Transform a farm town into an arts town?

I was in Gladbrook, Iowa, over the weekend, to attend the 100th Anniversary of the Corn Carnival. My grandmother used to live in Gladbrook, and prior to moving into town, she and my grandfather lived on a farm between Gladbrook and Lincoln. That’s my connection to Gladbrook, and I hadn’t been there since I was in 6th grade, and let’s just say without naming numbers or years that it was a long time ago.

I’ll have more on the Corn Carnival later, but what I wanted to write about today was my observations and curiosity about small town life in regards to the arts. As I currently live in New Jersey near New York City, I have certainly visited my share of small towns or former industrial towns that have dwindled in population only to be revived by the arrival of artists and the subsequent redevelopment that comes in the form of restaurants, shops, and out-of-town visitors. It’s happened in Beacon, NY, is happening gradually in Newburgh, NY, Kingston, NY, and a number of Hudson River towns. Those locations make sense in that they’re within an hour or two from NYC, and artists looking for cheap alternatives to the city wander out and settle down for inexpensive real estate and more space. But could something like this happen in a small town surrounded by farms in central Iowa with the biggest city nearby being Des Moines, approximately 70 miles away?

Gladbrook Corn Carnival 2022
A dormant amusement ride during the 2022 Gladbrook Corn Carnival.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty happening in Gladbrook. As you can see in the picture above, there’s a doctor’s office, a pharmacy, the fire department; there’s also a movie theater, a bowling alley, a grocery store, post office, and other businesses on 2nd Street, which is the “Main Street” of this town, with a population between 800-1,000, based on the 2020 census. But there’s also plenty of empty storefronts along this stretch of town, and seemingly-abandoned buildings along the outskirts, as you can see below. What would happen if some enterprising artists came and bought or rented these properties, fixed them up, and turned them into studios or galleries? Or shops? Would there be any way for them to be supported in this environment? It’s hard to say …

abandoned building in Gladbrook, Iowa
Abandoned building in Gladbrook, Iowa.

It’s not completely out of the question – there’s always the example of Marfa, Texas, where the artist Donald Judd first visited in 1971, and later started to buy property there in 1979. Over the years, Marfa has become a landmark arts destination and a tourist attraction, despite – and one could argue because of — its remote location in the immense Chihuahuan desert. If an artist can transform a desert town, could a group of artists transform a farm town?

The school in Gladbrook was closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year, with students moving over to a school in Reinbeck, and has remained empty (to the best of my knowledge) since then. During my visit this past weekend, I saw that while the building structure is intact, windows have been removed and it appears that demolition will follow. I didn’t hear any details of what will happen to this vast property, other than perhaps it will be turned into an empty lot pending future use. But when you look at the structure, one can imagine classrooms being turned into artist studios, a gymnasium (with stage) being turned into a performing arts center, even the former swimming pool inside of the building could have been part of a community center, yet it’s just going to be torn down? I did see in one report that closing the school would save the town’s taxpayers approximately $400,000/year in expenses, which is a lot of money for a small town, but it still looks like a building with potential for someone with an enterprising eye.

Gladbrook Iowa school now closed
The Gladbrook School has closed and appears to be set for demolition.

Granted, all of my comments might be pipe dream ideas coming from an East Coast guy who has no knowledge of the viability of any such ventures in small town Iowa, but there are other signs of arts-related potential there. One of the more-interesting ventures in town is a mini museum called “Matchstick Marvels,” which is a tremendous collection of sculptures and architectural models made out of matchsticks and glue by artist Patrick Acton. Acton was born and raised on his family’s farm near Rippey in Greene County. After he graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 1977, he moved to Gladbrook with his family, and soon began experimenting with matchstick models as a hobby. He is now retired after nearly three decades as a professional career counselor at the community college in Marshalltown, and is now self-employed as an artist, making matchstick models full time. Check out this example of Acton’s work, below right: this model of Notre Dame de Paris was created with 298,000 matchsticks, 2,000 toothpicks, and over 10 gallons of glue. The amount of detail and accuracy are absolutely stunning, as are the numerous other models on display here (more on this gem later!).

Matchstick Marvels in Gladbrook, Iowa
Matchstick Marvels in Gladbrook, Iowa, featuring the art of Patrick Acton.

So, what have we got here? One established arts organization (Matchstick Marvels), empty storefronts, empty buildings, plenty of space, affordable housing (a quick search on Zillow found one home for sale in the range of $60,000, although that was the cheapest one). Would the existing community welcome outside investment? Could it be another Marfa? Impossible to know, but certainly intriguing. Am I ready to take the risk and move there myself? I can’t say that it’s a realistic option for me right now, but it made for an interesting weekend of pondering “what ifs.”

The view from Highway T47 driving into Gladbrook, Iowa, surrounded by farm land.
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