How this small town's Main Street has become a destination shopping hotspot in rural Iowa

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune

Jewell, a town of 1,216 in Hamilton County, might seem an unlikely place for a business boom. But the small town has a nearly full Main Street, which has become a destination shopping location.

“Jewell is truly a bright spot,” Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, told the Ames Tribune recently. “I’m very impressed with what they’ve done as a community there.”

Jewell's historic Main Street features two blocks of renovated brick storefronts, many of which were built in the early 1900s. Several have retail businesses with apartments on the upper story. Along with a bowling alley, Main Street also offers services such hair salons, a dentist office, chiropractor and bank. 

Children enjoy roasted marshmallows during the "Channel Your Flannel" festival in downtown Jewell, Iowa, Oct. 30, 2021.

Retailers include several vintage and handmade stores, including Gravy Home Goods, Gin + Tarnish, Mustard Seed Revival, DK Handmade, Urban Heirlooms and Sew Bee It quilt shop. Newcomers include a bistro, Juniper & Olive Co., which will add a mercantile in the near future, and Fairy & Frog, a children's toy, book and candy store that opened earlier this year in Vendor's Village.

Dunham said the authority has been working with Jewell for a long time.

“What we’ve seen is that Jewell is a community that has patience and a vision for the future,” she said. “And they’re willing to put in the long-term work to make it pay off.

“These things don’t happen overnight. It really does take a collaborative effort. You have to have patience to do that, and I think right now you’re beginning to see the results of their patience and their efforts.”

Downtown Jewell's new mural peeks through the vendors' tents during the "Channel Your Flannel" event on Saturday.

One of the patient people involved in Jewell’s success is Sarah Thompson, former director of Jewell Main Street and current owner of Rural Revitalization, a consulting company she started in 2018.

One of her first long-term clients was Jewell, after dissolution of Hamilton Hometowns, part of the first countywide Main Street programs.

“Jewell contracted with me to help them get back into Main Street on their own,” Thompson said.

Thompson is on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Empower Rural Iowa task force, where her initiative area is Investing in Rural Iowa, which helps keep her involved in economic development, she said.

Leah Feltz browses in a stall during the "Channel Your Flannel" festival in downtown Jewell, Iowa, Oct. 30, 2021.

Recently, the Invest task force has held a leadership boot camp with representatives from 14 communities, including Jewell.

The group from Hamilton County included Cindy Im, economic development director for Hamilton County; Heidi Eckers, Jewell Main Street director; and Joan Cook-Fairchild, owner of Gravy Home Goods in Jewell.

The boot camps help communities start leadership programs and offer $1,000 grants with $500 matching funds to start programs.

Strong leadership is one of the factors that has helped Jewell become such a dynamic business community, with just one available vacancy in its downtown.

Cyndi Gryte, owner of Juniper & Olive Co. bistro and bar, poses with customers during the "Channel Your Flannel" festival in downtown Jewell, Iowa, Oct. 30, 2021.

Local leadership is a key to Jewell's success

Cook-Fairchild has been instrumental in the Main Street growth, Thompson said.

“Joan at Gravy is probably responsible for all the stores that have moved in,” she said. “When I started in Hamilton County SEED in 2013, they were just finishing up a challenge grant for the building that Joan is in.”

Cook-Fairchild’s Gravy Home Goods, a vintage home goods store with original and repurposed items, is at 630 Main St.

“Gravy was just opening, and Joan was living in the space above. I don’t know how many times I called her and asked to bring people over to look at her store and her apartment,” Thompson said. “It was kind of a new thing to have upper-story housing over retail in small towns.

“Joan tells people how great Jewell is. If you talked to DK Soap, Mustard Seed and Gin + Tonic, they will all tell you that Joan was responsible for them actually signing the lease.”

The opening of Juniper & Olive Co. to Jewell’s Main Street, a bistro that offers paninis, small plates, cheese boards and hand-crafted cocktails, is a unique addition to the business community, she said.

“The Juniper & Olive restaurant and cocktails — I have to tell you, that place just wowed me when I went in there,” Durham said.

More:After years in New York City, Cyndi Gryte returns to Iowa to open the Juniper & Olive bistro in Jewell

Kaylynn Hildebrand of Jewell browses in a stall during the "Channel Your Flannel" festival in downtown Jewell, Iowa, Oct. 30, 2021.

The restaurant is an example of the vision Jewell had for its long-term future, she said, to offer up space for distinctive businesses.

“Then you look at Gravy Home Goods, which I have to say is one of my favorite places. I follow them on Facebook all the time,” Durham said. “The barn-wood tables that they make are just awesome.”

