Palo Alto: a farm-centered, friendly county

There was just enough snow on the ground here in Palo Alto County to keep snowball throwers happy and still show off the velvet black soil, which nurtures some of Iowa's best corn and soybeans.

This is farm country -- where small towns feature shiny new tractors and combines as prominently as more urban areas feature new cars, and where the evening TV commercials are more likely to be for herbicides and pesticides than for beer and sleeping pills.

The last federal census, in 1970, showed 13,391 people living in the county. Their heritage is a mix of Irish and Scandinavian.

Roughly two-thirds of the residents of Palo Alto County live on farms or in very small towns such as Mallard (once a duck swamp and now a major shipper of grain to the gulf coast), Curlew, Ruthven, and Ayershire.

Another 4,350 people, according to the old census count, live in Emmetsburg, the county seat, a town named for Irish patriot Robert Emmet. A statue of him and a piece of the Blarney Stone grace one side of the handsome town square, with its traditional county courthouse and high-flying American flag.

Emmetsburg is a comfortable town with two major streets, two newspapers (one a business like semi-weekly; the other a twice-a-month publication), six full-time policemen, and 20 volunteer firemen. You can go from kindergarten all the way through junior college here without ever leaving town. There are four small manufacturing plants, four golf courses, seven public parks, and a library and historical society. The one local movie house was showing "And Justice for All" with the movie's "R" rating prominently noted right on the marquee. There are nine churches in Emmetsburg (two Roman Catholic and seven Protestant) and most of their parking lots are chock full of cars on a typical Sunday morning.

Although half the county's population is employed, unemployment here in December was 6.8 percent, one of the highest rates in the state. An estimated 800 to 900 county residents get some form of welfare help. More than 500, about one-third of those eligible, are on food stamps.

Most visitors here want to talk about the county's unusual political record. Emmetsburg residents, on the other hand, could be easily as happy talking about the feats of their high-school sports teams, which over the last several years have won state championships in every field from wrestling to girls' golf. Emmetsburg grade-school students regularly write fan mail to the local winners as a handwriting exercise.

There also is considerable local excitement over the town's annual three-day St. Patrick's Day celebration in mid-March. As usual, this year a member of the Irish Parliament is being imported for the occasion. The local St. Patrick's Day Association runs a year-round store just across from the town square where visitors and residents can buy specially minted Irish dollars, buttons, and hats.

There is a friendly atmosphere throughout this rural county. Residents speak to strangers and friends alike. As the town sign outside tiny Mallard (pop. 400 ) puts it: "We're friendly as ducks." Dick Berrier, who moved to Emmetsburg just a few months ago from Nebraska, says he got a warm welcome he'll never forget. When he first moved into a rented house without furniture, towns-people began arriving with chairs, tables, and beds to lend him. Once his own furniture arrived, many of the same people came over and helped him assemble it." They're good people around here," Mr. Berrier beams.

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