OPINION: Small-town America fights for its life

December 05, 2019 11:00 PM
https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/small-town-america-fights-for-its-life
FEA.SmallTown.jpg
IMOGENE, Iowa — Main Street is an unpaved gravel lane, wide enough
for one car. Along the street’s entire three blocks, there is not a single
business.
The whole town has only two institutions, really: a Catholic Church and
an Irish pub.
In fact, it’s a bit misleading to say Imogene has St. Patrick’s and Emerald
Isle. Imogene is the church and the pub.
If you picture a country church in a 30-person town, hidden in the
remotest corner of Iowa, you might picture a modest, decaying building. Conversely, if you know the history of Catholic immigrants to the
Midwest in the 19th century, you might expect an impressive crumbling
structure that faintly gives off the echoes of faded glory.
So you would never expect St. Patrick’s.
The brick Gothic church standing atop Imogene might be the most
beautiful country church in America. The three impressive front doors,
flanked by two towers, are capped by the pointed arches typical of the
Gothic revival period. Walk through the doors, and you’ll be stunned.
Intricate stained-glass windows ring the church and fill it with delightful light. The oaken hammer-beam ceiling, like everything in this church,
points worshipers’ eyes toward heaven.
Italian marble is everywhere, including the baptismal font, communion
rails, and the carved Pieta in the back of the church, a statue of the
Blessed Virgin Mary holding her son’s corpse at the foot of the cross.
Left at The Wall: Personal tributes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The walls of every Catholic church in the world are punctuated with a
series of scenes from the suffering and death of Christ — the Stations of
the Cross. At your average rural church, the Stations are paintings in
wooden frames. At St. Patrick’s, they are gold-leaf mosaics in ornate
marble frames.
Finally, at the far end of the church are the three marble altars, topped
with Gothic spires. There’s one altar for St. Joseph, one for the Blessed
Mother, and a stunning central altar, spires reaching up three stories,
built around a golden tabernacle.
It was a good metaphor for my trip to Imogene. I came to Fremont
County expecting to write a very different story. Fremont has one of the
very worst rates of opioid overdoses in the country. It has no major cities. The factories and schools are closing down. Its population is shrinking.
I came here to write about a community that is falling apart. Instead, I
found a community that is constantly coming together. In the heartland,
small-town America is fighting for its life.
How did a church as magnificent as St. Patrick’s end up here? It started with a fire in 1915 that destroyed the old church. Father Edmund Hayes, the pastor for 40 years, was from a wealthy family, and he decided to spend his money on building the best church in Iowa.
“It’s a pretty grand church for the size of a town we’re in,” parishioner
Jerry Laughlin told me Sunday morning in St. Patrick’s basement after
Mass. About 125 people were at Mass, and an equal number were at the
Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast in the basement.
“It’s the crown jewel,” said Michael Olson, a bartender at Emerald Isle and brother of the bar’s owner, Kevin. The Gem of the Prairie is the title of a full-color, heavily researched, beautifully photographed book about the
building. The book was put together by Jerry’s mother, Margaret
Laughlin.
“Just having this structure here leads a lot of people to stay, or to keep
coming back,” Jerry said.
Emerald Isle is another such structure. After the church and the grain
elevators just across Railroad Avenue, the bar is the largest structure in
town. It’s spacious enough inside that one extended family, which had a member deploying in the military, hosted an early Thanksgiving there in mid-November.
Of course, the town’s population of 30 — and shrinking — doesn’t provide the bodies for Mass, parish breakfast, or happy hour. “It’s the outlying area that supports the parish,” explained Jake McCargill, who was raised
here. People come to Imogene from the farm fields of Fremont and Page
Counties.
‘Everyone’s related to someone’
Aside from Kevin Olson, who served me my drink Saturday afternoon,
Dave McGargill was the first person I met in Imogene. He sat at the end of the bar with two friends.
The peanut butter chocolate cake I was eyeing from the bar was baked by Marleen McGargill, Dave’s aunt. Sunday morning, down in the church
basement, I met Jake McGargill, Dave’s uncle and a regular lector at
St. Patrick’s.
Marty Maher runs the local chapter of the Knights. The day in 1915 when the old church burned down was the same day Joe Maher and Alice
McCardle got married there. Both of them, along with other Mahers, are
buried at Mount Calvary cemetery outside of town. Tony Maher, whose
mother was a Laughlin, was the mayor of Imogene in the 1960s.
