Small Iowa Towns Hope RAGBRAI Fundraiser Can Bring Change In The Community – Iowa Public Radio | Region & Cash

Jim Hamm has lived in Nemaha his entire life. And over the years, he’s watched the small town of about 60 people in northwest Iowa change. He has seen his business and population slowly dwindle.

“It’s difficult to keep a small town,” Hamm said. “It used to be full of grandmas and grandpas. When I was young, when you gave trick or treating, you went into every house. Now it’s just a lot of people you don’t know. And grandma and grandpa go into assisted living and don’t stay in the city anymore.”

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

Jim Hamm stands in a newly built museum building. He holds a sign created when the city last hosted RAGBRAI in 2003. It is kept in the museum along with many other pieces of Nemaha history.

That’s why he collects money for a city museum. Hamm has already used grants and local donations to build a new building. But now, he said, the city needs at least another $10,000 to furnish the building’s interior.

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

A poster advertises the Farmall Promenade Square Dancing Tractors.  It is another piece of Nemaha history on display at the museum.

Kendall Crawford

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IPR News

A poster advertises the Farmall Promenade Square Dancing Tractors. It is another piece of Nemaha history on display at the museum.

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

The museum’s exhibit will be none other than one of the tractors that competed in the city’s diesel-powered Do-Sidos.

And Hamm relies on RAGBRAI to help with that. By selling marinated turkey tenders and pork burgers, he believes the community can complete its fundraiser. He sees the thousands of cyclists cruising through his city as an opportunity not to be missed.

“Hopefully everyone made good money in the end. And you’re going to say, “Gosh, I’m glad we did it and everything.” With the music and everything, I think it’s going to be like one big party,” Hamm said.

The fundraiser in the northwest Iowa town of Lytton raised $80,000 last year.

The fundraiser in the northwest Iowa town of Lytton raised $80,000 last year.

Nemaha is certainly not the first city to use RAGBRAI as an opportunity to raise funds. When you visit the small town of Lytton, about 20 miles from Nemaha, it’s hard to imagine the crowds crowding around the quiet houses. But that’s exactly what happened last year, according to Scott Matter.

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

Scott Matter stands in front of Lytton's new fire station.  The total cost of the building was raised at their RAGBRAI celebration.

Scott Matter stands in front of Lytton’s new fire station. The total cost of the building was raised at their RAGBRAI celebration.

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

They did this by thinking outside the box. Or, maybe more precisely, inside the barn. In addition to selling over 3,000 cakes, Lytton hosted one of the biggest classes in goat yoga. The once quiet streets of Lytton were suddenly teeming with baby goats, chickens in tutus and Scottish Highlander cows – all to the delight of the RAGBRAI drivers.

It was a hit. All told, the city raised around $80,000. Matter said that was enough to pay off the entire building bill and then some. It also helped the city add a digital sign to share news with residents who have long struggled without a local newspaper.

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

There is a blue decorative bicycle in front of Judy Hess' house.  It's just one of many preparations for RAGBRAI's stop in Fonda this year.

There is a blue decorative bicycle in front of Judy Hess’ house. It’s just one of many preparations for Fonda’s RAGBRAI stop this year.

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

As Judy Hess looks out over the city’s basketball court, her face crumples in disappointment. The ruined courtyard is small, full of wide cracks with grass peeping through. The back panel looks worn and faded. Hess said she wanted to change that.

She is part of a local group called Moms and Grandmas for Fonda, or MAGs for short. They dedicate themselves to the causes that are most important to Fonda’s children. They have led initiatives to bring everything from a water slide to an accessible water fountain to the community. Now they have their sights set on a new basketball court.

Judy Hess pushes a stroller onto the Fonda community basketball courts.  She is part of a non-profit organization that uses RAGBRAI to raise money to build a new courthouse.

Judy Hess pushes a stroller onto the Fonda community basketball courts. She is part of a non-profit organization that uses RAGBRAI to raise money for a new dish.

“We were really fortunate that we got to go to the state with the boys and girls a lot, and that’s what these younger kids are looking for: exercise,” Hess said. “And get into the state that some of these kids did.”

She said it’s even more important now that the city lost its school to consolidation, leaving Fonda without a gym. All told, she estimates that MAGs will need to raise around $30,000 to demolish the old farm and rebuild something bigger and better for the town’s kids.

That’s why the group pulls out all the stops. Your RAGBRAI fundraiser will have a Slip n’ Slide, Pool, Photo Booth, DJ, Pickle Wraps and Root Beer Floats. Hess said she hopes many people will stop to join in the fun as it is the last through town on the day’s route.

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

What Hess looks forward to most is showing outsiders what the city is really about, says Hess. She wants them to see Fonda the way she does — full of people coming together to make things better.

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

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