Ask folks in Elkader what makes their town unique, and they’ll keep coming back to the river.
It’s the Turkey River, rolling through the heart of Elkader, flanking historic stone and brick buildings of its business district, flowing under the stocky stone bridge that connects the bisected town and providing power long ago to the original mills that put the town on the map in the 1840s.
But the Turkey isn’t always as picturesque and well-behaved as it was on July 25, when we took our Beyond City Limits tour to Elkader for Sweet Corn Days. We set up shop in Founders Park, green space that was once a residential neighborhood before the Flood of 2008 hit Elkader hard. Seven years later, the park is filled with food vendors, souvenir sellers and folks seeking some shade. On its outskirts, kids pedaled their hearts out trying to win a tractor pull trophy with parents and grandparents cheering them on.
Its Whitewater Park opened downtown on the river in 2014, and dozens of kayakers were camped out in a nearby park.
We found it to be a resilient community that welcomes its visitors while balancing all the elements that make a small community unique and appreciated, especially to families that have lived there for generations. Unlike some of our past stops on the tour, we found people who came to Elkader not for a festival but to experience the town itself. Sweet Corn Days was a bonus.
Residents we met are embracing the notion that they can be a strong, supportive community even if the makeup of the community includes new faces day in and out. That’s a unique element that isn’t found in all communities the size of Elkader, with a population of just more than 1,200 people.
There’s a lot going on. Elkader is home to a movie theater and an opera house that hosts theatrical productions. There’s the Jail House Inn, a jail converted into a bed-and-breakfast, and Schera’s Algerian-American Restaurant, a culinary homage to the town’s namesake, Abdelkader, an Algerian leader who fought French invaders in the 1830s and 40s.
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But like any small town, residents have ideas on how it could be better. More trails, more businesses, more affordable housing and, of course, more people, young people especially. Elkader, for all its attributes, lost 13 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 census counts.
But Elkader appears well-equipped to welcome new ideas and the possibilities of change. A town anchored in history isn’t standing still.
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