Walk around Mount Calvary, or study an old newspaper, and you’ll see
the same names there from 100 years ago — including Cheneys and
Owenses — that you’ll find at St. Patrick’s or at Emerald Isle today.
Judging by the church bulletin, the Martins, the Hugheses, the McGargills, and the Laughlins do most of the altar serving these days, week in and
week out. Maryanne Hayes, a relative newcomer to the parish, said she
was intimidated at first. “Everyone is related to someone,” she told me.
Joe Cheney went to school at St. Patrick’s Academy in the 1950s and told me, “I was the only one in the school who wasn’t related to someone
else.”
“I’m a newcomer,” he said, because his family only arrived here in the
1930s. No name carries more weight than Margaret Mary Laughlin.
Love thy neighbor
Margaret Laughlin was born and raised in Omaha, her son Jerry told me.
One of the perils of a town in which everyone is related is that it’s hard to find a suitable mate. That’s why Marty Laughlin, born and raised in
Imogene, used to drive up to Omaha to Catholic dances. Eventually, Marty met Margaret and wooed her back to Imogene. They wed and raised their 10 children in the same house where Marty had lived since birth.
A transplant in Imogene, Margaret was not afraid to plant roots in this
new soil. She served as parish secretary and director of religious
education at the parish.
It’s clear she didn’t merely go through the motions in those roles. When I asked people to tell me about Imogene, they all lamented that Margaret
wasn’t around to tell me the whole story.
“I’m here and involved because of Margaret,” Maryanne Dailey told me
after Mass. Fittingly, it was Maryanne who first welcomed me in front of
St. Patrick’s on Saturday night. I showed up, unannounced, and she gave me a tour of the church.
“I hope that I can be someone a little like Margaret to people, and then somebody else can.”
A block from Emerald Isle is a screened-in shed of sorts that in May served as the stage for “Floodstock.” Local performers put on musical acts for free, while the organizers collected $25,000 in donations for the victims of the horrendous floods of March 2019. The Knights of Columbus delivered tons of meals to flood victims, according to residents.
The cooperation happens on an everyday level. Terry Owens, who grew up here and moved back after getting married, lives it. Terry heats his home with both wood and costly propane. A neighbor has a copse of trees next to Terry’s property that provides plenty of deadfall. The neighbor has long let Terry get his firewood there for free.
After about three or four years of this, Terry noticed the neighbor had tall grass that needed mowing. Terry started mowing the half acre for free. As he sees it, there’s no explicit barter here. His neighbor gives what Terry needs, and Terry gives what his neighbor needs. “You don’t even think about it. You just do it,” as Terry’s wife Deborah put it.
Late on Sunday afternoon, two farmers named Short and Roger showed up at Emerald Isle with their colleague Blake. Short and Roger were celebrating, as they had just finished their harvest.
They started bragging to me about the town and the farmers of the surrounding area. They began a story about a local farmer who died suddenly in one recent year when his crops were in the field. Soon, half the bar was telling the story, in tag-team. Come harvest time, 12 combines and a few semitrucks showed up to harvest the field for the farmer’s widow and children — for free.
When Jerry, over pancakes, was giving reasons why a town of 30 had a Sunday Mass of 125 people, he finished by pointing around, to his wife and children, his sisters and in-laws, and the old friends and neighbors of his parents and grandparents, and added one more reason: “the people.”
Maryanne agreed. Why did she stay and plant roots? What brought her husband into the Catholic Church? “It’s the people.”
The institutions are Imogene’s strength. The people and the families are what make the institutions strong.
So it’s a dark omen that every year, the town and the parish have fewer and fewer people.
Population loss
When Father Hayes built St. Patrick’s in 1915, Imogene had 400 people. Fremont County had a population of 15,000. It dropped below 10,000 in the 1960s. Now, it’s below 7,000, and the loss is not slowing down.
In Imogene, the bartenders debate whether the town’s population is 29 or 30.
“We’re losing schools,” Jerry says. “We’re losing population.”
Hayes founded a parish school in 1906, but that closed in the 1960s. After that, the local children, including all 10 of Margaret Laughlin’s children, went to public school in nearby Farragut. In 2016, the county closed the Farragut schools.
