Kurt Brown smiles just thinking about it. Sitting in the living room of the home he’s owned for over 25 years, the Fort Dodge, Iowa, native gets nostalgic talking about growing up here – particularly driving circles around downtown with his friends.
“‘Shag the drag’ is what they used to call it,” Brown said, recounting how teenagers would drive downtown in the mid- to late-’80s. “You went all the way down Central Avenue, started out by Hardee’s, and you’d go all the way down and drive all the way around the square, and then you come back up. That was ‘shagging the drag,’ and we used to do that every Saturday night.”
His ride of choice: The Chicken. It was Brown’s orange, jacked-up 1976 Pontiac Firebird with classic Keystone rims. It was a fast muscle car, and his dad hated it. Brown loved it. On warm Iowa nights he would park in the town square, donning his letterman jacket, joined by dozens of other teenagers from Fort Dodge and the greater Webster County area.
“Back when I was young, it was car to car,” Kurt said. “I mean, there’d be times that you’d get caught in the center of the intersection because there were lights downtown instead of the stop signs.”
His wife, Traci Brown, would have been riding shotgun during those days. They were dating at the time, and she loved those nights of endless driving as much as he did. The laughter. Pulling up next to friends at red lights.
A few decades later though, the city about an hour and a half northwest of Des Moines just isn’t the same.
The once-busy Central Avenue boasts far less traffic now. Many of the storefronts that once lined downtown are now shuttered or demolished entirely. The city is a far cry from the bustling mid-Iowa hub that the Browns once loved.
“When we drive down there, it’s pitiful,” Traci said. “And I remember what it was.”
Fort Dodge is not alone. Data from the 2020 Census showed a decline in America’s rural population between 2010 and 2020 – the first decade-long rural population decrease in history.
“Population decline is, of course, one of the major trends in the Midwest,” said author and retired Princeton sociology professor Robert Wuthnow. “But the likelihood of decline is much greater among the smallest small towns than among larger small towns.”
Wuthnow spent many years studying small towns in the Midwest through surveys, interviews and Census data, publishing two books on the subject: “Remaking the Heartland” and “Small-Town America.”
“I am not confident that small town America will return to its heyday,” Wuthnow said. “This was also the opinion shared by nearly all of the people I interviewed in small towns.”
This wasn’t always the trajectory of Fort Dodge. Like a lot of other small Midwest cities, Fort Dodge seemed on the precipice. In 1970, it boasted a peak population of 31,263, with little Kurt Brown among them. The city was growing, thriving. It felt ready to burst into something bigger – impressive, considering its humble beginnings.
Originally established in 1850 as a U.S. Army fort, the city boomed after huge deposits of the mineral gypsum were found, and other industries soon followed. By the 1900s, the Fort Dodge area was a vibrant hub for manufacturing, meatpacking and agriculture.
“We were a regional center for this part of Iowa,” said Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance. “We were an employment center. We were a retail center. We were an industrial center, and so on. And I think Fort Dodge grew by virtue of the dominance of this region as an agricultural area.”
Though the economy was turbulent nationally through two world wars and the Great Depression, the city of Fort Dodge continued to grow. The Iowa town even made the national stage when President John F. Kennedy, then a sitting senator, spoke in Fort Dodge in 1960.
At the time of Fort Dodge’s population peak in 1970, Central Avenue was lined with booming businesses. New housing continued to go up. And for good reason: perfectly positioned as a center of regional commerce yet removed from the hustle-and-bustle of big cities, many chose to make Fort Dodge their home.
Not that everything was perfect, of course. The town had a reputation – so much so that it got the nickname “Dirty Dodge” because of both the crime rate and the fact that the city’s main industry, meatpacking, dumped waste directly into the Des Moines River.
“Dodge smelled really, really bad,” Brown said. “Still does, with Purina.”
Even so, it was a good place to raise a family. Kurt grew up in Fort Dodge, and Traci grew up just outside of town in Farnhamville, Iowa. Both saw Fort Dodge as the social hub of Webster County during their teenage years, and they chose to stay in Fort Dodge when they began looking for a home in the 1990s.
“There were several bars where you’d go to socialize in that time. You’d go to the movie theater. There were things to do, places to go,” Traci said. “You would go, you would park your car usually in one of the bank parking lots or something, and then you’d walk a block up to Central and you’d go bar to bar just like in Des Moines. It was not that many bars, of course, but you bar hopped all night.”
Money Dries Up
The city’s fortune began to change in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While Plautz said there were plenty of factors behind Fort Dodge’s population decrease during that time, the decline of the meatpacking and agriculture industries were among the biggest.
The ‘80s farm crisis decimated agriculture. When the Federal Reserve changed their lending policies and the cost of borrowing money went up, already-struggling family farms were unable to pay back what they owed. Farms closed. Banks collapsed. The economic impact ripped through small town America.
And then the meatpackers started to close up shop.
“There were a lot of companies…that were leaving and doing business in different places, because business was starting to do business differently,” Plautz said. “Not just the packing industry, but other businesses too.”
That included Hormel, American Can and Iowa Beef (IBP). They all closed their Fort Dodge meatpacking plants in the ‘80s, taking an estimated 3,000 jobs with them.
“The bad thing around here was Hormel, IBP, all the city workers, they were all unionized. Hormel and IBP went out because their union got so powerful that they bid themselves out of a job,” Kurt said. “That was what drove those two out [and that] decimated the Fort Dodge economy back then.”
Those closures also had a significant impact on the city’s population, falling to just 25,894 by 1990.
“It was not good,” Plautz said. “You ended up with additional vacant building space – more vacancies, more deterioration of real estate. The same way with housing—less housing demand.”
In the late 1970s, over 100 new homes were built each year in Fort Dodge. By 1986, there were zero new housing starts in the city each year.
