YALE, Iowa, 2:21 p.m. — George Dorr has been driving tractor trailers for 60 years – “Since I was twenty-something,” he says. Now six months into his retirement, he sits at a table at Just Ethel’s, the only café in the tiny burg of Yale, Iowa. His whole life, Dorr has been leaving this hamlet in Guthrie County loaded down and bound for big cities across the Midwest. But he always comes back. “If I were to leave town, there wouldn’t be nothin’ left,” he jokes. It’s an exaggeration — but just slightly.
The 2000 census pegged the population of the town of Yale at 287. The town has one grocery store, one mechanic’s shop and one restaurant – Just Ethel’s – where owner Sue Movingo has been working for 10 years.
“Not much exciting ever happens in Yale,” she says. Asked for a run-down of the community’s attractions, she leans up against a window of the café and points across the street to the grain elevator that towers above the town. “There’s the elevator, and the Raccoon River Valley Trail, and the round gym by the old school that we’re trying to fix up.”
Milo Yale founded the town in 1882 as a farming community to service the surrounding agriculture. Not much has changed since those days. The population of Yale has always hovered around 300 or 400, says Farmers State Bank President & CEO Doug Hemphill, a member of the third generation of Hemphills to work at the Yale bank since his grandfather founded it in 1921.
The small-town culture, too, traces back decades. In 1931, two robbers robbed the bank of more than $4,500 – no small sum in those days. When they ran to a waiting, running get-away car parked a block away, they found it gone. Then-mayor Fred Brechbiel had seen the lonely vehicle idling on the street and parked it in his garage so no one would steal it. The robbers were caught and stood trial.
Railroads sustained the town through the 20th century, but now Yale faces the same problem small communities across the rural west are trying to resolve – how to keep young men and women in the community. Hemphill says that of his children, all three have left Guthrie County – one to Waukee, one to Ankeny and one to Rochester, Minnesota.
“It’s where the jobs are,” he says.
Yale doesn’t even seem to register on the hyper-sensitive radars of the presidential candidates. Neither Obama nor Richardson, making stops at 7,600-person Perry 20 miles to the northeast today, will drive the short distance down highway 144 to Yale. But that doesn’t mean these Yalies are left out of the primary.
“Don’t talk to me about the caucus,” Dorr says. “[The campaigns] are always calling. I hang up on the sons of bitches. I already know who I’m voting for, so it don’t make no difference.”
Politically, Yale doesn’t lean one way or the other. You might say the most important issue here is decency.
“When we have a mayoral election here, people don’t put signs up,” Hemphill explains. “And really, you’re lucky if there’s someone else [besides the incumbent] campaigning.”