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Farm town fests offer Americana

Rosmann Farm and Ranch Life

The tiny village of Westphalia, Iowa, my home town, celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding on July 3. Westphalia has held an annual two-day celebration of Independence Day for as long as I can remember. The event is still called the St. Boniface Parish Picnic even though the community includes non-parishioners of various faiths and cultural backgrounds besides Catholics of German ancestry.

Westphalia symbolizes the ongoing cultural shifts in America’s farm country. A parade of 110 exhibits demonstrated these changes to several thousand spectators, nearly all of whom probably could trace their roots back to the mother community or its descendants in four neighboring Germanic communities which now all are bigger than Westphalia.

Westphalia was featured as a representative community of Rural America in the geography book I studied during 4th grade in 1955 at the St. Boniface parochial school. The prominent influence of Westphalia, Iowa, hasn’t disappeared, but the community’s ethnicity now includes nuns from Asia and Africa, families with members who are Black or Asian and Hispanic.

The sesquicentennial parade included floats sponsored by Westphalia farm families of five or more generations, businesses in the area, a half dozen nearby fire departments showing off their equipment (I’m pretty sure Westphalia’s had the shiniest vehicles), massive 8-wheel tractors in the 600-plus hp. range with 8 foot tall tires, vintage tractors in the older farmers’ favorite brand names and colors, crop sprayers with booms that extend 120 feet, antique 2-row crop cultivators, a Conestoga wagon, 20-plus-foot-long, 4-wheel-drive pickups with lifts, 80-foot-long sleeper cab truck rigs, and the Harlan Community High School marching band.

The 2020 U.S. Census says Westphalia has 126 residents. Approximately an equal number of mostly farm people who consider themselves to be part of the community reside in the countryside, along with a few non-farming newcomers who left metropolitan environments to live on farmsteads.

The Union Pacific Railroad was instrumental in the settlement of Westphalia. The company was granted 100-square-mile tracts of land alternating on either side of the railroad track, thus forming a checkerboard pattern, as an incentive to build the first transcontinental railroad. The railroad company turned the land grants into cash by hiring agents who recruited immigrants to the U.S. to purchase virgin prairie in what was described as “God’s chosen land.”

Authorized by President Abraham Lincoln and Congress in 1862, the Railroad Company began laying track from San Francisco eastward and from Omaha westward. Completion of the rail line was stymied by the ongoing Civil War and difficult-to-cross terrain, but is was finally completed in 1869 at Promontory, Utah.

The Union Pacific Railroad hired Emil Fluesche of Westphalia, Michigan, as an agent to recruit people to purchase land along the rail line in western Iowa.

Meanwhile, the other half of Shelby County, in which Westphalia is located, was settled by immigrants from Scandinavian countries, chiefly Denmark. The different ethnic groups formed cordial relations fairly quickly. Shelby County became known for its production of superior cattle, hybrid corn seed and baseball.

Much of Westphalia’s still-respected philosophy traces to Rev. Hubert Duren, who was pastor of St. Boniface Parish from 1926 to 1962. Parishioners learned his “Formula for Complete Life” by rural communities.

Duren likened a thriving community to the human hand. The straight digits represent:

  • Education. The Church operated St. Boniface School in 1927 until it closed in 1964,
  • Recreation: Besides several major league baseball players who came from Westphalia, St. Boniface Church built and leases The Klubhaus, which is Westphalia’s only restaurant and pub,
  • Commerce: Westphalia residents formed one of the first community-owned cooperatives in Iowa with a general store and service station,
  • Credit: Westphalia founded the first Credit Union banking establishment in Shelby County, and
  • Christian Faith: The thumb which guides the other four fingers.

Farm community centennials and other small-town celebrations, as well as county fairs in farm country, display rural Americana at its best. The hearty and hardy people in these communities are “the keepers of the culture” that has nourished much of America for two and a half centuries.

The United States currently faces the most serious challenges to “democracy and equality for all” since the Civil War. Our country could draw on lessons from Westphalia, Iowa.

For this column, I relied on publications by Bernard Zimmerman, who wrote “History of Westphalia 1872-1972,” Edward S. White, who wrote “Past and Present of Shelby County, Iowa in 1915,” and the Westphalia Community Club which furnished Memories of Rev. H.E. Duren in 1964, as well as many family and fellow Westphalians, past and present.


Dr. Mike Rosmann can be contacted by email at mike@agbehavioralhealth.com.

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