Notes from Independence, Iowa

July 4, 2011

(View an in-depth look at scenes from Iowa and New Hampshire in a downloadable pdf format here and a look ahead to the primaries here)

#1

The motto of Independence, Iowa is “America’s fame is in our name.” But Mike Anderson, the pastor of Baptist Bethel Church in Independence, says some of the problems besetting the country are on display in this town of 6,000, as well. “People around here don’t work as hard as they used to,” Anderson, 48, said. “Even farmers don’t do a lot of physical work anymore.”

The change — a function of the mechanization of agriculture and the demise of the small family farms he grew up on — has “not been a good thing” for the community, Andersen said.

“When I was growing up, you couldn’t really get in too much trouble because you had a lot to do on the farm. We didn’t work as hard as the previous generation, but we still did a lot of physical work. Now, there are a lot of people who are on welfare around here – and a lot of them really shouldn’t be. People come to me, telling me they’re unhappy with where they’re at and say, ‘I want to change my life.’ I’ll tell them, ‘Well, you need to start getting yourself some gainful employment’ because you always feel better about yourself when you’re productive. It’s a biblical principle. Course the economy right now makes it tough for everyone. It’s harder than it used to be. My oldest son is trying to find something. But there are things to find. And the truth of the matter is someone who really wants to work will find a way to work even when it’s tough like it is now.”

Still, Anderson – a father of six – says he enjoys life in Buchanan County. “For one thing the cost of living isn’t outrageous here. It’s a good lifestyle. There are good folks around here, a good community. And I’m not a city boy. Compared to where I’m from in Iowa, this is the big city. I can’t see myself going anywhere else.”

Sam Smock, a 57-year-old retiree who worked for 30 years at Deere & Co’s tractor factory in nearby Waterloo, Iowa, celebrated the Fourth of July riding on the float his church music group entered in the annual parade in Independence, Iowa.

Five years ago, Smock was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer and told he had only a few months to live. A trip to the Mayo Clinic in neighboring Minnesota at his own expense, however, got him enrolled in a drug trial and a treatment program that his insurance company helped pay for and that brought his PSA levels down to near-normal levels.

But the experience – and the uncovered expenses he’s piled up – have made him an advocate of healthcare reform. And if he has a criticism of the reforms passed last year it’s that they were too watered down.

“My wife’s on a forum of wives of men with prostate cancer,” Smock said. “And you wouldn’t believe all the problems they have. They can’t get the medicine that would save them or prolong their lives either because they can’t afford it or because their insurance companies won’t pay for it.”

He calls President Obama’s healthcare reforms “a step in the right direction, but nowhere near what we need.” But he says fellow members of his congregation in Independence, First Baptist Church, think Obama went too far. “A lot of people feel that way in my church,” he said. “They don’t think the government should be in the healthcare business even though they all have friends and relatives who are on Medicare.”

Smock said the billions of dollars the U.S. government spends overseas annually on the military and foreign aid should be invested back home instead. “Why don’t we take care of the people back here at home? Suddenly everyone’s worried about our deficit and talking about the need to cut Medicare and Social Security. But at the same time they’re giving other countries billions of dollars. Well, there’s your money. I know we’re supposed to help other people and help other countries. But if we let ourselves fail, we aren’t going to be able to help anybody else.”

He says he thinks the country is “trying to go in the right direction” but worries that the growing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans results in “too much battling. We need to think of us — we the people. That’s what the Fourth of July is all about. It isn’t about parties.”

Smock, who raises mules as a hobby and uses them to pull him to church in a cart on the occasional Sunday, has never lived outside Buchanan County. But he only lived in Independence, the county seat, once — and just for two months.

“I lived in an apartment here when I first got married,” he said, “and I quickly knew I couldn’t live in town. Nothing against the town. I’m just a country boy. Born in the country and hopefully I can die there. Just hopefully not anytime soon.”

At 93, Lyle Luloff claims to be the oldest licensed tractor operator in the state of Iowa. On Monday, he drove a 65-year-old red Farmall tractor he restored in the Fourth of July parade down Independence, Iowa’s main street.

Like a lot of people in Buchanan County, Luloff was born here and never lived anywhere else. He farmed for 30 years in nearby Brandon, Iowa and then moved to Independence and became a claims adjuster for an insurance company, covering seven counties.

