Ross and Lorena Blount were among Allerton, Iowa, residents who helped restore the town’s Old Time Soda Fountain. The vintage wooden shelves now house a collection of memorabilia from the original drugstore and items on display from retired pharmacist Rich Henderson. Photo by Allison Jenkins.
Lorena Blount serves up an ice cream sundae at the Old Time Soda Fountain in Allerton, Iowa. The shop normally opens to the public on Saturday nights, but COVID-19 concerns have kept it closed since early spring, except for a few private parties. When in operation, the soda fountain is staffed by volunteers of the non-profit organization founded to save this community landmark. Photo by Allison Jenkins.
Today, the soda fountain serves a variety of sundaes, sodas, malts and ice cream floats when it’s open on Saturday nights or during special events. Photo by Allison Jenkins.
In its heyday during the 1950s, the soda fountain was part of Meyers Drug Co., owned by pharmacists Chris Meyers, known as “Chrissy,” and his wife, Beulah, right.
Constructed in 1885, the corner building that houses the Old Time Soda Fountain in Allerton, Iowa, has been a drugstore for most of its existence. Displays of old pharmacy memorabilia pay homage to this history, including some original items from its heyday as Meyers Drug Co. Other drugstore memorabilia were donated by local retired pharmacists from their personal collections. Photo by Allison Jenkins.
The Blounts walk toward the soda fountain building, which still has its original baked enamel Rexall sign. Photo by Allison Jenkins.
YMCA member Dustin Holmes, left, and personal trainer Shane Midgyett, walk across one of two basketball gymnasiums at the Grand River Area Family YMCA in Chillicothe. The facility also boasts a swimming pool, world class gymnastics accommodations and a fitness center among other amenities. Photo by Kerri Lotven.
Ed Turner stands outside Chillicothe’s Litton Agri-Science Learning Center, a 36-acre campus that includes an agricultural education building, horse and cattle barn, riding arena, shelter house, campground, lake, native area, livestock facilities and more. Photo by Kerri Lotven.
This aerial shot shows the broad expanse of the Litton Agri-Science Learning Center. The center houses multiple classrooms, a shop, a greenhouse, food lab and event spaces. Additionally, students who live in town, but want to raise animals for exhibit are invited to house and care for the animals on site.
Pictured here is the large swimming pool at the YMCA of Chillicothe. The money raised to build the YMCA was mostly funded by donations from family foundations. Turner considers this a project that really showed what the community could do when they were all pulling in one direction.
When the former bowling alley in Chillicothe closed, the community came to gether to donate several hundred thousand dollars to open up Fast Lanes, a 24-lane bowling alley with arcade, pool tables and bar and grill.
Jarrett Morris, 18, of Brookfield, Mo., practices at the Green Hills Golf Course in Chillicothe. Morris is a freshman at North Central Missouri College in Trenton, Mo., and plays on the golf team there. Green Hills serves as the home course for his college team.
In 2018, The Gardens at Hedrick Medical Center opened. The $1.39 million project was constructed on 3 acres of land that is positioned between the hospital and the golf course. The healing garden is visible to almost half of the patients staying at the center and features 12 separately themed areas.
This is another view of the healing gardens. These columns feature donor names and messages.
The Jerry Litton Memorial stadium was opened in 2012. The $4 million facility was built entirely through private donations.
This is the original bakery where sliced bread was invented.
Amy Supple, director of Visit Chillicothe, stands outside the “Sliced Bread Innovation Center,” which is housed in the original bakery where sliced bread was invented in 1928. “During that time, there was a bakery on every corner of this block and this one was failing,” Supple said. “Frank Bench, the owner of Chillicothe Baking Company, decided he had to do something different.” Sliced bread was born.
This mural by local Chillicothe artist Kelly Poling depicts a lively scene of historic Locust Street along with the logo recognizing Chillicothe's claim to fame as the home of sliced bread. Otto Rohwedder, a jeweler living in St. Joseph, Mo., invented the bread-slicing machine and Frank Bench, owner of Chillicothe Baking Company, bought into it.
