People & Places

Fundraising abounds on Day 5 of RAGBRAI trek across Iowa

Money raised for new fire station, church windows and ball diamond upgrades

James Lamgo scrambles eggs for RAGBRAI riders at the Breakfast Delight tent in Ionia, Iowa, Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Brandon Pollock, Courier Staff Photographer)
James Lamgo scrambles eggs for RAGBRAI riders at the Breakfast Delight tent in Ionia, Iowa, Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Brandon Pollock, Courier Staff Photographer)

IONIA — David Swenunson has been mayor of Ionia for 42 years. But the head of the self-proclaimed “Little Town with a Big Welcome” doesn’t remember much of when the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa came to town 40 years ago.

“I was younger back then,” Swenunson said.

He does, however, remember it wasn’t nearly the size of the statewide bike ride that descended upon his town on Thursday.

“There were probably only five, 6,000 people” on the RAGBRAI 40 years ago, he said. “This is just a zoo.”

Swenunson wasn’t complaining, however. There was a line out the door of the Ionia Fire Station for Chris Cakes pancakes, with proceeds going toward paying for a new fire station.

They weren’t the only ones raising needed funds. The Ionia Church of Christ needed about $4,000 for new windows, said church board member, RAGBRAI committee member and city clerk Donna Geertz.

“It’s very overwhelming, because I didn’t think it would be like this,” Geertz said as she watched hundreds of riders walk their bicycles through Ionia’s downtown. “We were happy to be the first community.”

Ionia was the first pass-through town for the Thursday leg of RAGBRAI as riders made their way from Charles City to Cresco.

“We’re lucky, ’cause of the weather,” Geertz said.

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No rain hampered riders on Thursday, something Jeb Boyt of Austin, Texas, said he appreciated as he rode with Team Livestrong.

“What’s not to like? Cool weather, good food, nice people,” Boyt said as he began the next leg of the ride.

In New Hampton, the “meeting town” of the day, riders could play a game of non-alcoholic beer pong to benefit the Chickasaw Athletics Booster Club. The club was hoping to raise enough to pay for ball diamond renovations.

“If we could raise even $500, we’d be happy,” said Booster Club President Diane Fitzgerald.

But it was more than just the money.

“We had no idea what to expect, but it’s been a lot of fun,” she said.

Across the street, piglet squeals drew curious onlookers at the Relay for Life booth, where a donation to the American Cancer Society allowed people to hold and snap a photo with a three-week-old piglet from Lynch Livestock.

The piglets are a guaranteed hit, said Norma Hackman, a volunteer with the Waucoma-based Relay for Life chapter. In the past five years, the piglets have earned them $120,000 toward cancer research.

She advised people to hold the piglets like a human baby so they wouldn’t squeal in distress, but admitted their squeals brought more people to the booth.

“We hope for them to squeal a little,” she said.

In the absence of piglets, Turkey Valley students had to make their own noise to attract riders in Lawler. Seventh- and eighth-grade students dressed in costumes, chanted and waved “turkey tacos” signs to riders to help raise money for a school trip to Washington, D.C.

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Curt Franzen wasn’t making any noise. But plenty of people were streaming into his Starlite Ballroom anyway because of a sign advertising “air conditioning.”

“We put air in here eight or nine years ago, and it’s been here since 1939,” Franzen said, adding that he “cranked it” in anticipation of a crush of people.

A rider told Franzen he remembered getting into a fight in the ballroom’s basement, which used to play disco music while live bands played on the main floor. He wanted Franzen to show him the basement to check if his old bloodstains from 1964 were still there.

“It was comical to hear that,” Franzen said.

In Protivin, there were other kinds of fights happening — with water hoses. The Protivin Fire Department helped pairs of riders spray dual fire hoses at a suspended barrel on a wire. Each was trying to push the barrel to the other’s side.

But the big draw in the day’s last pass-through town was “pivo” — the Czech word for beer.

When riders got their fill, they ended the day with a 12-mile ride to Cresco, where they would spend the night in one of several campsites or with friendly residents like Janet Andera, who has lived across from the Kessell Lodge since 1964. Hundreds of campers had pitched tents across from her house and would undoubtedly spend the night partying, though Andera didn’t mind.

Though she turns 80 this year, Andera said she has ridden a bicycle up until last year, when she wrecked and cut her eye.

“I’d have to do a lot of training,” she said.

Being an older rider didn’t faze Barry Wiener from New York City (“No relation to Anthony,” he said), who last rode RAGBRAI 43 years ago and turns 70 this year.

“I’m at the age where my body makes more noise than my bike,” Wiener said.

But he said he might ride again if he can convince his wife to ride again with him.

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“It’s really terrific, and it’s such a cult thing outside the state,” he said.

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