Farming has changed a lot in his lifetime. “The farms are way bigger,” Luloff said. “I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. It’s been good for me. But the generation coming up, I do worry about them. Looks like it’s going to be tough — tougher than it was for me. I farmed 200 acres. But even back then, I always had an outside job. I baled hay for 25 years for everybody within 10 miles of my home. It takes so much money to operate these days. A lot of them are going to be lucky to be hired help. ”

Luloff and his 89-year-old wife, Ivadell, have been married for 71 years, and remain active. They organize and oversee the weekly Friday night dances at the senior center, which draws a mostly younger crowd of 70- and 80-year-olds.

He restores tractors, though he says he’s “getting too old to clean them up and paint them” and has reduced his personal collection of old farm equipment to the 1946 International Farmall he was riding in Monday’s parade. “It’s a good runner and I got a lot of faith in it,” he said. “It’s going to get me there and get me back.”

Luloff said he had few concerns about the United States as he marked today’s anniversary of the country’s birth. “But I don’t worry too much about anything these days,” he said. “We’re in a good place for me, let me put it that way.”

#2

Morning Perks is an all-woman, weekly prayer group that meets every Tuesday in the back room of Em & Jerri’s coffee shop in Independence, Iowa. Darla Shultz, 49, and Carla Reynolds, 45, founded it three years ago, shortly after their families relocated to the small town of 6,000 from out of state.

“We moved here at exactly the same time,” Reynolds said, “and we didn’t know anybody.  It was lonely. This community goes by its name – Independence – and it can be very hard to break in. People are very, very friendly. But they have their groups. So we made our own.”

Three years later, the meetings draw as many as a dozen local women to the coffee shop. On Tuesday, Shultz got the meeting started by reading from the new devotional the women will be using this summer, “Grace for the Moment,” written by Max Lucado, a San Antonio-based church leader and popular Christian author.

Shultz then kicked off the discussion by telling the group about a frustrating run-in she’d had the day before at the local Burger King — and acknowledging the ways her response to the incident had failed to exhibit the patience and forgiveness the day’s devotional reading had emphasized.

“Never mess with a hungry woman,” Reynolds quipped.

Laughter erupted around the table – not for the first or last time during the two-hour meeting – and the discussion quickly turned to the quotidian frustrations and challenges other group members were facing.

Reynolds, who works at the local hospice, talked about her husband, who recently lost his management job at an ethanol plant. He’s trying to make the best of it, she said, characterizing his predicament as “fun-employment.” But Reynolds said she worried he was masking his pain and wondered whether her family, which has moved many times, would have to pick up again in order for him to find work.

“The only thing I know is he would not have been fired if God hadn’t wanted it,” Reynolds said. “God was in charge and I just have to keep that in mind. He has a plan. I just wish he’d speed it up.”

Shultz, whose elderly father’s health has deteriorated recently and forced her to miss work, talked about her worries – and her desire to keep her dad out of a nursing home. “It’s just hard, it’s really hard and I appreciate your prayers,” she said.

She talked about the way her husband had stepped in to help take care of her dad. “He’s had to clean up messes,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m very blessed… It’s not his dad. But he got used to it when I was pregnant because I threw up all the time.”

Another group member, 28-year-old Elissa Haywood, has diabetes that she is having difficulty controlling as well as other medical issues. Some recent tests had come back with good news and she thanked the group for praying for her. Then she told them about another local woman, who had separated from her husband and now needs help moving out of the temporary apartment she was living in after a septic tank backed up.

“We can get some teenage boys who aren’t doing anything this summer to help,” Reynolds said. Problem solved.

For the next hour and a half, the group slowly shrinks as the women go off to their various jobs or other responsibilities.

In the end, five remain and they are asked to explain what the weekly group means to them. One by one, the women answer the question. “It’s a pick me up,” said Schulz, “being around other Christian believe the same.” Amy Solon, a 43-year-old pastor’s wife, spoke of the “encouragement we get from one another that we all have needs and concerns.” Reynolds said “for me it’s a time for Christian women, or Christian sisters, to come together. And we can moan together and laugh together and it is very helpful to me. You can talk about stuff. You can laugh and feel good. My closest friends are in other places around the Midwest and so it’s just good to have this.”