Nestle Moves In
In the mid-‘90s, Nestle Pet Food purchased the Alpo pet food company in Fort Dodge, setting off a series of events that would change the trajectory of the city’s economy.
“We started to grow a little bit…it started in the ‘90s, where we were starting to get some expansions,” Plautz said.
The Nestle plant nearly closed after the Federal Trade Commission, fearing a monopoly, approved a divestiture order – which would have resulted in significant job loss in the community.
Much of the Fort Dodge community engaged in efforts to save the Nestle plant, alongside then-Attorney General Tom Miller and then-Governor Terry Branstad. The efforts ultimately succeeded, and the FTC reversed the divestiture order.
“I believe it’s the first time ever, since I was around, that the light bulb came on,” Plautz said. “Because to get this done, we not only had Branstad and Miller, but we had every church, every government, every service club, all our businesses, everybody got on the same page and was working to get this done. And we were successful.”
Soon after, the community rallied in a similar way to get a new correctional facility built in Fort Dodge. Though they lost their first bid to the town of Newton, Iowa, they were successful in another attempt a year later.
The Fort Dodge Correctional Facility opened in April 1998, bringing 402 new jobs with it. Among those who found jobs at the prison was Kurt, who was hired in the fall of 1998 and still works there today.
New Century, New Growth
In 2006, the city of Fort Dodge changed its form of government from a typical mayor-council set-up to hiring a professional manager. Illinois native David Fierke was hired as the first city manager, a role he has occupied since.
“It was really cool, because you could tell that everything was about change. Everything was like, ‘What can we do? How are we going to do it?’” Fierke said. “So we did a community visioning effort called Vision 2030. We brought in a consultant who’s experienced with community visioning and we had all these different focus groups we interviewed.”
Some of the takeaways from those focus groups: residents want more quality of life amenities and services, retail shopping, public safety investments and recreational areas.
“It was a really cool in-depth look at what we wanted the community to be, so that was kind of my welcome to Fort Dodge, which is a really cool thing to be a part of,” Fierke said.
In 2010, the Economic Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce realized many of their efforts were duplicative and the two merged to become the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance. In the years since, the city and the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance have been working to make Vision 2030 a reality.
“We’re trying to draw people into our downtown as well, to shopping and eating,” Fierke said. “We moved real quickly into a downtown corridor master plan…so we redeveloped that area to drop the powerlines, buried them, we put in sidewalks everywhere, created nice plazas and sections, really touched up downtown. We rerouted some traffic to bring more traffic closer to our downtown.”
The economy of Fort Dodge has largely recovered in the decades since the decline of meatpacking and agriculture, both Plautz and Fierke said. The city’s biggest industries now include animal pharmaceuticals, construction and manufacturing, with large employers like CJ Bio America and Cargill bolstering the local economy.
In researcher Wuthnow’s experience, small towns that are able to “replace a business that had been lost with a new business of some kind” are often successfully revitalized.
“Fort Dodge…is in far better shape than many smaller towns,” Wuthnow said. “It also has a diversified economy, which probably means that it has not suffered as much as it might have from the loss of the meatpacking plants.”
Whether Fort Dodge’s revitalization can be used as a blueprint for other communities is up for debate. Every community is different. They have different troubles, different levels of investment and different levels of interest in bringing towns back from the brink. Whether they make it back is anyone’s guess.
Big Solutions to Small-Town Problems
Fort Dodge has a ways to go yet. There have been successes. The city and the Growth Alliance have worked to revitalize public spaces like parks, some of which are over 100 years. Private developers followed, purchasing two historic middle school buildings in Fort Dodge to convert them into luxury apartments.
But Kurt’s “drag” still has some issues. While downtown Fort Dodge has seen much revitalization over the past decade, some historic buildings are more difficult to renovate than others.
“Where we struggled is, we have this old Warden Hotel, and it’s a really large structure, an eight story building,” Fierke said. “It’s a struggle – it’s so big that it really takes the right kind of investor and getting all the programs together..”
The Warden Hotel isn’t the only problem. Many historic buildings downtown remain vacant. Others have been torn down altogether. Traci and Kurt have noticed beautiful Victorian-style homes in the city slowly fall into a state of disrepair. Marc Edelman, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Hunter College who studies rural America, said this is part of a larger national trend affecting small towns.
“There were many beautiful buildings that went up in the late 19th and 20th centuries in small towns all over the United States. Some have great architectural and historical value,” Edelman said. “In some places, new users have successfully repurposed them as offices, stores or living space. But in others, they’re abandoned and depressing.”
Those great old buildings also clash with where many cities are expanding: on the edges. Edelman said downtowns are difficult to revitalize in many small towns across America because economic trends have shifted.
“Downtowns were victims first of malls and big box stores and then of online shopping,” Edelman said. “In towns with dead Main Streets, people are often economically precarious, and you see all the social pathologies that many associate with big cities – substance abuse problems, gun violence, domestic violence, the so-called ‘deaths of despair.’”
While the Fort Dodge crime rate is higher per capita compared to the state of Iowa, city management believes it’s to be expected in any socioeconomically diverse town.
“We’ve always had that mix of socioeconomic stratas…and typically crime follows lower socioeconomic cohorts,” Fierke said. “People always say Fort Dodge is a rough town and I say, ‘No, it’s really not. You can leave your car unlocked or you can leave your house unlocked. You’re probably okay.’”
Despite all Fort Dodge has been through, people like Plautz are proud of the city’s progress in the past decade.
“It’s not the Fort Dodge that I lived in when I first moved here,” Plautz said. “I tell people, I’ve been here well over 40 years. I’m here by choice. And there is absolutely, unequivocally in my mind, no better time to have lived in Fort Dodge than today, because of the things that have been going on for the last 10 years.”