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Throughout last summer’s racial justice protests, demonstrators frequently called for an end to “systemic racism.” Broadly defined, it’s policies and practices entrenched in a society that harm certain racial groups and help others, whether intentionally or not. IPR News is looking at what systemic racism looks like in Iowa -- including housing, criminal justice, education, health care, business ownership, and farming -- and how it affects Black Iowans today.

Kaleidoscope Maker Finds A Home In North Iowa

Fifty-one year old Jean Schilling left her home in North Iowa right out of high school. She lived on the East Coast and then in Minnesota before moving back to Iowa to help take over her mother’s floral and greenhouse business.

“As the floral industry shrank, the online shopping increased. And so we were simply able to evolve the business into Kaleidoscopes To You and have shipped kaleidoscopes to six different continents and all 50 states,” she recalled.

Schilling’s husband Karl is an expert in painting and hot glass work. For the past 22 years they have been able to carve themselves a spot in a very exclusive market.

“There’s a lot of people in our own community that don’t get what we do and I’m actually totally fine with that. I know it’s a strange niche. I’m just happy and lucky doing what I love,” he explained.

Credit Pat Blank / IPR
A view through one of Karl Schilling's kaleidoscopes.

The kaleidoscopes sell anywhere from $4 to as much as $4000.  Companies order them as advertising pieces and in some cases celebrities request commissioned works as gifts. Jean Schilling said they are quite happy to conduct international commerce tucked away in the tiny town of Manly, a few miles north of Mason City.

“We really love a half-mile with three stops signs for a commute, instead of 50 miles through metro traffic,” she said. “We’ve been able to build stronger relationships and build a better quality of life here in Iowa.”

A poll earlier this year by the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found more than three-quarters of Iowans said they would prefer to live in Iowa if they could choose to live here or in some other state.  Some people come to that realization after they’ve lived somewhere else.

Just 17 miles west of Manly along Hwy. 9, Joshua Frederick is planning the menu for his restaurant, Café Mir, in the town of Fertile.

Frederick spent time in upstate New York and California before coming home two years ago.

We really love a half-mile with three stops signs for a commute, instead of 50 miles through metro traffic. We've been able to build stronger relationships and build a better quality of life here in Iowa.

“Part of the reason I moved back here was to slow down the pace, but that just hasn’t happened through opening this place. But, that's fine because I have my house just to have that little space carved out for yourself and know 'that’s me,' right there,” he said.

Frederick co-owns the café, which boasts an all-natural menu featuring stone-baked pizzas on Friday and Saturday nights. His business partner is his cousin Nathaniel, whose travels took him even farther away after graduation.

“I moved to Europe three years total,” Nathaniel Frederick said. “I lived mostly in Sicily and then in Serbia, the Czech Republic and France. I then moved to New York City and then out to Los Angeles to study Chinese medicine, from there is when I moved back here.”

Frederick purchased a former creamery building in town which he has refurbished into an Airbnb. When the restaurant building on Main Street became available, he scooped it up and contacted his cousin Joshua to live out what they jokingly call their “unrealized project number 68.”

“You know there’ve been ups and down, but I think it’s safe to say it was kinda last Fall when we didn’t dip down all that much into the Winter season,” he said. “We really maintained good business all winter long, and this summer’s just been gang-busters.” 

Credit Michael Leland / IPR
Cafe Mir is a farm-to-table restaurant in Fertile.

Frederick says now that he’s back in the Hawkeye State he appreciates some of the things that had been missing in his life.

“Cicadas, thunderstorms, the prairie, the oak savannahs, mushroom hunting, and also just having a building that’s big enough to keep all my books in.”

The cousins, who are in their 30s, say their family here has embraced them and have been an unending source of support.

As for the Schillings in Manly, Karl is resolute in his decision to be an Iowan. He says he is likely to live here the rest of his life.


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Pat Blank is the host of All Things Considered