This mural depicts the Edge Mar Dairy, which was a prominent dairy in Chillicothe in the early part of the 20th century. Pictured here, one of the dairy trucks is making an early morning stop on Locust Street.
This library mural is painted on the side of the Strand Apartments building which borders the library parking lot. It includes classic literary works which appear on the shelves in the library itself in addition to children's favorites and Livingston county history.
The Silver Moon Plaza hosts events and offers a public space for residents to view movies, enjoy concerts and even rent out for weddings. Murals painted by local artist Kelly Poling flank both sides of this outdoor venue. Before his death at the age of 57 in 2018, Poling painted 23 murals, which are featured on a walking tour. Chillicothe’s arts district is named in his honor.
This photo features the full mural flanking the right side of the pavillion. Milbank Mills is Chillicothe's oldest existing buisness and it is pictured here as it appeared in 1910. Locally harvested wheat was milled into flour here and marketed under the "Silver Moon" brand.
This fitting statement, "What a person does for himself dies with him. What he does for his community lives long after he's gone," is etched into the bricks outside the Silver Moon Plaza.
This mural is titled, "Window in Time." It showcases parts of Chillicothe history including five multi-generational businesses still in existence. Though the wall appears to be brick, it is actually bare stucco. Each brick was hand-painted by Poling.
Graham's Mill and bridge, pictured here, was also one of Chillicothe's earliest businesses. The mill was operated by a water wheel on the Thompson River and produced bakers' flower and feed for livestock.
This mural shows Webster Street in downtown Chillicothe circa 1916. According to the downtown Chillicothe website, Webster Street was well traveled by visitors arriving and departing from teh Milwaukee depot on the east end of town.
This mural is two sided and features, blue heron, wild turkey and a bobcat on the Grand River and surrounding landscape. The bridge in the background was key to the success of the Pony Express because mail was transported to St. Joseph via this railroad route.
Chillicothe Business College opertated from 1890 through the early 1950s and offered a variety of professional and occupational training programs.
Titled "Railroad Boom," this mural commemorates Chillicothe as a point of convergence for the three railroads which served northern Missouri - Burlington, Wabash and later the Milwaukee Road.
This mural portrays an early 20th century harvest season. It includes a Jenkins Hay Rake which was designed, built and sold in Chillicothe.
This image depicts the Leeper Hotel showing two renderings of the building 80 years apart and recognizes other local treasures lost to time. The hotel was a prominent cornerstone in Chillicothe.
The "Millnery Ghost Sign" is a recreation of ean earlier sign exhibiting the building's many uses including a hotel, barber shop, pool hall, lawyer's offices, grocery store, furniture store, women's dress store, undertaker's parlor, millinery and brothel.
The Citizens Bank and Trust mural was painted in April of 1994 and shows the newly remodeled lobby circca 1907. The bank was established in 1889 and has served the citizens of Chillicothe and surrounding areas for more than 100 years.
The Palace of Fashion mural is located in the approximate same location as the original storefront and shows the early 1900s women's apparel and hat store. According to the Downtown Chillicothe website, "the mural uses a french technique of trompe-l'ceil (trick the eye to create the illusion of a once existent uppper level staircase and balcony."
This mural is supposed to have a 3-D appearance and was designed by Sherwood Patek whose family owned and operated Midland Tile and Brick for over 35 years. This brick plant was in operation until the late 1900s.
This mural displays Webster Street circa 1916. This street was well traveled due to its proximity to the depot.
This was Poling's 60th and last mural before his death. Chillicothe has a strong arts community with much support from local individuals, organizations, the schools and the city. Honoring this tradition, the Cultural Corner Art Guild commissioned this mural to pay tribute to Poling himself, insisting he portray himself somewhere in the painting. Here, he can be seen on a ladder, painting the side of the building.
The historic Nodaway County Courthouse is a striking focal point of the Maryville square. Several new businesses have opened in the downtown area in recent years, and others are in the works. This aerial view of the town shows MFA Agri Service’s feed mill towers in the distance.