A history book of Imogene, loaned to me by Terry Owens, showed a first communion class of 23 from the 1960s and one of 13 from 1976. This past spring, only three children, two from the same family, received their first communion at St. Patrick’s.
The floods in March destroyed some homes and farms, which will drive more people away. What is eroding the population here? It’s not a case of all the jobs leaving. The county has 1.8% unemployment.
The cause is deeper, but it’s not complicated. “It’s as simple as this,” Kevin Olson said from behind the bar: “Farm families used to have 10 kids, and now, they don’t.”
But it’s not just smaller families. It’s also bigger farms.
“It used to be,” Jerry explained, “they farmed their … 300 acres, and they raised 6, 7, 8, 10 kids. Now, on farms 3, 4, 5 times that size, they raise one or two kids.”
Jerry is the only one of Margaret’s 10 children still farming. Emily, the bartender on Sunday night, told me that almost all of her high school friends have left.
The result, as Jake McGargill put it, is “fewer and fewer farmers, and fewer and fewer families to support churches and schools and businesses.”
We can’t just blame birth control. This area’s decline started about a 100 years ago. The culprit may be efficiency, specifically the efficiency of the modern farm.
“You’ve got better genetics on the seeds,” Roger explained. “You’ve got fantastic technology on the equipment. And so you don’t need as many people.”
“This combine I’m running,” Short told me, “has four monitors in it.” The combine measures the yield for the year and will use that data to automatically modify the planting for next year, and in turn, the fertilizer use, and so on. Also, farms are reducing erosion. “We’ve gone from 100-bushel corn [per acre] to 250-bushel corn because we’re saving our soil,” Short said.
The technological advances make every acre of farmland more valuable. As a result, farmers have every incentive to sell. “Farmland is worth a lot of money,” Jerry said. “More than you can make off of it.”
The discussion at Emerald Isle on Saturday was about a few land sales just outside Imogene and one winning bid by “an investor from St. Louis.” It’s not a new neighbor moving in. This landowner will not bring any new parishioners, nor children for the next class of first communicants. Also, no new customers at Emerald Isle.
There are cultural changes, too. Jake McGargill says the Laughlins were one of the “last big families” in town. Blake at the bar is a cousin of his and is proud to declare himself a Laughlin. He’s also proud to be childless. “I’m a Catholic, my wife’s a Mormon,” he says, a few beers deep after the harvest, “and we decided we’re having zero kids.”
This is not the way to maintain a local population or to build a church. Every year, St. Patrick’s hosts fewer baptisms and fewer weddings. If things continue this way, it’s inevitable that Emerald Isle will be hurting for customers in a few years. Imogene and its environs — long a teeming hive of marriages, families, drinking, eating, living, dying, loving, and worshiping — could someday soon become nothing more than a place to grow cash crops. The human population is disappearing as it becomes less necessary.
The trajectory seems clear. The farmer’s efficiency is a death sentence for Emerald Isle and St. Patrick’s. More fertile fields have ushered in less fertile farmers.
Erosion
This corner of Iowa is hillier than the middle of the state, which poses a few problems for farmers here. For one, it’s harder to plant and harvest on a slope. More dangerous, though, is the erosion.
If the farmers simply let nature work its will, rain would wash away the topsoil, sweeping it all to the riverbed.
That’s what makes southwest Iowa look different from other parts of rural Iowa: the terraces. Farmers here have built long ridges, little man-made walls of earth with grasses planted on both sides. It’s called narrow-based terracing. The grassroots hold the terraces in place. The terraces hold off the erosion, battling gravity and the rain.
Even as they preserve the soil, they can’t preserve the culture. Rural America is eroding. If you talk to farmers such as Short and Roger, they lament it. But almost nobody thinks it can be prevented. More efficient farming, smaller families — these seem like forces of nature, like rainwater running downhill.
When you look around the rest of Fremont County and see the population loss and the opioid plague, you’re looking at that erosion.
Imogene and its immediate surroundings haven’t been washed away yet, though. It’s because of “terraces.” St. Patrick’s and Emerald Isle, planted by priests, immigrants, farmers, and businessmen, are the bulwarks slowing the erosion.
People find work and joy through these institutions. Dave McGargill finds his companionship at Emerald Isle. Marleen McGargill finds her side job, baking and selling pies to the clientele, who find their joy in her elaborate, massive pies lovingly made from scratch.
