What will happen to Pioneer?

A dwindling Humboldt County town is facing its last days as an incorporated burg. But memories, and a handful of holdouts, still linger.

This undated photo found at the Humboldt Public Library shows the town of Pioneer, with railroad tracks near to the viewer. Starting with the first general store in 1890, Pioneer was home to several businesses during its time. The town is down to a few homes, and may unincorporate in the next few years.

PIONEER — In 1890, the first general store was built in a blossoming new town in the southwest corner of Humboldt County. The town had been founded a few years earlier in 1884.

But what had once been a bustling hub for area farmers has grown small in recent years. By the time it reaches its 140th birthday, the town of Pioneer may no longer exist, except as a collection of homes.

Pioneer City Clerk Janet Berte met with the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors recently to discuss the formal process of unincorporating the town.

The City Council hasn’t given any definite timeline to when this might happen, Berte said.

“When I talked to them last about this — maybe 2020,” Berte said. “Maybe not. It all depends on how things are going.”

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
This building stands with bricks fallen at the corner of Market Street and Main Street in Pioneer, where historical reports say a grocery store once stood.

The town is financially in good shape, but its citizens are simply getting older, and soon won’t be able to meet the official requirements of being a city.

“You have to have a mayor, a city clerk, at least three council members,” she said. “We have a monthly meeting … You have to do that to pay your bills in a timely fashion.”

In the last census, Pioneer had a population of 23, she said.

Today, there are only three occupied houses in town, as well as the co-op. Other buildings are vacant or have been torn down, and businesses have all moved away.

The salvage yard run by the mayor and his family is still there.

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
The view looking east from the west end of Pioneer, where unoccupied buildings can be seen across the street from the Pro Co-op facilities.

One house remains vacant now that its owner passed away.

Another hasn’t been occupied since the owner moved to a care center.

The council meets at the home of Mayor Ivan Henrichs, Berte said. He’s 80 and has lived in Pioneer his whole life.

“They’re so proud about their community. When we get done with our meetings, they sit around and just talk about the way life was,” Berte said.

“They are the town.”

Berte is also the city clerk for Livermore. She started work in Livermore in 1998, but only became clerk two or three years ago. She’s been city clerk for Pioneer since 2004.

Before that time, the city of Pioneer had already held a vote about unincorporating, but it did not pass.

“The city wasn’t ready to unincorporate yet. It wasn’t sound yet,” Berte said. “So now my goal is to get them on the right page, so when they do unincorporate they’ll be prepared for it and they’ll feel good about it.”

Surprisingly, one obstacle in the process is that the city has too much money. Most cities unincorporate when they run out of funds, Berte said, so there’s not much precedent on how to go about it.

“The city has about $150,000,” Berte told the supervisors. “And they have been trying, and have done a very good job of getting rid of it — donating it to fire departments, ambulances, Upper Des Moines — they gave them $15,000 this year.”

The city’s budget shows expenses of about $80,000 this year, and revenue of about $20,000, according to the Iowa Department of Management.

As the part-time city clerk, Berte is the only city employee.

“They hire the county to do snow removal, and if little things happen in town it’s usually Ivan the mayor or his son John,” Berte said. “We have advertised periodically for certain jobs, but nobody responds.”

On advice from the Iowa auditor’s office, Pioneer has lowered its tax rate as it continues moving snow, maintaining roads and taking care of other expenditures, Berte said.

“They’re trying to take in less income,” she said. “We might be the lowest tax rate in the whole state, but you’d have to research that.”

After her talk with the county supervisors, Humboldt County Attorney John Beaty is now helping Berte out.

One thing that needs to be done is to make sure the town’s well will be managed and funded.

Berte said she got advice, and planned to create a limited liability corporation to handle the town’s well. After she already paid a $600 fee to set it up, she learned she couldn’t hand over the well money to a private limited liability corporation — it had to go to either the supervisors or a separate public board.

Finding out what they’re allowed to do with the well has been extremely time-consuming, Berte said.

“The city has already put out how much money into trying to figure out this water district, and everybody has their opinion,” she said. “I talked to rural Iowa boards. I talked to so many people.”

What caused the town to dwindle?

Who knows? Berte said. But it doesn’t help that Pioneer is not on any major road, and almost half a mile away from even the county blacktop.

“Small town, not on the beaten path,” Berte said. “Livermore was bigger than Humboldt at one time. Then 169 went through Humboldt.

“The roads decide your destiny.”