Josh McKim, executive director of Nodaway County Economic Development Corporation, helps lead growth in Maryville, Mo., by attracting new industries to the area and encouraging small businesses to set up shop in the town.
Taybrin Oglesby arranges clothing at Blue Willow Boutique on the town square in Maryville, Mo. The upscale women’s apparel store was established in 2016 by entrepreneur Stephanie Campbell, who had recently relocated to the area from Kansas City and wanted to invest in her new community. The shop has been successful, Campbell said, and she has plans to open more businesses in downtown Maryville.
This aerial view shows the wind turbines installed by the Tenaska corporation that dot the rural landscape in and around Maryville. Though the project hasn’t been popular with some residents, the company annually contributes some $15,000 to the community.
This is another view of the wind turbines at sunrise. This project is just one example of the risks the town of Maryville has taken to invest in their future. "Over the last five years, we've had nearly $150 million in commercial and public investment beyond the two wind projects, which totaled $600 million," said Josh McKim, executive director with Nodaway County Economic Development Corporation. "We have to invest, and we've got to take risks. If we don't, what's the point? Small towns won't be here in a hundred years without those investments."
Small towns and rural communities are continually looking for ways to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life and build on local assets. Agriculture forms the foundation in many of these communities, and farm profitability has declined over the past few years, presenting even more challenges. But we found three towns—Allerton, Iowa, and Chillicothe and Maryville, Mo.—that are not only holding their own but also finding ways to thrive.
Twelve years ago, the people of Allerton, Iowa, population 550, restored what is now the Old Time Soda Fountain.
“Once the town decided the soda fountain was worth saving, everyone got behind it,” said Lorena Blount, a retired English teacher. The restoration is just one example of how Allerton residents have worked together to improve quality of life, as measured by an Iowa State University research project.
It took a few years for volunteers to restore the former drug store and malt shop building, which features a 1952 soda fountain fronted by a classic red counter, padded round stools and a few tables.
Since it opened in 2008, volunteers young and old have served customers every summer Saturday night. The place was hopping until this year, when it remained closed because of COVID-19 concerns. The Blounts and other volunteers are committed to reopening when the pandemic subsides.
“Something about the space encourages sociability,” Lorena said.
She and her husband, Ross, began working with communities as Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa decades ago. Ross, a retired minister and farmer, rents out his cropland these days but continues to raise cattle and hay and is a member of MFA Agri Services in Corydon. He’s also president of the board of directors of the non-profit Old Time Soda Fountain. Supporters contributed more than $40,000 and countless hours of elbow grease to restore the building. A retired druggist filled the shelves with his collection of old medicines, and an Allerton school alumnus donated an automated red-and-white awning for the storefront.
When Allerton schools closed in 1966, students transferred to Corydon, six miles away, and many young people have moved away to find jobs. But Allerton roots run deep.
“Allerton school alumni have been generous in donating as a monument to their youth, when they hung out at the soda fountain,” Lorena said. Last year, eight students from Corydon High School volunteered to work at the fountain alongside the usual older cadre.
This isn’t the only example of how Allerton citizens—current and former—keep the town going. In the 1980s, locals dismantled a large building in Ames, free for the taking, and reassembled it in Allerton. The Centennial Building now hosts events for up to 400 people. Lorena co-directs a community play that draws 1,000 people at three performances each spring.
Allerton is shrinking smart
David Peters, who has authored research on 99 towns in Iowa, cites Allerton as an example of a small town that’s “shrinking smart.”
“Allerton’s population dropped by over 15% in the last decade,” said Peters, a University of Missouri graduate and associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University. “However, it also experienced a large rise in quality of life over the same period.”
In his role as an Extension rural sociologist at Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Peters works with colleagues to survey one town in each Iowa county every five years. They ask residents to rate their hometown’s quality of jobs, medical services, schools, housing, government, and child and senior services—subjective issues compared to wage and employment data that economists usually gather.
“We were surprised to discover that a strong social infrastructure, rather than economic or physical factors, determines whether residents report greater quality of life,” Peters said.
