The other day I got asked two questions — both which are related to living in the Sioux City, Iowa area. The first question was one I commonly get from people who I’ve recently met: “What brought you to Sioux City?” A fair question. The person was making conversation and wanted to know a little bit about me.
The second question came from an old friend who was wondering if Sioux City was as bad a place to live as he recalled during his time as a college student at the University of South Dakota during the late 1960s and early 1970s. “How come you’ve stayed in the ‘Sewer City’ area?” he said using a long-used derisive name for the town. “I mean, you moved there from Sioux Falls and you grew up in the Black Hills . . . surely there must be better places to live than Sioux City.”
My answer to the first question is simple. We didn’t intend to move to Sioux City. In fact, it was quite the opposite intention on our part. I had been laid off from my job as a mental health counselor with a large nonprofit agency in Sioux Falls and was having difficulty finding another position with a similar salary. The few job openings during that time paid only entry-level salaries and I was simply too expensive (and likely getting too old) for their needs. I was doing some part-time gigs substitute teaching out of town and working at a local camera store. I had previously taken some time off from being a therapist to work as a weekly newspaper journalist and editor and found it a refreshing break from the stresses of doing psychotherapy with 30 – 35 clients a week and consulting with hospitals and businesses. My undergraduate degree is in journalism and I’d worked several years for weekly newspapers and other media before going back for my masters in counseling. So just before Thanksgiving that year I started calling a few publishers to see if there was any interest in my skills as a newspaper reporter and photographer.
I found there was some interest but no immediate openings. Most of my contacts said to call them again in the spring or something like that. Like we usually did, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my wife’s parents’ home in Chancellor, SD. Upon leaving that afternoon we decided to take a long side trip down to Vermillion and look at the new bridge over the Missouri River that had just opened. We decided to drive over it to Nebraska and then follow Neb. Hwy 12 to U.S. 20 east to South Sioux City before crossing the Missouri River again to Sioux City, IA and taking I-29 back home to Sioux Falls. As we drove into the outskirts of South Sioux City we went by several junkyards and dilapidated homes. The odor from the Iowa Beef Processors plant in Dakota City and a livestock truck washout business wafted through our car. We took the Hwy 77 loop through South Sioux City and crossed the river on the Veterans’ Bridge. About halfway across the bridge, we were met with other foul odors likely from a pet food plant, the John Morrell Plant, the stockyards, and the NutraFlo plant, all less than a mile away upwind.
About this time, both Nancy and I, with our noses wrinkled, turned toward each other and exclaimed simultaneously, “I never want to live in this place!” Then we laughed and talked about maybe moving to the Twin Cities or Fort Collins or Des Moines.
It turned out that the joke was on me, or rather, us. The Monday following Thanksgiving I received a phone call from the owner of the South Sioux City Star. He said another newspaper owner had given my name and phone number to him told him I might be interested in a job. He said he had an opening for a reporter and wanted me to come down to South Sioux City and meet with him. I said I’d call him back after I talked to my wife. After consulting with Nancy I reluctantly agreed to go talk to the newspaper’s owner. The guy was very nice and even bought me a coffee at Hardees, which was across the street from the newspaper’s office. After two hours of talking about newspapers, my background, and visiting about friends we had in common in the newspaper business, the owner offered me a job. I talked to Nancy that evening and we decided it would be the best option available at that time. I called the owner back to accept his offer, then asked when he wanted me to start. The owner said, “How about this Thursday?” So two days later I began my job as a reporter for the South Sioux City Star. Nancy gave her notice at her work and we found a decent two bedroom apartment in South Sioux City that would let us have our cat there. I commuted from Sioux Falls through the month of December and we moved in on Dec. 31, 2001.
Nancy soon found a job as a secretary at a substance abuse treatment center. I worked as a reporter and photographer at the paper and became editor the following summer. I stayed as editor of the Star for two and a half years before returning to the counseling profession at an agency in Sioux City, IA. We bought a house in Sioux City in 2004 and remained there until 2017 when I retired and we moved to Dakota Dunes, SD — still part of the Sioux City metro area.
