In Corsica, S.D., it seems there is business to conduct around every corner.
“We have an aggressive business community,” Mayor Dick Brink said.
Situated 20 miles south of Interstate 90 on U.S. Highway 281, Corsica boasts more than 60 businesses in a community of just 600 people. With more than 10 percent of the population—man, woman and child—a business owner, it’s no surprise that everyone in town is quick to point out the thriving business community.
The town has two main business districts—Main Street and Highway 281.
“Along (Highway) 281, you see a number of new buildings. They’ve all been built in the last several years,” Brink said. “And if you wanted to rent a building on Main Street, you couldn’t find one.”
Often, the same is true for housing.
“The workers have to live somewhere, and they bring in new people and new money, and they spend a certain amount of money in town,” Brink said. “Houses are gone about as fast as they become available.”
Just last year, three elderly couples joined together to build a triplex, and three new houses were built.
Brink said the community—which is home to two medical clinics, chiropractic and optometric offices, an assisted living and a nursing home facilities and a veterinarian—is a good place for families and retirees alike.
An emergency response emergency
Earlier this year, the future of Douglas County Ambulance was unclear because of a shortage of volunteers.
“We were down to four EMTs,” emergency medical technician Karen Johnson said. “Basically, the other girl who runs during the day and I were running by ourselves. … If we didn’t get any help, the service was going to be done June 1.”
The potential closure was advertised widely. With such drastic measures looming, seven people volunteered, and their $500 class tuition was paid for by donations.
“It was really a relief. It gave us hope. It gave us new life,” Johnson said. “The burden is a little lighter now, because you know there’s going to be (help).”
The seven students are scheduled to take their EMT-Basic tests in May.
“I am hoping and praying that they’re all going to pass,” Johnson said, but “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to have two EMTs every day, and if we can’t commit to do that, we can’t really get off of our hardship” status.
Now the ambulance vehicle is causing further uncertainty for the service. In April, EMTs approached the Douglas County Commission, requesting help purchasing a new ambulance. According to Johnson, commissioners had helped the Armour community, 10 miles from Corsica and home to the closest hospital, purchase an ambulance and indicated they would budget $20,000 annually to be used for future ambulances for the two communities, but they declined to assist with a new vehicle for Corsica, saying they had not budgeted the promised funds.
Since the meeting, Johnson said she had learned that the county has funds set aside for emergencies, and she was hopeful it could put those funds to work replacing the ambulance. She expects it will cost $80,000, and fundraisers are planned for National EMS Week in May.
Problems with the ambulance are numerous, according to Johnson, and range from shorted wires to a faulty fuel gauge that recently caused the service great embarrassment when it ran out of gas on the scene of a medical call.
“The biggest (problem) is that when we come back from a transfer in the middle of the night … the only place that we can fuel up is closed, and it doesn’t have a (credit card reader) for the diesel pump,” Johnson said.
Areas of the ambulance’s floor also are rusted out.
“If we go down a road that’s real muddy and wet, we get water—through the wheel well—into the patient cabin, on the floor inside,” she said.
Consolidating a positive attitude
One change that could have been contentious for the community is in its final phase and is going smoothly, local officials say.
This fall, the Corsica and Stickney school districts will transition from what once was a simple sports cooperative into a single school district.
“We’ve done a piece at a time … and experimented a little, and now we’re getting ready for the big experiment,” said high school Principal Scott Muckey, who will become superintendent of the consolidated school district.
When Muckey first came to the Corsica School District, there were around 80 students in the high school. Now, there are 42, and just 145 in K-12. Stickney brings about 100 students to the shared district.
The 6-year-old Corsica-Stickney sports cooperative eventually also led to sharing some staff. This year, five high school teachers travel the 12 miles between the two schools as part of an intergovernmental agreement that allows them to combine students for some classes. The schools’ fourth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes meet in Corsica; second, fifth and sixth grades meet in Stickney; and the rest of the classes remain independent.
Superintendent Vern DeGeest, who will retire this spring, said the decision to officially consolidate was supported by more than 80 percent of voters last summer.
“We wanted it, because we needed it,” he said, adding that the state no longer offers financial incentives for smaller districts to merge.
