The "Iowa Boy" Chuck Offenburger has studied and written about Iowa rural life for decades. His personal experiences growing up in the Shenandoah, Iowa area, and knowing Evelyn Birkby, are told in this interview. The interview was recorded on June 29, 2009 at his home near Jefferson, Iowa.
Debra Herbold: Describe the sense of community that existed and still exists in rural Iowa.
Chuck Offenburger: When you live in a small town or a rural community you really get to know well and depend on the people around you. It's a little less so today because communications are so good but certainly in the 40s and 50s and even into the 60s that was still true, and so if someone got hurt on the farm or there was some other need someone like Evelyn Birkby could communicate that on a column and then on a radio show and then the help would be instantaneous and in that way she probably was kind of a leader of her audience. I mean she could mobilize people to do this or do that, you know, and I think one of the things I remember from my high school years and I was probably at the stage then where I was just kind of curious about, you know, her appeal and you'd go through a stage and you'd think Evelyn's appeal must be a lot of older women like my mother and that'd be about it.
And I remember KMA used to have this annual cookie fair and it was like the Evelyn Birkby personal showcase. And I can remember going to that one year, probably got detailed over to shoot a picture of it, at the old armory in Shenandoah where they had it and the place was packed and it was all ages and men and women and that opened my eyes. I thought Evelyn Birkby is a genuine rock star, you know, I mean this is really something. But you would see her with her people like that and you'd understand the following she had. She eventually had credentials established. She became the cookie judge at the Iowa State Fair forever and she had that same kind of following there.
Debra Herbold: I've read that the radio homemakers had amazing salesmanship abilities.
Chuck Offenburger: Oh yeah and I mean some of them got in -- went that direction with it. The Driftmier sisters in Shenandoah were radio homemakers kind of just before Evelyn's era and during her era and they had a very popular show that was called Kitchen-Klatter that turned into a magazine, turned into a company which made spices and flavorings. The remnants of that company are still alive in Shenandoah and doing well, but they turned it into a whole commercial very, very successful commercial enterprise. They were very entrepreneurial about it and, you know, they'd still be on the air pitching the -- pitching their products and create their own following that way, but let's not forget that's what started the radio stations in Shenandoah.
You know, Shenandoah was unusual and had two radio stations and KFNF and KMA and KFNF was the voice of Henry Field's Seed & Nursery. KMA was the voice of Earl May Seed and Nursery. Great rival nursery men and seed men who had their headquarters in Shenandoah and did national and international business and those radio stations were started up. Those guys were real innovators and they saw the possibilities of radio when it was invented, and so in the 20s Shenandoah is on the air as radio city and they did it to sell their nursery products and also their tractor tires and car tires and men's suits and ladies hats and all the rest of it.
Debra Herbold: How does food play a role in everyone's life?
Chuck Offenburger: Well, you can grow it so easily out here. You know we're so close to the source. You get spoiled on that, I mean, you know, buying your pork from a 4-H kid that raised a pig and buying a calf and having it slaughtered at the locker and having everything fresh like that. So, I think we have more of an interest in it in Iowa than you know maybe more urban places do where it was just a supply item. And then when -- we have it so fresh and so available then that's just a great resource for cooks, you know, who can do all these fabulous dishes. So, there's a real consciousness of it and the other thing is our lifestyle, you know, in kind of the small town in rural lifestyle was very geared to those big community dinners, church dinners, and community dinners and those occasions for potlucks. So, those became a lot of the, you know, became part of the culture to have those kinds of events which were much more than just feast. There were opportunities for people to get together and talk about our lives and learn about each other. So, it has really a great connector for the whole Midwest.
Debra Herbold: Do you have your own special recipe?
Chuck Offenburger: No, but I can tell who the best pie-baker is in the world and she lives right up the road in Jefferson, Iowa, Sharon Staller. One of the best gifts I ever got was one Christmas, Carla gave me Sharon Staller pies. During the next year and I could call up Sharon and get them when I wanted them.
Debra Herbold: How important was a garden for a farm family?
