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Monday, May 2, 2016

Bucking the Current

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tiny riverfront Linn Grove is beating Census with beauty

You have to look for Linn Grove to find it. But once people do discover it, it seems, they don't care to leave.

Consider the recent U.S. Census estimates - Linn Grove is considered the second-fastest growing city in Buena Vista County.

Granted, when you are only 200 people and change, a couple of new bodies a decade can boost your Census profile. But Linn Grove has more going for it than numbers, residents reflect.

"We're just a small berg here, trying to hold our own," Mayor John Smith says, in the wake of the first Little Sioux Day, an old-fashioned event put together to fill a void for a community celebration is the last couple of years. "But we're kinda proud of the place."

That could be an understatement, as the mayor gears into full-promotion mode.

"We will continue to strive to be the nicest, cleanest and prettiest town in northwest Iowa, period."

Linn Grove has a different feel than the typical rural Iowa town hunkered along the highway.

It's main road flows down the sharp, wooded hillside, its handful of businesses nestled into the greenery. Steps away, the Little Sioux River strolls restlessly through, the very embodiment of the historic little town's spirit.

The scenic beauty has attracted an eclectic artisans community, who somehow coexist sealessly with the patient fishermen, the leathery farmers, and the commuters who work in Spencer or Storm Lake but prefer the quiet - and affordability - of their out of the way home.

It is at the same time a piece of living Americana, almost a slice out of Mayberry USA, and a current community with an impressive web presence, an array of activities, and some tourism potential. It is located on the O'Brien Glacial Trail Scenic Byway, a rolling wooded change from the vast prairie pothole around it.

Mayor Smith says, "The river is always our most important attraction, and we think that with ecotourism and people staying closer to home in their travels, we have some opportunity there."

Linn Grove is trying to grow, but it is nearly impossible, city officials admit.

"Our available housing is about 98 percent filled, and it's incredibly hard for a town this size in a location like ours to attract housing development," Smith says. Instead, Linn grove hopes to appeal with its natural settings, space and friendly appeal.

"People may build in the country around us, but as far as the city proper, I'm afraid that's a longshot," Smith adds.

Still it persists stubbornly, isolated far off the beaten four-lane paths, defying the trend of shrinking rural town. Yet survival isn't that suprising. The little town is made of stern stuff. Growing up around an 1860s river mill and a railroad depot, it was reduced to ruins by a disasterous fire in 1911, and rebuilt again after a destructive "cyclone" in 1919.

People here tack toward the practical. When asked about their wildest dream for the city, Smith modestly proposes, almost as if embarrassed to even ask for such riches, "A small industry would be real nice."

As with most town its size, it struggles with dwindling tax revenue, lower road use tax income, and rising operating costs.

It gets an appreciated hand-up from Buena Vista County, which provides street work despite the fact that the town is just a stone's throw from the county line, and Storm Lake Area Development Corp "takes pretty good care of the place" in development promotion, Smith says.

Still, jobs can be hard to come by. As the small farmer slowly gives way to large-scale operations, the smallest area communities lose ground, Smith feels. "On the other hand, we are uniquely situated halfway in between bigger towns - people who live in Linn Grove can easily work in either Spencer or Storm Lake."

For a town of 200, Linn Grove has the rare luxury of maintaining its own post office and a branch bank, as well as a community center, library and nature museum. A small decorative mill along with tree carvings lends character to its streets.

As could only be the case in a waterfront town, a bait shop near the dam may be the city's most important business.

The real treasure doesn't show up in any financial ledger - it is the wilderness that surrounds the village - a rarity in plowed-under Iowa.

"It is what bonds people. There is a real interest in nature and a lot of talented artists who reflect it. For example, an annual eagle day has been developed here for people to come and see eagles and learn about them. We think that once people see the are, the scenic beauty will bring them back," Smith explained.

As the town's children giggle their way through egg-tossing and three-legged races as part of the new celebration, community leaders wonder what will come of the future if those children opt to stay on.

"Right now, maintaining our way of life is a very big job for us," the mayor smiles. "If we can do that much, we are doing okay."


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