Belmond, Iowa; Everything grows here - even art

The average yield per acre in Iowa this year is 128 bushels of corn. In north-central Iowa soil and rainfall, the two main variables in farming, are very good for corn; and in Wright County the average acre pushes up 132 bushels, according to Gene Maahs of the Iowa Farm Bureau. But this year, farming near Belmond, a small town in that favored county, Dave Nelson grew 150 bushels of corn per acre. And Chloe Jenison's farm on the other side of town is producing corn, soybeans, and an art museum.

Both of these yields have to do with the third factor Mr. Maahs mentions when we get to Belmond: the people. Dave Nelson, who has wanted to farm since he was a baby (like three generations of Nelsons before him), is responsible for that extra 18 bushels an acre. And no one but Chloe Jenison would think of giving a farm for an art museum.

Chloe Jenison is a former schoolteacher, and the 120 acres she lives on east of Belmond have been in her family for over 100 years. She has no children, and she wants the farm to stay intact. If negotiations go right, she will give the farm to the Belmond Arts Council, along with $75,000 to put up an art museum, which would be supported by renting the land out to farmers.

If it seems strange for a town of 2,506 to have an art museum, or for an art museum to grow corn and soybeans, that's because you haven't been to Belmond. It's not so much that there's a bond between farming and art appreciation there, it's that life in Belmond is one of the most unified experiences available in the United States today. Everything in Belmond seems to be bonded to everything else. The Belmond Arts Council, whose annual Arts Festival, shows the paintings of off-duty farmers and accountants along with those of professional artists, is no exception. Marilyn Parks, director of the Iowa Arts Council, thinks Belmond is taking ''the sane way'' toward cultural activities. The kids who are in high school plays are also on the football team, she pointed out, and the owner of the local Ben Franklin Variety Store is one of the Belmond Arts Council's best organizers.

Dave Nelson puts it another way. He says that when he gets up in the morning and realizes he's 29 years old and will be farming for the rest of his life, ''It gives me a good feeling. I know where I'm at.''

The farmland surrounds Belmond like a huge, still, black ocean. This particular land, or ''ground'' as it's affectionately called here, has a special hold on Belmonders. Farms are kept in families by shrewd fathers who put land in trust if they have daughters, so the husbands can't sell it off. Farmers fret over their sons' marriages, afraid the land will go in divorce settlements. Well they might fret - it is some of the richest farmland in the world, and, at up to $4,000 an acre, some of the most expensive. (Last year, Belmond farmland sold for $1,000 more per acre than the Iowa average.) Nelson and his father and brothers are farming 1,400 acres together, sharing machinery and expenses as his father buys up land and gives it to his sons to escape inheritance taxes.

Even though Dave Nelson is a quarter of a million dollars in debt (at least until he sells this year's crop and refinances his machinery) to be ''where he's at,'' he is happy. His land is prime, but the town of Belmond is also a big part of his sense of place. Like his neighbors who can't even see Belmond from their combines over the swell of the land, he has a strong affinity for the low, little town that has survived 125 years through Indian attacks, the depression, and a devastating tornado. They may live outside it, but Belmond is their home.

''All these magazines that brag up farmers who get up at dawn and work 'til dusk, go to church on Sunday mornings, and live with the family the rest of the week? That's a bunch of bull,'' says Nelson, who looks in every other way the part of the ''noble farmer'' - ruddy-faced, lean, blond, and quiet but straightforward. ''I'm home maybe two nights a week. So what do I do the other nights? I've got Jaycees, I've got bowling every Thursday night, usually my wife and I go out once a week. Try to, anyway. . . .'' And there are church meetings, committee meetings, and school programs to fill any free time. Nelson thrives on this bustling social life, and so do his colleagues.

''Some guys would kill if they couldn't get into town every day,'' says Nelson. The farmers have a good time in Belmond, and they pay it back. When they're asked, they give some of what they made off their land. Fund-raising drives regularly exceed their goals, and the town is dotted with little improvements: parks, shelters, baseball diamonds, a pool, and tennis courts, all put up by individual philanthropists or groups like the Jaycees using local funds.

