This Southeast Kansas Town Beat Rural Decline And Now Hopes To Bounce Back From The Coronavirus
Humboldt, Kansas, was an example of a Midwestern town that had overcome the Great Recession and a loss of population by improving the quality of life in town with community pitch-in projects.
HUMBOLDT, Kansas — It might not be growing in population, but Humboldt in Allen County is one Kansas town that has defied the odds in other ways.
Drive around town and there is a coffee shop, a frame shop, a working 19th-century cabinet shop that makes high-end furniture, a shaved ice shop, a candy shop and four restaurants. As 2020 dawned, a family restaurant with a microbrewery and a new grocery store was in the offing, along with more building and construction, more businesses coming to town.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a force that’s been devastating to small businesses across the country. Although Allen County hadn’t recorded a case through the end of May, it was covered by the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order. City offices and retail shops closed. Restaurants adapted to delivery and carryout orders. A cruise night — where town residents piled into cars and cruised streets – boosted morale.
But the bills didn’t stop coming. Unemployment, which once sat at around 3% jumped to 8.5% in Allen County by April, according to the state Department of Labor. That’s lower than the statewide average of 11.2% but the worst Allen County has seen since the Great Recession.
By early June, with the state’s reopening picking up pace, some businesses had opened while others hoped to reopen soon. The long-term consequences, though, remain unclear.
“It’s hard to know the answer – we may have to look back in a year, or five, for the real perspective,” says Cole Herder, Humboldt’s city administrator. “For now, everyone is dealing with it in their own way.”
Humboldt is no stranger to weathering tough times. Less than two decades ago, those 100-year-old-plus buildings that have starred in the city’s renaissance were vacant, locked and had paper covering their front windows.
A recession was coming.
The locally owned newspaper, the Humboldt Union — Kansas’ longest continuously running newspaper, which began publishing in 1864 — had closed. The grocery store was on the verge of closing. A local official had been caught embezzling city funds.
Sidewalks and streets were crumbling.
The town’s population had plummeted from a heyday of 2,500 residents to 1,953 in 2010 and seemed headed in the wrong direction.
And that’s when things began to go right.
It was in late 2007 when the community held a town meeting at the local library.
“I told my wife that I was going to go to this meeting they are having,” Herder says. “They are having this consultant come and talk to us about the future. As soon as I start hearing negative comments, I am getting up and leaving.”
Herder stayed and went on to become city administrator.
The town’s Growth Committee had invited consulting firm Public Square Communities to address residents. Herder says that at first, the participants talked about what was wrong with Humboldt. But the consultants insisted they also appreciate and embrace what was right.
“Humboldt has been like every other rural community in Kansas — or America, for that matter,” Herder says. “We had been on the decline for decades.”
In that meeting, Terry Woodbury, the founder of Public Square Communities, encouraged Humboldt to look to and develop all four sectors of its community – business, education, government and human services.
It was a pivotal moment.
“We were losing the battle in the early 2000s,” Herder says. “We were down. It took a lot of time and volunteers to come together with a common vision.”
They made a point to work across sectors and involve community establishments. In their search for agents of change, one family in particular not only took an interest but took risks to make investments in the town and its people.
Humboldt became a town intent on thriving.
How Angels Stepped In
Two years after that town meeting, Humboldt got national exposure when NBC’s Lester Holt did a “Making a Difference” segment on the town.
By then, the Great Recession had hit. Joe Works, a founder of B&W Trailer Hitches, one of the town’s largest employers, had a growing inventory of trailer hitches. People weren’t buying. Rather than lay off employees and create more hardship within the community, he kept paying them.
Their new line of work was civic improvement.
It started with workers putting up bleachers for the Allen County Fair, then they moved on to painting churches and working on a new ball field.
“And when they ran out of work, Joe says, ‘Now what do we do?’” Herder says. “He realized these people had been doing mission work and helping other people. He was careful to not have them do work for private people or businesses. It was for the public. He said, ‘Let’s pay them to work on their own homes, and we’ll buy the materials — and if they need help, if there is someone else who needs something to do on their home, they can help their co-worker.’”
It was an all-out effort to improve the quality of life.
And although Joe Works, 71, typically does not say much to the media, his son Josh Works, 38, now one of the leaders of a thriving Humboldt, will.
Josh Works is a member of the fifth generation of a family that began farming near Humboldt in 1857. All were farmers until the 1980s, when Joe Works picked up a second job as a welder. Soon, he and a fellow welder, Roger Baker, began making custom truck beds equipped with their Turnoverball gooseneck hitch, a design that became the company’s bread and butter.
“It was tremendously successful and enabled us to invest in the community and repair these old buildings whose roofs have failed,” says Josh Works. His creativity and energy might only be matched by his taste for fine coffee. His coffee shop – the Octagon City Coffee Co., inside the Humboldt Mercantile – is also where residents brew up ideas.
As the good works continued in Humboldt, town residents began to rethink how they viewed their community.
Up until then, Humboldt was perhaps best known as being sacked twice by Confederate sympathizers in the opening months of the Civil War. More recently it gained fame as the hometown of Biblesta — an annual production that’s been going for six decades and features the world’s largest Bible-themed parade.
“But then, Lester Holt did a story on Dad and B&W and how they handled business during the recession and keeping employees at work,” Works says.
The national exposure helped fuel more good works, and the town’s newspaper, with new owners, began operating again.
