Where have all of Iowa's children gone?
Ford Lillard grew up in Wiota and is now raising his two kids there with his wife, Liz. Only problem is their children, Bailey and Hunter, are the only two in town. Ford is the town's mayor and has a plan to bring the town back to life. Brian Powers/The Register
WIOTA, Ia. — The playground at the center of town is ghostly silent. No kids in sight.
Empty swings sway in the wind. Much of this weather-beaten equipment was handed down from the former high school that closed half a century ago.
The few young residents in town are easy to spot, often seen on Wiota's eastern outskirts. They're a wild bunch, with names like Red, Mini, Sock, Bear, Blossom, Bailey and Rooster.
It's more a sad reality than a joke: In Wiota, horses outnumber children, 7-to-2. The town of 100 people just east of the Cass County seat of Atlantic is almost exactly halfway between Omaha and Des Moines, making for a long commute to either metro hub.
A dwindling number of children, matched by an increasingly older population, is threatening to turn more and more small towns across rural Iowa into retirement communities.
That eventually could prove fatal for Iowa towns built around family farms, jobs at small factories and neighbors of all ages who could rely on each other.
"We almost never get anybody for Halloween trick-or-treating," said Maynard Hansen, the 80-year-old former mayor who still operates his Tune-Up Inn repair shop, which first opened in Wiota in 1969.
"We used to have an Easter egg hunt that was pretty well attended. That's pretty much gone. … A lot of the things we used to do are gone."
Like the rest of the nation, Iowa’s population has gotten grayer as people live longer while raising smaller families.
Those 65 and older account for 16 percent of Iowa's population, the 14th highest share in the nation as of 2015. The percentage is expected to reach 20 percent by 2050.
Iowa ranked third in what the Census Bureau calls the "oldest-old" age group, those 85 and older, as of 2010.
At least 280 Iowa cities statewide have a greater percentage of residents age 65 and older than they have children (those younger than 18), according to American Community Survey statistics analyzed by the State Data Center.
That has grown from 254 cities in the 2010 Census.
The latest figures also show that five of Iowa’s smallest towns — Durango, Buck Grove, Beaconsfield, Carbon and Clayton, each with fewer than 50 residents — have no children, at least on paper.
How do these communities cope, filled with more older residents who live among fewer young neighbors and crucial services as they try to maintain independence in the rural homes they love? After more than a century of rampant urbanization in Iowa, the state’s childless towns could be a harbinger for the next waves of communities to disappear.
Wiota is among these towns that fall on the graying end of the spectrum, with children comprising only about 5 percent of the population, compared with nearly one-fourth of residents age 65 and older.
“It becomes self-fulfilling in a sense,” said David Peters, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University who for 23 years has studied rural Iowa through his Iowa Small Town Poll. “People with children leave, and then nobody wants to come in when there’s no support system for children.”
Wiota's only kids are the mayor's
In reality, 5 percent may be an optimistic tally for Wiota's children.
The seven horses here are owned by what might be the only young family in town: Ford and Liz Lillard and their two kids, Bailey, 9, and Hunter, 5.
Ford, 33, led the oldest horse, Red, 25, in the show ring when he was a high school student here in his hometown. His children may follow in his footsteps with the very same horse.
Ford puts a relatively youthful face on Wiota as its current mayor, and also serves as volunteer fire chief. He and Liz both work 10 minutes away at Cass County Memorial Hospital in Atlantic, a crucial hub for local residents.
He’s a network administrator, and she’s a surgical technician. When Bailey and Hunter wander a couple of blocks from home to play at the city park, the family’s 180-pound English Mastiff, Oscar, lopes alongside them.
A handful of businesses and institutions remain: The Tune-Up Inn, the Wiota Steakhouse, a post office, a Methodist church, and a family that builds bi-fold doors for car washes.
The couple who builds the doors, Lawrence and Kathy Havens, two years ago also purchased and reopened the steakhouse with their daughter, Brenda Williams. Williams works a full-time maintenance job at an assisted-living facility in Atlantic and cooks nights at the restaurant.