The consolidated school district no longer will qualify for the small school factor, so it will lose the equivalent of seven students’ worth of imbursement that the state had been paying each district separately, but it’s still “the logical thing to do,” according to DeGeest, and in the best interest of the students.
“When you get down into your single digits in your classrooms, at less than $5,000 per student, it’s pretty hard not to do some combining of some sort,” he said. “You either combine (schools), or you start combining classes, and to me … educationally, this is the right thing to do.”
Next year, kindergarten through sixth grade will study in Stickney, while middle and high school students will meet in the current Corsica High School building. Each community will have its own preschool, with the same teacher working with each group for half of the day. Corsica’s preschoolers will be located in the current Corsica Elementary building, and options for renting out the rest of the space for other uses is being explored.
“The students will basically be located in one structure, so hopefully that will be more efficient and it’s a better situation for teachers, parents, students (and) everybody concerned,” Muckey said. “We’ll try to leave (preschoolers) in their communities … to leave them closer to their homes. It’s scary enough to start the school process.”
Very little staffing change is expected.
“We either already have people in place or have plans in place to move people around so that reductions in force don’t have to happen,” Muckey said. “The staff has been wonderful; they picked up in places where we just kind of had to make things work.”
The process leading to the consolidation has made a once-strong rivalry all but disappear.
What keeps people in town ties them to the world
Another sort of “rivalry”—the presence of one private school in city limits and another just 18 miles away—also has strengthened the Corsica community, according to Muckey.
“The (different groups) that are here … pull away from our enrollment,” he said, at a rate of around 10 students per grade level, “but the kids who attend (public school) here are more likely to leave. The kids who attend (the private schools) are more likely to stay” as adults.
The Netherlands Reformed Christian School depends heavily on the community for jobs, and the community relies on the school to stabilize the population that has dipped from around 650 to 600 between the last two census counts, according to middle school teacher David Koedam, who teaches grades six through eight in a combined classroom.
With congregations only in South Dakota, Iowa and New Jersey, “our worship opportunities are limited,” Koedam said. “There are only two of our churches in the whole state—here and in Sioux Falls. … So, in order to keep our church (alive), we need to keep our young people (here), so we want them to work locally, or our church is going to decline.”
Keeping people in town isn’t the only benefit of Corsica’s Dutch “subculture” to the local economy.
“(We have) built a new church and a new school in just a few years, which was a big undertaking,” Koedam said. “The school is not quite paid for, but the church is paid for.”
Fifty-two children from about 20 families gather at the school each day for more than just educational opportunities.
“(Our forefathers) wanted to be able to incorporate religion into all subjects in school,” said Koedam, who attended first through eighth grades at the school and graduated from Corsica High School in 1993. “As the public school became more secularized, they said, ‘That’s not good—we want the Bible and religion and devotions to be a part of our kids’ education.’”
Formed in 1981, the school is considered an organized home school, and only one of its six teachers is certified through the state. Until three years ago, students transferred to the public school or were home-schooled for high school level classwork. Its first seniors will graduate next spring.
The school has no principal, but operates under the direction of a five-member school board. Although the educational model at the Netherlands school has evolved to include more and more technology—which is strictly limited to “essential tasks”—the presence of tradition and Christian teaching is evident.
“We begin the day with prayer, and we end the day with prayer, and before and after we eat, we’re praying and singing,” Koedam said. “In the public school, you can’t do that.”
But Koedam said the people of the Netherlands Reformed church and school do not view their way of life—nor their educational system—as superior to those of others in town.
“I went to public school myself,” Koedam said. “I got a good education over there. But there are things that we can do here that (they) can’t do over there … religiously (and) spiritually.”
The school has never charged tuition, operating on freewill donations alone. Although that structure has been difficult some years, the faith of the people is that God has provided the necessary funds along the way, with donations coming in from Holland and the church’s “sister congregations” here in the United States.
Planting roots, harvesting relationships
Much like the Netherlands Reformed congregation, generations-old family businesses, too, have kept many people in Corsica.
Mike and Dan Noteboom joined their father, Peter “Junior” Noteboom, in the family John Deere business in the 1980s and bought their father’s share of the business about a decade later.
“It wasn’t a good time to actually be in it, but that’s what we did,” Noteboom said. “We didn’t want to let it go.”
