A grain elevator, bank, repair shop, and handful of houses are all that meet the eye of the casual passerby. On the map, the town of Cleves, Iowa is nearly forgotten. Surrounded by cornfields, it is not the pulsating center selected by tourists. The grocery store is gone. The railroad is no more. A cursory glance reveals nothing of interest to be seen. Where is its secret?
It seems little could be hidden in a town with only two streets. We visit the elevator: there are impressive new grain bins, but the secret is not there. A man in well-worn overalls steps out of Ag Machinery; here we might find a clue. We walk in, searching for the answer. Here the locals sit, sipping steaming cups of coffee, crunching on peanuts, and sharing the latest news about the crops and the weather. Although their conversation seems superficial, these are the men who guard the secret of Cleves.
Forty years ago, we hear, a man with a cutting torch robbed the bank. Who he is no one knows. He may have taken his secret to the grave, or he could be in this very room. That's the mystery of the town, but not the secret that I found.
The secret of Cleves is the heart of the town. It's a love for the land, a joy in the mundane, and a faith in the God who never fails to water the crops with spring rains. Here the things that matter are not the glamour of the city. What matters is life: the cattle, the corn, and the grandkids.
The secret I found in Cleves is the foundation on which the world survives. It's the beauty of a place that can be called home, unacclaimed but never forgotten. It's the charm of a place whose last crime is forty years old*. Far from the cynosure with its spontaneous and ephemeral attractions, Cleves offers a peaceful haven. Once, many a small town seemed forsaken, forgotten; but now I know that each has a heartbeat way down and a secret yet to be found.
*Update: I hate to ruin such a beautiful story, but a journalist must be true to her trade. Unfortunately since this article was written Cleves has had a potato chip stealing crime wave. Ag Machinery (Lonny's, as we call it) will stop providing chips on the honor system at a dollar a bag unless the crime wave stops.
End Potato Chip Thievery!