Can A Pinch Of Spice Boost One Small Town?

hartman salt shakers

It has always been generally assumed that to bring in tourist dollars, a city has to have culture, arts … or at least a hill.

But now the Iowa town of Traer - as in "au contraire," is about to challenge that basic premise. And it's one of the more unusual things that's been tried.

"Oh, I hope so," said Ellen Young, director of Traer community betterment.

She's the one who approached City Council with the idea - the idea to spend roughly $13,000 of local sales-tax money on roughly 13,000 salt-and-pepper shakers.

Needless to say, it's become the talk of Traer.

In the hardware store, a clerk asked a customer: "What do you think of the salt-and-pepper deal?"

The customer said: "What are they gonna do, they gonna put 'em in a museum or somthin'?"

"They're talking about building a brand new building," the clerk said.

The customer replied: "You've got to be kidding me."

Council has already given tentative approval.

"You mean the town OK'd that?" the customer said.

In fact, only one council member voted against it.

"I mean, how do I justify that?" said Councilmember Dean Ordt. "We only have police protection like six hours a day, and we're buying a salt and pepper collection?"

The collection currently belongs to an 84-year-old woman named Ruth Rassmussen. She began hoarding in 1949 and has since amassed such a titanic collection it takes up much of her house and two outbuildings.

"They walk in this door, they're just like 'ohhh!'" she said.

Plus she's confident people will want to come and see them. The bar for what makes a tourist attraction is set pretty low around here. Aside from nearby Brandon's giant frying pan, there's really not much to see.

"The salt-and-pepper shakers are nice," said one resident. "They're pretty. She's got a nice collection."

It's enough to make many locals optimistic. "I think it'll be great," said one.

Some, perhaps a little overly so.

"I think they'll be an enormous amount of people that will come from the East and the West Coast," another said.

Ellen Young isn't going quite that far. But she remains convinced this purchase is worth its salt - and its pepper.

"Can you think of anything more Americana?" she said. "I mean, it's just a part of everyone's life."

Hartman said to her: "I grew up with towels and bed linens but I wouldn't necessarily want to go to a museum of it."

"Oh, I would go to that!!!" Young laughed.

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.