Community Feature: Cresco, Iowa
Cresco Community: A history of innovators
By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Summer 2016 Inspire(d)
“You make your family,” says long-time Cresco, Iowa resident Bootie Kapler. “Cresco is my family.”
In that family, Bootie Kapler would definitely be the mom. If there’s a committee, volunteer position, or, really, any person in need, Bootie is there. Seriously – she sits on at least a dozen area boards. If they ask, she says yes.
“I don’t mind as long as we get something done. And so often they feed you,” she says with a chuckle. “I do lots of volunteering too.”
From taking shifts at Howard Community Hospice or The County Store non-profit to tour-directing for CUSB Bank’s VIP 55+ club –“We went ALL OVER creation! Before that, I’d never even been on a bus!” – Bootie finds a way to help out.
“You do a lot of reading and calling, and eventually you learn how to do things,” she says. “Oh, and every year I make 12 Easter baskets for local shut-ins. I even made myself a bunny costume to deliver them! Can you imagine?! Ha! It’s the best thing in the world to make people laugh.”
The now 78-year-old moved to Cresco when she was 14. A few years later, when she graduated high school, it looked like Bootie was heading on out.
“My parents gave me two weeks to move out of the house. That’s just the way things were then,” she says. “I wanted to be a nurse. The tuition for an LPN was $75 for a year back then – I knew I could afford that – so I went to St. Mary’s in Rochester.”
“When I ran out of money, I came back to Cresco. Some classmates and I had the intention that we were going to get to Denver, Colorado, once we had enough money. But I met a cute fellow with black curly hair instead,” she says.
Bootie and Ike Kapler got married in 1959. “I went west!” she says with a big laugh. “Half-a-mile west… to this farm!”
Bootie opens the door to her farmhouse with a hug. Inside, oldies music is playing. There are fresh-out-of-the-oven butter brickle cookies and, of course, hot coffee.
She may crack a lot of jokes, but there’s no doubt that all Bootie wants is to be there for her community.
“The support from your friends in Cresco – they may want to know every possible thing about you, but they sure are there for you in a crisis,” she says.
When Bootie and Ike’s youngest daughter suffered through anorexia in college, their friends supported them without judgment, and when Ike passed away in 2004, 500 people came through to pay their respects at the funeral.
So when Bootie ran into a local businessman at the grocery store, lamenting that he couldn’t find land in town and was looking elsewhere to start his new business, of course Bootie had to help.
“I said, ‘What if I sold you part of my farm?’”
Right on the edge of town, the 60 acres of property was perfect for Cresco growth, and Bootie was eager to see jobs and dollars stay in the county. She and her family made the sale in late 2008, and Campsite RV and Shopko have since been developed there, joining an already industry-rich community that includes, to name a few, Featherlite, Alum-Line, Donaldson, Masonry Technology Incorporated, Bear Creek Archeology…
“The hospital too,” Bootie continues with the list. “Oh, and Plantpeddler. They employ a lot of people.” She pauses. “I work there part time.” (Of course she does.)
“But I just drive around delivering flowers and making people happy. It’s pretty good work. Better than bill collecting!”
Bootie is just one of the thoughtful and innovative people who make things GO in Cresco. But really, throughout history, Cresco has been home to a great many innovators – people who aren’t afraid to take chances – on their career, on themselves, and on their community.
150 years ago, Cresco founder Augustus Beadle recruited folks to the freshly platted land with the promise of a railroad and a good life. There’s a beard-growing contest in the name of Augustus for Cresco’s upcoming 150th Birthday Celebration.
Many years after Augustus, Cresco High School’s most famous graduate, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dr. Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), developed a high-yield, drought-resistance strain of wheat that helped billions of people grow food that could survive – and help them survive – on their land. Cresco hosts the Norman Borlaug Harvest Fest most falls to celebrate his accomplishments as well as those of the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation (the next Harvest Fest is 2017).
And Cresco native Ellen Church (1904-1965) innovated an entirely new profession – that of airline attendants! The local airport is named in her honor.
The town itself sits about 10 miles shy of the Iowa/Minnesota border. It is the Howard County seat, and roughly 4000 people live there. The main drag – a tree-speckled Elm Street – takes you along historical buildings (the recently renovated theatre and the library buildings are over 100 years old and still operating under their original purpose), a variety of bronze public art sculptures, and a great big county courthouse. It’s charming. And it’s clear people in the community care – about each other and their town.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but the best part about Cresco is its people,” says Katie Ferrie, a local “do-er” and the marketing co-chair for Cresco’s 150th Celebration. Katie volunteers in addition to working her day job at CUSB Bank and keeping up with two busy, young daughters.
Yep, folks in small towns have to wear many hats if they’re going to make progress.
“Some of the best volunteers are some of the busiest people,” says Mark Johnson, technology manager at Cresco’s Masonry Technology Incorporated. “I’m a big believer in altruism. We need to give back.”
Mark and his wife, Brenda, love living in Cresco because of the great proximity to nature of all kinds – from Prairie’s Edge Nature Center, to Vernon Springs, to the 22-mile Prairie Springs paved bike trail that connects to the Prairie Farmer Trail and links Cresco, Ridgeway, and Calmar, Iowa. But they are especially passionate about the cross-country ski trails – trails they helped create.
It was the mid 70s when Mark and Brenda came to Cresco – separately; they met and eventually fell in love after they were recruited as teachers in the Cresco school district.
“They specifically were looking for a physical education teacher who could also teach art,” Brenda says with a laugh.
Mark had degrees in English and reading, and ended up teaching those skills through computers. He went on to become an Adobe Master Teacher, and also taught classes at the Northeast Iowa Community College center in Cresco.
