Growing up in Shenandoah, Iowa

Do small towns or big cities provide a better place to live and raise a family?

We could discuss this question for decades and be no closer to an answer than we are when we discuss nature or nurture, or which came first: the chicken or the egg?

I can’t speak for those who grew up in sprawling, smog-covered, crime-filled, overcrowded, unfriendly, gang-infested, impersonal urban jungles, because I grew up in a quiet, peaceful small town in the heartland of America–Shenandoah, Iowa, population 5,546.

In fact, years ago when Life Magazine wanted to do a feature story for a special edition of their magazine called The Good Life, the feature story was Elm Street USA. Of all the cities and towns in America they could have picked, they chose Shenandoah, my homeMy home town town, as one of the towns in the Elm Street USA feature. My profile made it in one of the final photos in the feature. So, if anyone ever asks you if you know anyone who’s been in Life Magazine, you can tell them you do. Right there on page 60.

Growing up in Shenandoah was the good life. I can’t think of a better place I could have lived and grown up. We lived in a modest, middle class home in a quiet (when we weren’t outside playing) neighborhood full of good families and plenty of kids. We all knew each other, played together and went to school with each other. In fact, today, almost half a century later, I’m still in touch with a handful of folks I went to school with from kindergarten through all four years of high school.

What a life! When we were kids we played baseball all summer, in sandlots or on little league teams. Every kid had a bat and a glove and we expected every kid to play, and they all did. Then in the hot part of the afternoon we’d go swimming in the largest swimming pool (at the time) in Southwest Iowa. After a couple of hours in the pool we’d grab an ice cream cone at the Dome and ride our bikes home.

If we had time before supper we’d play some more baseball, or the sport in season. After supper, on many occasions, the kids and our dads would play wiffle ball together in our yard, or Larson’s yard next door. We played until it was too dark to see. ¬†Even then, we’d sometimes play in the intersection in front of our house under the street light.¬†Sometimes we’d ride our bikes across town and hang out with the Forest Park kids.

During winter nothing changed except the games. Since it was often freezing cold and we had plenty of snow (some years it started in October and was still on the ground in March and April) we took advantage of the elements. We built snowmen and snow forts. Throwing snowballs replaced throwing baseballs, and the name of the game was to hit more kids than hit you. The target for our snowball fights was always the face. If you could smack a kid in the face it was a bulls eye. When you got smacked in the face you got over the sting, but you could never let on that it hurt, though your cheeks were often on fire. No kid wanted a pansy label.

After heavy snows the city roped off a long, sloping block of West Summit and reserved it for sledders.

Slick streets also afforded us an opportunity to practice one of our favorite winter sports, hooking cars. After a snow we would wait for a day or so for the traffic to pack the snow in the streets. When the streets got slick we’d hide close to curbs. Then when a car drove by, we’d jump behind it and grab hold of the bumper. Sometimes we could ride the wave for a block or two. Of course you had to wear your leather-soled boots or shoes so you could glide across the packed snow or ice.

Drivers didn’t like us hooking their bumpers for some reason. Some of them stopped to chase us off. It took them awhile to slow enough to stop the car, and by the time they stopped, we were long gone. On those big gas-guzzlers back then we could cram 4 or 5 kids on a single bumper. A few of our dads and uncles let us tie our sleds to the back bumper of their cars and they drove us around town on the snow-packed streets. I didn’t say were were bright, just imaginative and adventurous.

One of our favorite inside games was nurf basketball. I spent more than a few afternoons in Chuck Offenburger’s bedroom playing nurf basketball. He had a hoop on the back of his bedroom door so we could play nurf one-on-one basketball and HORSE. We had to play in our socks (one of his mom’s rules).

When the weather turned nice in Spring and the snow melted, we poured back outside to get warmed up for summer. And when summer turned to fall, we played football, jumped into piles of leaves raked up by the neighbors, played football in the end zone at high school football games and rode our bikes.

It was a simple life. It was a safe life. It was an imaginative, creative, comfortable, carefree life. I’d do it over again without reservation. And I wouldn’t trade growing up in Shenandoah for the chance to grow up in any big city in the country.

Life Magazine, Vol 47, No. 26, December 28, 1959. pg. 60; photo by Michael Rougier

6 thoughts on “Growing up in Shenandoah, Iowa

  1. I brag about Shenandoah around the world…..

    I had a boss from NYC , he always said you meet more people from Shenandoah or somehow connected to Shenandoah than I do from my home town of New York!


  2. Shenandoah was a really special place to grow up in. My 3 best friends lived right next to me and we spent endless days and nights together on each other’s porches laughing and chatting when we weren’t out on our bikes riding around town. We never worried about being safe because other people’s parents were looking out for us. I cherish the friendships and the memories of that close knit community. How lucky we were!


  3. My adult children did not benefit from the great small town growing up experience that we did. They were never able to ride bicycles from one edge of their towns to the other. They never walked through the park to “summer story hour” at the library. When we moved to a Texas city where we thought they might have some freedom, a kidnapping forced them inside or to carefully-supervised activities. Shenandoah provided both safety and a wonderful education for hundreds of us. Thanks, Steve, for generating the memories! – roger


  4. It WAS wonderful back then. It was wonderful growing up on a farm close to Shenandoah also. I would never trade growing up on the farm for a house in town.
    I went to country school with Bruce Ketcham and Joyce Guthrie for 4 years before it closed and we were bused to town. I would never trade that experience for the world either.


    1. I remember a few other things–that I’m sure you do, too, Steve! I remember playing “ring the doorbell” and kick the can in Bill Leacox’s driveway! It was a great place to grow up and I am really looking forward to our class reunion in September.


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