2023: A retrospective

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 1/3/24

KALONA We may live in small towns where the pace of life is more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens. We are always in motion, tearing down the old, building the new, and …

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2023: A retrospective



We may live in small towns where the pace of life is more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that nothing happens. We are always in motion, tearing down the old, building the new, and looking forward.

For this story, we’re going to look back.

The EF4 tornado that ravaged farmsteads across rural Keota and Wellman, as well as homes in Hills, on March 31 was perhaps the biggest story of the year. Houses were leveled, trees uprooted, and animals killed, but every human being in its path survived.

While the destruction was emotionally gutting, what many will most remember is the compassionate response of the community that followed. So many pitched in to help, whether by preparing meals for volunteers, cleaning up the fields, or raising funds to replace trees. Our community showed its caring heart.

Our schools had their eyes set on forward progress.

Hillcrest Academy laid plans in the beginning of the year to add middle school grades for the first time; in the fall, the first class of 6th graders entered its halls. The school’s fall enrollment numbers enjoyed a boost as a result of both this and the Students First legislation that was signed into law, creating state-funded Education Savings Accounts that could be used for nonpublic school tuition and expenses.

At Lone Tree Community Schools, superintendent Kurt DeVore announced his departure early in the year, and Tyler Hotz filled the open position in the fall. Meanwhile, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks visited the school, and business/computer science teacher Jessica Howard was awarded Southeast Iowa STEM Teacher of the Year.

Highland Community Schools started working on facilities planning so they can put a bond referendum on the ballot in Nov. 2024. Students at the middle and high schools packaged about 40,000 meals to help feed hungry children, and a new Spirit of Education Award was created to recognize educators. Retired teacher and coach Gary Curtis was honored by the first award at the start of the school year. Riverboat grants awarded to the school helped it replace classroom door locks and elementary school bleachers.

Mid-Prairie saw construction begin in Wellman, laying down a new high school track, and in Kalona, where construction of elementary and middle school classrooms got underway. After much work by the facilities committee, the district put a $8.7 million General Obligation bond on the November ballot, which easily passed. Thanks to the work of private donors and volunteers – as well as the help of a Riverboat grant-- Mid-Prairie also saw its “Field of Dreams” brought to life, giving baseball and softball teams an upgraded place to play ball.

Our libraries and museums also moved forward.

In Wellman, library director Erin Campbell left for a new position in Cedar Rapids; Carrie Gino took up the position and led the library into its major expansion project, which required the library to move temporarily to a storefront downtown, where it remains until construction work is completed in early 2024.

In Kalona, the library played a role in making the city’s children under five eligible for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program that sends a book a month to children at no cost through age five. The library also faced its first book challenge in years; ultimately, the library’s board determined the book in question did not violate its policies, and it stayed on the shelves. At the end of the year, library director Trevor Sherping submitted his resignation so that he can become a stay-at-home father to his first child.

At Kalona’s Historical Village, the long-awaited Streetscape exhibit was completed inside the Wahl Museum and opened to the public in August to much acclaim. In the fall, the Village was awarded a $300,000 Riverboat grant so that it can begin renovation of the railroad depot building, add a section of track, and bring in a railcar for its next new attraction.

Our cities saw much renovation and forward progress.

Kalona accepted the deed in March for 95 acres of recreational land, hence referred to as the Southtown Recreation Area. A Riverboat grant helped make development here possible, which began with grading and paving trails through wooded acres and around the pond. Plans have been drawn up for trailhead restrooms, a dog park, and other amenities.

A second student-built project, this one a duplex built from scratch after the demotion of two existing houses, was completed start to finish on C Avenue, and two new homeowners closed on the properties in the fall. A third home site was purchased by the city, and lot preparation on A Avenue was largely completed so that students can begin construction of another duplex in summer 2024.

Lone Tree frowned over low marks received from the Iowa Downtown Resource Center in March, which pointed out areas where the downtown could improve. The city took the feedback to heart, and by April had arranged for the water tower to be cleaned. In the fall, a Riverboat grant of $32,000 – Lone Tree’s first – was awarded the city, which will be used for new playground equipment and surfacing at Dougherty Park.

