Finding my 'Roots' in a remarkable town--West Union, Iowa
A city worker put a fire hose on the newly constructed street in West Union and turned on the hydrant. Water gushed forth but did not run down the street. Instead it ran through the pavers and disappeared. It was the first indication that I should do some digging to understand the town of West Union, Iowa.
My family history is mostly hearsay and little documentation has been done, partly for fear of what we will find and partly because every generation had to scratch out a living so there wasn’t much time for genealogy. In 1999, when I was hosting Agri-Talk, we booked a remote broadcast in the northeast Iowa town of West Union to assist in celebrating their 150th anniversary. It is the county seat of Fayette County, even though it is smaller than a couple of other cities within the county. The local historians say that the court house burned down for the second time in 1922 and the city stepped up to finance a stone structure that stands proudly today and kept their town as the center of county government.
My brother and sister-in-law had done some genealogy work on the Root side of our family and West Union was indicated as a place where the first generation to venture into the Midwest may have lived. I asked Jim Boelman, former high school guidance counselor turned insurance agent, and Tex Heyer, county abstractor, if they could help me verify my heritage. Within an hour, Tex came back with several copies of handwritten records showing Eli Root and his two sons owned property there in 1849. A chill of excitement went through me to have that connection, and I have never forgotten the kindness of the community in this random encounter that tied my family history together.
In the past few years, Boelman has kept me informed of a major downtown renovation that they were undertaking. He invited me up to see what they had done and I made two trips in the past months.
West Union is a progressive town even though it faces the same problems of most others: aging population and declining industrial base. Farming, though appreciated, has long since shown that it cannot support a community as growers are fewer, larger and more regional in their business dealings. The Chamber of Commerce, city council, merchants, hospital and many past and present city leaders determined that they would go after federal grants to see if they could build a “green street” through the middle of town. The outcome is impressive as six blocks are now totally redone with geothermal heating and cooling coming from over a hundred wells drilled on the courthouse lawn. Completely redesigned streets and sidewalks allow snow and ice to melt quickly and water to infiltrate rather than run off into streams.
In my 1999 trip, I saw a lot of flood damage so the area is prone to erosion from heavy rains. In this urban environment, West Union used a design that soaks up the water, channels it into rain gardens and lets it release slowly. A designer of the project, now applying ecology to urban settings, gave me his vision of how Iowa’s landscape once was and how this design could bring back the natural passage of water downward allowing it to cool to ground temperature of around 52 degrees, be filtered, and then move through the formations to enter streams at lower volume and temperature. “The degradation of our streams,” he said, “is caused by runoff and we believe we can stop most of it through this mechanism.”
Farms and cities are under regulatory pressure to improve water quality coming from fields, streets and parking lots. Farmers are looking at ways to mimic the tall grass prairie infiltration, but cities have not done much to reduce their discharge. Although West Union only has six blocks of permeable paving, the concept may be a prototype for future street construction that would prevent the runoff from one town to flood the next one downstream. Like the flood control lakes that have been built along many smaller rivers in the Midwest, this could be an urban response that addresses a major environmental problem in regions where rainfall is destructive.
The cost of this project was fairly high. The town paid $1.6 million of the $10 million dollars invested in geothermal and complete replacement of underground storm sewers, aggregate and pavers. Their investment was about what it would have cost them to put in traditional streets but the town went on to add many accoutrements like signs and symbols of the prairie landscape as well as ornate trash receptacles produced by a local business.
The pride West Union shows is evident all through the town and the enterprises that have sprung up from local entrepreneurs are impressive. Boelman took me on a tour of businesses as he called out how many employees each has working there and their business philosophy. “Here’s one of my students who never finished high school but he owns about 40 properties and is the man we call when we need trees removed or other services,” he said with a satisfying laugh. Pointing to another, he said: “I asked this man why he didn’t finish college and he told me someone has to hire those who did! He has 25 employees.”
The local hospital completed a renovation that cost over $10 million but now has a 25-bed facility that has a multi-county reach. The administrator says West Union’s downtown and progressive attitude helps her land new doctors and young families, who see it as a great place to live with most of the attributes of a big city but no problems with traffic, pollution or crime.
As Boelman drove me around, he showed the range of entrepreneurial enterprises from Schwan’s to a secure “hotel” constructed by the county sheriff that is full and brings employment to the town.
Economic development in all towns has its detractors. There are some who don’t like change and others who don’t like their neighbors and businesses doing well. The mark of a good community is to rise above the fray and do what is needed to bring prosperity and quality of life to the town.
The thing I like about West Union is that they are trying to keep the town alive for future generations. Those people who raised $100,000 to build a court house in the 1920s did so knowing they would not see its full benefit. Those who wrote the grant requests, raised the Main Street funds and endured two years of construction, feel the same. West Union doesn’t appear to be looking for a big business to move into their “post card” setting but hopes to be a model for local investment, small-town lifestyle and ecological responsibility.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.