So how come, after nearly 18 years, we’re still here? Well, we really like it here. Sioux City and its people grew on us. We enjoy the diverse population of Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, African, and South Asian people and cultures. As a friend told us recently following a trip to Sioux Falls: He said, “Sioux Falls is just so, so white!” referring to the rather homogenous makeup of its population. And while Sioux City is nothing like some of the cities in the southwest, it seems far more diverse than our rapidly growing neighbor 90 miles north of here. People are friendly here, too. We attend events like plays, concerts, arts festivals, etc. and see people we know. When we lived in Sioux Falls the last time that city had grown so much, had such an influx of new people, that we seldom saw friends or acquaintances at events around town. Even now, we are hard put to run into anyone we know whenever we visit Sioux Falls for dinner, shopping, etc.
Another thing I like about living here is the scenery and nature. There’s the Missouri River, the Big Sioux River, and the Floyd River to name just three. There is the Loess Hills, a unique land feature that stretches from Akron, Iowa about 25 minutes north of Sioux City to just past the Iowa/Missouri border. The foliage of the trees during the fall in the Loess Hills is something special to behold.
There are lakes nearby and within a 90-minute drive. The evening sun setting on or morning sun rising over the Missouri River is a magical sight. Watching the rolling hills in the area covered by native grasses or crops turn from brown to green to gold and back to brown again is a delight. And then there are the geese making their way up and down the Missouri River flyway each spring and fall. The sky becomes dark with thousands of honking geese as they fly over, take off from, and land in the fields and wetlands surrounding our metropolitan area.
The historical significance of Sioux City and the surrounding area is pretty impressive, I think. There are plenty of historical sights, buildings, events, archeological findings, unique characters, celebrations, fights, political shenanigans, explorers, transportation methods, natural and man-made disasters, and military operations for amateur historians like myself to learn about. Sioux City’s interesting architecture — especially that of its courthouse, city hall, and other buildings downtown — are fine examples of the Prairie School of architecture.
The Badgerow Building, completed in 1933, is an example of Art Deco style. It and the Woodbury County Courthouse, the Sioux City City Hall, and several other buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Being situated on the bend in the Missouri River made Sioux City a good place for a river port. Both passenger and freight paddle wheelers docked here as they made their way up and down the river in the mid-1800s. Sioux City was also where some Chicago gangsters visited during the 1920s and 30s. A character by the name of Two-Gun Hart lived over in Homer, Neb. where he worked as a Revenue Agent and for a while as the Homer police chief. Hart was also the older brother of gangster Al Capone. Sioux City was also a big railroad town. It was a regional hub for the Milwaukee Road and had a large multi-roundhouse and shops operation in the Riverside area of town. At one time the roundhouse and shops employed over 500 people.
But what about the smell? Well, the smell or smells are gone these days. The packing plants and stockyards just south of downtown are now gone. The Selective Pet Food plant on S. Virginia Street is gone, bulldozed as part of the Virginia Square commercial and apartment/condominium project of Ho-Chunk, Inc. the developmental organization of the Winnebago Tribe. Iowa Beef Processors in Dakota City, Neb. was sold to Tyson Foods. Tyson’s meatpacking operation and related production facilities have greatly reduced the odors emitted there. The John Morrell plant that bordered I-29 on the southwest side of Sioux City is gone. The city sewage treatment plant further south of the Morrell’s plant site has taken major steps to limit the odor coming from it.
After we had lived in the Sioux City area for about five years, we noticed there was more to this city on the bend in the Missouri River than the infamous odors. Every year with our Christmas cards and in other correspondence throughout the year I quite proudly declared where we live as “Sioux City — It’s not as bad as it smells.”
Now I realize Sioux City isn’t “Sewer City” anymore.