This was the second of a four-day series in The Des Moines Register that examined how the decline in family farms frayed the fabric of rural life in Iowa. The series was awarded the 2000 Outstanding Achievement Award by Gannett. The award is given in recognition of the best writing in the annual competition.
March 28, 2000
Rural Iowa faces a fraying fabric
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Manning, Ia. – At the foot of Jack Lorenzen’s hospital bed lay a quilt, a handmade symbol that a deathly ill man in small-town Iowa is never alone.
When word got out that the retired farmer was sick, the whole town of Manning quickly assembled to offer sustenance to the sorrow-stricken family.
The people sent cards — by “the bushel-basketful,” a healthier Lorenzen now recalls. They prayed and made phone calls and offered inspiring words of hope.They even sent food.
And then came the quilt.
The burgundy and blue blanket was a gift from the Manning Presbyterian women to Lorenzen, a Methodist. As each woman hand-tied a knot, she said a prayer for Jack Lorenzen.
“I laid it on his bed, and I feel it really made a difference,” says Lorenzen’s wife, Wava.
A year later, the modest quilt still reminds the Lorenzens of an Iowa town’s unwavering faith.
“I don’t think you would ever find that kind of support in a city,” Wava Lorenzen says. “As small towns continue to fade away, I just hope we don’t lose that.”
The changes in Iowa farming are depopulating the state’s countryside, leavingf ewer hands to care for the fields -and for their fellow man. The profound change threatens to steal a piece of Iowa’s soul, which is rooted in farming towns such as Manning.
In a state without mountains or ocean views, Iowans have defined their state by its principled people, respected schools and close-knit churches. Even city dwellers take pride in agrarian values of hard work, trustworthiness and charity.
“We have taken it for granted, assumed that it was always going to be there,” said Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University.
Iowans have spent immeasurable hours trying to save their towns by adding community centers, parks and new businesses. “What is needed now is the strengthening of the social fabric,” Lasley says.
Step onto the brick streets of Manning, where Iowa’s traditional values still penetrate most everything. When a farmer is ill, his neighbors do his chores. When a child is hospitalized, the town holds a soup supper to help pay the medical bills.
And when a man with cancer loses 42 pounds in two months, and when his lungs stop working, and when his heart threatens to quit, that’s when a small town leaps into action.
Jack and Wava Lorenzen made sure everyone in town knew how much that meant: They bought an ad in the local newspaper, The Manning Monitor, and thanked their little town.
“How can we ever begin to say thank you for all the many, many kindnesses?” the couple wrote. “Manning, what a great place to call home!”
Manning, a town where more than one-third of the population is 60 or older, has its share of sickness and death. The town’s six churches respond to crisis by making quilts, starting prayer chains and serving potluck dinners after every funeral.
As the town ages, the acts of charity are endangered. Thirty years ago, women such as Wava Lorenzen were the youngest ones serving casseroles and Jell-O salads at funeral lunches. Thirty years later, these women now in their 60s and 70s still are the youngest.
“You can tell it’s hard on them, standing there three to four hours at a time, setting tables and serving tables,” said Curt Dwyer, assistant pastor at Zion Lutheran Church. “But they are always willing to serve. A number of them are widows themselves whose husbands have been served in this way.”
Dwyer and the Methodist pastor, Larry McAlpine, say the funeral lunches may need to be catered in the future.
“It used to be that you would send loads and loads of food home with the families,” McAlpine said. “Now, we’re quite often wondering whether we have enough for everybody.”
The pastors say their churches aren’t dying, just changing. Both have recruited young families, including farmers, to their congregations. Often, though, both spouses work, leaving little time for such community activities as quilting and funeral lunches.
Last year, the Methodists disbanded one of the church’s circles, leaving only three.
Sometimes, church attendance suffers.
“Manning is a very driven, hard-working community,” Dwyer says. “Guys are trying so hard to make their farms go . . . and they are trying to catch up on the farm on Saturdays or Sundays.”
The churches have made adjustments to fit with the complicated schedules. The Lutherans now hold a Saturday night service. They have an evening circle forworking women. The Methodists hold evening family nights, with games and treats, to maintain a way of life wrapped tightly around farming and faith in God.
“Most people see that the fruits from the land are a grace from God,” McAlpine says.
In Manning and towns across Iowa, many residents have been baptized, married and buried in the same church. In schools, children are sometimes learning from the same teachers their parents had. The consistency creates a common identity that feels more like an extended family than a town. When one of the family falls out of line, others are there to help, or to scold, if need be.
In towns such as Manning, the unwritten rules of conduct often are as effective as the town cop -if there even is one.
“Our people watch out for each other,” says Lila Schroeder, 70, of Manning.
The result: a strong sense of community, she says.
Take, for example, the day the Manning girls basketball team played in a first-round game at the state tournament in Des Moines. A caravan of fans headed east on Iowa Highway 141 early that Monday morning.
“Even if you don’t have kids, you still go to the games,” says Schroeder. The morning of the game, Manning, population 1,484, was unusually empty.
On most weekdays, Main Street is bustling. While towns around it have withered, Manning thrives with three banks, a pharmacy, a furniture store, insurance offices, a grocery store and numerous other businesses. The town recently brought a Haus Barn from Germany to Manning, hoping it will attract tourists toa town settled by German immigrants.
The Manning Regional Healthcare Center, on Main Street, is undergoing a $4.5 million expansion. Two years ago, the town recruited Enterprise Corporation International, which provides technical support for computer hardware. The town is trying to recruit an ethanol plant, too.
“We aren’t afraid to dream, and we try to see how far we can go,” said Howard Roe, president of the Manning Betterment Foundation and senior vice president of First National Bank of Manning.
To stay afloat, the town has branched out economically, a strategy applauded by ISU’s rural experts.
“If you hang your hat solely on agriculture, you can just forget it,” says city administrator Don Luensmann.
Pastor McAlpine hopes the town’s connection to the land doesn’t disappear.
“One of the big struggles in Manning is that they don’t forget the people who built it up,” McAlpine says.
Some of those people show up for coffee every morning at Deb’s Corner Cafe. Wearing a cap with the words “Genuine Antique Farmer,” Jack Lorenzen sips at his coffee and remembers Iowa during a simpler time.
He recalls when he milked five cows and had 300 chickens. On Saturdays, the family sold cream and eggs in town and used the proceeds for groceries.
“We didn’t have anything left, but we didn’t owe anybody either,” Lorenzen says.
The simpler era suddenly turned complicated. The 1980s brought loads of heartache to the Lorenzen farm. Two sons, burdened by debt, couldn’t find a way out. A father and mother tried to help, but facing financial problems of their own, they failed to reverse the inevitable.
On a rainy spring day in 1983, both sons drove their farm machinery into Manning for auction.
“I was just devastated,” Lorenzen says. “I thought the world was going to end. I was looking so forward to working with them.”
Lorenzen retired from farming in 1994.
On Oct. 15, 1998, he was admitted toMercy Medical Center in Des Moines with cancer. The surgery went well, but he contracted an infection.
“We nearly lost him,” his wife recalls. He didn’t return to the farm until Jan. 16, 1999.
The quilt that lay at the foot of his bed now hangs on the living room wall at the farm. It is a constant reminder of a town that cared.
And it is a reminder to reciprocate. In March, the Lorenzens got word that another Manning farmer, 64, was ill at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines.
On a cool night in March, the couple paid a visit to a friend.