Working Together in Minneola, a Small Town with Big Pride!
by Lynne Hewes
As the United States' economy begins its rebound after a long slump, stories of success, teamwork, and optimism replace some of the more depressing reports we've been hearing in the news for the last several years. The story of Minneola, Kansas, population 745, according to the 2010 census report, is a positive and inspirational story.
In a small town, it's common knowledge that "everyone knows everyone." Some people might find this disconcerting. After all, if everyone knows everyone, then it goes without saying that everyone is probably aware of everyone else's business too. For residents of Minneola, however, that's turned out to be a good thing.
The small-town atmosphere, in fact, is a huge reason many people have chosen to live and do business in Minneola in the first place.
Mayor Carol Sibley has spent most of her life in Minneola. When she was young, however, that was not her plan.
"I was sure I was not going to live here as an adult," she says.
Her life took her to Central Kansas, but she ended up back in the Minneola area and raised her children there. Eventually, feeling a need to become more involved, she ran first for city council, then for mayor.
"When I took office, there was a feeling in the air," she says. "I was new and we had four new council members that year. We had no clue what to do, but they were all business people and we wanted to make changes, to do things to improve our town."
The group started with a city cleanup of old properties; since then they've formed a town beautification committee, gotten grants to make improvements on Main Street, and they are currently working on a grant to create safe routes for children to walk to school.
"That one is very important to us," Sibley says. "On a daily basis 1,500 trucks pass through Minneola going north and south. Also, daily, 2,500 trucks pass through going east and west. That's just truck traffic. Many of our kids have to cross that highway on their way to and from school."
Sibley is proud of her town.
"It's a small-town atmosphere. Our Main Street is two blocks long," she says, "but we've got so much here: five churches who work well with each other, a seven-acre park with a shelter house about to be built by volunteer labor with money donated by the Girl Scouts, a new fire station, good medical care with a clinic, a hospital, and a long-term care facility. And then there's the glue that's at the center: our Home Town Market."
Minneola had had a grocery store off and on, but competition from large chain stores made it difficult for a local store to survive. Then, about three years ago, the town was left without a local grocery store. Residents faced a 40-mile round trip to the nearest grocery. That would change.
"About a year ago, "Sibley says, "something happened that revitalized community spirit here. At the time, we had no grocery store, no restaurant. Then people came together to create the Home Town Market. They sold shares for $50 each. Parents bought $50 shares for their children, so they could grow up owning a piece of Minneola's grocery store. There were over 100 investors. Their plan was to raise $150,000; then at that goal, an anonymous donor pledged to match more contributions up to $20,000."
The grocery store became, in Sibley's words, "the glue at the center of the community." Over 70 volunteers worked all winter, cleaning, painting, plumbing, putting in floors.
"An 80-year-old retired woodworker built all the cabinets," Sibley says. "There was bonding, a feeling of teamwork. People developed a feeling of pride, of friendship. 'What are we going to do now?' they said when their work was over and the market was ready for business."
Located on Main Street, Home Town Market is overseen by a board of seven citizen/shareholders. It's operated by Lonnie Patrick and his family. Patrick had lived in Sublette, but moved to Minneola for the opportunity.
"I was their Schwan's man," he says. "I made deliveries here and already knew everybody by the time we moved to town."
Patrick is obviously proud of the community store and of his new hometown. The store is clean, well lighted, cheerful, with products all faced front. In addition to grocery items, Main Street Floral has a home near the front of the building. There's a Charley Briggs Chicken at the back, with daily specials and hamburgers and chicken. Patrick has most to say about his old-fashioned butcher shop, however.
"We have great meat--choice beef and pork," he smiles, "and fajitas to die for. We sell 200-300 pounds of fajitas [seasoned beef with green peppers and onions, ready for cooking at home] every week."
In the front window Patrick has set up three tables with chairs so people can sit, talk, eat and drink, and look out over pots of geraniums to see what's going on on Main Street.
"It's a place where people come to visit and catch up with each other," he says. "And when they're not visiting, they're helping unload trucks on the days we get deliveries. Everybody helps everybody else. It's a wonderful town."
Also enjoying the town are Jude Hessman and her husband Brian Johnson, who, about a year ago, opened a café at 215 East Elm. They call it A Better Lunch.
"It's all about the people here," Hessman says. "We were looking for a place to open a restaurant, and the Big Daddy's Pizza building was for lease. Since we opened, everyone has been so great that we just consider them all family."
Hessman, who grew up in and around Dodge City, spent many of her grown-up years in South Dakota. She came back to live on her father's farm after he had some health concerns. She and Johnson had worked together in a trucking business, and, as Johnson says, "We spent a lot of time eating in restaurants and we knew what we liked and what we didn't."
Hessman knew she loved to cook and to feed people.
"Everything here is homemade," she says. "I even make my own marinara sauce for our homemade pizza. We have daily specials like Bob's Best BBQ Beef Sliders (the barbeque sauce is my dad's recipe from when he ran a store in Texas in 1957), smothered steak, a supreme nacho meal—all include salad bar, drink and dessert. I've always loved to cook, and I don't like to compromise on quality. We don't even own a microwave. I just get excited when everyone smiles when you hand them a plate, and then they leave rubbing their bellies."
Hessman and Johnson decided to offer their home-style meals at flat-rate pricing.
"We didn't like going somewhere where they offered a full meal for $20, then, by the time they added drinks, dessert, and taxes, the bill was twice that," Johnson says. "So when you come in here, you know upfront that you'll get your meal, everything—food, drinks, even the taxes—for the price listed on our menu."
The café seats 48, but Hessman and Johnson also do advance-orders and catering, offering barbeque, pasta salad, fruit, and desserts.
