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Small Iowa towns hope RAGBRAI fundraising can enact community change

The town of Nemaha's sign reads "Nemaha, A 'Mighty' Small Town"
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
The western Iowa town of Nemaha is using RAGBRAI as an opportunity to fundraise for the community.

Jim Hamm has lived in Nemaha his entire life. And throughout the years, he’s watched as the small town of around 60 people in northwest Iowa has changed. He’s seen its businesses and its population slowly fade.

“It's tough to maintain a small town,” Hamm said. “It used to be full of grandma and grandpa's. When I was young, when you’d trick or treat, you went to every house. Now it's just a lot of people that you don't know. And grandma and grandpa's go to assisted living and don’t stay in town anymore.”

He doesn’t want the same to happen to Nemaha’s history.

 Jim Hamm stands in a newly constructed museum building. He holds a sign created when the town last hosted RAGBRAI, in 2003. It will be among many other pieces of Nemaha history stored in the museum.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Jim Hamm stands in a newly constructed museum building. He holds a sign created when the town last hosted RAGBRAI, in 2003. It will be among many other pieces of Nemaha history stored in the museum.

That’s why he’s raising money for a town museum. Hamm has already used grants and local donations to construct a new building. But now, he said the town needs at least another $10,000 to furnish the inside of the building.

Hamm may soon have the chance to raise the funds. Beginning Sunday, thousands of cyclists from nearly two dozen countries and all 50 states will pedal across Iowa in the annual bike ride called RAGBRAI. Some small towns along the route are using the big event as an opportunity to fundraise for the causes their communities need most.

A poster advertises the Farmall Promenade Square Dancing Tractors. It's another piece of Nemaha history that will be showcased in the museum.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR News
A poster advertises the Farmall Promenade Square Dancing Tractors. It's another piece of Nemaha history that will be showcased in the museum.

In Hamm's case, it’s for the preservation of all aspects of Nemaha history – including the eccentric Farmall Promenade. That’s a fancy title for what is essentially a team of Nemaha men who square-danced with tractors from the late '90s to 2008. They performed at state fairs, with half of the all-male team donning skirts and bonnets.

The museum’s show-stopping piece will be none other than one of the tractors that participated in the town’s diesel-powered do-si-dos.

And, Hamm is banking on RAGBRAI to help make that happen. By selling marinated turkey tenders and pork burgers, he thinks the community can finish their fundraising. He sees thousands of cyclists passing through his town as an opportunity too good to pass up.

“Hopefully in the end, everybody's made some good money. And you'll say ‘Geez, I'm glad we did it and everything.’ With the music and everything, I think it'll just be like a big party,” Hamm said.

The northwest Iowa town of Lytton's fundraiser last year raised $80,000.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
The northwest Iowa town of Lytton's fundraiser last year took in $80,000.

Nemaha certainly isn’t the first town to use RAGBRAI as an opportunity to fundraise. When you visit the small town of Lytton, about 20 miles away from Nemaha, it’s kind of hard to imagine crowds of people swarming around the serene homes. But that’s exactly what Scott Matter said happened last year.

The community used its first time on the RAGBRAI route to raise money for a new fire station. Matter organized the community around the effort to support emergency responders.

Scott Matter stands in front of Lytton's new fire station. The entirety of the building's cost was fundraised at their RAGBRAI celebration.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Scott Matter stands in front of Lytton's new fire station. The entirety of the building's cost was fundraised at their RAGBRAI celebration.

“And it was personal for me because when my mom had a medical emergency,” Matter said. “They were the first ones there to help her. So we wanted to pay for that fire station. Everybody came together, and we got it done.”

They did so by thinking outside of the box. Or, maybe more accurately, inside the barn. In addition to selling over 3,000 pies, Lytton hosted one of the largest lessons in goat yoga. The once quiet streets of Lytton suddenly were filled with baby goats, chickens in tutus and Scottish Highlander cows – all to the delight of RAGBRAI riders.

It was a hit. All said and done, the town raised around $80,000. Matter said that was enough to pay off the entire note for the building and then some. It also helped the town add in a digital sign to communicate news to the residents, who had long struggled without a local newspaper.

“I was just proud. Our town came through,” Matter said. “It just reinforced everything I believe about not only my small town, but Iowa in general. People dug in, they helped. They had fun. And we did some good. That's a pretty good day.”

Outside of Judy Hess' home sits a blue decorative bicycle. It's just one of many preparations being made for RAGBRAI's stop in Fonda this year.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Outside of Judy Hess' home sits a blue decorative bicycle. It's just one of many preparations being made for Fonda's RAGBRAI stop this year.

Just ten miles over, a non-profit in the town of Fonda is hoping to emulate that success.

As Judy Hess looks out over the town’s basketball court, her face scrunches in disappointment. The dilapidated court is small, full of wide cracks with grass peeking through. The backboard looks worn and faded. Hess said she wants to change all that.

She’s a part of a local group called Moms and Grandmas for Fonda, or MAGs for short. They’re dedicated to taking up the causes that matter most to Fonda’s kids. They’ve led initiatives to bring everything from a water slide to an accessible water fountain into the community. Now, they have their sights set on a new basketball court.

Judy Hess pushes a stroller onto Fonda's community basketball courts. She's a part of a non-profit that's using RAGBRAI to raise money to put a new court in.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Judy Hess pushes a stroller onto Fonda's community basketball courts. She's a part of a non-profit that's using RAGBRAI to raise money to put in a new court.

“We have really been lucky to get to go to state many times with the boys and girls and so that's what these younger kids are looking for: practice,” Hess said. “And get to go to state like some of these kids have.”

She said it’s even more important now that the town lost its school to consolidation, leaving Fonda without a gym. All in all, she estimates MAGs needs to raise around $30,000 in order to take out the old court and repave something bigger and better for the town’s children.

That’s why the group is pulling out all the stops. Their RAGBRAI fundraiser will have a slip n’ slide, a pool, a photobooth, a DJ, pickle wraps and root beer floats. Hess said she hopes being the last pass-through town on the day’s route will mean a lot of people will stop to join the fun.

“That's what they tell us,” Hess said, smiling at the prospect. “So, we're ready. We are ready.”

Most of all, Hess said she’s excited to show outsiders what the town is really made of. She wants them to see Fonda like she does – full of people who come together to make things better.

Music heard from the Farmall Promenade is from Everybody Promenade, c.2007, RT 27 minutes. Director: LeAnn Erickson

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.