Deep Dive: Adams County, Iowa

Inspired by a recent profile focusing on demographics and election outcomes, a guest author with family roots in the area tells us more about the smallest Iowa county by population. -promoted by desmoinesdem

How do I explain Adams County to outsiders? It’s a place that is suspended between the past and the future. It’s a place where you are so close to your history that you can literally reach out and touch it, while simultaneously watching that legacy disappear. It’s a place filled with innovation yet steeped in tradition. It’s a place that’s excited about the future while mourning the past.

My experience in Adams County is pretty typical. When I go “home,” it’s to my grandparents’ house in Brooks. My grandparents have lived in the same house for 62 years. The old outhouse is still there. There is a propane tank next to the house for winter heat. As a child, I learned to turn off the water when shampooing and soaping during my shower, only using water to rinse off, in order to keep the well from running dry.

Adams County is where I learned to garden. Here, locally sourced food and “farm-to-table” dining have long been a way of life. This is where I learned what real tomatoes and fresh sweet corn taste like. It’s also where I learned how to shuck corn, shell peas, and snap beans for the annual ritual of canning and freezing most of the produce my grandparents needed to feed their family for the upcoming year. And when my grandparents needed meat for a meal, they went to their deep freeze, where they stored the beef from the cow they bought every year at the county fair and had butchered at the local meat locker.

Half a block to the north of my grandparents’ house is the Brooks United Methodist Church. My parents met when my dad was a student pastor assigned to serve the churches in Brooks, Carbon, and Carl. My mom was the pianist at the church in Brooks. Half a block to the south is the old bank building. The Bank of Brooks was built by my great-great-grandfather. And when I say “built” I mean both as a business and physically, down to making the cinder blocks by hand.

Five miles to the east, the county seat of Corning is doing well. A strong effort in economic development has created a vibrant community. Downtown Corning is filled with locally-owned small businesses and there are few empty store fronts. Among the recent additions to downtown is the Corning Center for the Fine Arts, which serves both as a place for local artists to sell their work and as a resource for arts education in the community. CCFA is the only gallery in Iowa with an artist-in-residence program, and is one of only 80 in the U.S. Corning has hosted artists from around the U.S. and as far away as Seoul, South Korea.

The Corning Opera House, which was built in 1902 and had long been in decline, was recently renovated. Three-and-a-half million dollars and a lot of effort from volunteers took the building from run-down eyesore to community gem. The Opera House now hosts a monthly Opry Show and Dance as well as a variety of theatrical and musical performances throughout the year.

Three miles west of Corning is the Icarian Colony, part the longest-existing non-religious communal experience in U.S. history. Founded by Etienne Cabet, from Dijon, France, the national movement lasted from 1848-1898, and the Iowa location was active from 1852-1879. The Icarians’ agricultural operations were the first Agricultural Corporation in the state after corporation laws were amended in 1860. Every June, Corning celebrates its Icarian heritage with a “Festival de l’Heritage Français.”

For those more into modern history, Johnny Carson’s birthplace is located in Corning. The house has been maintained by the Johnny Carson Birthplace Society and can be toured during a visit to Corning.

The clean energy economy is bringing change to Adams County. Outside of Brooks is the POET Biorefining facility. The plant uses 23 million bushels of locally grown corn every year to produce 65 million gallons of ethanol. It brought 40 permanent jobs when it bean operating in 2007.

Driving around Adams County, you’re surrounded by wind turbines. Adams County is home to two of MidAmerican Energy’s wind projects – the Rolling Hills Project, which spans Adams, Adair, and Cass counties with a total capacity of 443.9 megawatts, and the Adams project, which is located entirely in Adams County and has a capacity of 154.3 megawatts. MidAmerican also built one of the tallest wind turbines in the country in Adams County. Made of concrete, it measures 557 feet from base to blade tip – two feet taller than the Washington Monument, and 115 feet taller than a standard steel turbine. MidAmerican’s wind turbines benefit Adams County with property tax revenue, steady lease payments to farmers, and new jobs in turbine maintenance.

When it comes to gender equality, Adams County is ahead of a lot of places. Many of the new downtown businesses are owned or co-owned by women. Because why *wouldn’t* a woman open a business if she had a good idea? The Adams County Speedway (the only NASCAR sanctioned dirt track in the state) featured a female high school student as a winning driver before Danica Patrick taught the rest of the country that women could compete in NASCAR events. In 2016, the chair of Adams County Board of Supervisors is a woman, as are the County Auditor and County Treasurer. There are four incorporated towns in Adams County – Carbon, Corning, Nodaway, and Prescott. Prescott Nodaway and Corning have women mayors. The four towns have a total of twenty city council members, eight of whom are women. That means that in 2016, 40 percent of city council members in Adams County are women, compared to only 22.7 percent of state legislators. (http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/womens-legislative-network/women-in-state-legislatures-for-2016.aspx).

But despite its current vibrancy, there is a sense of a loss in Adams County. With fewer young people staying here, older generations are left selling century farms and family businesses. These aren’t merely financial decisions. These are decisions that require acknowledging that everything you and your family put your life into for generations no longer has a place in the world. Since the railroad station in Brooks closed, the community has lost multiple stores and hotels as well as the post office. The bank moved to Corning in the 60s and the building now serves as a tavern. Attendance at the church where my parents met is so low that the church’s closure now seems a real possibility. The vitality of Corning doesn’t change the fact that most of my generation of my family has left, and the family business started by my great-great-grandfather will likely see its end when my uncles retire. Life here is changing. In many ways that change is good, but that doesn’t make it easy, and it doesn’t take away the sting of feeling like the world is moving on and a way of life is being lost.

  • Nice expansion...

    How do we use that information to move things back in our direction? Connect the dots since you are the Adams County expert. What changed that caused the collapse this fall?

    • We need to listen

      I make no claim to be an expert. I simply shared my perspective in the hope that it will help people unfamiliar with rural areas understand Adams County in a different way. And while I think that my experience is fairly typical, I won’t claim that it’s the only valid perspective about life in Adams County.

      As for what happened in 2016, I think that requires more discussion than can be had in comments. The main point I would make, though, is that a lot of rural voters feel like no one is listening to them. And if we want them back, we need to listen to them.

      • Agreed.

        At this point I’m not sure what “listening to them” means to THEM, not us. If listening to them means become sexist anti-intellectual homophobes who hate immigrants, no thank you.

        • Keep an open mind

          I’m a queer woman with multiple graduate degrees. I think I’m in a pretty good position to recognize when people are being sexist, anti-intellectual, homophobes. Your comment just showed more prejudice against rural voters than I have ever experienced in Adams County.

          Comments like this are why we lost the rural vote.

          • stereotypes are never helpful

            but it’s a stretch to blame comments like this for major shift in rural voting patterns. Surely many factors are feeding into this trend.

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