The best thing about living in Wiota, Ford said, is the serenity. He and Liz can sit on their deck and watch their kids play as the sun sets across the rolling landscape.
"It's kind of as close to a movie small town as you can get," he said.
'A little bit of turmoil going on'
Wiota also is among a 20-county region of western and southwest Iowa serviced by one of Iowa's six Area Agencies on Aging.
The agencies are state and federally funded local networks created by the Older Americans Act of 1965, part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
"Ninety-nine percent of all of the aging Iowans that we work with want to be in their own home," said Kelly Butts-Ellston, the executive director of the local agency, called Connections, based in Council Bluffs.
Butts-Ellston first joined the agency in 2002, when older Iowans were serviced with a denser network of congregate meal sites.
Only one meal site remains in Cass County, in Atlantic. Frozen meals, typically delivered twice a month to cities such as Wiota, have become the norm.
Connections' latest annual report outlines the challenges of providing services to “a highly rural service area with most counties aging. … Many of these rural consumers do not have family caregivers available to assist them, other than a spouse who is also aging. Many adult children have moved away to an urban setting for work, so rural individuals are often aging alone, with little family help.”
Iowa ranks No. 8 in the percentage of seniors living alone.
Tom Hoogestraat, a volunteer board member for Connections who lives in Glenwood, said that further complicating the agencies' work is Iowa's switch to private "managed care organizations" (MCOs) for its Medicaid patients, many of whom are elderly.
"It’s a little bit of a turmoil going on," Hoogestraat said. "And any time you add turmoil to a senior citizen’s life, it makes it a little more complicated."
Connections has a small footprint in Wiota, with four clients who have utilized services ranging from information to home-delivered meals. That's out of about 7,000 older Iowans and another 1,500 caregivers who have sought help in the agency's entire region.
What's happening in Wiota and southwest Iowa is playing out in smaller, older communities statewide.
Elaine Eshbaugh, an associate professor of gerontology and family studies at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, also serves on the governing board of northeast Iowa's Area Agency on Aging.
"For the first time ever, we are having to ask for money for Meals on Wheels," she said, in the form of a "suggested donation" to help sustain the program, which could lose more federal funds in the coming year.
"We are cutting services that I consider proactive preventative services that might keep people in their homes," she added.
But the smaller and more remote the community, the harder and more expensive it is to try to extend services — whether it's busing schoolchildren or delivering meals to the elderly.
Doug Bailey in Hamilton County has grappled with these problems as both a county supervisor and as a member of the county health board.
What can’t be managed through state and federal efforts “falls more and more to local government, nonprofits and community action agencies,” Bailey said.
In Wiota, Lillard estimates that perhaps 40 percent of his volunteer fire department’s calls have him responding to medical emergencies among the predominantly older residents.
Ford's grandmother, Betty Lillard, who turns 80 next month, lived in Wiota until several years ago, when she moved to a retirement community in Atlantic.
"For the elderly that is there," she said of her former home, "that's not easy to do in the wintertime: To get to town and get your groceries and whatever you need."
Similarly, Hansen helped his mother move into a small house next door to him in the late 1990s. She worked on her memoir and benefited from the help of nearby family and Meals on Wheels.
Now Hansen and his wife, Enola, hope to remain in Wiota as long as possible.
"As long as we can drive," Hansen said, "this is as good a place as any."
Raising grandchildren in Carbon
About a half hour south of Wiota in Adams County sits the specter of one possible future for Wiota if its fortunes aren't reversed.
Welcome to Carbon, home to perhaps 30 people in a valley that spills down into the Middle Nodaway River. The hillside here used to be pockmarked with entrances to coal mines — hence the town’s name.
Its population peaked at around 400 in the 1940s, when miners would slither down narrow shafts and lay on their sides to extract the black mineral by hand.
Today the only business on display is The Branding Iron Steakhouse, a saloon open Wednesday through Saturday.
This is where Daryl (which rhymes with Carl) and Ardith Magnuson are raising their four granddaughters, ages 5 to 10.