"I make my own rolls, cinnamon rolls and bierocks," Hessman says.
Johnson smokes ribs, chicken, pork, and briskets for customers.
"I had my first big brisket challenge the other day," he smiles. "It went very well."
A Better Lunch is open Monday – Saturday, from 11:00 A.M. until 8:00 P.M. Hessman often comes in to work at 4:30 a.m. Johnson shows up around noon, allowing Hessman to go home after lunch, but he stays after closing to clean up.
"Sunday is our only day off, and even then I spend several hours planning menus or working on orders after church," Hessman says. "We pretty much eat, sleep, breathe the café, but we want to grow, to expand. In fact, we're hoping that someday Larry Hatteberg will come see us. We got excited when he hit "like" on our FaceBook page!"
Fredric Rooney is another example of hometown enthusiasm. Rooney operates his own insurance business in town and also manages apartments for the Minneola Housing Authority. He grew up in Minneola but lived for 20 years in Los Angeles before returning home three years ago.
"A small town is great to grow up in," he says. "It's hard to get into any real trouble in a town like this."
Was it culture shock to return after living in a big city?
"It's kind of like riding a bicycle," Rooney says. "When I came back, I still knew a lot of people here. In fact, everybody knows everybody else, and people keep an eye out for their neighbors. If someone seems to be missing, 'there are inquiries made,'" he adds with a smile. "We once had a tenant call because he hadn't seen one of his neighbors in two days. 'She never leaves her car here when she goes out of town,' he said. He wanted someone to check on her. As it turned out, she had just gone to visit a relative—and she did leave her car here."
Another Southwest Kansas native who once lived in a big city has ended up opening her own business in Minneola. Jenny Clevenger runs Pike Insurance on Main Street.
"I grew up in Ashland," Clevenger says, "and then lived in Des Moines. Now we live in Bucklin and I drive to Minneola for work. I like the quiet small town where everyone looks out for everyone else."
Clevenger found her Main Street building available to rent, then bought it. She's usually busy, her phone ringing and people coming in to talk about insurance needs.
"It's a nice place to do business and for families," she says. "I started the business from the ground up, and my son used to ride his tricycle up and down the sidewalk in front here. Everyone knows Jack. This is a good community for families."
It's a good community for people whose families have grown too, as Brian Roland, Administrator of Minneola District Hospital, can attest.
"Our health care here is second to none," he says. "We have a 36-bed nursing home for long-term care, a clinic, and an 18-bed hospital."
Roland is originally from Wisconsin, then lived in Texas before coming to Minneola.
"I like the people here," he says. "I'm proud of the compassion of our doctors. We have a great staff. I had been here before, then left. The staff brought me back. We help each other. We all wear different hats. For example, I'm CEO of the hospital and also administrator of the nursing home."
The hospital's motto is "Caring today for a healthier tomorrow."
"We may be a small town," Roland says, "but we offer a lot of services, such as surgeries, deliveries, and we have a strong physical therapy department."
Jack Woods is branch manager of Centera Bank on Main Street. He arrived in 2007, moved to Dodge City for two years, then returned to Minneola in 2010.
"We're excited about keeping the town going," Woods says. "The people here are fantastically friendly people."
Woods agrees that friendship, teamwork, and community involvement are key.
"The community jumped in to start up our new grocery store; people donated money. We're seeing more of that happen because it's hard to compete with some of the big stores in Dodge City. In Minneola, we found out that people were interested in having their own store here and were willing to back it up."
Woods says the economy is strong in the area, especially with recent additional income from the oil and gas industry and from wind farm interest in the area.
"We just put up a new fire station, and, within the last ten years, we've built a new high school connected to our grade school," he said. "We've got a great baseball team. Things are looking good. I've thoroughly enjoyed being back here."
Things do look good for Minneola. Though small now, there's potential for growth.
"Main Street is fairly full. Many of the businesses have been here for some time. There's still some housing available," Woods says, "but it's somewhat limited. We could use more housing."
Mayor Carol Sibley agrees.
"The city would like to see more housing," she says. "We have areas with lots for sale, lots with infrastructure already in place, so this is a good spot to draw contractors in. Minneola is a good town for investors."
Optimistic investors have already begun to find their way into town. One is Alfred Rathod, from Los Angeles, who drove through town a year ago, spotted a motel for sale, and snapped it up.
"Super 54 Motel has 15 units, and I want this business to be full," he says. "I'm working on renovation of each unit, and as more money comes in, I invest it in this property. It's a nice place to stay. The rooms are nice, clean, and quiet—and economical."
Also starting up a new business are Nick and Linda Mead, who, with their young children Vincent and Lulani, operate L and M Truck Stop at the junction of Highways 283 and 54.
"My dad was our financial backer," Linda Mead says, "and we're hoping to expand our business—add showers, a lounge for truckers—make it a true truck stop."
This year in May Minneola celebrated "The Wonderful Years of Minneola," a community day celebration of their 125 years as a town. Festivities included a parade down Main Street, 5K and fun runs, mud volleyball, activities for children, and the opening of a 25-year-old time capsule.
"There is a lot of interplay in the community," says Sibley. "Everyone had fun. We were excited about the time capsule. Some people had even written letters to their grandchildren, and those letters were in the capsule."
Whether a native Kansan or transplant from another state, citizens in Minneola enjoy their town, its potential for growth, and its friendly atmosphere.
One transplant to Minneola is Dan Bartel, pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church on the corner of Locust and Maple. From North Carolina, Bartel says he sees in Minneola a different mindset, different challenges, from people he worked with in more urban areas.
"There's a different kind of beauty here," Bartel says. "Instead of trees and lakes, we can see the sunset and the sunrise, we enjoy the horizons, we meet salt-of-the-earth people. There's a richness here of people."