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How a small town decided to rebuild

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The Great Depression didn’t hit Spencer, Iowa, until the mid-1930s, but the farm town had already faced something worse.

On June 27, 1931, an 8-year-old playing with sparklers accidentally dropped one on a display of fireworks outside Otto Bjornstad’s drugstore. Over the course of the afternoon, 14 nearby towns sent fire equipment and men, but water pressure was so low that the river had to be pumped into the mains.

By the end of the day, 36 buildings—more than half of Spencer’s businesses—were destroyed.

Things looked grim for the northwestern Iowa enclave east of Sioux City and Sioux Falls. “Out here,” says the town’s librarian, Vicki Myron, “towns die.”

Spencer’s leaders quickly decided not to reveal the child’s identity. “We’re in this together,” their thinking went. “Let’s not point a finger. Let’s fix the problem.”

Two days later, Myron says, a commission met to plan a new downtown that would be as modern as they could make it. Based on what they’d seen in Chicago, Minneapolis and Kansas City, the town fathers fixed on a practical Prairie Deco style of low-slung brick storefronts.

Some 70 years later, Spencer is still modernizing, with an airport and two golf courses.

“It’s not flashy. It doesn’t show off. It suits us,” says Myron. “This is a downtown that works.”

— Adapted from Dewey, Vicki Myron with Bret Witter, Grand Central Publishing.

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