Airbnb catching on in Greene County
By BRANDON HURLEY
The greatest testimony came from a group of Filipino refugees.
They fell in love — once the initial shock wore off, of course.
Soon, the children were mingling in the fields, walking beans, playing in the town park and admiring the simplicity of rural Iowa.
The life-changing trip was due in large part to the nostalgic eye and ambition of Shawn and Shane Small.
That community feel brought the Smalls back home to Paton with hopes of spreading their love for rural Iowa. The simplest way was to open their doors at the Hometown Hideaway, a modern bed and breakfast with a twist that’s thriving in the town of 230.
Together, the brothers, along with Shane’s wife Georgia, opened an Airbnb, the Hometown Hideaway, and they’ve witnessed it grow into one of Paton’s best-kept secrets.
The brothers purchased the original 1889 home of their late grandmother, Marie Lundgren, with dreams of keeping their childhood memories alive.
The quaint, white corner house at State and Park with a freshly coated deck has served several purposes over its nearly century and a half existence. Its latest endeavor is as comforting and welcoming as they come.
Airbnb is part of the same share economy that has given rise to Uber, the ride service that enables ordinary people to become cabbies using their own cars. Riders hail for an Uber with an app on their phone.
Founded in 2008, Airbnb enables people to become “hospitality entrepreneurs,” opening their homes to travelers.
No longer contained to just the biggest cities and hippest neighborhoods, Airbnb boasts 4.5 million listings, including three in Greene County.
More often than not, the owners aren’t even physically present.
When customers book a stay at the Hometown Hideaway in Paton, the Smalls aren’t there, leaving the entire place to their guests. They want them to get the full rural Iowa experience.
In Jefferson, Chad and Ashley Schwander live next door to their Airbnb, the affectionately named Little Greene House on West Vest Street.
The husband-wife chiropractors were Airbnb customers themselves before becoming the owners of one.
Crashing with Chad’s mom in his native Colorado during visits home became impractical once the Schwanders started having kids.
“It felt a little imposing to stay at anybody’s house,” Ashley said.
“Staying in my mom’s basement didn’t really fit the bill anymore,” Chad added. “It’s nice to have a house with a kitchen.”
The Schwanders bought the empty house next door to them in 2015 and listed it for rent last year.
Naturally, they worried at first about guests trashing the place.
“People have been super-respectful,” Chad said.
Though born in Boone, the Small brothers quickly adopted Paton as their getaway growing up. They spent as much time as they could with Grandpa Leonard Lundgren and Grandma Marie.
“Paton was home to me,” Shane said. “Summers with Grandma. Any of our good childhood memories were in Paton.”
The structure also housed the original Paton Mutual Telephone Exchange. The extensive history was too much to let it die, which set in motion the Smalls’ rental plan.
The Smalls love for their little slice of heaven in Paton spawned from Shawn’s passion. He founded a mission company, Modern Voyage, which Shane and Georgia both have a passionate stake in. It’s how they brought the refugees from the Philippines to rural Iowa. The trip up north was their first taste of American life outside of Dallas, Texas.
“They left with a better perception of rural Iowa,” Shane said. “Too many kids don’t know what it’s like.”
Shane works for the Dallas-based DXC computer storage company, but sinks a majority of his free time, along with his wife, into serving the community.
“Our real passion is volunteering,” Shane said. “It’s a way to encounter God and get kids out to experience they haven’t been able to.”
The Paton home allows family members and guests to re-create moments of generations gone by. The lasting effects are almost too numerous to count. It even brought a grieving family together.
In town for their grandma’s funeral, the family played games as a group and cooked meals, enjoying each other’s company.
It helped them heal, Shane said.
“Memories like that are why we have this here,” Shane said. “Most responses we get say that it brought them back to their childhood. It’s modern but it feels like grandma’s.”
The guestbook is filled with similar testimonials, praising the simplicity of the house and the town it calls home. The property is most commonly used for family reunions, or family members in search of a place to stay. But it’s also brought in visitors longing for a taste of rural Iowa.
Shane and Georgia missed the tight-knit atmosphere of Paton while living in Texas. Originally, the property was a good excuse to make an escape. They felt sharing it with the world was the next step.
“In Dallas, we don’t have any of that,” Georgia said. “It’s really about the community. When we come here, we feel welcome. That small town feel is what we want.”
Reservations for the Airbnb are often made at least 30 days in advance.
The success is beyond Georgia and Shane’s wildest dreams. Guests come from all over, including New York, Maryland, Florida, Wisconsin and Texas.
“The original thought was we were going to share the home with the community,” Shane said. “We felt this was too much of a gem to let it go. We never expected the response we’d get.
Construction workers, John Deere employees and wind turbine engineers have all set up shop in Paton as well, in addition to vacationers.
“It’s become a heartbeat of this town,” said Judy Wilson, the home’s caretaker and a Paton city councilwoman.
She tidies up the house when the Smalls are in Texas, fielding most inquires.
Wilson is one of the biggest supporters of anything and everything Paton. There’s room for tremendous growth in the Greene County town, she said, and the Airbnb is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Everyone knew their grandparents, they’d be so proud,” Wilson said. “There are beautiful things happening here. We believe it can be a vibrant community. People want to be here.”
The community welcomed Hometown Hideaway and its patrons with open arms. It’s a key reason why the Smalls created the local Airbnb — to shed a light on a warm community that is often forgotten.
“We really like the community feeling here. People bring us food, they come by just to talk to us. They look out for you,” Georgia said.
“We were worried, a little timid,” she added. “But with Judy backing us, we knew it would work. They were excited to see new faces in town.”
Georgia adapted to Paton as a teenager, dating and eventually marrying Shane. Though she didn’t have much previous experience with Iowa, it didn’t take long for her to become enamored with the Paton community.
“This is now my hometown. Detroit isn’t much of a place to call home,” Georgia said. “I used to come here when I was younger and I fell in love. One of the reasons we came back is to immerse ourselves in the community. We’ve made a whole new group of friends.”
Her popularity in town exploded, much like their Airbnb.
“For a while, I was known as Georgia’s husband,” Shane said. “We are truly blessed. We love blessing people with a place to stay. People have taken ownership in the community. They’ll do the yard work for us and they’ll keep an eye on the house.”
Most of the general contracting work on Hometown Hideaway has been handled by the Small brothers.
The home was originally a two-bedroom house, but Shane and Shawn divided the master into two separate sleeping quarters, making for three bedrooms with a permanent wall dividing the two.
The ceiling of the entire home was replaced and raised, while a front porch was built.
Other than that, the owners have left the home as is. The home is packed with board games, toys, a stereo system and even a vintage three-wheel bike that often can be seen around town.
“It really is a fully stocked house,” Shane said. “We want it to be a place where people can come to have fun. People are more important than anything you can ever own.
“Memories can’t be replaced.”
The Smalls use the house as their own vacation home, too. The catch is, for two weeks each spring and fall, they, too, have to book through Airbnb.
That’s how popular the niche getaway has become.
Initially, residents never knew whether or not they could stop by and chat with the Smalls, afraid they’d disrupt another family. So Georgia and Shane decided to fly the Texas flag
whenever they were back in Greene County.
On most other occasions, typically May through early fall, the home is occupied by out-of-towners.
Herald Editor Andrew McGinn contributed to this story.