Chuck Offenburger:Well, certainly from the 30s to the end of the 50s every farm family if not almost every family in towns and cities was looking to raise a garden just to offset some of the cost of food and to have it fresh. And if you were in Southwest Iowa in that time period and you have these two fabulous seed and nursery companies selling the latest in vegetables and fruit and, you know, seeds and trees it was like a huge bonus, I mean to have that so readily available. And as a result of that in the marketing that went on from the radio stations and the nursery companies about, you know, what the new products are and I think probably the listenership and readership in that area of Southwest, Iowa is probably much more food savvy in that time period than the general population because, you know, I mean those nurseries were keeping those people right on top of what was new and good and different and many of the people of course from the area worked at May's or Field's and, you know, so they were very -- they're around it all the time.
Debra Herbold: Describe the impact of Iowa's small-town cafes.
Chuck Offenburger: In the 30s and 40s the cafes were a little different, they were more of a treat when you'd go. In the 50s life became a little more affluent. So, people became, you know, more inclined to go out and eat more often and I think that's grown ever since then with a possible somewhat of a retreat in the 80s when times were a little harder, but in small town particularly, you know, people would become regulars at certain cafes and so it became, you know, your check in point where you'd show up for breakfast of coffee in the morning and you kind of get the early report. You might come back for lunch. You might be there with the service club or at lunch or in the afternoon come back for another cup of coffee and it was, you know, a news point I guess. I mean people would come in and get connected with what was going on in town. Some of that pre-dates mass media and then later it, because influence, I mean the media becomes an influence in that cafes all start advertising and, you know, building their name and following and so they're still popular today. If you got a good cafe in a small town it is a major crossroad in the community.
Debra Herbold: You've probably frequented a lot of small town Iowa cafes. Tell me about some of your experiences.
Chuck Offenburger: You've got to be comfortable coming in there and sitting down. I'd grown up around those places. So, I'm pretty comfortable with them anyway, but when I'd be on the road for the Register, if I walked into cafe in Northeast Iowa or anywhere around the state, it's particularly in the morning when the regulars are gathered, you know, a stranger like me, you could just sit up at the counter and read the newspaper and eat your breakfast or drink your coffee and you might hear a few things but you know I never did that. I was much more inclined to come in, spot the table where they were all gathered, and sit down and just become part of it and there would be an odd minute or two when you're just kind of settling in and then all of the sudden boom you're just part of it. And, you know, for me of course they just think I'm being an outgoing stranger and pleasant and I'm there actually with my notebook in my back pocket, you know, scribbling down story ideas as soon as I get away from them but, you know, if you're comfortable in that situation it can be a great source of information.
Debra Herbold: Describe Saturday nights in town and what were they like for a rural family.
Chuck Offenburger: Well, I can, you know, in my boyhood in the late 1940s and then through the 50s Shenandoah was a Saturday night town and in the earliest part of that my dad ran a-- was involved in a creamery and places where farmers would come in and sell their milk and eggs and he ran one of those early in his life and so we were very geared to that even after dad took other jobs directly involved in stuff on Saturday nights. We would still go to town and you'd have your circle of stores you go to every week and stop in and maybe buy a thing or two and then you'd pick up your ring of bologna and Ritz crackers and head home for a treat before you went to bed on Saturday night.
People who didn't necessarily have anything they wanted to buy would come to town, and this is fun to think back on this, they'd park their cars on Main Street in the town and just kind of get out and sit on them and the people would be walking around. You'd visit with people as they came around. So, it was not unusual to see someone just sitting on their car, you know, out there. Kids would pester their parents for a nickel so you could go get an ice cream cone and that kind of thing. We pretty much lost that in small towns now. Life has become so fast that nobody really goes and "hangs" out as much as they once did, or they're very -- the hanging out places have scattered out over everywhere. So, it's just a different scene but back then it was downtown and in almost every town.
The merchants, as I think back on it, that must have driven them crazy because, I mean they, you know, back then most of the stores were open at 7 in the morning day in/day out, not on Sunday, but every other day and what Saturday night, I mean, it was obviously a big business day for everybody but what it really meant is that they're going to work until 10 or 11 o'clock at night and then, I think Tom Morain was right, the advent of television started changing that when there would be programs on Saturday evening, you know, would send people home to catch this show or that show and that changed a lot of things.
