BANCROFT – The city of Bancroft, called “the garden spot of Iowa” for almost 90 years, may not be growing in population. But like a good perennial plant with solid roots, it is regenerating and flowering.
Located in northern Kossuth County in north-central Iowa about 20 miles south of the Minnesota state line, Bancroft has a population of 699 residents, according to 2020 Census data, down from 732 in 2010.
It’s who makes up that 699 number that matters.
Bancroft has an eclectic mix of new, longtime and returning residents. It has young families. It has enough “old money” and new entrepreneurship to muster resources for building-restoration and community-event projects.
It has business: ag-related manufacturing, precision farming, even a day spa right in the middle of downtown, and an award-winning distillery – S&B Farms Distillery, started in 2018 by Sara and Brian Winkleman, winners of the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Renew Rural Iowa Entrepreneur Award for 2020.
And it’s a place where people take time to have fun.
“That’s us,” Sara Winkleman said, laughing.
“And sometimes they let the old people join in,” said city director Crysti Neuman, a longtime resident who came back.
The fun includes kids, even though there’s no longer a school in town.
Bancroft caught the attention of Iowa State University researchers involved in the “Shrink Smart” community restoration and research project with the Iowa League of Cities. The program works with a half-dozen Iowa communities who’ve shown improvement in quality of life, looking at reasons for the change. IowaWatch visited Bancroft, Elma and Sac City and found strong leadership and social infrastructure are necessary to fit into the shrinking but thriving category.
“Bancroft is interesting because it’s fourth-generation local leadership that’s really invested in the community,” said ISU professor and “Shrink Smart” researcher Kimberly Zarecor. The researchers have been working with Bancroft since 2017.
Bancroft stands out for its tradition of residents leading and having a mix of newcomers and longtime citizens, Zarecor said.
“They’re very intentional. They’re very action-oriented, doing events. So many creative things that they do.”
One returning resident is Neuman, the city director, a position with duties similar to a city administrator. She grew up on a farm north of nearby Ledyard. She worked in public administration, the last 14 years in the Kenosha-Racine area of southeastern Wisconsin, before she and her husband, Paul, empty nesters, returned in 2012. One motivator was Neuman’s father still living in the area.
“I think Bancroft has been resilient, always. I know back in the ’80s during the farm crisis, they were told pretty much, ‘Your community’s going to die.’ I think the people here chose that it was not going to die.”
“My little tagline is: We can do anything a community of 10,000 can do; we just have to move the decimal point.”
Bancroft’s population reached a peak in the 1970s with 1,100 residents. It has been slowly decreasing since then. Shrink Smart researchers aren’t looking for population growth but for places like Bancroft that are investing in quality of life. The town started doing that early as the numbers crept downward.
“They thought a little bigger,” Neuman said.
One example: Business leaders bought property on Main Street. A building was gone if it needed to be torn down. Those leaders put together three lots across from City Hall on which a grocery store would eventually be built. It’s now Hager Foods. Main Street also boasts a pharmacy.
Besides a focus on main street, Neuman said she and others cultivated young residents.
“When I first came here I had a meeting with young people. ‘Meet With Purpose’ is what it was called, and it was for 20-, 30-, and 40-year-olds.” She asked their reasons for living there and suggestions for improvements. “We took that information, and I tried to build on that.”
The median age in Bancroft is 36.9 years, according to current Census data.
Attracting younger residents could be simple, like having Scratch Cupcakery of Cedar Falls bring a vending truck to town seasonally. “They were here this fall and they sold 1,500 cupcakes in two hours,” Neuman said.
“You have to listen to the young people, then follow through with what they’re saying,” Neuman said. “This is what I have found with younger people: They want to get things done.
The only school in town, the parish grade school of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, closed nearly 10 years ago. But younger people didn’t necessarily look at the absence of a school as a detriment.
“The one thing they wanted to do though was to create an atmosphere in the community that this was still the kids’ hometown,” said Neuman. (Students go to North Kossuth, Algona public and Garrigan Catholic school districts.)
“You still want this to be your hometown and have your friends here, too. That was kind of a catalyst to make sure we had different events going on, different things for the kids” and a nice park.
The events include a Fourth of July blast, Bancroft Bonanza in the fall with crafters on Main Street and activities, and Holidazzle before Christmas as a memorial park fundraiser.