But an art museum is something else again. Jim Caulkins, the canny arts organizer who runs the Ben Franklin store when not hustling up action for the Belmond Arts Festival, painting landscapes, or playing his saxophone or guitar, says Chloe Jenison chose the arts council as beneficiary because it has ''moxie.'' In Belmond, that counts for a lot.

''People say the tornado (in 1966) was a terrible thing,'' says Sue Anders, a short woman with a habit of peeping brightly at you from under long bangs. She is president of the Belmond Arts Council and so excited about Belmond that you can hear exclamation points when she talks about it. ''The tornado wiped out all of Main Street, City Park, it took down huge trees, cut a swath through the center of town. People had to come together to dig out. But not one business moved! If we can gather around and get things done after that, we can do anything!'' The arts council is one of 38 civic organizations with that attitude.

To an outsider, Belmond has an eminently battened-down look. The rebuilt stores on Main Street huddle behind a single gray arcade faced with artificial granite on which all their names are lettered in identical plain, white-plastic letters. This arcade is supported with I-beams on which perch identical white globe street lights. Other than the grain elevators, which shine like skyscrapers in the distance, there is not much here over one story high. If you are a stranger, you find your way around these nondescript, solid shops and dwellings by looking out to those elevators: the silver one is to the east, and the white one is to the west. Otherwise, it is hard to tell the difference between buildings. It is harder to imagine this sturdy but supremely unremarkable-looking town as the home of a new art museum.

That is, until you have seen Belmond by night. Then, all 2,506 Belmonders - farmers included - get busy. If they're not at a grandmothers club meeting, they're at the historical society, and if you don't catch up with them there, try the arts council. In the security of small towns, people don't feel they have to lock their doors; in Belmond they leave them open because people and their neighbors are always racing in and out of each other's houses with the minutes of their last meeting, plates of brownies, and telephone lists.

The activity could be dizzying, except that it's all so planned and orderly. It's as if people were still trying to tidy away the memory of those chaotic moments on Oct. 14, 1966, when the black cloud bore down on the town and the clocks stopped at 2:55 p.m. It is an awesome memory. Someone outside of town saw six or seven funnel clouds converge on Belmond. Six people were killed, a low toll considering that 20 minutes before the tornado hit the whole town had been on Main Street, watching the homecoming parade. One hundred and nine houses were demolished, 160 had major damage, and 75 of 112 businesses were also damaged or destroyed. One woman found, amid the rubble of her home, that a bed was still perfectly made, except for a lump under the bedspread which turned out to be two pieces of artificial fruit that had been in a dish on her dining room table. ''The dish never did come home,'' she says in Belmond's ''Tornado Book,'' a collection of stories and horrifying pictures commemorating that day.

''The first reaction was to get over the shock,'' says Ann Wilson, news editor of the Belmond Independent and arts council member. ''It happened on a Friday. Saturday, people kind of stood around, and Sunday people came in with rakes and chain saws.'' The town hasn't paused since.

Projects are completed, funds are found, deadlines are met. That's just the way it is in Belmond.

But even here, the Belmond Arts Council is something to be reckoned with. Jim Caulkins, who has a twinkle in his eye and a beard, talks as if he were sitting around a potbelly stove; actually, he's figuring out how to apply to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding. He says Chloe Jenison offered them the farm ''because she thought we were the only ones that would have the moxie to do it. We've done everything we wanted to do. . . .''

''We haven't backed off anything.'' said John Schneckloth, a soft-spoken man who looks so young Caulkins calls him ''John-boy'' and who throws pots when he isn't teaching art or putting in parking lots for the Jaycees.

It all started in 1977 when ''We said 'Hey, there's so much local interest and local talent, why don't we form an arts council?' '' This was no problem. Belmond has a talent for councils. They started planning their first arts festival that May and had it in June, with ''seed money'' from the Chamber of Commerce. Since then they have become a self-supporting tradition. Submissions have doubled, and the arts council was doing fine before Chloe Jenison even approached them.

