Dreams Found in Small-Town Iowa


IT was a four-bedroom house, on four acres, for $20,000. Not during the depression, but last year. The only drawback: The house was in a little farm community almost halfway across the continent.

Susan and Kelly Dubus bought it anyway. ``We just saw a picture,'' Mrs. Dubus recalls. ``We didn't even go out.''

Former residents of Connecticut, the Dubuses are now living in Rolfe, Iowa, a town of 700 in the northwest corner of the state. They are among seven families that have moved into town since Rolfe made the kind of offer Australia used to make to attract settlers: a free building lot and $1,200 to anyone who would come to live.

To judge by recent telephone interviews, the Dubuses and another new family like it just fine. Their experience may hold at least a little hope for other declining farm communities.

Economic misfortune has made these towns attractive in at least one respect. They are among the few places in America where it doesn't take an investment banker's income to buy a decent home.

``That was the deciding factor,'' Mrs. Dubus says.

Other towns in the Farm Belt have made similar offers. But Rolfe became a national media item last August when a front-page story appeared in the New York Times. The pack followed: first CBS News, then the ABC ``Home Show.''

That prompted over 5,000 letters, including more than 2,500 in a single day. They've been ``almost all from large cities,'' says William Winkleblack, assistant cashier of the local bank and a leader in the resettlement effort.

Mr. Winkleblack cites a recent story in the Des Moines Register on housing costs in different states. Among the highest were Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey. ``These are exactly where we're seeing people coming from,'' he says.

With four kids, the Dubuses couldn't get an apartment in Waterbury, Conn. So they signed a contract on an ``inexpensive'' home; i.e., $130,000. That's when Mrs. Dubus's mother saw the story in the paper. Like the others who have moved to town, they decided to buy a house rather than build on a free lot. ``This was the house we had always wanted in our dreams,'' she says.

Rolfe is quite a change from Waterbury. When Winkleblack wants to know whether the town manager is in, he just looks out the window at the town hall parking lot. Janice Young, the deputy town clerk (who doubles as school bus driver), ticks off the list of newcomers from memory, with bits of biographical data.

Dubus appreciates this small-town familiarity. Back in Connecticut, kids in the neighborhood used to beat up her oldest son. In Rolfe, by contrast, ``everybody knows everybody,'' she says. ``If someone is messing with your kids, they will get buckshot in their rear end.''

Dupus has no illusions about idyllic rural life. She's heard stories about drugs. ``They're everywhere,'' she says. But at least the problems are more manageable: ``I'm not scared at night the way I was in the city,'' she says.

Her husband, Kelly, a dry-wall contractor, has found ample work in the area. ``Light manufacturing is doing real well,'' Winkleblack says.

Farm communities such as Rolfe are showing great ingenuity in their efforts to revive. For example, some have turned their general stores into cooperatives, with members agreeing to buy a certain amount each month.

``They recognize they will pay more,'' says Jack Whitmer of the Agricultural Extension Service at Iowa State University. But speaking of one particular case, he adds, ``they knew if it was gone, that was the end of the community.''

The key to rural revival, Mr. Whitmer says, is a distinction rarely made today: that between standard of living and quality of life. In other words, between having a lot and living well.

``We do not have the economic resources to support the standard of living you see projected on TV,'' he says. But that's not so bad. ```Standard of living' can be a couch potato. `Quality of life' takes energy and commitment on your part, but the personal satisfaction is superior.''

One who can attest to this is Afcedes Mendoza, another recent resident in Rolfe.

A native of Bolivia, Mrs. Mendoza had rented an apartment in the Bronx for eight years with her husband and four children. One day her son brought the New York Times article home. Now they own a house in Rolfe. Her husband still works in the city, and will join her in June. ``I don't miss New York,'' Mrs. Mendoza says without hesitation.

They are the only Hispanics in town, but that hasn't been a problem. ``My neighbors are very nice,'' she says. ``Sometimes they come in and ask me how I'm doing. I didn't find that in New York. In New York I never know who lives around me.'' Even the school principal visits to ask about the children. ``Never I can see this in the big city,'' she says.

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