“But don’t let us fool you,” Shultz added. “It’s all about the coffee.”

#3

Merlin Dodge drives 300 miles a day delivering feed to hog farms around Independence, Iowa for a mill located outside just town that grinds between 250 to 300 tons a day.

“We got a few Amish guys with dairy goats who send their milk to Wisconsin where it’s made into cheese and then gets shipped to Europe,” the 55-year-old said. “But it’s mostly hog feed.” The former farmer got behind the wheel of his truck seven years ago, as his two boys were hitting their college years and it became clear the family farm operation wasn’t generating anywhere near enough cash to pay the tuition.

“If I’d been a little smarter or a little luckier or born at the right time, I’d still be farming probably,” Dodge said. “But I made some mistakes. I got in a little financial trouble… It eventually caught up with me. Part of failure is luck and part of it is expertise. I mean it really is.”

Both boys eventually graduated from the University of Iowa; both now work on farms in Buchanan County. Dad couldn’t be happier. Dodge and his wife still own 160 acres outside Independence, which they lease to another farmer. And he now raises billy goats for show, a hobby that is beginning to become a profitable small business.

So driving the feed truck around the back roads of Buchanan County suits Dodge just fine.  ”I was awful fortunate to get into this deal I did because I can still do what I want to do pretty much on the farm,” he said. “I’d be in a bind if I had to drive 30, 40 miles to a factory job. It would really cramp my style.”

#4

The new library in Independence, Iowa is one that would make a city of any size proud. But not everyone in Buchanan County wants to pay for it. So not everyone gets to use it these days. Built three years ago with $3 million of city, state and private money to replace a facility erected in 1895, the new facility offers everything you’d expect from a modern library: free, fast Internet access, several TV viewing areas, areas dedicated to kids and teens, a community meeting room and, of course, thousands of books for loan — as well as an extensive reference section and hundreds of periodicals.

But keeping the doors open costs upwards of $250,000 a year. And while residents of Independence paid about $38 a head towards the overhead, residents of five outlying towns in Buchanan County without libraries paid nothing – even though their residents used the facility and despite a state law that requires cities and unincorporated areas to provide “financial support to the public library which provides library services within the respective jurisdictions.”

“Basically, we’ve never enforced any kind of uniform fee or contract,” said library director Laura Blaker.

“So our taxpayers were basically subsidizing those cities. And, really, it’s only fair if everyone pays… I guess people sometimes view library services differently. But I don’t think anyone would expect to have emergency services or fire services for free.”

So last fall, Independence put its foot down. It sent out contracts to the five deadbeat towns in Buchanan County, asking them to start paying their fair share. Actually, the request was more reasonable than that. The initial cost was just $2 per resident – a fraction of the levy Independence residents paid — with the cost rising $1 a year per resident until they were paying 75 percent of the average countywide contribution to the library.

Two cities in the county – Brandon and Hazleton – saw the value in the deal and ponied up. Another town – Rowley – will be discussing the proposal at this month’s council meeting. But two others – Quasqueton and Stanley — balked. So just last week, Blaker revoked library privileges for residents of the two towns.

Blaker, who thinks of public libraries as community treasure chests, did it with much regret. But she’s sticking to her guns. Residents of the three towns can still walk into the Independence library and peruse the stacks. But all the other perks that come with a library card, including time on the computer, use of the noiseless headphones to watch TV and library loan privilege, are no longer available to  residents of Quasqueton and Stanley.

“It’s not fun to be the person saying, ‘Sorry. You can’t have service. You actually have to money for this,’” Blaker said. “People say, ‘But it’s a free public library.’ And we say, ‘Well, it can only remain free if we’re supported through tax monies.’”

#5

Independence, Iowa is the county seat of Buchanan County, where the official unemployment rate is just 6.1 percent – well below the national jobless rate of 9.1 percent.

Yet Susan Oline, the director of the Independence Area Food Pantry, a local hunger relief group, said June was the busiest month in the 31-year history of the organization, which was founded in early 1980s, when Deere & Co. – one of the region’s largest employers – fired thousands of local workers at its farm equipment plant in nearby Waterloo, Iowa.

“There was a big layoff and that really affected the economy in this area,” Oline, 52, said. “And so a group of people got together and started this.”