Beyond work, these institutions help cultivate the deep familial roots that prevent erosion. More couples meet because of Emerald Isle, and more people get married because of St. Patrick’s. Raising children still isn’t the economic boon it was for the farmers of 60 years ago, but it’s less daunting when you’ve got the parish to help you meet other parents and raise your children in the faith. Also, the faith can help you see children as more than mouths to feed or hands to help, but also as souls to glorify God.
And if you’re a McGargill, a Laughlin, a Hughes, a Martin, or a Maher, the institutions are the soil into which you grow the roots that may keep you here and nourish you. Your family name is in the bricks at the feet of the St. Patrick statue outside the church, and it’s also on gravestones on the top of the hill just outside town.
Margaret Mary Laughlin was buried on that hill earlier this year, on Jan. 21, after a Mass at St. Patrick’s. A few weeks later, the floods came.
Narrow-based terracing does a lot of things, but it doesn’t stop floods. Along the Nishnabotna River were levees, and the floods destroyed them. Blake, the Laughlin descendant who’s proudly having zero children, found work in the flood.
He drives a dump truck, and he spends his time delivering the boulders that will form the new levy. Blake doesn’t think the new levy will hold.
The parishioners at St. Patrick are hoping their parish will fight off the forces of nature.
Emily, the bartender, is expecting her first child. One young couple at the end of the bar is engaged. They’ll get married at St. Patrick’s later this year.
“Hopefully, it can maintain,” Jerry told me over pancakes. “Because it’s still declining.” Jake McGargill looks for hope. The large Martin clan provides a glimmer. “A lot of them have stayed around,” Jake said. “We’re kind of hoping their kids and their grandkids will stay around.”
In most rural towns, this would be an absurd hope. Why would anyone stick around? But in Imogene, the reasons to stick around are plenty. You stick around for the wings and the tenderloin. You stick around for Marleen’s pies. You stick around for the revelry at the pub. You stick around for the marble altars, and you stick around for the community where people live out the commandments to love God and love their neighbor.
You stick around because you’re from here. Your roots are planted deep. And you try to weather the deluge.
Timothy P. Carney is the commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.
PINIONSmall-town America fights for its lifeby Timothy P. CarneyDecember 05, 2019 11:00 PM
https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/small-town-america-fights-for-its-life
FEA.SmallTown.jpg
IMOGENE, Iowa — Main Street is an unpaved gravel lane, wide enough for one car. Along the street’s entire three blocks, there is not a single business.
The whole town has only two institutions, really: a Catholic Church and an Irish pub.
In fact, it’s a bit misleading to say Imogene has St. Patrick’s and Emerald Isle. Imogene is the church and the pub.
If you picture a country church in a 30-person town, hidden in the remotest corner of Iowa, you might picture a modest, decaying building. Conversely, if you know the history of Catholic immigrants to the Midwest in the 19th century, you might expect an impressive crumbling structure that faintly gives off the echoes of faded glory.
So you would never expect St. Patrick’s.
The brick Gothic church standing atop Imogene might be the most beautiful country church in America. The three impressive front doors, flanked by two towers, are capped by the pointed arches typical of the Gothic revival period. Walk through the doors, and you’ll be stunned. Intricate stained-glass windows ring the church and fill it with delightful light. The oaken hammer-beam ceiling, like everything in this church, points worshipers’ eyes toward heaven.
Italian marble is everywhere, including the baptismal font, communion rails, and the carved Pieta in the back of the church, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding her son’s corpse at the foot of the cross.
Left at The Wall: Personal tributes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The walls of every Catholic church in the world are punctuated with a series of scenes from the suffering and death of Christ — the Stations of the Cross. At your average rural church, the Stations are paintings in wooden frames. At St. Patrick’s, they are gold-leaf mosaics in ornate marble frames.
Finally, at the far end of the church are the three marble altars, topped with Gothic spires. There’s one altar for St. Joseph, one for the Blessed Mother, and a stunning central altar, spires reaching up three stories, built around a golden tabernacle.
It was a good metaphor for my trip to Imogene. I came to Fremont County expecting to write a very different story. Fremont has one of the very worst rates of opioid overdoses in the country. It has no major cities. The factories and schools are closing down. Its population is shrinking.