As he explained, some thriving towns in the study are growing because of natural amenities such as lakes, rivers or woods, or because they’re near large cities. Other places, like Allerton, are shrinking in population, but residents are committed to building quality of life. The Blounts call it “social capital.”
“The good thing about social infrastructure is that it’s inexpensive to create,” Peters said. “For example, the odds of recruiting a manufacturer are pretty slim. By contrast, investing in social infrastructure almost always pays a dividend, making your town more attractive to new residents and businesses.”
Ross Blount agrees with that conclusion, pointing to Allerton Mayor Doug Downs, who serves with young people on the town council and welcomes everyone to voice their opinions. The same is true with Fire Chief Greg Fortune, who drew in young volunteers to bring new life to the fire department.
“I like what Dr. Peters says,” Ross added. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to build quality of life. In Allerton, it has also required a balance of young and older volunteers.”
Allerton isn’t perfect, Downs admits. “We have some old houses and buildings that need to be torn down,” he said. “But we make everyone feel welcome.”
Chillicothe builds strong foundations
With about 9,700 residents, Chillicothe, Mo., has grown by more than 2% since the 2010 census. It’s larger than Allerton, but it’s still a small town in Andrew McCrea’s book.
A farmer, agricultural leader, speaker, broadcaster and author, McCrea published “The Total Town Makeover” in 2019. In the book, he portrays Chillicothe as a place that succeeds in part by raising funds through foundations.
“Chillicothe is known as the birthplace of sliced bread,” McCrea said, referring to Chillicothe Baking Company, the first baker in the world to sell sliced bread to the public. “Perhaps the next best things to sliced bread are Chillicothe’s family foundations.”
McCrea, who raises cattle and row crops in Maysville, Mo., and serves on his local MFA Agri Services board, has spent much of his broadcasting and speaking career visiting rural communities across the United States. He lists steps that towns like Chillicothe often take to succeed:
- Endowments or foundations provide seed money for projects.
- Leaders pull together in one direction.
- Leaders communicate short-term and long-term goals to the community.
- Leaders build momentum through social media and other efforts that reach out to people who have moved away.
- Townspeople commit to building a positive culture, including such simple gestures as smiling more.
Ed Turner, a Chillicothe real estate appraiser, serves as president of the Chillicothe Industrial Development Corporation and other boards. He remembers attending a 1989 meeting of local bankers, lawyers and accountants where the idea of forming foundations to keep wealth in the community began to blossom.
The leaders decided the community needed a YMCA.
“We went to the national YMCA for help, and they said towns of our size are not usually successful,” Turner said. “They suggested we start as a storefront and use churches, parks and school facilities to host activities.”
Chillicothe surprised the national Y staff by raising $150,000 for the storefront in six weeks. Within two years, five foundations formed to support building the Y’s own facilities, and Turner ran a campaign that raised $3 million.
Today, the local YMCA’s 6,000 members enjoy two gyms with weights, exercise machines and a walking track. The Y also built a swimming pool, a football and soccer complex, and branches in two nearby towns.
“The Y was a springboard,” Turner said. “People could see what philanthropy could do for a community.”
Today, McCrea reports, 19 family foundations and trusts support Chillicothe, and additional foundations fund the community, hospital and schools. Farmers, who often have wealth tied up in land, were among those forming family foundations. Federal law requires foundations to spend 5% of their assets each year or risk being taxed. “Do the math, and that’s a sizable amount of money that goes back into the community every year,” McCrea said.
In addition to the Y, the community built a 24-lane bowling alley, an 18-hole golf course and the Litton Agri-Science Learning Center. Turner said Chillicothe has also revitalized its downtown, attracted a large solar farm and other industries, and commissioned 26 murals that draw in tourists. Sales tax receipts grew by 9% in the first four months of the latest fiscal year, he added.
“A lot of communities have the same opportunities as Chillicothe,” Turner said. “But if you don’t have everyone pulling the same wagon, it won’t happen. You have to fight people who say ‘We used to do it this way.’ You need what I call The Big Mo— momentum—and you need to bring young people into leadership positions.”