Demand for the pantry’s services is even bigger these days than it was in the middle of the farm crisis of the 1980s, Oline said, when thousands of families in the Midwest lost everything, triggering a prolonged regional downturn.

Julie Davison, one of the pantry’s board members, said that’s because the low local unemployment rate doesn’t include the many people who have given up looking for jobs or who are stuck in part-time positions but really want to be working full time. “It’s the underemployed,” Davison, 44, said. “If you make $7.25 an hour, by the time you pay your rent and utilities, you can’t get food stamps – you make too much. But by the time you pay your other bills, there’s not enough left to pay the prices to get enough food.”

Medical bills, garnishments and other unexpected expenses also bring people to the pantry. And the recent spike in gas prices has hit especially hard in this largely rural county, where many have to commute 50 miles or more every day to their jobs in places like Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

“Can’t say there’s anything typical we see,” said Davison. “A little bit of anything.”

#6

At 6.1 percent, the unemployment rate in Buchanan County, Iowa is well below the national rate of 9.1 percent.

But some people here say that official jobless number doesn’t begin to capture the pain and dislocation many local workers continue to feel two years after the U.S. economy began to climb out of its worst recession since the 1930s.

The jobless rate, they point out, only includes people who are out of work and actively looking for a job. It doesn’t take into account people who have stopped looking for a job or who want to move from part-time to full-time positions but can’t.

So it doesn’t count 30-year-old single mom Katie Busker, disabled and living on social security and food stamps. And it doesn’t count her 27-year-old sister Lauren Gibbs, who has a part-time job in the emergency food pantry in Independence, the county seat.

For the past seven months, the two sisters, together with Busker’s 6-year-old son Austin, Gibbs’ 30-year-old husband Dustin and the couple’s 14-month-old daughter Jonnalyn, have lived together under one roof.

In this blended family of five, only Dustin has a full-time job, working for a commercial construction company. The good news? “In the three years he’s worked there, he’s never been laid off,” said Lauren. “They work all winter long and everything.” The bad news? Most of the jobs are outside Buchanan County and involve long and increasingly expensive daily commutes as the price of gasoline has risen.

The blended family’s shared home is located just down the block from the food pantry where Lauren works as the assistant to the director. The sisters admit they’ve turned to it from time to time to help get them through what Lauren calls “rough patches.”

“We came down three or four times,” she said. ”I wasn’t ashamed because I knew I did it to help my family.”
By moving in together and sharing meal expenses, the sisters say their food dollars stretch farther. And because Katie can watch Jonnalyn while mom works at the pantry, Lauren saves money on child care.
But the arrangement is not without its challenges.

“Being around each other all the times, we get a little bit snappy with each other,” Lauren said. “But my sister has a lot of friends in Cedar Rapids and so she spends some of the weekends away… We try to give each other the space to make it not frustrating.”

#7

In Iowa, where next month’s Ames straw poll opens a Republican presidential nominating contest that will kick into high gear with next February’s statewide caucuses, politicking by White House hopefuls is up close and personal.

Every four years, candidates crisscross the small state to appear before voters who understand — and take seriously — the role Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses play in narrowing the presidential field for the rest of the country. So the hopefuls present themselves before everyday Iowans in diners, businesses, public auditoriums and private homes to present their policies and positions and to be grilled on them.

These pre-caucus events – and there are hundreds of them between Memorial Day and the February caucuses — give ordinary Iowans a role in the nominating process that few other Americans ever enjoy.

On Wednesday, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, was making the rounds and wound up in Cedar Falls, just west of Independence, at an evening backyard meet and greet that.

Thirty-one-year-old Judd Saul, whose family was hosting the event, said this kind of one-on-one politics allowed Iowans to “weed through the BS.”

“You get private time with them, you get to talk to them, you get to ask them some questions, you have that opportunity,” Saul said. “Like with Santorum, what we’re going to have here, it’s an intimate setting, you get to know the man.”

#8

Steve Walthart farms corn, soybeans and hay on 560 acres outside Independence, Iowa — 460 of which he owns. With farmland prices in the state now fetching $8,000 or more an acre, he’s sitting on a gold mine if ever he decided to sell out.

But Walthart, 64, dismisses the idea of cashing out and retiring. “Think of it, think of it,” he said, ‘what would I do with the money? There’s no better place to have it than where I’ve got it — in the farmland.” He says he expects he’ll die doing his daily chores.

