Two certainties of traveling in SW Iowa: Crossing the Nishna and driving thru Tenville!

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

TENVILLE, Iowa, May 12, 2024 – Two trips this past week to my hometown of Shenandoah – a birthday party for one lifelong friend and the funeral for another – have me thinking a lot about southwest Iowa.

One thing I wonder about is how many times in one day’s meandering round-trip can you cross a branch of the Nishnabotna River?  And what would the lifetime record of such crossings be for one individual?  I must be close to holding it.

And if the town of Tenville isn’t still the crossroads of southwest Iowa, it sure was for 40 or 50 years in the previous century. That’s when it was at the junction of U.S. Highway 71, running north-south through the state, and U.S. Highway 34, running east-west.


The population peaked then at 35 or more.

Tenville’s Junction Cafe in its heyday. (Photo from the “HONK FOR TENVILLE” page on Facebook)

Why is it “Tenville”?

Back in 1979 when I stopped in at the Junction Seed & Feed Store, which was also the local coffee spot then, and started asking that question, I was steered to Charles “Buzz” Artlip, then 55. The locals said he was “the designated answerer of questions posed by drop-ins.”

“Years ago, back about the turn of the century, I guess, every township was divided into nine school districts,” Artlip told me. “But the people who were living right around here were pretty prolific.  There were too many kids to put in one schoolhouse, so the school officials carved out a 10th school district here, and from then on, this has been Tenville.”

And for decades, as I said, it was a happenin’ little unincorporated town.

“I was born in 1950, and when I was 10 or 11, it was very busy in Tenville,” said Don Case, who now lives in nearby Villisca. “A favorite thing my friends and I would do, was sit in the shade under a tree there in town and count the cars coming through.  There’d be strings of 30 cars in a row, bumper-to-bumper, on both highways.”

At one time, Case said, there were three gas stations operating in town, one with the fine Junction Café that was open 24 hours.  His father built and opened a Standard Oil station on the south end of town, “and my uncle told me that the outlaws Bonnie & Clyde stopped in two or three times” back in the late 1920s and early ’30s.

In 1941, one of the gas stations, Big Four Oil Co., built and opened a dining and dance hall, the “Pine Room,” named that because of the white pine paneling inside the business. They also remodeled five tourist cabins.  Business boomed at first, slowed during the years of World War II, then cranked back up in 1945 with the post-war celebrations. 

Alas, the Iowa Bureau of Investigation put a damper on things with a raid to remove three illegal slot machines.  There was another raid in ’48, and then the Pine Room burned in 1950.

My own happy memories of a lively Tenville started shortly after that.

In earlier years. (Photo from Elaine Artlip’s book “The Way It Was…Tenville, Iowa,” available on a website cited later in this column)

The Junction Café had been built by the Sierp brothers, Irvin and Orie, of Villisca, and opened in 1952.  It was super popular with people for its Sunday after-church dinners. 

And open ’round the clock, it was also extremely popular with fans of the high school sports teams playing in the Hawkeye Eight Conference.  Fans like me.  I remember great hamburgers there.

The schools in the conference then were Shenandoah, Clarinda, Villisca, Red Oak, Glenwood, Atlantic, Creston and Corning. 

If you’re familiar the locations of those communities, you realize that Tenville and its Junction Café were right smack in the middle of them.  You’d see fans from several different schools in the Tenville café and its gas station both before and after ball games.

But in 1966, the highway U.S. 34 was re-routed three miles south of town.  By 1970, Interstate Highway 80 was completed across western Iowa, and even more traffic – and population – was pulled away from Tenville.

The café in Tenville closed in ’66, and the Sierps moved their interests north to Atlantic, where they opened The Valley Restaurant at a new I-80 exit.  In the 1970s, they opened two more restaurants in the town of Atlantic – The Viking and later Odin’s. All were good.

So now the Tenville population today is 23. 

That’s according to Don Case’s daughter-in-law Cheryl Case, the clerk of the local Washington Township, who lives in Tenville and who counted for me at midday Saturday.  (At least she thinks the total is 23, “but I’m not sure if someone lives in the building south of the station. Sorry.”)

Buzz Artlip, whom I mentioned earlier, had a lot of fun with the population figure before his death in 2014.  He turned the big double doors on a building he owned facing U.S. Highway 71 into a billboard.  He painted the white doors in big dark letters: “TENVILLE, Pop. 30,” or whatever – and he’d keep the count up to date. 

He often added extra messages, like wishing happy birthdays to local folks and offering holiday greetings.  Passing motorists loved his tradition, and many would honk when they passed through town.

His wife Elaine Artlip became Tenville’s historian, completing a fun-reading small book on the community in 1976 and updating it several times later.  By the time she died in 2019, she’d had the manuscript loaded on the Internet, and you can still access it by clicking here.

The Artlip’s daughter Linda Artlip Weinstein continues sharing Tenville stories with people on her Facebook page “HONK FOR TENVILLE.”

My goodness, how many times have I done that?

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

2 thoughts on “Two certainties of traveling in SW Iowa: Crossing the Nishna and driving thru Tenville!

  1. I love this story, Chuck. This is classic Offenburger – fun, kind, and filled with lovable people and places! Thank you.

    • I was too busy to leave a reply after reading your last story about throwing away all those columns that you wrote. Did you miss a golden opportunity to compile them into a book? I know I would have purchased a book like that. You have quite a fan base, and I’ll bet there are plenty of other folks who would also purchase your book!

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