“I learned much more from the kids than they ever learned from me,” he says.
It was shortly after their arrival in Cresco that the new couple got their first cross-country skis.
“We bought them in La Crosse because nowhere around here sold them,” Brenda says.
Back then, people just beat down their own tracks for skiing. But the Kiwanis club made a trail near Prairie’s Edge Nature Center and Mark and Brenda started to really get into the sport.
“We got so excited about it we bought a little house just east of the courthouse and turned part of it into a ski shop,” Mark says with a laugh.
It was all very DIY – they bought a snowmobile and had a local blacksmith make a track-setter. They helped start the Upper Iowa Ski Club in the early 1980s. Although the club doesn’t exist anymore, its mission continues on. A group of volunteers, with help from the Howard County Conservation Board, that currently keep the trails going, and they’ve made significant (re: state-of-the-art) equipment upgrades. The group now grooms some of the best cross-country ski trails in the region.
Mark and Brenda volunteer elsewhere too. In the warmer months, Brenda helps to clear trails at the Nature Center and works at the local Meals on Wheels, and Mark is on the Normal Borlaug Heritage Foundation Board and both serve on the Prairie Springs Trail Committee.
“I get more out of it than I probably put into it,” Mark says. “I’ve met so many great people, and you walk away feeling good that you’ve helped out…that you’ve accomplished something.”
A lot of the challenges that face the community of Cresco are universal to small towns…heck, maybe all towns.
“The doers can get tapped out,” says Jason Passmore, Executive Director of Howard County Business and Tourism. “We’re also seeing a population loss. It’s hard to get younger people to come live here. Like a lot of rural Midwest towns, we’re seeing a decline in enrollment in schools. We have a lot of great manufacturing here in Cresco, but the workforce is aging. So we need to bring in families to replace that depleting workforce. We’re going to have to become more diverse, and that can be a challenge.”
But they’re up for the challenge, says business and tourism Development Coordinator Spiff Slifka.
“We’re asking ourselves, ‘What will draw people? What will set us apart?’” Spiff says. “We’re trying to take on that next level infrastructure.”
The City Council is on board as well (no pun intended). They’ve worked over the past couple of years to increase energy efficiency in town – all the streetlights are LED, as well as the new Cresco Theatre marquee (but designed to be historically accurate). Plus, they’re early participants in a solar power purchase agreement.
“By spring we will have 300+ kW of solar panels on city property. We are really working hard on reducing the city’s energy usage to save the taxpayers’ money,” says six-year city council member Amy Bouska. “We’re pretty proud of what we’ve got over here.”
As Bootie says, Cresco is family. The people of this small Midwestern town are working hard for each other and their community. They’re making great efforts to bring folks in to visit and work and live, and they are carrying on a rich history of innovation.
“For 40 years, I’ve been part of project after project to help make this community better,” Mark says. “And that’s the thing. The people of Cresco keep re-making or re-working ourselves to be even better.”
Aryn Henning Nichols loves heading out to meet people for these stories, and figure out what it is that makes them feel proud to call their towns home. Cresco is a really cool place, and Aryn looks forward to heading over there more this summer for some outdoor fun!
There are SO MANY things happening for Cresco’s big 150th Celebration – here are just a few of the highlights.
- Augustus Beadle Beard Contest!
- Live music and entertainment all weekend
- Lots of kids’ activities (bouncy houses, slides, and more)
- Cooking contests
- Food vendors
- Cruise to Cresco Car Show & Tractor Show
- Pine Wood Derby
- Fly-In Breakfast
- Art in the Park
- Grand Parade
- Tons of tours – Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame, Borlaug Heritage Farm, Ag Education Center, Howard County Museum, Cabin in Beadle Park, County Hospital, Cresco Theatre, Kellow House, etc.
The Prairie’s Edge Nature Center was opened in 2000 – it gets its name from the native prairie planted right outside its doors. The Nature Center also houses multiple displays, including live animals, such as a tiger salamander, native fish swimming through a 180-gallon tank, and a live honeybee display. Outside, enjoy trails for all seasons!
Right across from Prairie’s Edge Nature Center, Vernon Springs Rock Ladder Dam was introduced and then completed in 2010. Instead of an outdated dam, the river now contains 280 ft. of pools and rapids that spread this drop out with an average grade of three percent versus the previous dam’s vertical drop of eight feet. The rapids open the Turkey River to fish migration while making the area safer for people of all ages. This first-in-the-State of Iowa rock arch rapids is safer for people and now wildlife and offers a unique perspective to the Turkey River and Vernon Mill Pond.
A 20 mile crushed limestone trail that connects Cresco and Calmar, Iowa. It’s a great bike ride through native prairies and Iowa farmland.
The Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation owns Dr. Borlaug’s boyhood 103-Acre farm in Northeast Iowa. There’s the farmhouse/museum, various outbuildings, and an old schoolhouse on site. Visit in September for the Norman Borlaug Harvest Fest (next one is scheduled for 2017).
This amazing theatre and opera house hosts live music, theatre, and popular movies as well! It was recently renovated and painted with amazing intricacy by Riehle Decorating.
Check out cool Iowa wrestling history. Housed in the Cresco Welcome Center, it’s a great launching point for your Cresco visit. And don’t miss the super-awesome IWHOF mural on your way in!
This place is a lifesaver in the winter for those with kids! Swim time!
In addition to cross country skiing, there’s great snowmobiling in Howard County. Driftrunners Inc. is a non-profit organization established in 1968, has a long history of snowmobiling in Northeast Iowa. They host an annual Snowfest weekend event in January (2017 will be the 45th!).