Investing in Community: Gaston’s The Barking Cow

Mural on the Barking Cow painted by Sarah Shaffer

First, A Little History: 

In elementary school, I remember going to a school convocation in Harrison Elementary where a woman taught us about the history of Gaston. All I remember is that the town sprang up in the 1850s because of the natural gas boom. Thus the name Gas-town – Gaston. The pocket wasn’t as big as what folks thought and once the pocket dried up, the town began to shrink.

One of Gaston’s Two Water Towers

I also remember, though it’s somewhat hazy, taking a tour of “downtown” Gaston as an elementary student. There was a deli and small grocery store where Johnson’s gas station is now. The post office was there and the Mill Street and the funeral home. We went by “the doctor’s house” the largest and nicest house in town that was said to have been owned by the town’s doctor once upon a time. I distinctly remember wanting to go in and see its grandeur. I imagine by standards of opulence it likely pales in comparison to other houses in the area, but I knew it must be nicer than mine. 

The Main Intersection in Town

Although the gas dried up, farmland surrounding the town is fertile and has kept the area agrarian. The middle/high school I attended was built in 1969 and consolidated Harrison and Washington townships. 

I feel like there must have been more to the tour and more about the history, but this is all I can come up with. 

Last I checked, there are still fewer than 1000 people living in Gaston and the general trend is that it’s shrinking as more and more young people move away. It was always an assumption and foregone conclusion that I would leave and wouldn’t come back. A perceived lack of economic opportunity and nearby places encouraged my leaving and now make it feel impossible for me to return no matter how much I might want to.

My parents are active community members. For example, they frequently support the town’s restaurant – The Mill Street Inn (not actually an inn) and chat with the other farmers who hold table there. Everyone knows what they want and they know the owners and staff by name. Likewise, my stepdad works with other local farmers to try out innovative farming practices, and my family purchases their beef and hog meats from local farmer friends. My youngest brother also runs Schlenker Bros Sweet Corn by planting, tending to, harvesting, and selling sweet corn. While I was home, folks were already calling to see if it was ready. Despite all this involvement, I felt like I could never envision what investing in the community – especially through new businesses – could look like. Maybe it’s just a lack of imagination on my part, but I don’t think I’m alone in it.

Regardless, I had never thought about or felt I had a template for what it could look like to invest in the town itself until recently. 

The Barking Cow: 

Sign for the Cow

When I go back home, it’s to a home that has moved on without me. In some ways it leaves me disoriented and in others I’m fascinated by the change. (Another blog post for another time).

I guess I always expect that anything that pops up won’t be around for very long, but The Barking Cow, an ice cream shop started by Amy and Cary Malchow (some family friends of ours) has been serving the community for several years now. I was happy to see it was still there and to get kind of a behind the scenes tour and ice cream tasting. 

The name is catchy and the ice cream is delicious – many of the flavors are homemade. The store even comes with its own lore and folk story associated with its name:

After the gas dried up, a man from town took to farming, but he only got one cow. Though the cow had no other cow friends on the farm, she did grow up with a number of dog brothers and sisters. 

One night the farmer’s house caught fire and no one else noticed but the cow. In order to get the farmer’s attention, the cow began barking as loud as she could to get his attention – just as she had seen her dog brothers and sisters do. 

She was so loud, the farmer woke up just in time. The Barking Cow had saved the farmer’s life and the farm! Word spread and everyone celebrated The Barking Cow.

What I love about both the story and the establishment is that they are striving to breathe both past and future into the community. The story is being turned into a children’s book that is going to be read at the elementary school. And the ice cream shop has been sold as a franchise with a location now in Muncie (the nearest city). The Gaston location is full of pictures and memorabilia celebrating everything from area farmers, to Wes-Del sports victories, to service members from the distant and not-so-distant past. 

The community’s past adorns the walls, counters, and tables as its present and future walks through the door. 

I sampled a number of delicious flavors in my ice cream flight (the carrot cake was by far the best), and as I talked with co-founder, Amy Malchow, I realized that this is one way for community members to breathe life back into rural towns. Though the ice cream store isn’t their sole source of income, Amy and Cary have chosen to stay and invest in a community that was otherwise dying. They bought the whole building and next door to The Cow is a hair salon, and on the other side is a photography and printing shop.

Breathing Life into Rural Communities

Because Gaston doesn’t have a public library or community center, the Cow and the school serve those community-gathering and community-building roles. Figuring out ways to encourage community members to come together in places that remind them of who they are and who they can be as well as invest (through both time and capital) in community services and spaces seems like a promising way to revitalize rural communities like Gaston.

While I haven’t been able to return (yet), I keep thinking about The Barking Cow and the example it’s setting for all the Wes-Del elementary, middle, and high school students. Hopefully, they’ll realize, in a way I never did, that you don’t have to leave to be somebody. That Gaston, though small, is a town with a culture, though imperfect, worth sustaining. And that they can play a role in that.

For now, my posts on this blog and advocating for the teaching of rural YAL through Literacy in Place as well as my YouTube channel (Reading Rural YAL) will have to do.

I’m thinking this would make for an incredible series. Do you know someone who is working to preserve and sustain your rural town or school? Get a hold of me and let’s honor and recognize the work they are doing.

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