“I feel like our family has a legacy of investing and being a part of the community,” Josh Works says. “I never felt compelled by the legacy, but I feel it is our nature.
“We like building things, designing things. And I want to live in a town that is functional and thriving. We are not going to wait around for someone else to do it. So we roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.”
Joe Works challenged his four children – Tony, Beth Barlow, James and Josh – to do as he did. It took a while, but they all came on board. They created the organization A Bolder Humboldt and envisioned what a Humboldt of the future could look like. Its members have been challenged to develop the buildings that Joe Works bought around the square. One of its other projects, a trailhead and connecting path to the Southwind Rail Trail, late last year received more than $1 million in cost-sharing money from the Kansas Department of Transportation.
When Josh Works and his wife, Jessa, graduated from Kansas State University, they sold most of their belongings and purchased an Airstream trailer to travel nationwide. The two worked remotely in graphic design and web development to support themselves.
“The remote work enabled us to choose where we would live; we lived on the road,” Josh Works says.
For nearly four years, they visited state and national parks, explored trendy shops and humble hamlets.
“So, all through that travel we were sizing up places and figured out where we would want to put new roots,” Josh Works says. They returned to Humboldt in 2014.
Jessa Works says, “In retrospect, I feel what I learned was that of all the places we went to and saw and had experiences in — all have a lot in common. Humboldt is not all that different than everywhere else. When we came back home and saw all the empty businesses around the square, we would have that discussion, ‘Why don’t we have those things here? What would it be like if we had those things?’”
The Challenges and Gains
In October 2016, a storm with 100 mph winds damaged two buildings around the square and several others elsewhere in town. The owners of the old Cozy Theater building, which once had been a Ben Franklin store, were an elderly couple living in Oklahoma City. They planned on razing the structure — but Joe Works stepped in and stabilized the building, then he bought and renovated others around the square.
A few months later, the local Pizza Hut closed.
Humboldt Mayor Nobby Davis, who owns Opie’s Pizza & Grill in Chanute, knew a restaurant was needed, so he opened an Opie’s in his hometown.
“Now, we have an amazing new restaurant in a prominent place on the town square that was destined to be a weedy, gravel parking lot,” Herder says.
Using its antique machinery, Neosho Valley Woodworks manufactures furniture and millwork while serving as a woodworking museum. The shop’s open gears and belts make it the only one of its kind in Kansas, according to owner Pat Haire.
When the new Opie’s needed tables, booths and a buffet, it turned to Haire.
The renovation of the old theater building also allowed Stacy Cakes, an upscale baker of cookies, pies, cakes and cupcakes next door, to remain in place.
“One of the reasons we started the Mercantile is that we know there is a culture of craftsmanship and making here without a retail presence,” Josh Works says. “We hope to make partnerships with people who are making interesting things.”
Beth Barlow, Josh’s sister, has renovated the old Lee Jewelry building, turning it into Bijou Confectionary.
In addition, something had to be done about the city’s crumbling sidewalks.
Both B&W and the Monarch Cement Co. have taken on rebuilding 10 blocks of downtown sidewalks using their own employees and materials.
Community members reached out to Humboldt High School alumni in a fundraising effort to replace the city’s streetlights with stylish, ornate, acorn-style lights. Building facades installed in the 1960s and 1970s to “modernize” the look of Humboldt were removed to allow the architecture of the 19th-century buildings to shine once again.
The dilapidated City Square Park Bandstand was renovated. Since 2014, it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places.
The upside of revitalization isn’t always observable. The city has built up cash reserves. And a sales tax was passed to help with some of the projects.
“When I started, our city funds were extremely low, and we were close to being broke,” Herder says. “We hadn’t raised (utility) rates in years.”
But will the pandemic take the wind out of the community’s sails? So far, the answer appears to be “no.”
COVID-19, Herder says, “will no doubt hurt businesses in the area, especially small businesses. Retail shops (have) closed, and restaurants adapted to delivery and pickup orders. Rent, utilities, and other expenses continue.”
Plans for the town’s new grocery store were impacted — but not halted.
“In the past month, the new owners have dug in and kept working hard to see their dream through and are making progress, again,” Herder says.
B&W furloughed employees for two weeks on March 19, then extended that time. The company kept paying its 400 workers in full, prior to any announcement of federal stimulus.
“This is a phenomenal commitment to the safety and financial well-being of their employees, their families and the community,” Herder says. “Some employees worked from home and a few performed critical functions at the plant.”
Many employees returned to work in late April.
In the meantime, B&W and Monarch are finishing the last two blocks of their 10-block streetscape project. The Southwind Trail Campground has three new cabins and a bike barn in progress.
Prior to the pandemic, the number of jobs, median household income and median property values were all increasing. The school district, Humboldt USD 258, has 600 students, of which 20% come from other school districts, Herder says.
Each year Herder addresses graduating high school seniors and presents them with mailboxes in the school’s colors – black boxes with orange lettering. Each box has the student’s name and “Humboldt, Kansas” stenciled in orange letters.
Inside, there is an invitation.
“We need people,” Herder says.
“I make an appeal. We want to be an option. We tell them to go get an education, go get some experience and work someplace. And then, when the time is right or every time you make a decision, ask yourself, ‘What’s next? What’s the fork in the road?’ Then, put Humboldt on one of those forks and say, ‘Is this the right time to come back?’”
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