Debra Herbold: Women in journalism, was it rare to have women in radio and journalism?
Chuck Offenburger: It was certainly rare before Evelyn. It was rare to have a woman in a columnist role or kind of a media star role. There would be a very occasional female reporter but generally they would be working in a society news, as it was called back then, and they would be writing up the club notices and maybe the obituaries and some of the inside the office, type stuff that would be done, and somehow it was thought that a woman going out and pounding the sidewalk and coming up with hard news would be -- just wouldn't happen. All of which was just crap of course but that's the way it was then.
Evelyn obviously and others like her who got that opportunity as radio homemakers or radio newspaper lifestyle columnists like she was, you know, it became clear that this is a very good story teller here and she's developed a following that includes not only all the ladies out there but also a lot of guys and it's general audience. And so then editors and publishers and station owners and program directors are no dummies- they're saying let's turn her loose here, you know, let's ride this horse while we can and so that's, you know, the people who got in at the time that Evelyn did and can show that they can pull it off, they had lot of support.
Debra Herbold: Telephone party lines? Did you experience that as a kid?
Chuck Offenburger: Sure. I think we all had party lines when we first had and in rural areas all did for sure. I mean, you know, it was so you'd have -- that was a source. There was a way to ring your neighbors so that you could get on that old phone, do a certain ring so that the neighbors would know this is a local ring or a neighborhood ring, and you could pick it up and they could say somebody is sick, you know, somebody needs help right now, and away you'd go. And then there were those-- what would you call them when you call them illicit party lines? Parties where someone was, you know, talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone and the neighborhood figures out what time that's happening and everybody is picking up phones, listen in, and there were no secrets I'm telling you. If there was one hot item mentioned in a phone conversation it was news before you hung up.
Debra Herbold: Memories of your home life and what your mom cooked?
Chuck Offenburger:Well, my mom was a very non-traditional homemaker and mother in that time period. She worked. I always remember her working. She was a secretary in a corporate office or company in Shenandoah, and so she worked everyday and, you know, I can remember five days a week and five and a half days for a good portion of it, and so, you know, in later years as I got my bearing and started figuring out what life was really like I would be amazed looking back on that how it always seemed to me that the meals were on time and she'd come home at lunch. It was in an era when everybody went home at lunch. So, mom would go to work and we'd have, you know, breakfast in the morning. Mom would be home at lunch, fixing lunch, and then back home at night fixing supper. It was a very, you know, we had seven kids in the Offenburger family, kind of scattered out over a lot of years, but she kept that up for a long time. She worked for 55 years or something like that and so, you know, she never was in that role ever as just a straight homemaker which was unusual in that time period. She was pretty independent and strong and, you know, I think she drew, you know, so she could see Evelyn Birkby leading that same kind of lifestyle, you know, where doing something on her own and I think that helped my mother relate to her. That she was, you know, Evelyn was clearly an independent woman even though she's married and had a family and I think, you know, that had some appeal for people like my mother.
Debra Herbold: As a family friend of the Birkby's, describe the relationship between Evelyn and her husband Robert.
Chuck Offenburger: Robert was a farmer when they first got married and they lived on a little farm in the Farragut area and it indeed was up a lane, and she was, Evelyn, was a college graduate, I think in psychology, and had taught and she'd been to Chicago and worked in the Methodist Church Organizations. So, she'd been out and seen what the world was like and Robert early on expressed a concern about whether Evelyn, as a young woman who had a professional life, whether she was going to be content being a farm homemaker.
So, that's when he saw the ad in the newspaper for the Shenandoah Newspaper from Willard Archie about, you know, wanting to start this kind of column and he told Evelyn to go. He said this sounds like you. You go apply for that job and she was reluctant. She was, you know, she didn't know where that might lead and I remember her saying she wasn't sure of her spelling and Robert said we'll buy a dictionary and, you know, she even described it as putting the hat on my head and pushing me out the door to go apply. And then she goes on and tells this story about when she went in and interviewed with Willard Archie and she said she went in this office and here's this big old guy with white hair and sitting at a roll top desk and he had this voice that could make pavement crack. I mean the guy just had one of those big booming voices. Evelyn said she went in there, she was so intimidated, and she said she felt at that moment that she knew what God looked like, and every one of us who ever worked for Willard Archie identified with that. It was just like God could just scare the hell out of you, you know, but he just melted with Evelyn and, you know, gave her the advice about write friendly and always include a recipe and it worked.