I came here to write about a community that is falling apart. Instead, I found a community that is constantly coming together. In the heartland, small-town America is fighting for its life.
How did a church as magnificent as St. Patrick’s end up here? It started with a fire in 1915 that destroyed the old church. Father Edmund Hayes, the pastor for 40 years, was from a wealthy family, and he decided to spend his money on building the best church in Iowa.
“It’s a pretty grand church for the size of a town we’re in,” parishioner Jerry Laughlin told me Sunday morning in St. Patrick’s basement after Mass. About 125 people were at Mass, and an equal number were at the Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast in the basement.
“It’s the crown jewel,” said Michael Olson, a bartender at Emerald Isle and brother of the bar’s owner, Kevin. The Gem of the Prairie is the title of a full-color, heavily researched, beautifully photographed book about the building. The book was put together by Jerry’s mother, Margaret Laughlin.
“Just having this structure here leads a lot of people to stay, or to keep coming back,” Jerry said.
Emerald Isle is another such structure. After the church and the grain elevators just across Railroad Avenue, the bar is the largest structure in town. It’s spacious enough inside that one extended family, which had a member deploying in the military, hosted an early Thanksgiving there in mid-November.
Of course, the town’s population of 30 — and shrinking — doesn’t provide the bodies for Mass, parish breakfast, or happy hour. “It’s the outlying area that supports the parish,” explained Jake McCargill, who was raised here. People come to Imogene from the farm fields of Fremont and Page Counties.
‘Everyone’s related to someone’
Aside from Kevin Olson, who served me my drink Saturday afternoon, Dave McGargill was the first person I met in Imogene. He sat at the end of the bar with two friends.
The peanut butter chocolate cake I was eyeing from the bar was baked by Marleen McGargill, Dave’s aunt. Sunday morning, down in the church basement, I met Jake McGargill, Dave’s uncle and a regular lector at St. Patrick’s.
Marty Maher runs the local chapter of the Knights. The day in 1915 when the old church burned down was the same day Joe Maher and Alice McCardle got married there. Both of them, along with other Mahers, are buried at Mount Calvary cemetery outside of town. Tony Maher, whose mother was a Laughlin, was the mayor of Imogene in the 1960s.
Walk around Mount Calvary, or study an old newspaper, and you’ll see the same names there from 100 years ago — including Cheneys and Owenses — that you’ll find at St. Patrick’s or at Emerald Isle today.
Judging by the church bulletin, the Martins, the Hugheses, the McGargills, and the Laughlins do most of the altar serving these days, week in and week out. Maryanne Hayes, a relative newcomer to the parish, said she was intimidated at first. “Everyone is related to someone,” she told me.
Joe Cheney went to school at St. Patrick’s Academy in the 1950s and told me, “I was the only one in the school who wasn’t related to someone else.”
“I’m a newcomer,” he said, because his family only arrived here in the 1930s. No name carries more weight than Margaret Mary Laughlin.
Love thy neighbor
Margaret Laughlin was born and raised in Omaha, her son Jerry told me.
One of the perils of a town in which everyone is related is that it’s hard to find a suitable mate. That’s why Marty Laughlin, born and raised in Imogene, used to drive up to Omaha to Catholic dances. Eventually, Marty met Margaret and wooed her back to Imogene. They wed and raised their 10 children in the same house where Marty had lived since birth.
A transplant in Imogene, Margaret was not afraid to plant roots in this new soil. She served as parish secretary and director of religious education at the parish.
It’s clear she didn’t merely go through the motions in those roles. When I asked people to tell me about Imogene, they all lamented that Margaret wasn’t around to tell me the whole story.
“I’m here and involved because of Margaret,” Maryanne Dailey told me after Mass. Fittingly, it was Maryanne who first welcomed me in front of St. Patrick’s on Saturday night. I showed up, unannounced, and she gave me a tour of the church.
“I hope that I can be someone a little like Margaret to people, and then somebody else can.”
A block from Emerald Isle is a screened-in shed of sorts that in May served as the stage for “Floodstock.” Local performers put on musical acts for free, while the organizers collected $25,000 in donations for the victims of the horrendous floods of March 2019. The Knights of Columbus delivered tons of meals to flood victims, according to residents.
