate change but it’s inevitable. We lost the Payless Cashway, which was founded in this town. I think a lot of old-timers never thought it would leave. Along with the farm crunch and then the bank closing, probably just the hardest thing is to keep our dobber up. After the bank closing, we were put on national TV and made to look like bozos, if you ask me.

We’re probably no different than Gary, Ind. was when the steel mills were in trouble, though I think it’s a lot more profound here because you’ve got farms that were in families for generations. Traditionally, a lot of women work just as hard as their husbands, driving a tractor or whatever, but now they’re having to go outside the house and look for work. And young people are going around saying, “It isn’t happening here; let’s go to Texas or Denver or where it’s happening.” Consequently, we’re having a brain drain; there’s not a lot of 35-year-olds here.

Invest Early Inc. is a nonprofit corporation we formed that we’re hoping will lure some small businesses here. We’ll take any newcomers. The main purpose, though, is to bring the community together in a positive mental attitude. We don’t have any grand plan. It’s just go day by day and keep Early here.

The Rev. Gary Bird, 49, is pastor of Early’s 240-member United Methodist Church.

Back last fall when the bank closed I called the other pastors in town, and we pulled together a community support group. It was mostly farm families, and we’d meet monthly. Many of them are living on land that’s third and fourth generation, and they feel a tremendous responsibility.

“Granddad and Dad made it; now I’m not.” The self-worth is the big thing they’ve had to deal with after either losing the farm or just barely hanging in there for another year.

A lot of them are loners because it’s the image they have of a farmer—they’re supposed to be self-sufficient. They have trouble talking about their problems, and some still aren’t talking. I think the biggest relief for some of them was to discover that others were in the same fix. They thought they were the only ones.

Not that you want an economic crisis, but I think it has forced them to face up to their priorities in life. People are pretty religious here. They are close to the earth and the life cycles, and I think that’s a factor. And they can still see the hope. When this hit a year ago, the offerings started increasing, and this has held up. A lot of it’s coming from the farm families themselves. I can’t explain it, and I don’t see how they can keep it up.

David Pickhinke, 49, grew up near Early and has owned his farm there for the past 25 years.

We heard rumors the bank was going to close. We had been hearing it three days before. We went Wednesday, Thursday to get some cash. When we came on noon Friday, we saw two TV stations in the middle of Main. The FDIC came in with four-door cars and all wearing suits, and it does look like the Mafia coming into your town.

I’d banked there for 35 years or even longer. I’d borrowed lots of money but never ever had a note that was delinquent. In our particular case, though, the people who bought the bank called in our notes. We have two boys who wanted to farm so we’d bought land, and then we had to let it go. Now we rent it; we’re fortunate, but it can be sold out from us at any time.

My dad was a farmer. I’m one of six brothers and one girl, and we all went into farming. When I got out of high school, I did construction for a year, and I just didn’t like it. Just being around people, they’ll irritate you. You don’t have this around the farm; you’re your own boss.

I just love what I’m doing. You’re working next to the earth, you’re growing things, you’re raising livestock. You work 14 hours a day, but there’s nobody telling you have to work the next day. A lot of this is just in your blood. It’s a way of life. That’s what it is. And it’s a good way of life.

Scott Petrich, 40, assistant vice-president of Citizens First National Bank in Storm Lake, Iowa. Citizens First National took over the Early Savings Bank after its collapse last year. I’m sympathetic to the people caught in the circumstances of the times, but I’m a banker and a businessman. If they feel it’s a way of life, don’t look to me to borrow money. It’s a business.

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