Having gone to so many meetings, Belmonders seem to have internalized Robert's Rules of Order. The night the arts council settled down around a plate of brownies in a comfortable living room to explain what they do, six people talked, but no one had to interrupt. Everyone had their say, jumping in and out of the stream of talk whenever their pet subject came up. From the sound of it, the arts festival works the same way.

The council invites three visiting artists a year (sponsored by the Iowa Arts Council) to put on workshops and then holds an art show under the new arcade. The state council screens the artists, the town council picks them and pays half the expense, but the relationship between councils is strictly voluntary, at Belmond's instigation. Workshops are attended, Belmond council members are proud to note, by anyone: grade-school children, grandparents, the local art teacher, and professional artists. ''The art teacher was just . . .'' Caulkins remembers. ''. . . Ecstatic,'' Schneckloth finishes for him. ''She hadn't had her work critiqued since she was in college.''

''We'd like to see a lot more people in them!'' Sue Anders says of the workshops. She paints and takes photographs when not working on the computer programming for her husband's firm. ''We really publicize them and we really push them.''


''There's a lot of closet artistic people,'' Caulkins says. ''I guess that's part of it, you draw the people out.''

''It's just a way of growing! You don't stagnate,'' says Mrs. Anders, stating a Belmond rule.

Almost everything in Belmond has been judged and ranked at the county seat or in Des Moines, and, like the corn and soybeans, is expected to grow. When you ask, for example, about the high school band, people immediately reply, ''Best in the state.'' Larry Flannagan, director of the Belmond Industrial Development Committee, says, ''We think we've got one of the best industrial development groups in the state and we think we've got one of the best arts councils, too. That's just typical of Belmond, everything that's done is just top-notch.'' His group just got Eaton Industries, a multibillion-dollar engine parts company, to build a valve plant here, bringing in 300 jobs.

They learn to be top-notch in school, where kids are encouraged to compare their standarized test scores to their performance the year before. Even when they're in the tenth percentile, the lowest. ''If they still gain those two [ points] they feel like last year was really worth their effort,'' says Howard Dorman, high school guidance conselor. ''All the parents want their kids to have all the advantages they possible could. Sometimes it's a problem for our kids. They've gotta have music, and athletics, and a job, and four or five classes. . . . Once they get out of high school, it's easy.''

Belmond High School puts on two plays a year. When the Belmond High School Thespians are in high gear, they rehearse every night until 10 and Friday nights till 1 a.m. Every other year, they do a musical, which involves 150 kids. There are only 250 in the school.

The competition is with oneself and the rest of the state. Though artists compete for ribbons in the arts festival, there is no artistic snobbery, because the arts council is just there to get people to participate.

This attitude works very well for keeping the Jaycees busy and getting people to bake for bake sales. But all this old-fashioned Midwestern boosterism seems as if it would be death on that elitist, bad-humored thing known as talent - not to mention the development of the quirky, unteachable, untestable aesthetic sense that comes with it. But artists who have conducted workshops bask in Belmond's atmosphere. Marilyn Parks says artists sent by the state arts council seem to get a lot of ''nurturing'' in Belmond. A poet who taught a workshop at the Belmond Arts Festival wrote, ''I've had a marvelous time,'' and stayed over to play in a pickup band with Mr. Caulkins. One painter is coming back again this year to teach without any prompting, he had so much fun last time. Artists who exhibit under the arcade on Main Street tell Mrs. Anders that though they sell in galleries, they love being on the sidewalk here, where people have no compunctions about walking up to them and saying ''How did you do that?''

The reaction was the same when Chloe Jenison began stapling rolls of canvas to the wall of her farmhouse and painting long, pageantlike scenes of American history and her own family's past. She found they were unconditionally welcome in town. The arts council hung them in store windows and the library for the festival. She wasn't being courted, since no one knew then about her plans to give the farm away, nor did the Belmond Arts Council feel it had ''discovered'' a primitive artist. They just appreciated her for doing her paintings at all. In Belmond, participation is almost as shining a virtue as growth.

