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In an Ohio town, fostering community over cream puffs

Why We Wrote This

Moving cross-country to a tiny rural town to open a new bakery may not seem like a recipe for success. But the search for a less expensive, simpler life and close-knit community led one family to give it a try. Part of an occasional series on Finding 'Home.'

Larry and Malana Monson stand behind the counter at My Little Bakery in Corning, Ohio. As much a community center as a spot to grab a scone, the bakery is bringing people together in a village of about 600 people where there are few other places to go.
Sara Schonhardt
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Before the Monsons’ bakery opened last November, the only place to get a hot lunch in the one-stoplight village of Corning, Ohio, was at the gas station deli. Main Street was mostly desolate, marked by buildings long shuttered and empty. But the Monsons, who relocated from California, saw something not many did: potential. “I’m hoping that by [our] coming in, it gets people thinking about the possibilities,” says Malana Monson. It hasn’t been easy running a new business, and the bakery’s been closed when the costs can’t justify staying open. But customers have rallied behind the family, and they are committed to their new community. At a time when frustrations are running high across rural America, the Monsons see their bakery as a place for people to come together. And for them personally, the move represents a chance to start over with a lower cost of living and a higher quality of life. The challenge will be keeping the momentum going. Says Jack Frech, a longtime anti-poverty campaigner: “The difficult thing is when [newcomers] get here, most of them are not prepared for how bad the economics are.” 

When Larry and Malana Monson packed up their life in California and moved to this tiny town in southeast Ohio, they did so with the dream of opening a bakery and leading a simpler life.

What they found was a community hungry for a place to gather to enjoy some living – and, they hoped, the occasional cream puff.

Built around the railroad when coal and other commodities poured out of Appalachia, Corning today is a one-stoplight village, its main street bookended by an American Legion and an Eagle’s fraternal order. Until the bakery arrived, the street was mostly desolate, marked by buildings long shuttered and empty.

Many of the older folks who’ve grown up here lament the way they’ve seen the town fade. But the Monsons saw something not many did: potential.

“I’m hoping that by [our] coming in, it gets people thinking about the possibilities,” says Ms. Monson. “Here we took an old building and slapped some paint on it and now we’ve got people coming in on a regular basis.” The Monsons see the bakery and as a place for people to come together, at a time when frustrations are running high across rural America. And for them personally, their move represents a chance to start over with a lower cost of living and a higher quality of life. 

People in Corning still speak with pride about the friendliness and sense of security that comes with knowing one’s neighbors. But the loss of local shops to far away chain stores and youths to bigger cities, the rise of drugs, and lower incomes have also weighed on residents. 

Like many small rural towns, Corning has struggled amid a loss of decent jobs and population. Cuts to social services, including welfare payments and food stamps, have hurt at the same time that local governments have less funding. “The thing all these counties in Southeast Ohio have in common is they’re poor communities,” says Jack Frech, former head of Athens County Job and Family Services and a long-time anti-poverty campaigner. 

“Rural America is in a world of hurt,” says John Winnenberg, a consultant working to draw positive attention and investment to overlooked parts of Appalachia. 

Cheaper housing draws outsiders in 

While the region’s housing market has tumbled, it has also helped bring in outsiders looking for affordability, including the Monsons — one of several families from out West who’ve moved to Corning in recent years, injecting some money and energy into the village. These transplants may be part of a trend of slowing growth in large cities, with census data showing that rural areas gained population between 2016 and 2017, according to analysis by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

The small-town life was a welcome change from Sacramento, says Mr. Monson. “I like the fact that Corning is a town that would look at Mayberry as being the big city,” he says with a chuckle. Malana explains that while there may be better job opportunities in urban areas, the cost of living is higher. So retirees and people like themselves seeking affordability can appreciate what a small town has to offer. 

It has not been easy. They were robbed shortly after opening right after Thanksgiving. Larry, who really just wanted to bake, found himself throwing away more than he was selling. In late January, they announced they were closing until spring. The cold weather, few customers, and rising utility costs left them little choice.

In a place where people have grown familiar with disappointment and empty promises, the bakery’s closure could have put customers off. But many rallied behind them. With promises of patronage, the Monsons reopened on weekends. They’ve started hosting themed dinners, launched a book club, and plan to add a crafting evening. For summer they’re planning barbecues on the lot next door.

“I think it’s a good way for the community to come together,” says Opal Byrum, who moved to Corning in 2014. Her daughter, Naomi, helps wash dishes and gets the odd baking lesson from Larry. Malana wishes they could give more youths such opportunities, particularly those from low-income families. Many parents in town say they wish there were more activities to keep kids occupied, and the Monsons, who have an adolescent son whom Malana homeschools, are brainstorming some ideas.

When lunch means the gas station deli

One Thursday evening, a group of women gathered for the monthly “Paint and Pastry” night led by Malana’s sister, Crystal Atkinson, who moved to town before Malana and runs a dog grooming business. Drinks flowed and plates of cream puffs came out hot from the oven. 

“We could not wait until this bakery opened,” says Patti Anderson, who teaches at a nearby Head Start program. Before the bakery, the only place to get a hot lunch in this town of fewer than 600 residents was at the gas station deli, she says. 

Ms. Anderson says people can be stuck in their ways and too often wait on others to create change. “To see something new come in, it kind of just gives you that renewed feeling for your community,” Anderson says, hoping the bakery might be the spark that’s needed to bring in more business.

The challenge will be keeping that momentum going. “The difficult thing is when they get here most of them are not prepared for how bad the economics are in those places,” says Mr. Frech, who is currently helping mayors in the region address the needs of their communities. 

Mr. Winnenberg, the consultant, says common spaces are critical to society but are harder to maintain where people live on limited incomes. Born and raised in Corning, he’s working to highlight the region’s history, nature, and arts and culture, and believes southeast Ohio can become an alternative place to settle. Winnenberg has already seen the hope and pride people show on social media for the Monsons’ bakery. A place for visitors to stop as they drive through the area is also needed and welcome. “People want these things to work,” he says.

The Monsons still struggle to cover costs. Larry, who used to work in IT, picked up hours at a telecommunications center. But in just a few short months the bakery’s reputation has spread, drawing customers from Columbus, 70 miles away. The bakery needs the tourist business to survive. 

“It’s nice to see something coming up in Corning rather than coming down,” says Tom Gaitten, a local retiree. On Sundays he and his wife Beulah bring more than a dozen churchgoers for lunch and push the tables together. Ms. Gaitten says having a place to go and chat with the neighbors has given the community a boost. “There won’t ever be big changes because we don’t have the population and we don’t have the money,” she says. “But any little thing is an improvement and this is a big improvement.” 

For the Monsons, living in Corning has been an adjustment. While the village appeals to Larry’s more conservative political leanings, Malana has struggled to find her tribe of like minds. But she’s committed to their new home and is relieved by the lack of “keeping up with the Joneses” pressure that comes with life in more affluent surroundings. 

She’s also learned to build on what Corning has, not step on people’s toes. “I think we’re fostering friendships more than anything,” she says.

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