Riverside saw the departure of city administrator Christine Yancey early in the year; Cole Smith took up the position in April. The completion of a water and sewer main project left residents with steeply sloping yards, which made them unhappy; pumps were replaced at the water plant, and the wastewater treatment plant also saw extensive renovations. The city was featured in the first episode of a new PBS series, Iowa Life, and it started taking steps to improve its mostly vacant downtown business district.

Wellman plucked away at its water project, making plans to replace water mains and secure a secondary water source. It also invested in its downtown business district, distributing grants to those who would make improvements to the vacant and neglected storefronts. Plans for new signage, sidewalks, and lighting downtown also got underway, and two new businesses opened their doors by year’s end.

Our businesses moved forward in 2023, although not every forward step is universally desired. For CIVCO, forward means moving out of Kalona; in March the medical equipment manufacturer announced it would move to a new site in Coralville by 2025.

Several businesses celebrated milestone anniversaries. Organic Greens in Kalona celebrated 25; they also won a Choose Iowa grant that allowed them to expand their cold storage and increase their distribution of vegetables and greens to local schools through the Local Food for Schools program. Sinclair Tractor also celebrated 25 years; the Kalona Chamber of Commerce, 35 years. JW Foods reached 50 years; Graber Heating and Air, 85 years.

Other businesses achieved other sorts of success. Forty-two of Kalona SuperNatural’s dairy farms earned the Verified Regenerative designation by Land to Market. Pleasantview completed substantial construction projects, and opened its new Friendship Center, Assisted Living apartments, and Memory Care unit.

Jeremiah Stai opened a storefront for his graphic design and print business, The Daily, in Kalona. Madeline’s Coffee House relocated to Wellman. La Chiva Loka opened a second location in West Liberty. Murphy’s Bar and Grill raised funds for a variety of community causes. Yotty’s Hardware brought back its Peanut Days customer appreciation event after a pause due to the pandemic.

And there were plenty of new businesses. El Guanaco restaurant and Tree House Nutrition opened in Lone Tree; Prairie Flower Bakery opened in Keota; Jo & Co and Simple Happiness both opened in Wellman; Lambs and Ivy Play Café started holding events in Kalona; and Down the Street Coffee House and Boutique opened in Riverside.

Our people are the true heart of our communities, and many of them shared their stories with us this year.

Some of us overcame challenges. Myron Thirtle opened up to us about donating a kidney to his dad, and then finding hope and purpose as a member of Team Iowa competing in the Transplant Games. Paul Mimms shared with us how he became a blinded veteran, hit rock bottom, and then found new hope – and a previously undiscovered gift for leadership.

Others of us volunteered our time and effort to make the world better. Mike Shapovalov told us about filling up storage spaces with donated goods, which he then sent home to Ukraine in containers to provide relief where it was needed. Warner Fick debriefed us on how he assembles 5,000 kits of school supplies a year for Lutheran World Relief. The ladies of Trinity United Methodist Church shared with us their mission work, crafting sleeping mats for the homeless out of plastic grocery bags.

Some of us shared their passions. Dean Miller conveyed to us his love of old tractors and what it takes to put on Kalona’s tractorcade. Glen Mayeno opened up how and why he collects predominately Asian watches. The Lone Tree Flyers showed us their love of remote-controlled aircraft, the special nature of their airfield, and the joy of their third annual Fun Fly event in June.

Others brought us into their work lives. Maya Hall told us about her work as Assistant Press Secretary to Sen. Chuck Grassley. Washington County’s 911 telecommunicators brought us into their workspace and explained how and why they do their challenging, lifesaving jobs. Mary Swander let us in the playwriting and rehearsal process for her play, “Squatters on Red Earth.”

Some of us took time to reflect on long careers. Doug Havel took us behind the scenes at Bud’s Custom Meats and reflected on his many years as a butcher. Jan Peterseim let us into her funeral home and shared with us the changes she’s seen over decades in the business. Larry Geno reflected on his 26-plus years in the military and showed us its little-known side.

Others of us shared experiences from distant places. Matt Miller opened up about his adventure completing the Tour Divide bikepacking race from the Canadian to Mexican border. Rick Schickerling showed us around JFH Fabrication and explained how a native of South Africa ended up starting a business in Wellman. Julie Hartzler Zahs recalled her experience as a Peace Corps member 50 years ago in the Marshall Islands.

This is who we were. This is what we did.

In 2023, this was The News.

year in review, 2023, Iowa, Kalona, Lone Tree, Riverside, Wellman, schools, cities, libraries, people