Not only does Jewell have a great collection of vintage shops, she said, but it also connects with other communities to create a destination for consumers and travelers.

One of the destination shopping events is the twice-yearly Central Iowa Junk Jaunt, which was founded by Brenda Schwager, owner of JB Knacker, who collaborates with her daughter Clare, the owner of Gin + Tarnish, located on Jewell’s Main Street.

“That kind of collaboration is a hallmark of the Main Street program,” Durham said. “And I think Jewell has taken a real leadership role there.”

Renovating Jewell's historic buildings began years ago 

Twenty years ago, most people wouldn't have foreseen that Jewell would become the destination shopping draw that it is, Thompson said.

“The building that Juniper & Olive is in received a challenge grant, and it was in just horrible condition,” she said. “There are three guys in Jewell’s history who are responsible for all those Main Street buildings getting a facelift and being ready to have those buildings be ready for businesses to come in. … They really took a leap of faith.”

Carroll McCluckie, Bruce Johnson and Fred and Ann Marculus “are the ones who really kept those buildings from falling down,” she said.

Eckers took over Jewell Main Street in June of 2020, when Thompson turned over the reins of the job she had taken as a long-term temporary position.

“I helped them get into the Main Street program,” Thompson said. “Now my passion is my own consulting business. I want to work with other small towns, who don’t know they can do things like this."

Vendor’s Village is one of Jewell's exciting offerings, Thompson said.

“We started in 2015, trying to drum up enthusiasm for that Vendor Village, and look at it now,” she said. “It’s three little cabins. If you’re thinking about a business and you’re not sure, this is a nice way to pay very little rent and see if it’s going to go. If it does, we’ll move you into a larger building.”

That is, if there are any bigger buildings available, Thompson said with a laugh. There is one bigger building vacant right now, and she doesn’t think it will be available for long.

Shoppers walk along the historic buildings in downtown Jewell during the "Channel Your Flannel" event on Saturday.

There is also a vacant building that the owner is not interested in selling or renting.

Along with the building improvements in recent years, the outside of one downtown building got a facelift this fall when artist Sandy Teig of Webster City painted a mural inspired by the town’s motto, “Jewell, a gem in a friendly setting.”

Funded by an anonymous donor, the mural is already becoming a popular spot for selfies and Instagram photos.

“Heidi took that project on and saw it through, and it’s fantastic,” Thompson said. “It’s the first thing you notice now when you come into town.”

Main Street participation has fostered Jewell's success

Durham said Jewell’s participation in the Main Street Iowa program, which focuses on downtown economic development, has been a benefit for the community’s business growth.

“To be a Main Street community, you really have to make a long-term commitment to the future of your downtown,” Durham said. “It’s not just about redoing buildings, it’s about bringing in retail, doing events, hosting events. You have several great examples of that in Jewell.”

The reaction of the Jewell community when it lost its grocery store in January of 2020 is symbolic of the town’s industriousness, she said. Local residents banded together, bought shares and opened Jewell Market in the summer of 2020.

“We see too many small communities where the grocery store leaves and we have these food deserts. Jewell came together as a community and raised over $200,000 and have created this set-up,” Durham said. “I visited when I was there. The vitality of it and the local ownership, knowing that they’re all invested in its success is really very heartwarming.”

The support of local consumers is crucial to the success of downtowns and local merchants, she said.

“We have to do our part,” Durham said. “I think we really learned that during COVID — that we have to rally around our local businesses.”

Shopping local is a way to beat the supply chain problems being seen in some big retailers.

“I’m not going to have a supply chain issue when I shop this year because I’m shopping all local, small businesses and artists,” she said.

The South Hamilton Gems dance team poses in front of the downtown Jewell mural, painted by artist Sandy Teig of Webster City.

Other Iowa communities are also seeing major improvements

Durham said she’s seeing revivals similar to Jewell’s as she travels the state.

“I am inspired by our rural communities,” she said.

Woodbine is an example of a thriving community, she said. The town has a revitalized Main Street and has also built a community rec center and daycare recently.

Walnut is a community that’s doing something a little different, she said. When the town found itself in a food desert, it brought in a locker, offering fresh foods, which is operated by a couple from Lenox.

Decorah is rallying around a new childcare center, Durham said.

Brooklyn recently opened its Opera House as the community’s performing arts center.

“We need to get more people out to rural Iowa. You hear a lot of dire stories, but that’s not the rural Iowa I see when I’m out and about,” Durham said. “But it takes local leadership. Without that local leadership and that investment with the locals, there’s only so much that Main Street or any program can do.”