Walthart considers himself a Republican and has attended the party’s Ames straw poll in August several times. Every four years, he works as a precinct captain during the presidential caucuses that rivet the nation’s attention on this tiny state and its curious, citizen-driven nominating process.

Walthart respects hard work. That makes him an opponent of food stamps and welfare. But it also makes him an advocate for immigrants, especially Mexicans, who are often marginalized and maligned in this overwhelming white state but who perform some of the hardest and dirtiest jobs going, including working on the killing floors of the state’s many meat and poultry packing houses.

“They make a big to-do about keeping the Mexicans out,” he said. “But most of them come here to work because Americans are sitting on their dead asses and won’t work.”

“The government raided a packing house in northeast Iowa back in 2008, I think. And if you looked like a Mexican you were arrested. And you know what? There wasn’t a cop in the crew who would have worked as hard as those people. They come to work every day. That’s important to me. Don’t beat up on the immigrants. Just put the American people to work. And by that I mean cut out the damned welfare.”

#9

You see them every 10 miles or so as you drive west on U.S. 20 from Dubuque, Iowa to Independence. Billboards, usually alone in cornfields, that read ‘It’s a child, not a choice’ or something very similar.

Abortion is a hot-button issue in the United States, and nowhere more so than here in Iowa. This spring, a bill banning late-term abortions advanced in the Republican-controlled state House in Des Moines. And just last week, an effort by GOP legislators to impose new limits on Medicaid-financed abortions – even when a woman’s life is at risk – nearly derailed passage of the state budget.

Janet Lyons is a colorful and exuberant warrior in Iowa’s abortion fight – though she refuses to pick sides in the political battle raging in the state Capitol. “Is someone a Democrat or a Republican?” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference to me. What makes a difference to me is do you value life? Do you value life? Do you value unborn life? In all cases? Even in rape and incest?”

Lyons, 59, is the executive director of Alternatives Pregnancy Center. It’s located about 25 miles west of Independence in Waterloo and provides free counseling and support to pregnant women who are mulling abortion. The center provides pregnancy testing and what Lyons says is non-directive counseling, referring women to prenatal care providers or adoption agencies and even talking about terminating the pregnancy if that’s what the women want – although signs posted on the doors of the center make it clear APC does not perform abortions.

“When women come through our door,” Lyons said, “they’re coming in to determine, No. 1, if they’re pregnant and, No. 2, what options they have. If they want to talk about abortion, we talk about abortion. They can read up on anything they want to read up on.”

But Lyons and the center’s three dozen volunteers try very hard to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies. Women who are persuaded to keep their children are paired with a volunteer advocate, who mentors and works with them throughout the pregnancy and until the child is six months old.

“We work on parenting skills, life skills, financial skills, nutritional skills, relationship-building skills,” Lyons said.

Woman are encouraged to visit the center every two weeks during their pregnancy and after every visit, they are allowed to pick out items from the center’s “Caring Connection Closet,” which stocks everything from onesies and maternity clothes to diapers and wet wipes, all of it free.

“That’s our whole mission,” Lyons said, “to be able to help women who have made a decision to go through with their pregnancy to make sure they have food and clothing for the baby when it comes.”

Last year, the center, a nonprofit that survives on donations, counseled 233 women. Lyons says she has no idea how many went on to terminate their pregnancies. But she insists even those women are welcome to return to the center for post-abortion counseling if they need it.

“Every woman who walks this door is a wonderful woman,” she said – even those who walk back out and terminate their pregnancies. “It doesn’t stop us from loving. All we say is, ‘Come back if you need us in the future,’ meaning that when they get done, we’re going to be here for them.”

The center celebrates its successes. There’s a big board in the office, featuring the pictures of dozens of babies born to women who came to the center for counseling and went on to give birth.

“Those are our babies,” Lyons said. “We have two more in the camera that came in last night that we still have to put up.”

She says the center gets financial support from more than five dozen churches and a handful of mosques.

“I don’t think we have a Jewish synagogue,” Lyons said. “But I think every other denomination we get support from. What else do you know that the Catholics, the Protestants and the Muslims will give you money for? What is there? Nothing… We know what’s important. Life.”

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