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Rural Iowa's 'Other' Corn Crop : Small Towns Are a Fertile Field for Home-Grown Fun

Charles Hillinger's America

June 14, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

WHAT CHEER, Iowa — The comings and goings in rural Iowa may not resemble life in the fast lane. But life here definitely moves in a lane of its own.

In this town, for instance, Gary Roddy, 38, is police chief as well as full-time fry cook in his cafe, the What Cheer Inn. Roddy, however,is not only chief of police--he's the entire department.

The phone is only an arm's length away from the griddle where he prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner for his customers. As police chief, Roddy is paid $12,000 a year. On call 24 hours, he patrols the town in his police car at night.

"Hey, Linda, take over. I got to run," the chief shouts to his wife when an emergency call comes in. Then he removes his chef's hat and apron, puts on his blue What Cheer Police Department shirt and hops into his car, parked beneath the "No Parking. Reserved for Police Department" sign in front of the cafe.

British and Welsh immigrant coal miners gave this tiny southeastern Iowa town its peculiarname in the mid-1800s, derived from the miners' popular greeting, Wot Cher , meaning be of good cheer.

What Cheer, population 800, is one of hundreds of quaint farm centers dotting this farm state. It is best known to Iowans as the home of the What Cheer opera house. Owned by the town, the 580-seat house is operated by a 12-person board headed by the mayor, retired farmer William John White, 70.

Just about every town in Iowa has a water tower. But the state's most unusual one is in Stanton, population 750, in Montgomery County.

Shaped like a giant Swedish coffee pot--complete with lid, handle, spout and floral decorations--the tower is 125 feet high and is visible for miles when lighted at night. The giant pot holds 40,000 gallons of water, enough to make 640,000 cups of coffee, according to Don Peterson of the Stanton Chamber of Commerce.

Stanton, often referred to as the Swedish capital of Iowa, is the hometown of Virginia Christine, who played Mrs. Olson in the long-running Folger coffee commercials.

"The town converted the water tower to look like a Swedish coffee pot in 1971 in honor of Virginia," said Jeanne Honette, Christine's high school speech teacher. Christine was born in Stanton and lived here until she was 17, when she left for Los Angeles and an acting career.

Because every home in the community is painted white, Stanton is also called Iowa's Little White City. The town also is famous for potatis korv , Swedish sausage.

Welcoming signs are a familiar part of the American landscape. But the sign on a country road leading to Readlyn in northeastern Iowa is definitely an eye-catcher. It reads: "Readlyn 857 Friendly People And One Old Grump."

"We wanted a sign people wouldn't forget," explained Roger Wolff, 51, one of 15 mechanics in the town's three garages. Farmers for miles around come to Readlyn for car, truck and farm equipment repairs.

Wolff wore a hat that proclaimed: "I'm the Grump." His brother, Jim, 39, wore a hat that said "No, I'm the Grump." Meanwhile, in another part of town, Sam Sickles, 70, was wearing an "I'm the Old Grump" hat.

"Anytime we get to feeling ornery, we put on a Grump hat," noted Roger Wolff.

In northwestern Iowa many cars can be seen with University of Okoboji bumper and window stickers. News, music and weather reports are broadcast over 24-hour University of Okoboji KUOO Campus Radio, FM 104, out of Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Thousands from throughout the Midwest are expected to travel to Dickinson County, population 15,000, for this summer's annual University of Okoboji track meet, marathon, triathlon, tennis, soccer and rugby tournaments.

Stores in the county feature University of Okoboji T-shirts, sweat shirts and gift items.

But there is no University of Okoboji. There's only a mythical one, created 15 years ago by Milford clothier Herman Richter, 43, and supported by merchants and residents of Dickinson County.

"We broadcast local school lunch menus, including a daily off-the-wall bogus menu for the University of Okoboji during the school year," noted Paul Koch, 27, news director for KUOO Campus Radio.

Koch said that when the station refers to UOO students, it is referring to residents of the eight small towns in Dickinson County, "our mythical campuses." One of the towns is called Okoboji, a Sioux Indian word meaning a place of rest.

More than 250,000 University of Okoboji bumper stickers have been printed and distributed, he noted.

Not only does Iowa have a mythical university, it also has a mythical Navy--the Bonaparte Navy, headquartered in the southeastern corner of the state.

An archaic little village of 150-year-old brick and stone buildings, Bonaparte, population 450, resembles the gold mining towns of California's Mother Lode. It was founded in 1836 on the north bank of the Des Moines River.

When Biff Dysart, 41, a former Keokuk newspaper editor, and his wife, Munga, 36, started Iowa's first canoeing service 13 years ago, they also launched the Bonaparte Navy. Everyone in the mythical navy is an admiral; a membership card attests to that.

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