The cooperation happens on an everyday level. Terry Owens, who grew up here and moved back after getting married, lives it. Terry heats his home with both wood and costly propane. A neighbor has a copse of trees next to Terry’s property that provides plenty of deadfall. The neighbor has long let Terry get his firewood there for free.
After about three or four years of this, Terry noticed the neighbor had tall grass that needed mowing. Terry started mowing the half acre for free. As he sees it, there’s no explicit barter here. His neighbor gives what Terry needs, and Terry gives what his neighbor needs. “You don’t even think about it. You just do it,” as Terry’s wife Deborah put it.
Late on Sunday afternoon, two farmers named Short and Roger showed up at Emerald Isle with their colleague Blake. Short and Roger were celebrating, as they had just finished their harvest.
They started bragging to me about the town and the farmers of the surrounding area. They began a story about a local farmer who died suddenly in one recent year when his crops were in the field. Soon, half the bar was telling the story, in tag-team. Come harvest time, 12 combines and a few semitrucks showed up to harvest the field for the farmer’s widow and children — for free.
When Jerry, over pancakes, was giving reasons why a town of 30 had a Sunday Mass of 125 people, he finished by pointing around, to his wife and children, his sisters and in-laws, and the old friends and neighbors of his parents and grandparents, and added one more reason: “the people.”
Maryanne agreed. Why did she stay and plant roots? What brought her husband into the Catholic Church? “It’s the people.”
The institutions are Imogene’s strength. The people and the families are what make the institutions strong.
So it’s a dark omen that every year, the town and the parish have fewer and fewer people.
Population loss
When Father Hayes built St. Patrick’s in 1915, Imogene had 400 people. Fremont County had a population of 15,000. It dropped below 10,000 in the 1960s. Now, it’s below 7,000, and the loss is not slowing down.
In Imogene, the bartenders debate whether the town’s population is 29 or 30.
“We’re losing schools,” Jerry says. “We’re losing population.”
Hayes founded a parish school in 1906, but that closed in the 1960s. After that, the local children, including all 10 of Margaret Laughlin’s children, went to public school in nearby Farragut. In 2016, the county closed the Farragut schools.
A history book of Imogene, loaned to me by Terry Owens, showed a first communion class of 23 from the 1960s and one of 13 from 1976. This past spring, only three children, two from the same family, received their first communion at St. Patrick’s.
The floods in March destroyed some homes and farms, which will drive more people away. What is eroding the population here? It’s not a case of all the jobs leaving. The county has 1.8% unemployment.
The cause is deeper, but it’s not complicated. “It’s as simple as this,” Kevin Olson said from behind the bar: “Farm families used to have 10 kids, and now, they don’t.”
But it’s not just smaller families. It’s also bigger farms.
“It used to be,” Jerry explained, “they farmed their … 300 acres, and they raised 6, 7, 8, 10 kids. Now, on farms 3, 4, 5 times that size, they raise one or two kids.”
Jerry is the only one of Margaret’s 10 children still farming. Emily, the bartender on Sunday night, told me that almost all of her high school friends have left.
The result, as Jake McGargill put it, is “fewer and fewer farmers, and fewer and fewer families to support churches and schools and businesses.”
We can’t just blame birth control. This area’s decline started about a 100 years ago. The culprit may be efficiency, specifically the efficiency of the modern farm.
“You’ve got better genetics on the seeds,” Roger explained. “You’ve got fantastic technology on the equipment. And so you don’t need as many people.”
“This combine I’m running,” Short told me, “has four monitors in it.” The combine measures the yield for the year and will use that data to automatically modify the planting for next year, and in turn, the fertilizer use, and so on. Also, farms are reducing erosion. “We’ve gone from 100-bushel corn [per acre] to 250-bushel corn because we’re saving our soil,” Short said.
The technological advances make every acre of farmland more valuable. As a result, farmers have every incentive to sell. “Farmland is worth a lot of money,” Jerry said. “More than you can make off of it.”
The discussion at Emerald Isle on Saturday was about a few land sales just outside Imogene and one winning bid by “an investor from St. Louis.” It’s not a new neighbor moving in. This landowner will not bring any new parishioners, nor children for the next class of first communicants. Also, no new customers at Emerald Isle.