So, she starts the newspaper column and it's instantly got a good following and then of course Earl May and Henry Fields see that and they just, you know-- let's get this on the air.
Debra Herbold: Do you think folks in the 50s lived within their means?
Chuck Offenburger: You know, the generation that experienced the Great Depression in World War II never got over that. I mean they were very conscious of being conservative in their spending, having savings, kind of self sustaining livelihood. They could make it on their own if they had to and so that sort of governed life in Iowa through the 50s and 60s and then things began to change after that. In the 1970s was a great time in Iowa agriculture, big growth period, land values just escalated beyond anybody's belief, and money became readily available and with it credit and of course with that debt and, you know, you could just...
Looking back on it you could see what was happening. Back then it was just let the good times roll, you know, and but then we go into the 1980s and we're way over leveraged and land prices are ridiculously high and, you know, the bottom fell out. We went through a period then again where things really scaled back all throughout the state and that's influenced life since then just the way it did in the 30s.
Debra Herbold: When electricity got to the farms- how did it change?
Chuck Offenburger: Hard to imagine, hard to decide whether the availability of the gasoline engine or electricity more change -- most changed life in the countryside, but both had huge impacts of course. The, you know, the development of a tractor and the sorted mechanical implements and motor powered implements just changed farming forever and started us on the road to large scale farms that we know today. But you know I'm not sure many people would have stuck around for that if electricity hadn't come because life had to be terrible in the countryside most of the time without electricity. I mean I can't imagine how quiet it must have been and how remote you must have seemed, you know, it must have seemed when before electricity, but the â€“
Carla and I love living out in the country today because it's a little less hassle with life and, you know, we're- we enjoy that. We enjoy the space around us but we're on the internet everyday, most of the day, and we have radio on all the time and we're not doing a lot of television anymore, but at the same time it's all readily available and it's, you know, we couldn't live without that sense of connection. So, I think that in the 50s, as the economy starts to grow, in the 60s and into the 70s rural America started to have all that media available and all those machines available that come that, you know, had been in the small towns and cities before and that changed everything. Made it, you know, much more comfortable place to live.
Debra Herbold: Would you say that these days people choose to live out in the country even though they don't farm?
Chuck Offenburger: There are more people living on farms who are not farming than live on farms and are farming. An amazing statistic but it's really true and as you travel around this neighborhood there are still, you know, there are many places that still have buildings on them that have people living there that have nothing to do with farming now and more are available actually. We'd like to see more people move in. As the farms have gotten bigger one of the downsides is that there are just fewer people in the countryside. So, we're glad to see people moving back out.
Debra Herbold: The biggest change you've seen in rural Iowa from 50s to now?
Chuck Offenburger: I'd have to say that the single biggest change in rural life today is the internet. Radio and television connected us to, you know, the region and, you know, the nation basically. The internet takes us to the world and I think it fit Iowa and rural Iowa like a good work glove. I mean it enables us to do what we've always done here had quality products, honest people, straight dealing, and of course in the fast paced life, you know, world of the internet people cry for that. I mean they like that personal connection. So, if you're smart in rural Iowa today you'll come up with food products or other products or services that you can market over the internet because the world's out there just waiting for it. I think that's the greatest single change in rural life since the 50s.
Debra Herbold: Can you relate some personal stories you've shared with the Birkby's?
Chuck Offenburger: When we were moving to the countryside from Storm Lake, even though we've been in Iowa all our lives, both of us are total idiots about living in the country. We didn't know a damn thing about what to do out here and Robert Birkby says to me, he says well now when you get out here, he says, just remember this if you have questions go to the extension service, extension knows everything, go to the extension service and we have done that a hundred times since we've been here.
When they scaled back recently and did their re-organization I said that is going to impact Iowa in ways that no one is even dreaming of yet. I think what's happened is that a lot of it is the leadership of the university and the leadership of extension and the power structure of Iowa is so urban focused that people just don't understand the importance of that extension service to rural Iowa.