The family persevered through the farm crisis and eventually added two more South Dakota locations—in Chamberlain and Parkston—and three stores in Iowa, as well as a third partner, Dan’s son, Justin Noteboom. The business employs 180 people—with the largest chunk working in Corsica—and is constructing a corporate office addition to its Corsica building, despite an uncertain ag economy.
“This is where we grew up, and it’s our first location. It’s just natural (to build our headquarters here),” Noteboom said. “We went through the ’80s, and that was tough, too, but now it’s on a different scale. We were one store then, and now we’re six. That makes a difference.”
The key to making it through the slow periods, according to Mike, is simple: “Work hard, and be honest, and everything should work out. … Once you get a reputation of not working with people, that hurts you. We need (a good reputation) in small towns, because there are only so many customers out there.”
Saving is about more than money
A few blocks away, another Corsica businessman is amazed by local interest in some of his services.
“It’s surprising how much is recycled,” said Rod VanRoekel, co-owner of Van’s Dray and Recycling.
Recycling started in Corsica a decade ago, at the urging of area youths.
Now, the Corsica community brings its cardboard, paper and plastic to the business, a block off of Main Street. Four years ago, with the help of a grant, the business purchased two trailers that now make their rounds through five neighboring communities for one-week stints and provide receptacles for cardboard, paper and plastic waste. A third is jointly owned by nearby Armour’s city and school and collected by the company.
An average of 10 tons of recyclables are baled each month, and although the process presently is not a money-maker, VanRoekel said it is invaluable.
“One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees,” he said. “That is the biggest thing … you save if you don’t have to put it in the landfill. … Plastic, stays there pretty much forever, and burning it isn’t good.”
Although area youths are the biggest advocates for the program, VanRoekel said the elderly are more likely to take advantage of the service.
“They have been through tough times, and they know what it is to save, conserve and use everything,” he said. “They see what it does to a landfill—it fills up fast. Once you … see what you save in a week, it’s unreal.”
A kitchen serving the nation
One of Corsica’s biggest cardboard contributors is a unique business that feeds people throughout the five-state region and beyond.
Each week, Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches, Inc., builds, packages and delivers an average of 10,000 to 12,000 sandwiches from its Main Street kitchen, direct-distributing them to grocery and convenience stores throughout the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.
Randy Schryvers, who owns the business with two of his Corsica High School classmates, estimates the 40 sandwiches varieties are available for purchase in 400 locations throughout the country, thanks to partnerships with vending companies and other distributors.
“This product sells itself,” he said of the plastic-bagged, microwavable sandwiches. “We’ve never really had a salesman on the road.”
The sandwiches are especially popular in the local area.
“We have a good workforce around here,” Schryvers said. “(Many) are jobs where sometimes you don’t have time to stop, so they can just grab a sandwich.”
Schryvers said the business is successful in Corsica because of the town’s people and location.
“You could do this business anywhere, (but) we’re centrally located, just far enough off the interstate,” he said. “There are a lot of people coming and going, and we have some real good businessmen in town that keep … people coming.”
Community riding on each other’s protection
Yet the town is small enough that leaving the doors unlocked from time to time is not uncommon, either.
For Cleone Uecker, owner of South Dakota Horse Sales, the security of small-town life makes Corsica ideal for her business.
With no full-time staff at what is affectionately called “the sale barn” locally, Uecker said local residents keep an eye on the property and quickly alert her of anything that seems out of the ordinary.
“It’s a safe community,” Uecker said. “Everybody watches out for everybody, so I feel comfortable and don’t have to worry about break-ins. It’s a busy road that goes by the sale barn, so everybody has their eye out.”
Last year, a hailstorm rolled through town, doing major damage in Corsica and nearby Stickney while Uecker was out of town.
“The sheriff contacted me right away, because somebody was worried my horses would get away when the wind blew the fences down,” she said.
She said Corsica is a great location for South Dakota’s highest-ranked horse sale barn, mostly featuring quarter horses, paint horses and ponies.
“It’s right along 281, which is a big plus, because it runs down to Nebraska and all of the way up to North Dakota,” she said. “That highway counts for much for bringing in my customers.”