116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CANTRIL — Lancaster, Pa., native Clair Zimmerman has fond childhood memories of Dutch Wonderland, an amusement park that caters to the pint-size set.
He’s created a very different Dutch wonderland in southeast Iowa — a huge general store that caters to pint-size and larger products, and so much more.
Dutchman’s Store takes up the east side of Cantril’s main street, Division Street. On Nov. 3, both sides were lined with cars from Iowa counties Clinton, Davis, Des Moines, Henry, Jefferson, Keokuk, Lee, Linn, Mahaska, Marion, Mills, Van Buren and Wapello, as well as Georgia, Illinois and Missouri.
“It’s a little Dutch Wonderland,” Zimmerman said with a laugh.
Now 59 and living in rural Cantril, at age 11, he moved with this family to this corner of southeast Iowa. They became part of a new Mennonite community springing up there and in northern Missouri, a stone’s throw away. Farmland was cheaper than out east, he said.
The agrarian life was all he knew growing up, then he started dating Virginia, who worked at a bulk food store. They married, but the store’s owners decided to close and move out of state.
“My dad felt since my wife knew some of the store things, maybe we ought to start a store, too,” Zimmerman said.
They were milking cows on their farm, and in 1983, opened Jordan’s Country Market in a two-door garage in Mount Sterling. Then the farm crisis hit.
“It squashed us over there and forced us off the farm,” he said. “So we went looking for a building where maybe we could put some groceries in again.”
He found that site in Cantril, a town he used to drive through, “and thought it was a nice little town,” he said. In November 1985, he bought a brick building on the town’s main street, reopened his business and renamed it Dutchman’s Store, in a nod to the family’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots and dialect.
Dutchman’s Store: 103 Division St., Cantril; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday; sales in person and online; dutchmansstore.com/
Milton Creamery: 202 East, Highway 2, Milton; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday; sales in person and online; miltoncreamery.com/
Villages of Van Buren County: Two hours southwest of Cedar Rapids; several routes to get there, but the quickest is via Highways 218 south, then west on county roads to Highway 2, depending on your destination; villagesofvanburen.com/
From that one store front, the business kept growing and the Zimmermans kept buying up adjoining buildings, tearing down one too dilapidated to repair and rebuilding on that spot, until the store now has about 23,000 square feet, with another 12,000 or 15,000 square feet in the warehouse out back.
“What brought us here was hard times,” he said. “If it wouldn’t have been for that, I always felt the Lord was leading us here. It wasn’t that we had big plans of coming here, it brought us here.
“So little by little, we grew out of our financial struggles. There wasn't any money at that time. In the early ’80s, things were tight everywhere, but it grew and it grew and it grew, and really kept growing, and we kind of grew with it.”
The enterprise has grown so much that a new site is under construction west of town, at the corner of Highway 2 and County Road Y64, with an entrance off each. That will give Amish customers who drive a horse and buggy an option other than pulling onto the highway.
The new space is carved out of 20 acres from a 175-acre farm Zimmerman bought. The site already has a barn, gravel base for a parking lot, and pond to capture runoff from the parking lot, will double the size of the current Dutchman’s Store. He expects to open in 2023. Once everything is moved, he said he may put a retail store in the downtown building.
"We've been greatly blessed and we sure have got nothing to complain about. I don't want to take any praise upon myself for being an individual and knowing all these things and knowing how to do something,“ said Zimmerman, who like many Mennonites, only completed eighth grade.
He did attend a public school for half a year in Memphis, Mo., which he described as ”culture shock“ after ”being used to a little private school.“ He and Virginia have four sons, three daughters, their spouses, and 31 grandchildren. They’re part of a Mennonite community with about 400 families and five church houses.
They have cars, electricity, phone and computers, but no televisions and radios. They also have their own system to control computer content. And they take care of their own. If someone falls on hard times or large medical bills, those who have the means to help out do so.
That philosophy carries over to the store.
“My biggest desire was to supply the customers with things they need and be of a service to them and give them the best price possible,” he said.
It takes a lot of people to make the wheels turn smoothly. Zimmerman, his wife, and sons Wilmer, Kevin and Kenneth run the business, with about 30 to 40 employees per day busily restocking shelves, staffing cash registers and doing other chores to keep things running smoothly. (A fourth son, Raymond Clair, is a partner in Zimmerman Manufacturing with Clair’s brother, Raymond.)
Past meets present
Walking into the store is like opening a portal to the past, with nods to the present sprinkled throughout.
One section is devoted to fabric and notions, and is especially popular with quilters. The next section stocks baby clothes, gloves, hats, books for all ages, from religious themed to Dick and Jane readers and Little Golden Books. Moving forward, shoppers will find sheets, socks, slips, undergarments, walking sticks and canes, shoes, boots, men’s felt and straw hats, jeans, work shirts, suspenders, overalls, kitchen towels and potholders, hankies and aprons. The list goes on and on: farm toys and semis, puzzles, crafts, dishware, canisters, utility knives, clocks, flashlights, sunglasses, candles and hand-tuned wind chimes.
Once you’ve wandered through the home goods, the space suddenly opens into a giant food market. Fresh fruit and vegetables, jams, syrups, honey butter, canning supplies, clear bags of flour, sugar, a rainbow of gelatin colors and flavors that look so pretty on the shelf, bulk spices and seasonings, bags upon bags of noodles, a cornucopia of retro candies, a huge frozen foods section, canned meats, deli meat and cheeses sliced to order, meat saws, grinders and slicers, natural soaps and laundry soaps, paper products, pedal tractors and little wagons with wooden slate sides just right for hauling kids and groceries.
But look closely, and you’ll find a few modern nods, like bags of Starbucks on the ground coffee shelves, boxed tea bags next to the loose leaf teas, boxes and bags of cereal, as well as Pella baked goods and meat — Pella Dutch alongside Pennsylvania Dutch. I even saw a lava lamp.
But you won’t find lots of fancy frills.
“That’s kind of our aim — to make sure we don't shy away from the thought of who we are and what we try to supply with,” Zimmerman said.
The emphasis is filling the needs of their conservative customers, as well as regular customers and tourists who seek out the store. Just don’t go there for the trappings of Halloween or commercial Christmas.
"We do separate ourselves from going too far out into things that might not be who are,” he said.
About six miles west on Highway 2 lies Milton, home to Milton Creamery, where you can peer through large windows to see workers making cheese. Visitors also can sample several types and flavors, and or course, buy some to go.
Like the Zimmermans, the Musser family moved to from Pennsylvania to Milton. Rufus and Jane Musser came to Milton in 1992, and during a one-day value-added dairy conference at the University of Wisconsin in 2000, they became enthralled with turning from milking cows to making cheese.
On May 8, 2006, their creamery made its first batch of cheese. They’ve won numerous awards for their product, especially their signature Prairie Breeze, and along with their son Rufus IV, aka Junior, source milk from local Amish dairy farmers.
Cantril and Milton are among the Villages of Van Buren County, where history comes to life. About two hours southwest of Cedar Rapids, the area packs a plethora of recreational, shopping, hiking and driving opportunities. But that’s another story …
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