Bancroft, founded in the 1890s and named after Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, was known for decades as a baseball town. It was home to many state high school championship teams and the hometown of two major leaguers – Dennis Menke, a two-time All-Star infielder with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds from 1962-74; and Joe Hatten, who pitched from 1946-52 for Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs.
Bancroft Memorial Ballpark, an area landmark seating 1,300, is the home field for the North Union High School Baseball Team. It was built in 1948 on land donated by three property owners with $5,000 from the American Legion in memory of those who died in World Wars I and II, including Jimmy Murray of Bancroft, a promising ballplayer killed in the Pacific and the son of one of the land donors. The town fielded competitive American Legion tournament teams for years.
In recent years, it was home to the Bandits of the Pioneer League, a “wooden bat” league of college players from around the country who stayed in town with host teams. COVID brought that to a halt in 2020, but the town would like to bring a team back.
“What’s so fun about our community is it doesn’t matter your age,” Sara Winkleman said. “We’re always trying to find a way where we can include everyone but still be fun, different. It’s kind of like anything goes. From pre-school, toddlers, all the way up to our elderly at the nursing home.
For example the Winkleman’s distillery paid for all the nursing home residents to have hot dogs at a “Bourbon, Brews and BBQ” fundraising event for the local ambulance service. Different businesses chip in for cupcakes, cookies or flowers for nursing home residents, particularly around the holidays.
Sara Winkleman is involved with veteran causes, including the local Hunting with Heroes organization in north-central Iowa, through a nonprofit organization, Beyond the Still.
S & B Farms has produced an award-winning “Private First Class” spiced spirit dedicated to her grandfather, Ray Baade, a World War II veteran, who served in the Army in the Pacific and just died Jan. 26 at age 95.
“The businesses give back in big ways to the community,” Neuman said.
The age structure of Bancroft’s population is pretty balanced, with 25.9 percent of the population under the age of 18; 6.4 percent from 18 to 24; 22.3 percent from 25 to 44; 18.3 percent from 45 to 64, and 27.1 percent who were 65 years of age or older according to recent Census data.
“We are a young, fun community. But yet we are also an amazing retirement community as well,” Sara Winkleman said. “People really look to retire and want to stay here. We’re pretty self-sufficient as a community with the businesses we do have in town. We are an ideal place to start your family and be retired here.”
And, to start a business there, as the Winklemans did with their distillery.
The Winklemans own a farm 17 miles north of Bancroft but chose to buy and move to town eight years ago to be closer to the school bus pickup to Bishop Garrigan in Algona.
“The risk of me starting a business was a huge risk, but it was not quite as big of a risk coming into a smaller community due to taxes” and lower costs, Winkleman said.
“And then, also, looking at where Bancroft sits on the map,” Winkleman said, “this is prime real estate.
There’s big tourism in Spirit Lake to the west, Clear Lake to the east and Interstate 90 in Minnesota is 45 minutes away.
“We’ve been very, very blessed,” Winkleman said. “We just got done doing close to a 7,000-square-foot expansion onto our existing building and continuing to grow. Tourism is huge.”
Sara Winkleman was named 2019 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by America’s Small Business Development Center – Iowa, located at Iowa State University’s Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations.
The company’s products have been picked up by major local regional retail chains, and its whiskey and bourbon products have medaled at national and international events. It also serves as an educational outlet for local high schools and colleges.
Besides the distillery, agriculture underpins other local business. Laura Arndorfer is an emergency medical technician in town and with her husband, Brian, co-operates Arndorfer Brothers Seed & Precision Management Services, successful 15-year-old precision-farming seed sales, planting and soil-sampling businesses in town. Her husband started the business out of his dorm room at ISU. Laura, a native of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, who attended Minnesota State University-Mankato, also is one of the young people taking over some leadership roles and mobilizing volunteers, including those in her “thirtysomething” age range.
“Laura and Brian just built a new home in town, and they’ve chosen to stay in the community. We’re very thankful for that,” Neuman said.
Entrepreneurship such as that shown by the Arndorfers and the Winklemans has always been a part of Bancroft.
“I think there’s always been a seed here,” Neuman said. “For someone with a good idea, they’ve always been able to get the support.“
Another entrepreneur is Ellengray Kennedy, who owns and operates Spa-dee-dah, too! day spa.
Her husband, Charlie Kennedy, a fourth-generation Bancroft resident, is the recently retired president of Farmers and Traders Savings Bank. It was recently acquired by Fidelity Bank and Trust in Dubuque, operated by his uncle and cousin. “My uncle actually started here in family banking,” he added.