But the idea for some sort of museum had been on Miss Jenison's mind for years, probably since 1937, when she took her mother to New England to visit a lighthouse her ancestors, Lucy and Miles Standish, had built. It was then that her interest in history was kindled. And after her parents died, she kept the farm. Though she rents the land out to farmers now, she still lives in the farmhouse, surrounded by mementos, stacks of paintings, needlework, and the four orphan cats she brought up herself. As she painted her historical works, she began dreaming up the idea of a home for her works, and a keeper for her land.

All of which made the town arts council look like the answer to her dilemma. Nobody took Miss Jenison's offer seriously at first, but then her lawyer sent them a message that she'd like to get on with it. They gulped and held a feasibility meeting.

''We're an organization with a budget of probably $3,000 a year and all of a sudden you're talking about half a million dollars,'' said Schneckloth.

''We talked about it in our meeting,'' Mrs. Anders said. ''It all boiled down to the fact that it was a chance to do something really great. . . .''

''Town our size could never get a chance again,'' said John Schneckloth.

''And could we pass it up?'' Anders said.

''Could we say no and live with it the rest of our lives?'' Schneckloth said.

''And we decided, 'Well, we're going to try.' '' said Anders.And with typical unanimity, they have been. Someone jokingly told them they will have to earn the museum. After several tries, Miss Jenison has agreed on an architect's drawing. Her lawyer has drawn up an agreement for her to sign. The arts council feels she will sign it, but in the meantime, she has small disagreements , changes her mind, and keeps demanding the council get on with it. But they do keep getting on with it, with the moxie they're famous for. Ann Wilson visits Chloe Jenison every couple of weeks, and the rest of the time Miss Jenison calls arts council members daily to grill them about how they're doing.

She took me out to the farm with her one afternoon. It is a pretty piece of land that rises slightly and commands a view of the hill near Belmond that was used to scout for Indians. The barn, which Miss Jenison insists must be kept, along with the farmhouse, as part of the museum, is over a century old and looks it. Chloe Jenison sat in a long dress among her things and talked about the doings of her ancestors in a voice filled with childlike wonder.

Her great-grandparents were on their way to Spirit Lake, Iowa, in 1856 when they were spotted from the hill. They stopped in Belmond for water and were talked into staying by settlers who needed help holding off Indians. After a balmy fall, they lived through the worst winter in Belmond's history. There have been Jenisons on that 120 acres ever since. Chloe was born a half a mile from the farmhouse. She herself has farmed the land, and has at various times raised sheep and hogs. She can remember sleeping in the barn at lambing time, huddling under a coat with her white collie dog at her feet.

She remembers hard times in the depression when they burned hay twists for fuel, and even -- when prices plummeted far enough -- corn. Even in good times it was hard work. They didn't have electricity or much farm machinery. She recalled her mother ''milkin' by lantern and I was a little shaver. I'd start the dinner, and Pa'd have to shovel off 50 bushels of corn in the dark.'' To keep the land in the family was a difficult, lifelong job and she's still proud of her parents. That's why she wants to give the land to someone else who respects it. Like other farmers, she has a possessive feeling about her ''ground,'' and doesn't want to see it sold or broken up, even though she has no children to give it to. When her parents died, she bought off the other heiress, a sister-in-law, because of Chester Luick. He was a town father who is fondly remembered for building a modern auditorium for the prodigious high school drama productions and a heated pool to keep kids from swimming in the river. He told her, ''You should keep the land, your father loved it so much. Buy that 40 (acres) south.'' And she managed to come up with the money.

''I had been quite a saver,'' she says. Someone said to her father, ''That girl of yours beats all. The other girls spend their schoolteaching money on hats.'' She presses her lips together as only a schoolteacher can and nods to Ann Wilson.

''You're getting Chloe's hats.''

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