Gordon Canfield, Grinnell’s mayor of 16 years, has supported our town with down-to-earth politics and fresh ideas for Grinnell’s growing communities. The S&B’s Meg Schmitt sat down with Canfield last Tuesday to talk about pig farms, trains and the growth of the Grinnell community.

Did you always see yourself as mayor?  

No, not at all. I’ve always been active in politics, Republican politics, back when it still wasn’t such a bad thing. The former mayor was active in local politics and I saw him and became friends with him through that. Well, right before he died he called me over and said ‘I’d like you to be mayor of Grinnell’ and, well, I’ve been elected every two years since! Going on 15 years, I think, [since 1997]. Nobody else wants the job evidently. Nobody’s ever run against me. And I have no concept of how to mount a campaign because I’ve never done it. For all these years, 15 years or so, I have spent a total of $38. And that was for a thank you note in the town paper a few years ago.

What are some of the challenges facing Grinnell as a city?

A lot of challenges to me are opportunities that just haven’t been met yet. There are many people in town who would like to see Grinnell stay a small town, just like it was 50 years ago, but that’s not possible. The challenge is to keep families moving in … The biggest challenge for the city is to keep the environment open in such a way that companies will come here and bring their families here. You’ve got to have kids to fill up the classrooms in school.

Housing is a tremendous problem. We have to convince [businesses] that Grinnell is the place and they get leery about expanding here because of housing. A lot of people don’t believe these studies are accurate that show 26 percent of workers in-commute. They don’t live in this zip code.

There has been a lot of publicity surrounding the increasing numbers of CAFOs around Grinnell in Poweshiek County. What is your perspective on that trend?

That’s strictly a rural problem. All I can say is that a lot of this isn’t so much against raising pigs as it is against large corporate farms. But those people who make those objections should know that even as a family farmer, in order to make a living, you don’t raise a few pigs, you raise many pigs. It’s not our fight, and I’m glad it’s not ours—it belongs to the rural areas … [but] you would hear us raising hell if they decided to put a CAFO within two miles of town.

What have been your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

I enjoy being around people. I really do. I’m not a highly educated person but I love being around people in Grinnell because there’s such a mix. I get to hobnob with college students and college faculty, and administration, and I sit and have coffee with some of the reddest rednecks you’d ever seen! And I just absolutely love it, all people. Every town has some strange people in town, but I always say ‘they all vote!’ I try not to have any enemies. I say kind of tongue-and-cheek but kind of not, in order to be mayor to all people in Grinnell, you have to be half socialist and half Republican. I’ve become much more liberal.

[As for least favorites,] well I hate to say no to people, and there are times when it’s hard for an ordinary citizen to understand why we have a certain ordinance of one kind or another, and they don’t wish to comply with it and they think they’re in the right.

What are some projects you have been working on?

In addition to being mayor, I’m also president of the Iowa Association of Railroad Passengers (IARP). We’re a small organization, but we’re a group of people who have been promoting for many years for the reprise of passenger rail service. And it’s pretty darn close to happening; we are that far away. But that far away is millions of dollars [laughs]. A study has been made and the first part of the study shows that the best path to go from Chicago to Omaha is this line, so we definitely are going to use Iowa Interstate Railroad. It’s also pretty definite that we will have a stop in Grinnell, but now having said that, that depends on how much support we get to have it stop here. … If you think of Iowa out here in the middle of nowhere, what happens to the product of Iowa? Where do they sell it? China, Korea, Russia … In other words, we’re a global producer, and we’re not a consuming state, we’re a producer state. We’ve got to get product to the world, not just to Chicago or Omaha. So if we can enhance rail service to move freight faster to the destination, then that will increase the competitiveness of Iowa. At the same time, that improvement will mean that passenger rail service could be a regular thing here. So that’s kind of what I go on. Passenger rail, it’s going to happen. The site has tentatively been chosen, you’ll be glad to know it’s fairly close to the College—it’s just across on High Street. All this is yet to happen. The first rough estimate is about 2.5 to 3 million dollars. When it all gets set up, they estimate Grinnell to Chicago will take around five hours, $60 round trip. I think it’ll run the buses out of business.

Mayor Gordon Canfield, long-time resident and head of Grinnell’s community since 1997.