“It’s been kind of a unique thing to have an independent bank with no branches anywhere else, where we’ve just been devoted to the community of Bancroft,” Charlie Kennedy said.
The bank was a catalyst, Neuman said, putting money and its name behind local efforts.
“Charlie spent a year trying to find the right buyer,” Ellengray Kennedy said of her husband, her voice faltering slightly. “The first persons he asked were his uncle and his cousin, because he knew their roots and it would still be in the family. But his first concern was which bank is going to take care of my employees, his customers and this community.”
As another example of multigeneration cooperation and entrepreneurship, Charlie Kennedy noted his great-grandfather built the department store building just southwest of City Hall. A local foundation renovated the building’s exterior, and a local entrepreneur renovated the interior and established the Main Street Pub & Grill.
“It’s really kind of a social center for the community,” Charlie said.
“That’s our ‘Cheers,’ ” Ellengray Kennedy said, a nod to the sitcom based in a Boston bar, where everybody knows your name.
“In the ’80s Iowa State came and said ‘We need (business) incubators. Then they got talking to us, and they said, ‘Oh, you’re already doing that,’” said Ellengray Kennedy, a Vermillion, S.D.-raised and educated “transplant” in Bancroft of 40 years.
Charlie Kennedy noted the Bancroft municipal utility also has been a major partner in entrepreneurship, having facilitated multiple expansions by Aluma Trailers, a major manufacturer of aluminum vehicle trailers with a dealer network throughout the U.S. and Canada. It employs 200 people in Bancroft and Emmetsburg.
Bancroft residents were asked what advice they, as citizens of a Shrink Smart community, can pass on to other towns.
“I think why we can go to the next level is we now have city government working with the local foundation, working with volunteers, working with Rotary and all the groups are coming together and trying to share resources,” Ellengray Kennedy said.
Kennedy said to Arndorfer and Winkleman: “That’s what I see that’s exciting about this next generation of leaders. I think they’ll pull that off.”
“That kind of reminds me about how Holidazzle started,” Arndorfer said, referring to Bancroft’s Christmas-season event. “With an idea, and a few people willing to work to put something together. The two of us and one other person were sitting around at the pub one night having a talk and saying ‘We should do something like that.’ You need an idea and a few people willing to try something.”
“We’re not afraid of failure,” Winkleman said.
“You need time, you need talent – and you need resources,” Ellengray Kennedy said. “You also need individuals willing to give resources. You have givers, and if those givers are willing to put money into something, not worrying about what they’re going to get back in material goods … It’s an intrinsic value.
“I think there’s enough people here that get pleasure out of that giving and seeing other people succeed,” she said. “You have to have that.
“That’s something real cool about our community. You have the people who have the ideas, you have the people who are willing to work and you have the people who are willing to financially support it,” Arndorfer said.
Another asset that made Bancroft successful, Ellengray Kennedy said, has been Bancroft’s acceptance and acknowledgment of women as community leaders some 40 years ago.
“The conversion really kind of happened when Rotary started accepting women (into membership), and Charlie came back as the new generation, having a strong wife who worked outside the home,” she said, looking at her husband and smiling. “So we recognize you don’t waste half your leadership. Charlie made a lot of loans to women entrepreneurs. He encouraged them. And look who’s all’s at this table,” she said, pointing to Arndorfer, Winkleman and Neuman as well as herself.
“Encourage all your resources whether they’re time, talent or treasure. Male or female. Young. Old,” Ellengray said. “We embrace diversity. We work hard to do that.
And in the tradition of the town slogan “The Garden Spot of Iowa,” coined in 1934 by longtime local resident and insurance businessman J.H. Sheridan, the city’s current residents want to keep tending to this community.
“It’s a dangerous thing looking at trends – that line on the paper,” she said. “We were being told we weren’t going to survive. We said, ‘darn it, we are going to survive. ‘And we sit on the shoulders of a couple of generations who had been investing in Bancroft. We said, ‘we’re going to do it ourselves.’”
READ ALL STORIES IN THE SHRINK SMART SERIES:
How 3 Iowa towns are getting smaller but smarter through Iowa State program
Generations of local leaders propel Bancroft, population 699
Elma, population 505, meets town needs through bridge building, $1.4 million project
Sac City, population 2,000, builds on its good bones
Iowa’s shrinking towns could be state, regional mentors
Pat Kinney is a longtime Iowa journalist who previously was a reporter and editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet focused on investigative journalism and educating young journalists. IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.