RAGBRAI 2020: EVERYTHING WAS SUPER IN COOPER
By BRANDON HURLEY
If it weren’t for the work of a few dedicated citizens, the township of Cooper may be merely a blurb in the history books.
While no residents of the 1980 Cooper still live in town today, the small, tight-knit community enjoys the fruits of labor from a core of new, dedicated residents.
The Tonight Show put Cooper on the map, but for the real diehards, the ones who really know the history, the small Greene County town’s coming out party was the day RAGBRAI rolled through the once vibrant community some 40 years ago.
A small, yet informative anniversary celebration swept through the Cooper township last week, a town now void of live bands and food vendors, yet still adventurous and spontaneous enough to throw a little party.
Of course, there was plenty of homemade cherry pie on this steamy, July 24th morning (two to be exact courtesy of Chris Henning’s work the night before ), underneath the protection of the ever-so-coveted shade - to mark the 40th anniversary of the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa’s stop in one of the smallest communities in Greene County back in July of 1980.
In the absence of a physical RAGBRAI this summer, the entity encouraged bicyclists to embark on a virtual ride. The 48th version of RAGBRAI was set to begin this summer in Le Mars and finish in Dubuque, but due to the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, the ride was canceled. That sparked former Des Moines Register columnist and Cooper resident Chuck Offenburger to round up a few of his friends and avid cyclists to commemorate a significant moment in his adopted home’s history.
The Cooper community, which was home to only 50 residents some 40 years ago and is even much smaller now, set the tone for mid-day RAGBRAI stops of the future. They rolled out the red carpet for thousands of riders when most ride-through towns weren’t even thinking of such things.
Offenburger and fellow neighbors Doug and Karen Lawton as well as Chris Henning could not believe four decades have passed since that wild and wacky party. The Lawtons helped plan the RAGBRAI reception in 1980, and have remained on their farm in Cooper since. Panora’s Jim Sievers rode through Cooper that day, only stopping for a drink of water, but still made it a goal to stop by again Friday. Greene County Historical Society’s Roger Aegerter was also on hand July 24 to take in the memories. Lots has changed over the years, but the passion remains.
Terry Rich, Cooper’s most notorious native, wasn’t even present that July day 40 years ago despite having helped coordinate the mid-day stop. He was on vacation down in the Lake of the Ozark’s, waiting on pins and needles to hear how the RAGBRAI stop went.
It was his idea to place several concert level speakers on the western edge of town as riders made their way over from the overnight stop of Carroll.
RAGBRAI’s 1980 edition was just the eighth running of the event that would become one of Iowa’s greatest spectacles. Bicyclists began July 27 in Glenwood, stopped over in Atlantic, then Carroll and into Cooper before continuing south to Perry. Riders then pedaled straight north to Webster City and Waverly before navigating their way to Elkader and finishing August 2 in Guttenburg.
Rich’s plan was to help promote Cooper as RAGBRAI neared, even if i was a tiny, rural community in west central Iowa. Rich, who is a former CEO of the Iowa lottery, used those giant speakers to their full advantage, playing patriotic, disco music on a reel-to-reel tape, which had to be rewound every two hours. Offenburger called up Rich last Friday as the small group of diehards congregated to honor the long ago RAGBRAI visit.
“These speakers would blast you out a mile away,” Rich said by phone as residents and bikers gathered at the Cooper shelter a few steps east of the Raccoon River Valley Trail. “We put them out on the hill and cranked it full bore. All these people, as they came over the hill that didn’t expect to stop, had free ice water and hospitality that no one could believe. Everyone got a real, unexpected surprise.”
Cooper’s lavish success spurned a short mention in the Des Moines Register that next day, detailing the shocking fun had in the previously nondescript town. They were one of the first, small towns along the RAGBRAI route that stopped riders cold in their tracks with entertainment and hospitality, Offenburger said. Now, he added, that’s the norm.
“It teaches towns they can do big things,” he said. “If they all work together. I guess that was the case in Cooper.”
The festive celebration even sparked the late Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul to participate in a impromptu six-on-six basketball game. Kaul was notorious for sarcastically poking fun at the girls’ high school game, so Cooper decided to return the favor.
The RAGBRAI explosion spawned a centennial celebration the following year, and then, the extremely successful adult proms. Cooper has even hosted a parade which was marshaled by the University of Iowa drum major and the Hawkeye baton twirler.
The old weigh station just off the trail in Cooper now features a gorgeous, wrap-around mural commissioned by Greene County art teacher Sarah Stott. The colorful painting depicts the rich history of Cooper, calling to the town’s Tonight Show appearance as well as its significance along the Milwaukee Railroad and the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
The Cooper centennial a year after RAGBRAI, which was a rough guess of when the town was actually established, spawned Rich’s appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on NBC. The original plan was to get Carson to come to Cooper, but due to scheduling conflicts, Rich was invited to visit the set of the show.
“RAGBRAI was a seed of an idea that really turned into a big idea the next year, which put Cooper on the national map,” Rich said. “We had no idea that many people would come. It was unbelievable.”