Saving St. James

Hometown Heroes, People
on March 5, 2007
Vicky Koch (top left) chats with Julia Klienschmit Rembert and her children at the St. James Marketplace in Nebraska.

In 2000, St. James, Neb., literally disappeared from state highway maps, leaving behind a single tavern and a vibrant Catholic parish as the only establishments left to anchor the Cedar County hamlet. Little surprise, then, that residents in the rural farming community were devastated later that same year when the Saints Philip and James Church closed and consolidated with neighboring parishes.

In the search to bring hope and vitality back to St. James, five neighbors—Louise Guy, Vicky Koch, Jeanette Pinkelman, Mary Rose Pinkelman and Violet Pinkelman—came together for a revitalization meeting hosted by the Center for Rural Affairs, a rural advocacy organization based in Lyons, Neb.

“We wanted to save our community,” Mary Rose Pinkelman says. “We put our heads together at that meeting and decided to open a weekend marketplace in St. James, where we could keep our sense of community and sell food items and crafts.”

Fortunately, the town was equipped with an ideal location for the new venture. Although the 1918 Saints Philip and James School had been closed to classes since 1968, it had been well maintained by the church for social gatherings.

In May 2001, the five spirited farm women rented one of the schoolhouse’s old classrooms and officially opened the St. James Marketplace with 16 vendors selling farm-fresh food and handcrafted products. The goal was to “be the needle and thread of the community,” offering family-oriented events, quality products and fresh homemade baked goods.

Today, the marketplace occupies the entire building, and nearly 60 vendors sell items such as homemade soaps and lotions, farm fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs, wooden crafts, baked goods, greeting cards and books. The five women oversee the operation, but vendors often pitch in and volunteer as clerks and helpers.

“The major objective of this project has never been about making money,” says Mike Heavrin, cooperative development manager for the Center for Rural Affairs. “It demonstrates when local people work together, the whole community can benefit.”

Connie Gompert is among the beneficiaries, selling her hand-woven rugs amidst the bustling marketplace. “It’s so valuable to have an outlet for rural people to sell the products they make at home,” says Gompert of Center, Neb. (pop. 90). “And it’s such an interesting place with so many local vendors.”

Since the hamlet is void of a performance theater, the marketplace also has become St. James’ cultural center, providing shows in the school’s auditorium. Visitors enjoy performances by cowboy poets, writers and musicians, as well as nostalgic programs that offer a glimpse of local German heritage dating back to St. James’ founding in 1857 in northeast Nebraska Territory. The five women also restored one classroom to show area school groups what classes were like for earlier generations of students.

“You can do so many things in one place,” says visitor Julia Kleinschmit Rembert, who brings her children to several events during the marketplace’s season from May through the first weekend of December.

The marketplace sponsors its most popular event, Heritage Fest, on the last Sunday in September when it revisits the community spirit of old-time church picnics. More than 1,000 visitors watch demonstrations of time-honored activities such as picking corn by hand, hand-shelling grain, baking bread and separating cream.

Like their vendors, each of the founders “uses their own unique God-given talents,” not only in creating wares to sell at the marketplace, says Jeanette Pinkelman, but also in developing entertainment programs, maintaining the building, planning retail displays and promoting their mission.

“The ladies have achieved a restoration of community to rural northern Cedar County,” Heavrin says. “They demonstrate that there is real grassroots leadership in the area.”

As a result, townsfolk have discovered new talents, rediscovered a sense of community, and put St. James back on state highway maps. “I guess all of us are over-achievers,” Violet Pinkelman says. “Opening the marketplace helped us through the loss of our parish and we have been supported very well.”