The Fairfield Ledger. May 21, 2004

PASSION FOR SMALL TOWNS

The Institute for Small Town Studies begins its life in a downtown apartment and a pair of old railroad cars

By Erik Gable, Ledger assistant news editor


Robert Dorgan works on restoring a railroad car that serves as a meeting room and exhibition space for the Institute for Small Town Studies. The car, which is slated to become a 1st Fridays Artwalk stop, is located on the old railroad spur west of the Broadway Building. (photo: Erik Gable/Ledger Photos)

Robert Dorgan grew up in the big city -- Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland.

But somewhere along the line, the 41-year-old architect and educator fell in love with small towns. A year ago, he founded the Institute for Small Town Studies, a nationwide network of architects, community planners, economists, historians, sociologists and teachers that he hopes will become a valuable resource for small communities everywhere.

Dorgan, who got involved with an organization called the Community Design Assistance Center while teaching at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., said most research in community planning focuses on cities.

The term "urban planning," he said, "suggests that you must be in an urban area to do that type of design work."

That's simply not true, Dorgan believes, and for proof, he can point to a number of projects he's worked on for the Community Design Assistance Center, for the Institute for Small Town Studies, and independently.

One of Dorgan's projects is working on the old Capitol Theater in Burlington, a 1930s movie house that has stood vacant for a decade. Another involves restoring a depot in Belle Plaine and planning the revitalization of the town's Main Street.

Dorgan ended up in Fairfield by virtue of buying a railroad car from David Theobodo, who owns many of the old cars on the railroad spur west of the Broadway Building.

Dorgan had been inspired by some of his students who put themselves through college by buying, restoring and selling old railroad cars. He thought he could spend his summers in Fairfield restoring the car and ultimately use it to travel across the country. For a fee, Dorgan explained, railroad companies will pull privately owned rail cars along their tracks; since he moved frequently from one teaching assignment to another, the idea of living in a restored car and taking his home with him was more appealing than a string of moving vans.

Dorgan moved to Fairfield full time last year. Although he eventually plans to move into the Depression-era luxury passenger car he's restoring, he currently lives in a second-story apartment overlooking the Fairfield square. An entire wall of his main room is filled with books; models of railroad cars sit on shelves and pictures of community design projects he's worked on adorn the walls. The apartment doubles as the Institute for Small Town Studies' main office.

Eventually Dorgan would like to take his railroad car turned home office on the road, or more accurately the tracks, transporting his mobile office to wherever ISTS is working at the time.

Next door to Dorgan's future home and office is a car Theobodo donated to the institute to serve as a meeting room and exhibition space. Dorgan is working on an educational exhibit of posters made by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, which he said represent "a curious little slice of Iowa history." Many of the posters, made by out-of-work graphic artists on the government's payroll, advertise events in towns like Ottumwa, Waterloo and Mason City -- and many of those events were paid for by the government as well. Dorgan plans to make the exhibit available for tours and display it during 1st Fridays Art Walks.

The exhibition car itself was originally used to transport beer, Dorgan said, although it was labeled as a dairy car. After the Prohibition era ended, breweries began emblazoning their names on railroad cars to serve as advertisement, but they soon discovered if people knew there was beer in the cars, the cars would be ransacked and the beer stolen. This particular car ended up being labeled "Dairy Shippers Despatch" to protect its cargo.

The exhibit space itself is part of the educational component of ISTS's mission. Dorgan also publishes a quarterly journal called Fishwrap, which includes stories and essays about small towns and has about 1,000 subscribers, two-thirds of them outside Iowa.

Dorgan recently hosted a small town symposium in Fairfield, which he hopes will become an annual event. One of the attendees was Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy, who said he was impressed with the group of people Dorgan had brought together from across the country.

"I think they have some good planning resources that they can bring to the table," he said.

Malloy also said Fairfield is a good choice for locating an organization that aims to help small towns prosper.

"I think Robert has his business established in just the right small town for credibility in what is possible in transforming small towns into viable economic and cultural centers," he said.

Dorgan said he's found small towns in Iowa are in better shape than in many other states. In some places, he commented, visiting a small town is like visiting an archeological dig.

"It's completely different around Iowa," he said. "It was kind of a surprise to me to go to all these small towns and find out that they're active."

Dorgan suggested the difference might be due to Iowa's strong system of relatively small counties and the absence of big cities like Chicago, Minneapolis or St. Louis.

Dorgan's goal for ISTS in 25 years - he started the institute at age 40 and would like it to be in full swing when he turns 65, at which point he plans to turn his extensive collection of books into the institute's library - is to build the organization into a resource that can "serve the different needs of small towns as they arise."

Economic issues might be on the front burner for small town planners at one time, for example, while preservation issues might be a top priority at another time.

Within the next five years Dorgan would like the institute to become known as a destination for resources and assistance for small towns and the people who study them.

He'd also like to expand the institute to five full-time employees. For now, it's primarily a one-man operation - "three full-time jobs for me minus the full-time pay," he joked. The institute gets its funding from three sources: project fees, grants for specific projects and provate donations.

In 25 years, if everything goes as planned, the Institute for Small Town Studies will have put out 100 issues of Fishwrap, mounted 250 exhibitions and helped countless small towns plan their futures - but Dorgan doesn;t think he'll ever run out of things to do.

"The more I study small towns, the more and more I find," he said. "I can't imagine exhausting the opportunities that small towns offer."

© Fairfield Daily Ledger Inc., May 21, 2004
© Washington Evening Journal, May 25, 2004
reprinted with permission

© 2004 The Institute for Small Town Studies
www.ISTS.org