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Rural residents pool cash to save last local gathering places

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Charlie Neibergall/AP

(Read caption) Ron Oberhelman (r.) talks with fellow owners Rod Nelson (l.) and Jeff Thompson in their Blue Moose Saloon, which opened in September in Renwick, Iowa.

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Once-bustling Renwick, Iowa, lost its grocery, hardware store, school and Ford dealership years ago, but when its sole bar closed last June, it seemed to some residents there wasn't much of a town left.

So a group of seven friends and spouses who had met at the bar for decades took matters into their own hands. One of them bought the place and the others pooled their money to fix it up, showing up after work to replace floors and walls on steamy summer nights before reopening in September as the Blue Moose Saloon.

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It was an impressive achievement but one that is becoming more common as population continues to trickle away from rural America. Residents of some towns are scrambling to hold on to at least a few places where people can still get together. It's not just bars but groceries, cafes and other stores.

They don't expect to turn around their communities' prospects, but after watching so many businesses shuttered, they feel they had to draw the line somewhere.

"There are two places not too far, over in Lu Verne, but it's not our place," said one of the Blue Moose owners, Ron Oberhelman, a 59-year-old farmer who has seen the population fall from about 500 to 235 residents. "It's not our home town.

"When your local place closes up, you're pretty much lost."

Renwick's wide streets are usually empty, apart from a trickle of people who stop at the small post office, do business at the towering silver Gold Eagle grain elevators or work at a seed production plant. But cars and pickups begin pulling up to the Blue Moose not long after it opens each afternoon at 4, offering a refuge from the icy wind that blows off the snowy farmland surrounding the community about 90 miles north of Des Moines.

It's a similar situation in the Missouri River village of Decatur, Nebraska, where a dozen people put up money to help the owners rebuild when the Green Lantern Steakhouse burned in 2008. The restaurant, established in 1956, was what brought people into town and served as the main meeting spot in the community of 450 an hour's drive north of Omaha.

"It's not very easy to have a strong, active small town," said Matt Connealy, who lives on a farm just outside Decatur. "You have to do things that don't always make the best sense financially."

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Once reopened, the restaurant resumed its place as the community's hub, home to high school graduation parties and baby showers. Near the entrance, notices cram a bulletin board, so as Connealy notes, "If you want to find out what's happening, that's where you go."

U.S. Census figures show that more than one-third of rural counties have a lower population figure now than in 1930. In Iowa, about two-thirds of the state's 99 counties have lost population for decades. In addition to fewer potential customers, businesses in rural areas face stiff competition from online shopping and from urban chain stores offering big savings for those willing to drive another 30 or 40 miles.

Charles Fluharty, who heads the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa, said he's seen an increase in rural neighbors joining to save local spots. Some create cooperatives or seek government and private grants.

Without gathering places, the residents fear that people in town won't know each other. They won't know who's getting married, who's sick, who needs help.

"There's a sense of, 'We've got to take care of ourselves, and that means we've got to take care of one another because we're all we've got,' " Fluharty said.

In Kiester, Minnesota, the 486 residents went as far as gaining approval from the Legislature for the city to own the local food store. Residents later formed a co-op, and the Kiester Market sign notes, "Proud to be community owned."

Marcia Dahleen, until recently the market manager, said the grocery store relies increasingly on volunteer help. It delivers to elderly people at home and takes special orders for meat.

"We try to bend over backward to help people in town," she said.

Residents of Bowdon, North Dakota, population 135, also created a co-op to save a meat-cutting plant after the owner died. Although it only employed a few people, co-op board member Larry Crowder said it was "the busiest place on Main Street," and that residents feared Bowdon's cafe and co-op grocery could fail if the plant wasn't there to draw people into town. They managed to sell 100 shares at $5,500 apiece to fund a new plant, along with grants.

"They did it to save the town," Crowder said.


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