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American Heartland Grays, Prays, Holds Fast to Values

Americans often talk about "small-town values" and the "heartland," as if the rural Midwest embodies what it means to be an American. To explore the character of the heartland, how it sees itself and its challenges, we went to a little Iowa town. Fort Dodge -- population 25,000 and falling -- had 6,000 more people 30 years ago, when its 2 meatpacking plants were open and the town was known as "Little Chicago." Come snowy winter, it feels like Chicago, for wintertime temperatures average 6 degrees below zero Celsius here.

These days, Fort Dodge is steadily graying as young people, lacking much to do in this quiet river town, leave and don't return. Their parents work at the gypsum mills or the pet-food plant, the regional hospital or the big animal-research lab. Of an evening, you may find them at a square dance, the junior college softball tournament, or a band shell concert that features the circus marches of Fort Dodge's own Karl King, whose two hundred compositions, the locals argue, rival anything the more widely-known John Philip Sousa ever produced. His songs include one called "The Voice of America!"

The Webster County fairgrounds arena is packed for a rodeo, for Fort Dodge was once on America's western frontier -- and folks like Al Nelson don't want you to forget it. Mr. Nelson came back to his hometown after 35 years elsewhere to take over the Fort Museum and Frontier Village, which celebrates Fort Dodge's rowdy days as a 19th century army outpost and stagecoach stop.

"The main highway ends here," Mr. Nelson points out. "There hasn't been a lot of progress made in many areas. Fort Dodge has stagnated somewhat. There are a lot of things about Fort Dodge that are throwbacks to the frontier, because of some of the problems that remain here. For instance, methamphetamine problems here are pretty heavy. The farmers' chemicals are readily here for meth manufacturers."

Problems with meth and other illegal drugs make Fort Dodge a lot like other American communities, as does the city's tattered downtown. The lion's share of its businesses closed after Wal-Mart and Target super stores opened in a new shopping mall. Left behind were county office buildings; the library, medical center, and regionally renowned art museum; a senior citizens' home, several taverns, and a pornographic bookstore.

Dan Payne, 70, a city councilman and retired parks director, grew up in the heart of Fort Dodge. He's says he's proud of the trustworthy, "salt of the earth" values of his neighbors and the warmth of a town where most folks keep their doors unlocked and their hands extended to strangers. But he admits that in a city that's 93% white, in a county where more than 1/3 of the people are age 50 or older, new ways of looking at things are in short supply.

"If you had an idea, and you know that 76% of all the people that live in Iowa were born here, raised here, and are going to die here, you're up against it immediately," Mr. Payne says. "But you're getting younger people coming in -- young professionals. They bring ideas from other communities. And they're saying, 'I think this can work.' And you're saying, 'Oh, no. We tried that before. Can't work.' But it does."

Fort Dodge's assistant police chief, Doug Utley, has been on the force for 31 years. Like most everyone in town, he knows just about everybody else. "If you're the type of person who likes to go out for lunch, you're by yourself, you'll be able to sit down and have a conversation with somebody at the next table, find somebody you already know or even just strike up a conversation with a stranger and maybe make another friend," he says. "Some bigger communities, you don't even dare make eye contact, 'cause they get offended. I thoroughly enjoy Fort Dodge. It's kind of fun here 'cause you can have small-town living and can actually leave your house and get to work in 5 minutes."

Three different steakhouses in Fort Dodge claim they serve the world's best prime rib of corn-fed beef in slabs so big, they spill off your plate -- just as quite a few bellies droop over people's belts here in town. At the Tom Thumb restaurant, you get a freshly baked sweet roll with your breakfast -- whether you ordered it or not. And if the waitress is busy, customers will fill each other's coffee cups and water glasses, and introduce you to a fellow named Tex, who caught a big catfish and has pictures to prove it.

Fort Dodge does not lack for Christian churches. There are more than 60 of them. At the First Covenant Church, Zach Lovig, 24, is the youth pastor. He says the languid pace of life in Fort Dodge bores a lot of young people, who are itching for glitz and glamour. Mr. Lovig, though, is not one of them.

"Life tends to happen when you're sitting around on your back porch, talking with friends, having a barbecue," he says, "not when you are in a high-class, ritzy bar, meeting beautiful women, and living this high life. What Fort Dodge has to offer, I think, is, if you're willing to find what real life is, Fort Dodge -- small communities -- these are places where you can do it."

After high school, Crystal Hamilton left Fort Dodge for college in Chicago. She was starry-eyed, she says. Now, at 20, she's back home -- content, to hear her tell it -- and working with alcoholics and addicts on 9th Street -- "Druggie Street," as she calls it -- at the YWCA. The job is hectic, but the town, in her words, "is wonderfully slow."

"I'm a slower-paced person," Ms. Hamilton says, "and all of my friends were just, you know, goin', goin', goin' and doin' things. But here, it's like you can finally slow down and b r e a t h e! I used to come back here once in awhile and just seclude myself and relax for a weekend, then go back to the city."

Fort Dodge wants more Crystal Hamiltons. Young people mean children, and a future. So the city sent cards to every recent high school graduate who went elsewhere. The message: "Follow Your Heart Home." So far, 14 people have.

Fort Dodge has also hitched its future to a new plant that will turn abundant Iowa corn into ethanol fuel. The 4-lane highway that just reached Fort Dodge from the east will one day open to the west as well. If there's a construction boom, it will likely be in more old folks' homes. No one expects Fort Dodge to turn into bustling "Little Chicago" again. Change is gradual -- even grudging -- which suits most folks in this heartland town just fine.