There are cultural changes, too. Jake McGargill says the Laughlins were one of the “last big families” in town. Blake at the bar is a cousin of his and is proud to declare himself a Laughlin. He’s also proud to be childless. “I’m a Catholic, my wife’s a Mormon,” he says, a few beers deep after the harvest, “and we decided we’re having zero kids.”
This is not the way to maintain a local population or to build a church. Every year, St. Patrick’s hosts fewer baptisms and fewer weddings. If things continue this way, it’s inevitable that Emerald Isle will be hurting for customers in a few years. Imogene and its environs — long a teeming hive of marriages, families, drinking, eating, living, dying, loving, and worshiping — could someday soon become nothing more than a place to grow cash crops. The human population is disappearing as it becomes less necessary.
The trajectory seems clear. The farmer’s efficiency is a death sentence for Emerald Isle and St. Patrick’s. More fertile fields have ushered in less fertile farmers.
Erosion
This corner of Iowa is hillier than the middle of the state, which poses a few problems for farmers here. For one, it’s harder to plant and harvest on a slope. More dangerous, though, is the erosion.
If the farmers simply let nature work its will, rain would wash away the topsoil, sweeping it all to the riverbed.
That’s what makes southwest Iowa look different from other parts of rural Iowa: the terraces. Farmers here have built long ridges, little man-made walls of earth with grasses planted on both sides. It’s called narrow-based terracing. The grassroots hold the terraces in place. The terraces hold off the erosion, battling gravity and the rain.
Even as they preserve the soil, they can’t preserve the culture. Rural America is eroding. If you talk to farmers such as Short and Roger, they lament it. But almost nobody thinks it can be prevented. More efficient farming, smaller families — these seem like forces of nature, like rainwater running downhill.
When you look around the rest of Fremont County and see the population loss and the opioid plague, you’re looking at that erosion.
Imogene and its immediate surroundings haven’t been washed away yet, though. It’s because of “terraces.” St. Patrick’s and Emerald Isle, planted by priests, immigrants, farmers, and businessmen, are the bulwarks slowing the erosion.
People find work and joy through these institutions. Dave McGargill finds his companionship at Emerald Isle. Marleen McGargill finds her side job, baking and selling pies to the clientele, who find their joy in her elaborate, massive pies lovingly made from scratch.
Beyond work, these institutions help cultivate the deep familial roots that prevent erosion. More couples meet because of Emerald Isle, and more people get married because of St. Patrick’s. Raising children still isn’t the economic boon it was for the farmers of 60 years ago, but it’s less daunting when you’ve got the parish to help you meet other parents and raise your children in the faith. Also, the faith can help you see children as more than mouths to feed or hands to help, but also as souls to glorify God.
And if you’re a McGargill, a Laughlin, a Hughes, a Martin, or a Maher, the institutions are the soil into which you grow the roots that may keep you here and nourish you. Your family name is in the bricks at the feet of the St. Patrick statue outside the church, and it’s also on gravestones on the top of the hill just outside town.
Margaret Mary Laughlin was buried on that hill earlier this year, on Jan. 21, after a Mass at St. Patrick’s. A few weeks later, the floods came.
Narrow-based terracing does a lot of things, but it doesn’t stop floods. Along the Nishnabotna River were levees, and the floods destroyed them. Blake, the Laughlin descendant who’s proudly having zero children, found work in the flood.
He drives a dump truck, and he spends his time delivering the boulders that will form the new levy. Blake doesn’t think the new levy will hold.
The parishioners at St. Patrick are hoping their parish will fight off the forces of nature.
Emily, the bartender, is expecting her first child. One young couple at the end of the bar is engaged. They’ll get married at St. Patrick’s later this year.
“Hopefully, it can maintain,” Jerry told me over pancakes. “Because it’s still declining.” Jake McGargill looks for hope. The large Martin clan provides a glimmer. “A lot of them have stayed around,” Jake said. “We’re kind of hoping their kids and their grandkids will stay around.”
In most rural towns, this would be an absurd hope. Why would anyone stick around? But in Imogene, the reasons to stick around are plenty. You stick around for the wings and the tenderloin. You stick around for Marleen’s pies. You stick around for the revelry at the pub. You stick around for the marble altars, and you stick around for the community where people live out the commandments to love God and love their neighbor.
You stick around because you’re from here. Your roots are planted deep. And you try to weather the deluge.
Timothy P. Carney is the commentary editor at the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.

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