It was just before dusk on a Sunday afternoon when a caravan of student journalists rolled into Lime Springs, Iowa. Lime Springs is almost indistinguishable from any other fading boomtown with its tumbled down stores, antique shops and 100-year-old brick-and-mortar row house. While the town is reminiscent of Middle American stereotypes, it is like a piece of paper that has faded from the sun’s rays. The dilapidated buildings, whose only visible inhabitants were birds, were cast under a blanket of silence.
A small tavern called KCD’s, with its glass block façade, is no more than a five-minute walk from either end of the vacant main strip. Inside the dimly lit bar, the knotty pine paneled walls are adorned with Vikings apparel, most likely because the Minnesota border is almost in spitting distance. In a timeworn town, it was no surprise that the clientele of KCD’s were in their later years. The three women sitting at the end of the bar looked as if they belonged at Sunday church; yet, they were ordering cherry bombs and drinking Bud Lites. The bartender, Vickie Ator, 61, was referenced as “mom,” as if the ladies had known one another their entire lives.
The three engaged in casual conversation, jokingly bad mouthing each other with years of friendship behind the stories. Elsbeth Richter, 93, sipped on a Bud.
“My vote don’t count anymore,” said Richter, who stayed home on election day. Ator, listening, interjects: “If you didn’t vote, you can’t b-tch!” She voted for Donald Trump after 40 years of choosing Democrats.
At the other end of the bar, Brian Jessen, 41, sips on a rum and coke as he watches the Vikings/Cardinals game. In a town where Trump was the victor, Jessen not only voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary but also wrote his name in the general election.
“Bernie had held to his principles during his many years of service,” said Jessen. “I voted for Bernie for that reason and in the process accidentally helped Trump.”
In this bar, anti-establishment fever reigns. Whether it’s a write-in for Bernie or a flip for Trump – or in the case of the elderly women at the end of the bar, no vote at all – people in this town and place don’t trust government, don’t trust politicians, don’t like the media and just plain out hate Clinton.
“She’s a liar, they caught her lies, everybody lies. She’s just evil,” said Ator.
As a result of the dire economic conditions of this area, where years ago there was a movie theater and John Deere plant but today there’s little more than Vicki’s bar, people were longing for change. Lime Springs is not alone; it’s a few counties over from the Mississippi River Valley, and it’s located in a county that flipped for Donald Trump by the largest percentage in the country (42%), according to CNBC’s map of counties that flipped. This county is part of a region around the river that stands out because of the number of clustered counties that switched allegiances to the billionaire from New York, funneling their economic hopes into his outside, anti-establishment character. Even people like Jessen who voted for Bernie are part of the final story of what cost Hillary Clinton the White House; she could not overcome the dual phenomenon of Trump flippers and lack of enthusiasm from people who went third party, wrote someone in or sat out, but slightly preferred Clinton over Trump.
“People are getting tired of working; you know, what used to be a 40-hour week and now it takes 60-80 hours a week,” said Lime Springs Mayor Kevin Bill, who works on an 800-acre farm and used to own a bar/restaurant. As with many people in these towns, he holds positions in civic life (he’s also on the airport commission), which seems incongruent with the hatred for government.
“There is a lot people who are just too lazy to go get a job, it’s easier to sit at home and collect a paycheck.”
Over her five decades, Ator, who was born and raised in Lime Springs, has watched its steady decline. Ator has owned KCD’s tavern for nine years. She is the daughter of a farmer who was also a gas station owner. She said the town has changed drastically from the days she spent working with her father.
“This used to be a booming town to grow up in. You couldn’t find a place to park in Lime Springs because it was so busy and wild,” said Ator.
Almost 45 years ago, there was a John Deere equipment store that brought jobs to the now decaying town. Ator was reminiscing about an era when jobs were abundant, a time when even a small town of 500 such as Lime Springs had a movie theater. Back in the day, Ator was not only a farmer, but also a welder. While she did attend a university, she dropped out after two years.
“Nobody liked Hillary so they went to Trump,” said Ator.
Ator did not decide between the two parties, but between the two candidates. In the primaries, she voted for Bernie Sanders, leaving her vote to sway towards Trump when Clinton was chosen to represent for the Democrats. She deviated from her dad and nephew and voted for Trump.
“She’s a liar. It was just her,” said Ator.
Something that stood out in this election, much like this town, was that she was not looking for a politician. She emphasized that was something everyone wanted; change. There are not a lot of jobs in town and the entrepreneur, Donald Trump, promised security and growth to small towns like Lime Springs. It wasn’t that Ator didn’t want a female president, she isn’t bothered by a female president, but she is not going to vote for Hillary “just because she is a female. “
“Just like how can I be called a racist for voting for Trump when I voted for Obama?” said Ator.
Ator says that she is hopeful that Trump changes everything.
Lime Springs was named after a spring that continues to produce fresh water today. Historically, most of the jobs in town are related to agriculture. The historical site of the Lidtke Mill is known for its buckwheat flour that used to provide 100 barrels of flour a day. Besides being known for agriculture, Welsh heritage is deeply seeded in the community in an otherwise Norwegian and German dominated region.
“There has not been any significant growth in Howard County at all,” said Mayor Bill.
Howard County’s population estimates 9,410 in 2015. The unemployment rate has declined since Obama’s two terms in office, yet Howard County has one of the lowest weekly wages in the entire state, averaging about $642 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Labor force is increasing as the wages are continuing to stay low.
“There’s work out there, it might not be a career, but there’s work out there,” said Mayor Bill.
The Bernie Write-In
Jessen, a husband and a father of two young daughters, moved to Lime Springs in hopes of raising his family in a small town. Fourteen days a month, Jessen is responsible for running the majority of data transferred through Southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa, including government, hospital, and cell phone communications. With a 75-hour work week, he is usually on call. When cities shut down in the middle of the night, it is Jessen’s duty to restore service. With long and odd hours, Jessen likes to find a place like KCD’s to decompress and let his personal thoughts run their distance.
Jessen was so passionate about Bernie Sanders that he became a delegate in the primary. He said it was the first time he was involved with a party.
“While many called him crazy, few recognized him as false,” said Jessen. “I really dislike that I had to be part of the problem, but I couldn’t vote for someone I didn’t trust.”
Jessen said his neighbors and quite a few of his friends voted for Trump. In order to avoid conflict, Jessen said that he feels he has to pretend he is a Trump supporter. He said that he is in the middle of moving to a new job where his soon-to-be co-workers are Trump supporters.
“I’m playing the freakin’ game with them to make sure that they are going to sign off on me being hired,” said Jessen. “I’m not going to pick a fight with people that have the ability to make or break my future going forward.”
While some parents keep their children out of the election, Jessen says he wanted his daughter to be informed and know exactly what was going on in the world. Jessen said that the outcome of the election was hardest for his daughter, Piper, whose best friend is from Mexico.
“My daughter woke up after the election and immediately started sobbing,” said Jessen. “Her whole world is her best friend.”
For Jessen, the outcome of the election was equally upsetting. He said that he thought Trump drained the swamp, but he filled it with crocodiles.
“To support somebody who so blatantly has disregard for so many things that I consider key to being a human being,” said Jessen. “I struggle with that.”