HUMESTON, Iowa – Terrie and Tom Woods enjoy road trips to small Midwest towns and their locally owned stores, which explains why the retired Sherwood, Arkansas, couple ended up in Humeston in mid-May.
“We just like small towns,” Terrie Woods said about being eight-and-a-half hours away from home and searching through Civil War-themed fabric at Snips of Thread Quilt Shop and The Yarn Pantry.
A group of downtown shop owners in this southern Iowa town of 465 people love stories like that. They see it as a sign that their efforts are working when collaborating to make Humeston a vibrant place, even though the town lost population in the 2020 census from the 494 counted in the 2010 census.
“Our businesses work well together to promote Humeston,” Leigh Ann Coffey, a local real estate agent, said. “We’re not in competition with each other.”
Their pitch: good products, good service and the charm of small-town shops. “People, they really get tired of being treated like a piece of meat in a big box store,” Linda Dawson, owner of Snips of Thread Quilt Shop and The Yarn Pantry, said.
Humeston was one of 58 towns with 5,000 or fewer people that IowaWatch visited in a four-month investigation for its “Small Town Solutions” report. IowaWatch had featured Humeston before, in a 2019 report on small town survival in Iowa.
That story told of how the business group cooperates as “Shop Humeston” to bring shoppers to town and create something special. It’s not an easy task. Marketing is a constant need, as is adapting to what customers want. Keeping up with technology is important, too. None of this takes into account the impact COVID-19 has had on people traveling.
“We are in a phase of history like nobody’s seen,” Dawson said.
Woods said her husband found Humeston a few years ago on a hunting trip and that the two had visited before this year. She seeks fabric shops and Tom likes gun shops and fabric stores when they tour the Midwest, she said.
“People like little shops,” Terrie said. “This will be a stop all the time now.”
Efforts by the local business owners to attract people to town has been deliberate. For example, they’ve identified as necessary a restaurant that offers more than just burgers and fries. They think they have that with the Grass Roots Café.
Jill Tueth, who owns the Snyder’s store across the street, called that restaurant downtown’s biggest asset in the 2019 IowaWatch report and hasn’t changed her mind. “It was in our best self-interest to try and keep it open, just because they had developed such a good reputation,” Tueth told IowaWatch this year.
Grass Roots Café needed a new owner in 2013 to stay in business so some local residents stepped in and bought it as a limited liability corporation. A board of directors oversees the corporation. The restaurant, on Broad Street, features an eclectic menu of salads and sandwiches to go with homemade cinnamon rolls, desserts and pies.
The business’ website says it “is focused on providing high-quality artwork, excellent service, and customer satisfaction.” True to the downtown collaboration ideal, the Grass Roots Café website references other Shop Humeston businesses: Broad Street stores like Snyder’s, Dragonfly and Grampa Jim’s, and, a block from Broad Street, Snips of Thread.
Tueth’s family opened Snyder’s in downtown Humeston in 1949 as a jewelry store. They saw a need to keep the local Ben Franklin store open when its owners were thinking of getting out and purchased it in the early 1960s. That led to the modern-day Snyder’s, with household items, clothing, gifts and a coffee shop.
Tueth has not been there for all of the store’s run. She moved away for most of her adulthood, eventually landing in Seattle and working as a salesperson at Eddie Bauer and The Limited stores. Her mother kept Snyder’s going after her father’s death. In 2003, Tueth and her husband, LaVern, returned to Humeston, and she took over the store.
“I thought we’d be here two years and be back in Seattle,” Tueth said. Instead, they stayed.
A few things have changed in the last few years. The Humeston Livestock Exchange, re-opened in spring 2019 after a short closure while its ownership changed hands. Cynthia Barton and Susan White – daughters of long-time owner D.A. “Tommy” Johnson and his wife, Thelma – sold the stockyard to Lynch Real Estate, of Lynch Livestock of Waucoma, Iowa, in May 2018. Tommy died in 2002, while Thelma died in 2005. The sisters dissolved their business partnership in 2020, Secretary of State records show.
Meanwhile, voters in the Mormon Trail Community School District approved a $5.5 million bond issue last year for additions on the middle and high schools in Humeston. Leaders in small Iowa towns IowaWatch interviewed called good schools a key marker for having a vital community.
Coffey could not keep open the Sweet Southern Sass children’s store she owned in 2019. She said her real estate business started to take off, and she needed to change her schedule for more time with her children. She said the number of young people and people from out of state she shows potential housing to has grown, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other things remain the same since early 2019. The town still has a housing shortage, business owners who were interviewed said. Humeston’s need for high-speed internet includes needing technology experts who can make sure it runs well.
But, the town also has a medical clinic, auto repair stores, additional restaurants, a grocery store, and the local collaboration to bring shopping tours and out-of-town travelers while enticing local residents to do things in town.
“I don’t know that we’ve done anything different,” Coffey said. “We’re just doing it well.”
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.