The Town Where It’s Fun to Be a Grouch

The town of Readlyn, Iowa, is located in the northeastern-ish part of the state, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Des Moines. (Here’s a map.) It’s a small town — as of the 2022 census, there are 845 people there, up 4.6% from 2010. By their own attestation, the people living there are very neighborly — well, most of them are, at least. When you enter the town, you’ll see the sign below, proclaiming that Readlyn is the home of 857 friendly people… and one old grump.

And being that grump? It’s probably the highest honor anyone in Readlyn can hold.

Like many small towns, Readlyn has a history rooted as much in folklore than in fact. In 2022, Charlie Albrecht, a town resident, told the story to the Waverly (Iowa) Newspaper:

“As the story goes, this is how the Grump came to Readlyn,” he started.

The railroad came through in 1904 and a “bum-looking fellow” got off the train.

“He had long scraggly hair and a scraggly beard, and he got off.” The [not-quite-857] friendly people in town acted as friendly people will and wished the stranger “Good morning!”

“And he didn’t answer them,” Albrecht continued. “He just shrugged his shoulders and walked around kind of hunched up.”

The stranger didn’t get back on the train and was around the next morning, when the townspeople wished him a good morning, but he again ignored them, so their greetings soon changed to “Good morning, old grump.”

For a year he stayed around Readlyn, grumpy, until he finally found something to laugh about (the amusing event was unclear in Albrecht’s memory), and the man became friendly.

In the 1980s, the town decided to enshrine this story in its modern traditions and its roadway signage. Per the 1980 census, Readlyn was home to 858 people. The grump from the early 1900s was long gone, but the story had persevered. So the town decided to honor the grump and the local history by electing an honorary grump. And to make the tradition visible to outsiders, the town also erected the sign seen above.

The rules for election don’t allow for just anyone to be the “old grump” — you don’t need to be actually grumpy, but you do need to be at least 65 years old. (Whether that constitutes being “old” is left to the reader to decide.) And it’s expected that the grump be a longstanding contributor to the Readlyn community. The successful candidate is typically a valued and productive member of the local community, too. In 2022, the Readlyn Chronicle profiled each of the four candidates (pdf here), and each talked about their ties to the area: most grew up locally, held multiple volunteer positions in the immediate region, and had started local businesses. And each candidate provided a headshot, too, although I’m not quite sure what’s going on with Larry Pavelec’s, as you’ll see if you click that link.

The position is wholly ceremonial, with the Grump appearing at all of the town’s events over his or her one-year term. The Grump does get a prize, though: a crown. At the end of a ten-day period in mid-June called “Grump Days,” the outgoing Grump coronates the new one — with a plain white baseball cap. It’s something only a grump could appreciate.

Bonus fact: The British £5 note features a picture of Winston Churchill looking rather grumpy, as seen here. The reason why? Churchill was, actually, annoyed — because he couldn’t smoke. The photo was taken in 1941 by Yousuf Karsh, a young photographer who was surprised to even get the opportunity. As Smithsonian explains, Churchill wasn’t initially interested in posting, and even after agreeing, wasn’t the easiest subject to work with: “Karsh readied the equipment but, just before taking the picture, he placed an ashtray in front of Churchill, asking that the prime minister remove the cigar from his mouth. Churchill obstinately refused, and Karsh was perplexed: the smoke from the cigar would certainly obscure the image. He returned to the camera, ready to take the picture—but then with lightning speed, Karsh leaned over the camera and plucked the cigar from Churchill’s lips.” The photo captures Churchill’s immediate — and rather grumpy — reaction.

From the Archives: The Eye Shield That Keeps the Grumps Away: How sunglasses keep us from getting grumpy.