With no city playground, the Magnusons created their own, filling their front yard with a trampoline, plastic slides and pools, and even a pair of zip lines that let the girls glide above the lawn for as far as 200 feet.
Pink bicycles are parked on the front porch.
This fall Daryl, 73, built the girls a heated playhouse at the edge of the yard where they wait for the school bus in frigid weather.
These likely are the only children in Carbon — except for a 4-year-old neighbor who sometimes spends the day in town with her grandmother.
"It would be nice for them to have kids to play with," Daryl said.
The Magnusons, who formerly lived in Red Oak, first bought property in Carbon about 20 years ago. They’ve spent the last five years hammering together their custom, single-level retirement home.
The couple never counted on also raising their granddaughters but stepped in after their son's family fell apart.
"I tell everybody it's going to make me younger," Daryl said, breaking into laughter. "Because there's no more sitting around!"
All of his friends in Red Oak, Daryl said, “can’t understand why we wanted to move to a little town that has nothing."
The loss of Main Street retail in small towns has been well chronicled. The Magnusons have coped with e-commerce, doing much of their shopping online.
They get help with technology from their granddaughters, who helped teach them how to use their smartphones. The cell signal is spotty enough that Ardith often must stand by the front kitchen window to get reliable service.
American seniors often lack digital access, according to recent statistics from Pew Research, which is becoming more crucial in distant towns.
Only 42 percent of Americans 65 and older own a smartphone. And only 51 percent have broadband access.
Here in Carbon, "health is the biggest worry," Daryl said of his future.
What hope is there for Iowa’s communities struggling to keep hold of what children remain?
A new study underway at Iowa State University, enabled by a $100,000 National Science Foundation grant, may provide some answers.
Kimberly Zarecor, an associate professor of architecture in the College of Design, spearheaded the proposal based on her research overseas in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
The “shrink-smart” concept there emerged to help large cities in Europe that were left reeling by post-industrial losses of industry and population.
Zarecor wondered whether the same approach might help bring better and more targeted coping strategies to rural Iowa.
Too often, she said, the conversation is framed around growth. If a town isn't getting bigger, it's often considered a failure.
"We’re trying to lift the stigma a little bit," Zarecor said, "so we can have a more serious conversation."
The ISU team of professors, students and an advisory board of professionals will spend the next year interviewing and analyzing data of several small communities (identified with help from Peters' Iowa Small Town Poll), eventually circling back to conduct focus groups.
In many ways, rural Iowa also is a post-industrial landscape, and not just because fewer farm hands are required for modern agriculture. Ardith, 64, once worked at a battery factory in Red Oak that has long since moved to Missouri and then outside the country.
In his initial analysis of data framed around the "shrink smart" concept, Peters has identified what may be one differentiating factor: quality childcare.
Towns that have shown "shrink poor" characteristics have held onto fewer children and seen steeper population declines. They also have had worsening day care options for families.
But "shrink smart" towns — communities losing population but finding ways to maintain a better quality of everyday life — have offered better childcare to residents that actually has improved.
The Lillards, for instance, rely on in-home daycare provided by one of Ford's former classmates just a few miles outside of Wiota. And they have a backup day care option in the nearby town of Anita.
Ford has staked his family's future on a turnaround for his hometown. Repair of blighted property, a new apartment complex and conversion of a portion of the city park to a summer splash pad are on his wish list.
He is leading a massive overhaul of the city’s water system. Wiota's pipes were so antiquated that residents have tried to avoid washing their white laundry with city water.
The $2 million upgrade was made possible by a $1.6 million grant and $434,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s going to be a burden for a while,” Ford said of the loan repayment. But he and the town council — which includes his father, Jeff — felt they had no choice. The mayor wonders if he can leave behind the sort of community that his son and daughter may want to call home.
As far as Ford is concerned, the water project is both a symbol and rallying cry for the town's remaining ambitions.
“If we don’t do it,” he said, "we can kiss Wiota goodbye.”
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or email@example.com. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
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