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Economy, Post Office Woes Force Iowa Town Off Map

The United States Postal Service is facing unprecedented financial losses. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe recently told lawmakers his agency needed government intervention by the end of the year to prevent bankruptcy. The problems of the post office, at a time of high unemployment and slow economic growth, have taken their toll on the town of Searsboro, in the Midwest state of Iowa. The only thing keeping the town of about 150 people together was its small post office, which closes at the end of September.

Searsboro, Iowa doesn't have much going for it.

"If you go out, and you go out in the country, and you see the old barns falling down, that could be a metaphor for this town," says Jim Roye a Searsboro resident.

For Roye, Searsboro is home. But in the time he's lived here, the only employer, the grain elevator, closed its doors. A fire forced the only restaurant out of business. An embezzlement scandal in the local government left the town broke.

The only thing that was keeping this community of about 150 people together was its small post office. But now, that is scheduled to close in late September.

"It's just something we're seeing in America, in small towns especially, with the way the recession has hit us," Roye says.

Retired army veteran and Searsboro resident Dave Phipps agrees.

"It's going to pot. There's nothing happening anymore," says Phipps.

In fact, Searsboro is not officially a town, any more. Residents, including Dave Phipps, voted earlier this year in favor of disincorporating.

"We were not getting anywhere the way we were going," notes Phipps.

Even though less than one third of the town's population voted, most residents say the loss of the post office sealed Searsboro's fate.

"A lot of people wanted to keep it. It formed a sense of our community," says Roye.

"A post office is very, very important to a small rural community. And it was very important to the people of Searsboro," notes Deb Collum-Calderwood, the executive director of Poweshiek Iowa Development, also known as POW I-80. The organization promotes economic development in Poweshiek County, Iowa, where Searsboro is located.

The county had eight incorporated towns. It's now down to seven.

"It seems like the incorporated areas that have more services to offer their residents seem to be growing and sustaining, whereas the really small communities really struggle to retain the businesses, the people that are living in their communities," adds Collum-Calderwood.

Searsboro's residents faced increasing local taxes coupled with decreasing services. They voted to disincorporate partially to get help from the state and county governments to fix what is left of the community.

"Streets were a big issue for them," Collum-Calderwood explains. "It's hard, when you have just such a limited tax base to pull from. It's hard for small communities to make those infrastructure improvements."

Though Searsboro's 135-year history seems at an end, Dave Phipps plans to stay.

"I don't know if it will be on the map anymore, but it will always be here, I mean, people love living here," says Phipps.

The problems in Searsboro will not be isolated. As the U.S. Postal Service looks at more ways to trim its $10 billion deficit, more small towns across the United States could face similar cuts.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.