‘IT’S THE BEST PLACE TO BE’
By ANDREW MCGINN firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s something you maybe didn’t know about Anthony Minnehan, lifelong Churdan resident, councilman, businessman and entrepreneur: When he feels put on the spot, he starts blinking more rapidly than usual.
That’s according to the person who knows him best, wife Tami.
She could sense, and see, her husband’s unease recently with the newspaper reporter’s simple request: to have his picture taken for a story about Churdan 2.0, a new nonprofit organization established to halt the town’s decline, at least aesthetically.
It’s a good story.
“There is hope now,” Anthony said. “If you just dig in, things can happen.”
True, the nonprofit is in Anthony and Tami’s names, but the work to date has been such a community effort that he didn’t want to look like he’s taking the credit for all that has transpired and all that’s yet to come.
Over in neighboring Paton, Vaughn Bauer has done more to keep the town of 230 on the map than arguably anyone — yet the newspaper stands a better chance of arranging a sit-down interview with Sasquatch.
But if it really does take a village, then Churdan (pop. 364) has always been the Greene County village with arguably the most can-do mojo. The K-12 school on the north edge of town is less a symbol of the community’s continued autonomy and more the equivalent of a rural Iowa Alamo, a shrine to resistance in the face of huge odds.
“It’s got a spirit,” the now-late Ron Toliver once said about his hometown. “Nobody’s got a high school with just 100 kids in it.”
Paton-Churdan High School this past spring graduated a class of 14.
So it’s somewhat alarming to learn that, of all people, Anthony Minnehan was losing faith in Churdan.
“We’ve actually talked about moving in the past,” Anthony, 56, confessed recently in his office at Minnehan Metal Works.
Like any number of Iowa towns under 1,000, the years were becoming unkind to Churdan.
“We were feeling a little bit hopeless over the town’s condition,” Anthony said, explaining that no one really knew where or how to start making improvements.
It’s a familiar story.
Future wife Tami, a Williamsburg native, rolled into town in 1988 for her first teaching job and remembers the first impression Churdan made — the well-manicured lawns, a beautifully maintained school and the existence of businesses, not just empty buildings, on the main drag.
That was five kids ago.
“Came for the job. Stayed for the man,” said Tami, who teaches K-12 art at Paton-Churdan.
The Minnehans remain total opposites.
“He’s like Harley-Davidson. I’m like British literature,” she said.
But they agree that Churdan is worth saving. And for the first time in a long time, small towns have a window of opportunity.
“A lot of people are realizing they can work from home,” said Anthony, a 1983 Paton-Churdan grad whose metal business does work for New Way Trucks and also manufactures the MudOx, a cable tow kit for combines of his own design. “If the town is prepared, people will come for the quality of life. They’re not going to come if there are 40 abandoned houses.”
Churdan 2.0 was formed largely to address vacant properties.
The nonprofit organization made itself known earlier this year with an award of $10,000 from the Greene County Community Foundation for the beautification of neglected properties.
Already, at least six vacant houses in Churdan have come down. Three more — one with a foundation beyond repair; another infested with termites — were to be torn down last week alone.
Churdan 2.0 is the entity acquiring and demolishing houses beyond repair, if for no other reason than the city itself is broke.
Anthony, a city councilman who won office as a reluctant write-in, acknowledges that renewal by way of demolition can test the fabric of a tight-knit town.
“Everybody’s not your best friend on these deals,” he said.
Anthony knows that Churdan’s already slim tax base takes a hit with each would-be rental unit that comes down, but it’s a gamble he’s willing to take.
On one now-empty lot at Sand and Head streets, where a vacant house stood, the Minnehans have plans to create a memorial to fallen police officers in Iowa. The Iowa Officer Down Memorial will honor officers who have died in the line of duty.
The memorial’s centerpiece is a 1950 Plymouth painted to look like an old Iowa State Patrol car. They’ve already seen people stopping to take selfies with it.
They’re working with an architect for the memorial’s design.
The idea for a memorial to fallen law enforcement came from a place of special meaning for the Minnehans, given that their oldest son and Tami’s brother are both in law enforcement.
“All the negativity toward police makes me want to do something positive,” Anthony said.
The memorial would also complement Churdan’s Freedom Park, the city park along Highway 4 conceived by Ron Toliver as a way to honor local war dead.
Anthony concedes there may be no stopping the decline of rural communities, but they can at least look good on the way down.
“The stuff I’ve seen the past year has been the most hopeful,” Tami said.
It all started with a grant of $45,000 in 2019 from the Grow Greene County Gaming Corp. for Churdan to upgrade playground equipment in a city park.
Volunteers descended on the park to install the equipment.
“It’s never just one person,” Tami said.
From there, residents started looking around to other projects. In fact, the ball was already rolling at such a good clip that when word broke in 2020 that the city was in financial dire straits, few of them allowed the news to break their stride.
This past winter, volunteers moved snow at their own expense. This summer, volunteers are doing the bulk of mowing around town. Volunteers are spraying and pulling weeds.
Brother David has helped Churdan 2.0 acquire properties, while sister Shelly has done the legal work, Anthony said.
“Everybody’s pitching in. It’s awesome,” he said.
The city itself is now “holding its own” financially, Anthony said. Water rates have had to be raised.
“We’ve got 100-year-old infrastructure,” he said. “We were just getting gobbled up in repairs.”
As Anthony explained, he now has older residents on daily walks asking what they can do to help. Pick up a branch, he might say.
It’s impossible to tell whether Churdan’s future can ever be as robust as its past. But for the Minnehans and others, the present makes anything seem possible.
“It’s unbelievable,” Anthony marveled. “It makes my skin tingle.”