No longer off the beaten path
By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s been nearly 60 Septembers since U.S. Highway 30 sent hungry travelers and their thirsty cars through the heart of a Greene County business district.
What has been called “New 30” since September 1958 bypassed the three towns on its route, siphoning off as much as 35 to 50 percent of business at filling stations in Jefferson alone the first weekend it was open.
Out of necessity, highway traffic — as many as 4,830 cars daily — is again flowing through one Greene County community, albeit temporarily, as the original U.S. 30 overpass near Grand Junction is replaced.
The detour would surely be a boon to business, if only Dana had any left.
Stinkys Bar and Grill on Anyer Street — what was once upon a time Dana’s main drag, complete with actual buildings — had closed down even before a fire in 2011 destroyed the building.
It’s a shame. Former mayor Jack Pedersen hasn’t seen this many people pass through his hometown in years.
“We haven’t had this much traffic through town since RAGBRAI went through,” Pedersen, 69, marveled Friday.
The detour calls attention to the challenges facing rural Iowa, and Greene County in particular, as farms grow in size and young families flee for the beige suburbs of Des Moines.
“This is what a town looks like in the dying stage,” said Tony Sims, 44, a Dana city councilman.
Dana, which had a population of just 71 in the 2010 census, is Greene County’s most vulnerable community, and arguably has been for generations.
But it’s also essentially the canary in the coal mine for the county.
It was site of Greene County’s first school reorganization in 1959, when voters reluctantly agreed to consolidate with Grand Junction to create East Greene Schools.
Consolidation followed in Paton, Churdan, Jefferson and Scranton.
East Greene itself eventually merged with Jefferson-Scranton.
In the 1930 census, Junction Twp., which includes Dana and Grand Junction, was home to 2,202 residents.
Today it’s about half that.
It’s a very real possibility that Dana could go the way of Farlin or Adaza.
“We’re tap dancing that line every day,” said Sims, a professional airbrush artist whose Middle of Nowhere Studio is based in Dana.
With a fiscal-year budget of just $52,000, Dana is literally one collapsed street away from ruin.
“It would be fantastic if we could get a business up here,” said Sims’ wife, Mandy, Dana’s 41-year-old first-term mayor. “It’s a nice, quiet little town.”
In 2009, the Simses — both graduates of East Greene High School who lived for a while in Omaha — found a property in Dana that immediately felt like home.
By 2011, Mandy Sims was serving on the three-person city council.
“I wanted to see the town cleaned up,” she said.
Two years ago, she decided to run for mayor.
“I really wanted to see what I could do,” she said. “This has been a very eye-opening experience. But it’s been a good one.”
She plans to run for re-election in November.
Together with her husband, the two 40-somethings are on a quest to save one rural town from oblivion.
“It doesn’t have to be crappy,” Tony Sims said. “It can be a nice town.”
The recent arrival of high-speed internet service to Dana was a start.
Unfortunately, there’s still no cable provider short of satellite.
“Which isn’t a bad thing if you’ve seen cable lately,” Tony Sims said wryly.
The Simses, who have three kids, a grandbaby, four huskies and four cats, might have been able to bring Netflix to town, but what comes next would make most people want to give up and binge-watch TV all day.
Dana needs improved infrastructure, from streets to drainage.
Residents all have septic systems.
The town itself sits atop clay drainage tiles installed in the 1920s, according to Mandy Sims.
“It’s all uphill,” Tony Sims complained. “Nothing gets done fast. Everything’s too expensive.”
The town, like all seven Greene County municipalities, benefits from casino gaming profits, but because distribution is based on population, this year’s check only amounted to $3,981. (By comparison, Grand Junction received $46,168.)
Still, other improvements require no more than old-fashioned time and energy.
“The (Highway 30) reroute has brought so much traffic through town, which is both good and bad,” Mandy Sims said. “It has made people on Main Street more aware of their yards.”
For years, graffiti marred Dana’s Juhl City Park, including a swastika on the old bell that formerly graced Dana’s school building.
“A lot of things have been neglected for a long time,” Tony Sims said.
The swastika, in particular, was insulting to the Simses.
“Nobody would address it,” said Mandy Sims, quite possibly one of the few mayors in Iowa with blue hair.
The park is now free of graffiti.
Elsewhere in town, Tony Sims had to use his van to knock down ragweed that had grown as high as 12 feet before he was able to mow over it.
An investor has been buying up dilapidated homes in Dana, they said, leveling them and reseeding the lots. The Simses are unsure of the investor’s motivation, but they appreciate the help in cleaning up the town.
Mandy Sims said it’s likely that Dana’s population is only about half what it was in the 2010 census.
“People just come and go from some of these houses,” she said.
Neighbors of theirs mysteriously just up and left one day, leaving behind most of their furnishings.
“It’s like they disappeared,” Tony Sims said.
The overgrown residence and the one right next to it have since been stripped of copper, they said.
Dana’s 21.7 percent poverty rate is second in Greene County to Grand Junction’s 25.9 percent poverty rate, according to census data, and nearly double Jefferson’s poverty rate of 11.6 percent.
Unbelievably, Dana still has a post office that’s open two hours a day, and the one business — Juhl Feed — is a mainstay in Greene County agriculture.
The overwhelming presence in Dana of Juhl’s means a lonely existence for anyone who questions modern-day agricultural practices, and yet the Simses are firmly against the proliferation of hog confinements.
“We love pork,” Tony Sims clarified. “We just hate how they’re doing it.”
As Mandy Sims puts it, “Dana is inundated with hog (expletive).”
“Truth be told,” Tony Sims explained, “I’m pretty sure everyone in this town hates us.”
Pedersen, who served as the mayor of Dana for more than three decades, said that with virtually nonexistent revenue, it’s difficult for Dana to make ends meet.
“I haven’t heard many complaints,” Pedersen said of the Simses, “and I haven’t made any.”
He said the city has in the past explored unincorporating, meaning Dana would dissolve into the county.
What they found, however, is that property taxes would go up for residents, he said.
And so Dana just keeps hanging on.
Whether travelers on the Highway 30 detour are bearing witness to its death or its resurrection remains to be decided.
“I don’t want this town to go away,” Mandy Sims said. “For me, it’s home.”