Iowan visits every town and city in the state in 5 years. Here’s what he learned.
Wanting to know their new state after moving to Iowa in 2014, Dave and Karen Miglin and their two children went to the Field of Dreams movie site outside of Dyersville in northeast Iowa.
Dave Miglin had moved from Atlanta ahead of the family the previous year for his job as media and digital vice president for Strategic America in West Des Moines.
Sitting at Iowa’s famous baseball field in a farm field, his son, Evan, was asking questions. “He was, like, curious to know what I was going to see next,” Miglin, 53, said.
“Next” became visits to every incorporated town and city in Iowa over five years. Iowa had 955 incorporated towns when he started his quest. At the end of 2020, it had 945, a concern for Miglin and others interested in small town survival in Iowa.
“I definitely saw some towns that had kind of given up,” Miglin said. But, also, “I saw plenty of towns that were great.”
IowaWatch spoke with Miglin for a 2021 report on small towns that thrive despite losing population. These towns, with 5,000 or fewer people, exist but are in a minority, the IowaWatch investigation reported.
Miglin checked off his last town in West Bend in July 2021. By that time, he had crisscrossed the state multiple weekends to do anything from simply taking a photo by a town’s sign to visiting with locals on city streets, bars, tourist attractions and anywhere else he could strike up a conversation.
“The question everybody asked me when I got to town was, what am I doing? Am I running for governor?” he said. “I’m not, but it was kind of funny to hear.”
Interest in Iowa
Miglin said he already was interested in rural Iowa before that Field of Dreams trip, in 2013, when he moved to the Des Moines area while his children finished the school year back in Atlanta. He went to the site of Buddy Holly’s fatal plane crash, near Clear Lake in northern Iowa.
“I just had read so much about Iowa over the years, not only just political stuff that I’m naturally curious about, just things that happened in Iowa. And so, I wanted to see it,” he said.
During his travels, he’s enjoyed eating at the Redwood Steak House in Anita; Melrose’s claim of being Little Ireland in a town of 110 people that has one-third Irish heritage; and the cultural diversity and vistas of Columbus Junction, a town of 1,830 people where one-third of the population is foreign born and speaks Spanish in the home.
He’s heard how State Center became Iowa’s rose capital – it was cooked up to attract business to town; marveled at creative community development work being done in Manning; talked with mayors and city council members in several towns; and chatted with a bartender in the Mississippi River village of Clayton, population 45, while watching boaters traverse the river between Iowa and Wisconsin.
“I really do encourage people to go see it themselves and take some money with you when you go,” Miglin said about Iowa’s small towns, “so some of these merchants there can make a living, or we’re going to lose these talents.”
Both he and his wife, Karen – who went on about 85% of the trips – are from northeast Ohio originally, although they didn’t meet until each lived in Atlanta. Their son, Evan, is 16 and a student at Des Moines Roosevelt High School. They also have a daughter, Elle, who is 19 and a University of Iowa student.
Elle was fine with a few trips but that was about it. Evan’s original interest in travels when he was younger waned, too, as he and his sister made friends they wanted to see instead of going on long trips each weekend with their parents. “Finally he said, ‘Dad, I just hate it,'” Miglin said. “So, I didn’t make him do it anymore.”
Understanding rural health care struggles
Miglin has branched out professionally since moving to Iowa. He is a Broadlawns Medical Center trustee, in line to become vice chair in January and chair in 2023. The loss of rural population concerns Miglin, and seeing it up close has helped him understand health issues facing rural Iowans, he said.
His travels have given him a better appreciation for issues facing towns struggling to keep locally accessible health care, he said. He sees Broadlawns as an incubator for training health care workers for rural towns.
“My interest is just seeing the cities survive, right?” he said. “If we think we have a problem with the restaurant industry right now in COVID, take a look at public health care… We’re seeing nurses walk away from the job, docs are retiring out. And, we’ve got a real crisis in the state waiting to happen. If people don’t recognize that, they’re going to find out the hard way.”
Experts in community development, local government and health care have made that same point in reporting by IowaWatch but also by other news organizations, industry groups and public health researchers.
The University of North Carolina’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, reports that 137 rural hospitals have closed nationwide since 2010. Hospitals in Nebraska and Kansas were the latest casualties in 2021, the data show.
Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Health Association, said in a fall IowaWatch interview that accessible health care facilities and providers are critical for small town survival. “If you have none of those anywhere close your future is in doubt because folks have to have access to health care,” said Menner, who also is a former Obama administration U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development director for Iowa.
Miglin said, “As I look at my map of Iowa and all the communities that I went to, absolutely, I see these communities.” He added, “People are going to have to be in their car, hour and a half, two hours, just to get primary care. That’s scary.”
Besides readily available health care, IowaWatch reported in its series “Small Town Solutions” that vital Iowa towns with fewer than 5,000 people had creative local businesses, updated infrastructure, child care, the arts, recreation, a sense of being safe, strong local schools and a sense of community pride.
Keeping it safe
For the most part, people were friendly and interested in his story when they saw Miglin on a city street, taking pictures with a camera on a small tripod he perched on his car. He was aware, however, that he had to be careful, especially if children were in the area.
He told of how a man started walking toward him while he took pictures in a town he did not name. Miglin suspected the man was being protective of nearby children. “It can be scary, right, and I would be just as suspicious,” he said.
“You could tell, like, he was definitely, like, ‘brother, you better hit the road,'” Miglin said. “But, mostly, yeah, most people are super curious and friendly.”
There was the sunny day in Rock Falls, a two-hour, 140-mile trip from Des Moines and near Mason City in northern Iowa, when people in a bar watched him through the window as he took photos of himself. He entered the bar and said, “I’ll bet you guys are all wondering what I’m doing out here. And they were so nice and they were like, ‘Well, yeah.’ And I said, ‘I came all the way up from Des Moines, Iowa, to see Rock Falls and get a picture here…’
“They said, ‘You drove all the way up here from Des Moines, to take one picture, and you’re going to drive all the way back to Des Moines?’ And they were so impressed that they bought me lunch, and they bought me a beer and they talked to me for over an hour and a half.”
The road from here
Miglin has self-published a table book for some of his friends and family. It shows pictures of him in each of the towns he visited. It is not for sale.
He said he had to focus over the years to complete such a large project. “I didn’t just wing it,” he said. Living in Des Moines helped because it is in the state’s geographical center. “If I would have been living in Davenport this entire time, I might not have done it.”
Still, Miglin said other Iowans should see their state, even if they don’t go full-in to every town and city.
“If you don’t frequent them they’re going to go, they’ll be gone,” he said. “Iowans need to understand that they do have a natural state that’s beautiful. Some of it would look like you were looking at the mountains in Lake Tahoe or something, you know, if you go up northeast. Then, you have other communities that are, you know, maybe not as attractive.
“But they still have that charm.”
IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at www.IowaWatch.org.