Maryville stands its ground
Many successful towns in McCrea’s The Total Town Makeover benefit from being trading centers for surrounding rural communities and farmers. The author says Maryville, Mo., population 12,000, is one example, describing the town as “a hub for economic activity in northwestern Missouri.”
While Maryville’s population declined slightly in recent years, leaders are working to continue to attract business from the region.
“Surrounding counties and communities are an important part of our economic viability,” said Josh McKim, executive director with Nodaway County Economic Development Corporation, which created a revolving fund to move projects forward throughout northwestern Missouri.
Tenaska recently installed a 100-turbine wind farm near Maryville and contributes $15,000 a year to the community. Another wind farm also cropped up in the area. Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corporation’s Maryville plant continues to grow, McKim said.
“Over the last five years, we’ve had nearly $150 million in commercial and public investment beyond the two wind projects, which totaled $600 million,” he said. “We have to invest, and we’ve got to take risks. If we don’t, what’s the point? Small towns won’t be here in a hundred years without those investments.”
Maryville has seen its ups and downs. Some big box stores left town, but McKim says that local retail has seen a resurgence as a result. One such entrepreneur is Stephanie Campbell, who in 2016 opened Blue Willow Boutique, a women’s clothing store, on Main Street across from the historic Nodaway County Courthouse. The Kansas City native relocated to Maryville with her fiancé, Kent Yount, and says she wanted to do more than just reside in the community. She wanted to invest in it.
“Maryville is an awesome place with great people, but we needed more places to shop,” Campbell said. “The downtown is the heart of any community, and Maryville deserves to have a great downtown. Everything else succeeds when the heart is strong.”
Business has far surpassed her expectations, Campbell said, and she has since acquired adjacent space to expand her retail shop and storage and opened a second Blue Willow location in nearby St. Joseph. She and Yount, along with other partners, also plan to open a craft brewery on the Maryville square. They’ve purchased a vacant corner building and are in the process of renovating it into a taphouse with second-story apartments.
“I firmly believe in this community and the potential for small businesses like ours to succeed,” Campbell said. “We can’t compete with the big-box stores, but we can do what they can’t do, and that’s have a relationship. My small business friends and I all invest in this community—schools and ball teams and kids. All of those things are important for a strong, healthy town.”
Compared to other rural places, Maryville has a young population, McKim said, with a median age of 24. Northwest Missouri State University, which has more than 7,000 students, also boosts Maryville’s economy.
“We have actively engaged with young professionals and university students when planning for the future,” McKim says. “We’re doing well with our sales tax and unemployment numbers. Our goal is to see population growth in the region. Hopefully we’re doing things right.”
Coping with COVID-19
The economies of Allerton, Chillicothe and Maryville seem to be stable, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the agricultural downturn.
Darin Crackenberger, manager of MFA Agri Services of Chillicothe, reports that MFA business is steady. “We placed tables in front of checkouts to encourage social distancing,” he said, “and in some cases we bring items out to people who park out front.”
Jared Grimes, assistant manager at MFA Agri Services of Maryville, added that Missouri MFA stores were shut down for 30 days at the beginning of the pandemic, but were then deemed essential businesses and sales mostly returned to normal. “We’ve changed our daily habits, keeping social distance and wiping down surfaces frequently,” he said.
Iowa State’s David Peters confirms that so far, rural places have been more fortunate than urban areas.
“Most of the towns in our study have been largely unaffected by COVID,” Peters said. “Few wear masks, and most think the pandemic will bypass their town. I pray they are right, because if COVID-19 comes, it will hit them hard as most have many older residents. The larger economic impact—a downturn in international trade and commodity prices—would also hit agriculture hard.”
Stephanie Campbell, owner of Blue Willow Boutique in downtown Maryville, said that while the pandemic has hurt many small businesses, it has also caused many consumers to shop closer to home.
“I think you’re seeing a kind of renaissance across the country,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, people are returning to who they know, like and trust. They want to see us all still be here when this is over.”