Courtney T. Ball

The Cutting-Edge Small Town You Never Heard Of

Bloomfield, Iowa is a place few people have ever heard of. Most Iowans couldn’t even tell you where it is. Too bad for them.

Most of my life I knew Bloomfield simply as the place where my Uncle Vern and Aunt Helen’s family lived. (Readers may remember my Uncle Vern from this story.) As a boy, Vern and Helen’s house was special to me because they had a pool, tennis court and basketball hoop in their back yard. It’s also where I learned to master the sport of ping pong.

Uncle Vern was a heck of a cook, so we were always sure to eat extremely well when we visited. Plus, right behind their house was a restaurant where we could go for soft-serve ice cream after a day of swimming.

For me, Bloomfield (and the beautiful countryside of Davis County) has always been a place to slow down, relax, and simplify. It’s where my family went to get away from the city, visit relatives, and spend time in nature. My parents own land nearby, but even if they didn’t, there are nice parks and forests in the area. There’s also a large Amish population in rural Davis County; what kid doesn’t like to see horses and buggies?

Fifteen years ago, my oldest brother Chris and his family unexpectedly moved to Bloomfield from New Hampshire. It was great to have him back in Iowa, but I was puzzled why he would want to live in such a small town when he could go practically anywhere. (Chris was always a bit of a wanderer.) In my mind, Bloomfield was a relaxing place to visit, but definitely not exciting enough for anyone to want to live there full-time.

I was young then, and used to city life. But as Chris got to know his new hometown, my perspective changed. As a working father, I started paying attention to his life in Bloomfield. Here are a few things I noticed.

  1. Bloomfield is affordable. Cost of living is unbelievably low. For something like $80,000, he and his wife purchased a huge, two-story Victorian home just a few blocks from the downtown square.
  2. The whole community is walkable. No traffic ever unless there’s a parade.
  3. There is interesting work available. Chris worked for a local tech company in Bloomfield for many years. It wasn’t huge (which he liked) and he probably could have made more money in a big city, but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to do the kind of work he enjoyed from the place he desired to live, and that was totally possible in Bloomfield. But wait until you hear what he’s doing now.
  4. It’s great for children. Chris’s kids can do practically anything they want. The school system is solid, and they have as much access to extracurricular activities as my kids who live in a bigger city. Plus, Bloomfield is literally “the safest city in Iowa“.
  5. It’s cutting-edge progressive. What? The town surrounded by Amish people is progressive? Yep. Read below and you’ll see what I mean.
In Fifteen Years, Bloomfield Will Be Energy Independent

Somewhere along the way, the people in Bloomfield, Iowa got it in their heads that they can do amazing things. They decided they didn’t have to resign themselves to the trends of decline facing small towns across the nation. They actually believe their community’s best years are still ahead of them.

With that belief, ten years ago they decided to revive their downtown streetscape. As soon as they began that process, all kinds of people from local residents to folks in the state department of economic development encouraged them to think bigger. Why not do more than streetscapes? Why not restore and improve all the buildings on the square? And if you’re going to fix the buildings, how ’bout we use some grant money to revitalize second-story housing units above downtown businesses? And well, if we’re talking about improvements to the downtown infrastructure, maybe we should think about upgrading the utilities to make them more sustainable and energy efficient as well.

Most recently, community leaders decided, Heck, why limit ourselves to downtown? Shouldn’t the entire city be as energy efficient as possible? What would it take to make Bloomfield, Iowa energy independent by 2030? Why not let our town lead the way as a model for sustainable rural redevelopment?

And guess what? People around the country are starting to take notice. In March, the Energy Independent Bloomfield team was one of twelve selected nationally to take part in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s eLab Accelerator in Sundance, Utah. And last month it was announced that Bloomfield will receive fifty-six AmeriCorps members over the next two years (a nearly $1 million investment from the Federal Government) to help with the work of making Bloomfield homes more energy efficient.

And I’m writing about this why? Because as surprising as life can be, some things never change. Once again, much like I did as a little kid, I sit here admiring my big brother. He’s humble and doesn’t want the attention. And he rightly points out that he’s only one part of this whole effort. He gets to work with a lot of cool, forward-thinking leaders on this project. But still, it’s fun to watch him (as Bloomfield’s newly hired Energy Efficiency Director) become an instrumental part of that team, doing something he cares about that will make his community better.

(By the way, it’s his job to recruit and supervise those AmeriCorps members, so if this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, you can contact him at cball@cityofbloomfield.org.)

But even if Chris weren’t involved, this is pretty awesome, right? It’s fun to see a small town with lots of great traditions still able to reimagine its future. And if you visit, you can feel that energy. It’s the same vibe that draws random people there from all over the country. People like Elena, originally from Ukraine, who moved to Bloomfield with her husband and opened up a solar-powered ice cream shop. Or like Steve, who fell in love with Bloomfield, bought the old elementary school, and turned it into a community center.

So, now you’ve heard of Bloomfield. If you want to check it out for yourself, here is a website that offers a calendar of local events. If I had to recommend one myself, it would be the old time music festival. If you go this year, I might even see you there.

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Courtney Ball

14 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Great article about the community. Of course I remember staying at your uncle’s house about 50 years ago when your dad and I were headed for the world’s fair. I remember the trampoline in the back yard. It is a beautiful part of Iowa. Thanks for the update on the energy plans for the town.

  • Thanks for writing a great article about a great town, Courtney. I live about a block from Vern’s house. While the swimming pool has been replaced, the trampoline is gone, and the tennis court is more of a parking area now, it is still a beautiful home. And there is still soft serve ice cream in the back yard! Thanks for noticing what’s going on in Bloomfield. With people like Chris and others who refuse to give up on it, Bloomfield has a strong future ahead!

  • Bloomfield has always been like that. The city used to generate its own electricity, provide its own water, had a citizen’s mutual telephone company, put up a community TV antenna to get more than 3 stations and more.

  • Good stuff Courtney
    Do you know P. Buckley Moss?
    Some of her best work was done around Centerville and Bloomfield. She has the best “stick figures” of Amish of anyone.
    I think her home is around Williamsburg VA. At least i visited a gallery there which I think claimed to be her home.

    Her paintings fit well into your writing.

  • As a lifelong resident of Davis County, I am so proud of our community and thank you sincerely for this wonderful article.

  • Courtney,
    Sorry that we have never met. I grew up on a Davis County’ farm and still have connections to the land. I am an agricultural engineer who works on environmental issues associated with agriculture. Obviously, I can keep busy I my old age! I saw your article from a Facebook past from my nephew,, Joe Melvin. He was impressed with your article and passed it on. When I read it, I knew that I should get to know you and to be on your mailing list. We have some similar interests and I will look forward to your future posts. Take care and may God bless you in the future.
    Stewart Melvin!

    • Nice to meet you, Stewart. You should meet my brother Chris Ball if you’re in the Davis County area. Thanks for getting in touch.

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