Time sure flies when you are having fun. When the new century turned back in 2000, the tiny northern Cedar County village of St. James took a blow. Saints Philip and James Catholic Parish, a mainstay of the community, was closed because there weren’t enough parish priests to go around. The closing of the parish and church devastated the families of St. James in a profound way.
Drought and poor farm prices were also hounding the family farmers around the area in those years. Folks were afraid of losing their way of life and their close-knit community. A bunch of farm women, each with their own talents, put their heads together, trying to find a way to pool resources and put their town back on the map.
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Violet Pinkelman, Louise Guy, Mary Rose Pinkelman, Vicky Koch and Jeanette Pinkelman had the idea of opening a farmers’ market and local store in the historic 1918 Saints Philip and James schoolhouse, offering quality, locally raised and crafted products for sale. They hoped local families could market their produce and wares through this new venture. They wanted folks to have a reason to come to St. James again, to visit the schoolhouse and their memories, and to connect in a very real way with the farm families living around the community.
That first season, they welcomed 16 vendors and used one room in the old parish schoolhouse. The second year, they had 32 vendors. By year three, they were up to 64 vendors.
Over time, they’ve had some help from folks at the Center for Rural Affairs and other groups, along with many of the ladies’ own family members. They came up with a sound business plan, and carried it through.
Fast forward 11 years, and the group is still going strong, having purchased the schoolhouse in 2003. They’ve put a ton of their prayers, sweat, and no doubt, tears, into the Marketplace. But they’ve lifted St. James out of sure obscurity and held it together through thick and thin.
Last weekend, our family visited the annual Marketplace Heritage Fest, which basically celebrates the rural culture of the area. There was rope making, blacksmithing, corn shelling and grading, log sawing and potato rolling. Don’t forget homemade ice cream and pies, spinners and weavers, bark carving, horse drawn wagon rides, basket weaving and music too. Heritage Fest is a combination of old time tractor show, heritage games, church harvest festival and concerts all rolled into one.
But it is also a celebration of community spirit that the ladies of St. James have kept burning for more than a decade. They are not the first such folks to want to save their little town. They won’t be the last either. Yet, what they have done in the face of adversity, meeting their challenges, working together, feeding from each other’s strength, is really what living and working in a rural community is all about. In many ways, they symbolize the best things about farm life and faith life.
I tip my hat to the farm women of St. James and their families for their creativity and courage. We can all learn a lesson about determination and the true meaning of community from their efforts. You can learn more about their project and activities by visiting their website at www.stjamesmarketplace.com. Be sure to watch www.nebraskafarmer.com and read our October print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at www.DatelineDrought.com.