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Center of Social Life Lost : Closing Schools Spell Sad Day for Small Iowa Towns

December 06, 1987|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

RENWICK, Iowa — Little towns like this are supposed to be quiet, but lately it's been too quiet. It's the same kind of queasy silence that grips harried parents when the kids stop making that awful racket in the next room.

LaVonne Kraft first noticed it a few months ago, when the teen-agers quit cruising Main Street in their souped-up Trans Ams on the way to and from school.

Teammates on the Boone Valley Bobcats used to gather after football practice at Jan Thompson's Crossroads Inn over on Highway 17 to munch fries, drink Cokes, play video games and listen to the Top 40 on KKEZ, out of Fort Dodge. But not this year. And the basketball hoop that Rich Sawyer, the local grocer, put in behind his house for some of the boys to use after school now sits idle and rusting.

Plagued by plunging enrollment and mounting costs, tiny Renwick closed its junior high and high schools this fall and shipped the kids 20 miles down the road to Humboldt for classes.

Sometime in February (the exact date is still to be set), the town plans a referendum on whether to shut down the rest of the school system, dissolve the school board and parcel the remaining pupils out to five surrounding school districts.

There is little doubt that the issue will pass, but people here say it will be the most significant and emotionally wrenching vote they have ever cast, one that far eclipses in importance the presidential preference caucuses that will also take place in February.

"Presidents come and go," said Bob Oppedahl, a corn farmer who doubles as mayor of Renwick, "but school reorganization is forever."

Some of those presidential candidates, particularly the Republicans, brag that federal supports have put an end to the farm crisis that devastated rural communities throughout America's heartland. But if the worst is over, many small towns have suffered economic and social wounds from which they probably will never recover fully.

Renwick, about 90 miles north of Des Moines, is already a shadow of what it was a decade ago. Population has dwindled from 480 in the 1970 census to about 350 today. The hardware store, the creamery, the cheese factory and the full-service bank all have shut their doors in the last few years.

Not long ago, Michelle Thompson closed her hair salon in the back of the plumbing shop. And Jim Nelson, the realtor, said 28 of the 128 homes in town are on the market and virtually all the rest would be up for sale too, if the owners thought they could get more than a fraction of what they originally paid.

Town's Heart and Soul

As in many a farm community, the public school was the heart and soul of Renwick, the center of social life and community spirit for adults as well as children. The residents fear that its passing will only hasten the town's decline.

"Piece by piece, the town is going," the Rev. Palmer Wold, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, said sadly.

Bustling was never a word to describe Renwick, but thriving once seemed to fit it just fine. When Wes Carlson was school superintendent 25 years ago, the town had a bank, five grocery stores, two hardware stores, two cafes, Ford and Chevrolet dealers, a drugstore, two doctors, a dentist--even a movie theater.

The Boone Valley School District, which took in several surrounding communities, had about 425 pupils back then, so many that in 1963, it added a wing to the old red-brick schoolhouse built in 1916. Last year, before the secondary schools were closed, there were 109 students in all.

"They just ran out of kids over there," Carlson said. "That's a pretty essential ingredient if you want to have a school."

Carlson left in 1964 and eventually took over the much larger school system of Humboldt, the county seat, where enrollment also has shrunk, from more than 2,000 students to fewer than 1,300. He returned to Renwick as part-time superintendent this fall, when the Boone Valley school board, anticipating its own demise, chose to rent administrative services from Humboldt rather than fill a vacancy in the superintendent's office.

Renwick's plight is by no means unique, in Iowa or the Midwest. More than half of the 956 towns in Iowa have fewer than 500 people, and only 52 now have more than 5,000. Ken Stone, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames, said that most of the communities in the state sprang up late in the last century to support the farms around them. Now they find themselves withering not only in size, but in purpose.

"As people became more mobile, small towns lost their reason for being," Stone said.

The economic crisis that plunged many farmers and their families into bankruptcy and pushed them off the land only accelerated the process. So, in a town like Renwick, the only supermarket left is Sawyer's, and his sales have fallen by more than half in recent years as customers flock to the new, much larger Hy-Vee chain store in Humboldt.

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