News & Politics

Gladbrook, Iowa: Where Buildings Keep Burning But Matchsticks Remain

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Gladbrook, Iowa has just under a thousand residents and no stop light. Besides the thin, white windmills, there is little to mark the divide between land and sky. If you stand in the middle of the town’s main street you can see a cornfield just a couple of blocks away in any direction. There is a bar, a wood working store where old furniture completely fills the windows, and Spanky’s, the new restaurant in town. Gladbrook’s largest building sits on a block of its own across from the NAPA Auto Parts, and houses city hall, a two-screen movie theater, and Matchstick Marvels.

The movie theater is run by volunteers and decorated almost like grandma’s living room, with powder blue accents, wreaths of silk flowers, wooden knickknacks, and dried floral arrangements. Matchstick Marvels is the home of Patrick Acton’s to-scale matchstick models of the Iowa state capitol, the USS Iowa, Notre Dame, and a space shuttle. His larger creations — a model of Hogwarts, the International Space Station, and Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings trilogy — are on display at Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museums around the country.

My waitress at Spanky’s, who didn’t want her name in a newspaper, said she hadn’t made it over there yet but that she likes the matchsticks anyway.

“It’s important to bring people to the town,” she said. “I mean it’s nice to have people know us, but we need the money too, we keep burning down.”

In the past year, Gladbrook has had at least five fires. I called the all-volunteer Gladbrook Fire and Rescue to double check the number, but no one answered. When I called the Tama County Sheriff’s Office, they suggested I call city hall. When I called city hall, I got Barb, who said five sounded about right. It’s a devastating irony for a town primarily known for its matchsticks.

The two largest fires happened in December, one right in town. The remains are still there, just a block up from Spanky’s — a black wound on a city without much skin. That fire destroyed a hardware store, and severely damaged the tanning salon and general store. My waitress didn’t think the businesses would come back. The other fire happened right after Christmas, destroying a century-old family farmhouse. Later that same week, Keith Sash, Gladbrook’s mayor, reported that the fire department had responded to four other calls.

The fires are still under investigation. No one really knows why all the buildings are burning.

“Maybe they are just old?” Barb at city hall suggested. “Old things like to burn.”

One thing everyone I spoke to in Gladbrook wanted me to know: people helped each other after the fires. The employees at the Casey’s gas station and convenience store sent pizzas to the EMTs. Spanky’s opened early to serve food to volunteers. Others donated clothes and household items to the family who lost their home. Cupcakes and cookies were distributed to all. I asked Barb how they coordinated the effort, Facebook? Email? “We just talked. In person. We’re neighbors.”

That neighborliness partly explains why Acton, the matchstick artist, made Gladbook home. He said he wanted to move when he first got here, but the place grew on him. It was one of his neighbors, after all, who submitted pictures of his models to Reminisce magazine. Someone from Ripley’s saw them, one thing led to another, and here he is, doing what he loves.

Acton is 64 years old and has messy red hair. His hobby began almost 30 years ago, when he and his wife, both Iowa natives, moved to Gladbrook after college. She had gotten a job teaching at the local school and Acton told me they had no money for the movies or going out to eat. Bored, he remembered hearing about a man who built a to-scale model of a farm house and he wanted to do the same. Using glue and an Exacto blade, Acton constructs each model with painstaking detail.

He started small – a little church, which he gave to a Methodist minister. Then, a farmhouse. His collection grew. And as with all weird things in small towns, people started talking.

“Maybe some people made fun of me,” Acton admitted, laughing. “But no one said it to my face. Everyone is supportive.” In 2003, the city conceived of a plan to raise money for a place for Acton’s creations. Matchstick Marvels receives busloads of tourists in the summer and is even listed on the town’s Wikipedia page as one of the two cultural attractions (the other one is the corn festival held every June).

Acton is currently working on a 15-foot model of the Millennium Falcon for Ripley’s, complete with lights and a moving cargo door. With these commissions, Acton was able to retire from his job at a workforce training center in 2013 and devote himself to his passion full time. In a city where most people are teachers and janitors and the average per capita income is around $26K, it’s nothing to sniff at. Not that anyone would.

“I don’t have the words,” Barb said when trying to describe the importance of the matchsticks. “It’s just that, well, this is a close community and people take pride in every single thing in this town.” Gladbrook and the matchsticks are almost symbiotic. “Without this town, I mean, would the matchsticks be what they are?” the waitress asked me. She shrugged as if the answer was obvious.

The first time I visited the Matchsticks in 2008, I met Esther, a volunteer, who cried when I asked her why she worked there. Her husband had died and matchsticks were all she had. “It gives me something to be proud of, a reason to get out of the house now. It’s just a good thing.”

I ask Acton about Esther and he tells me she doesn’t volunteer as much, because she has family to visit now in Cedar Rapids. “She’s a real good lady. She’s given us so much.”

Acton describes his politics as progressive, and admits that he doesn’t always agree with his neighbors, the recent election made that clear. But he shrugs: “That’s America, right? I think rural Iowa people, despite our differences in politics, are the most sincere, most welcoming people there are.”

This town built Acton a shrine, and it’s clear he is devoted to Gladbook too. “I’ll never leave,” he said. “I can’t, its home.” Plus, he points out, anywhere else in the country, people might not have appreciated his work.

“Artists don’t think I’m an artist. I don’t think my work is for the city. But woodworkers, people here,” he waves to the clear Plexiglas of the display cases holding his creations. In the end, he says, he puts his differences aside and helps his neighbors. “That’s what America is, we just go forward.”