Shenandoah [editorial of World-Herald, Omaha, Nebr]
submitted by: Sharon Becker -
World Herald, Omaha, Nebraska
Published Wednesday May 12, 2010

World-Herald editorial:

Shenandoah's sense of place

The Midlands' biggest cities have much to be proud of, but sometimes they could learn a thing or two from smaller communities.

Take the example of a notable community of 5,500 people tucked in the southwest corner of Iowa: Shenandoah.

Shenandoah has a long tradition of economic dynamism and vision, from the spectacularly successful seed-marketing empires of Henry Field and Earl May in the 20th century to the city's diversified manufacturing base in the 21st.

It would take a truly prideful and narrow-minded Omahan to visit Shenandoah's downtown and not be impressed. Attractively maintained streetscapes, building fa├žades and landscaping combine to express civic confidence. Many of the retail shopping opportunities are on a par with what one finds in far larger communities.

Perhaps most impressive of all, the downtown conveys one of the most valuable assets any community can have: a sense of place.

Take a stroll across the downtown and stop at various landscaped street corners, and you'll find plaques highlighting key aspects of the community's heritage -- the rail tradition, the musical tradition, the economic tradition, the educational tradition.

And, thanks to the suggestion of a former City Council member named Lee Gingery, Shenandoah's downtown features 90 Iowa-shaped sidewalk plaques, each noting the contributions of famous sons and daughters of the state.

Does any public space in Omaha feature anything comparable about local heritage, let alone statewide traditions? Sadly, no.

The sense of heritage in Shenandoah also comes through at the nearby Greater Shenandoah Historical Museum. The professionally curated exhibits and wide assortment of cultural artifacts explain fascinating stories about the old-time Mormon presence, stages in Shenandoah's community-building and the ever-changing nature of farm life.

Particularly notable is the museum's look at the impact Shenandoah had on this country's farm sector during the 20th century.

First was the seed-marketing success, as noted, of Shenandoah's vibrant nursery industry.

Second was Shenandoah's remarkable cultural impact, in several fascinating respects:

>> Farm-oriented radio. In the mid-1920s, Shenandoah started two of the first radio stations in America. Those successful stations -- one affiliated with Henry Field, the other with Earl May -- offered news and entertainment of direct interest to farm communities.

Field and May -- high-profile pitchmen for their products on their respective stations -- each won a national radio-industry award for their appealing on-air personalities.

In fact, Earl May's family played a significant part in Omaha's broadcast history. In the late 1940s, investment by the May family started one of Omaha's first TV stations, KMTV.

>> Live-music phenomenon. As part of their radio-station rivalry, Field and May each built a performance hall to provide live music on the air. Although those auditoriums are no more, in their day these radio programs pulled in top-flight performers from all over and were tremendously influential. They gave the start to the career of the Everly Brothers as well as bluegrass legend Bill Monroe (whose Shenandoah experience laid the groundwork for his later role in helping create Nashville's Grand Ole Opry).

>> Radio-homemaker tradition. Shenandoah was home to Leanna Field Driftmier, who had the longest-running homemaker show in radio history. Her Kitchen-Klatter program was a cultural phenomenon, branching out over the decades into an assortment of cookbooks. Even today, the homemaker-program tradition remains a significant part of Iowa culture.

Present-day city dwellers may look on that slice of cultural heritage as merely quaint, but the fact is that Driftmier's program -- as with the broadcasts of the two Shenandoah radio stations themselves -- played a huge role, day in and day out, in the lives of families across this region. In terms of their importance in everyday life, these programs were as powerful a part of culture for many rural residents in the 1920s and '30s as YouTube and Facebook are for folks in the present day.

In short, Shenandoah's cultural contributions were true Americana in its most important and admirable sense. That's one of the lessons that big-city folk can learn through a visit to Shenandoah: how important it is to have a sense of place.