Geddes defies prognosis for small towns

South Dakota State Roundup

Published April 1, 1995  | April 1995 issue

The Geddes high school still opens each fall for its 40-plus students, and the cafe is now owned by a recently transplanted New Jersey family. While those events may seem uneventful, they are just two examples of how this southeastern town of 280 has not only survived, but thrived at a time when many small rural communities are struggling.

Other recent initiatives include a newly opened medical center, a planned teen center and a proposed new library and cement plant.

One of the sparks for this revival came in the aftermath of the '80s farm crisis, according to Mayor Ron Dufek, when an energetic new city council began its tenure by paving the streets and clearing out blighted buildings.

Then in 1989 the town formed a non-profit development corporation with $8,000 and loaned start-up funds to a hardware store, a body shop and a sandblasting operation. The nonprofit became an enabling vehicle for a $65,000 block grant from the state to expand the local gun stock manufacturer. With 42 employees, it is the town's largest employer.

"We just grab ahold and work with them," Dufek says of the town's efforts to establish new businesses.

Meanwhile Geddes, which was plotted by the Milwaukee Road Railroad in 1900, began reclaiming its past. The Geddes Historical Society rehabilitated historic buildings and created a historic village in the center of town. The efforts paid off: Geddes is now on the National Park Service's Registry of Historic Places.

It's not only locals that have benefited from Geddes' renewal: The business climate and the dream of a better quality of life have lured families from afar. A 95-year-old hotel attracted a Texas family with roots in South Dakota. They bought the vacant, deteriorating hotel for $800 in back taxes and plan to renovate and reopen it.

Another three families recently moved to Geddes from the East Coast. Joe and Chris Scanniello and their four children from Hamburg, N.J., originally discovered Geddes for quiet vacations. Now they've bought the Geddes Cafe, where they employ two people and serve Italian food. "I just love it here," says Joe, a former big city police officer. "I'm a lot more at ease with my children being here." Chris, too, feels it's safer than in New Jersey.

Indicative of the town's strong will to survive, when the state threatened to close the high school a few years ago because enrollment dipped just one student below the minimum of 35, "the townspeople stormed the Capitol" in protest and saved the school, Dufek says.

Nettie Pignatello