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By Cindy Hadish
ONEIDA, Iowa — An Internet-savvy grandmother has helped fuel worldwide name recognition for this unincorporated township set among the farm fields of northeast Iowa.
On any given day, 77-year-old Genny Bennett might talk to a customer in Germany, Australia or other countries around the globe, as they place orders to Oneida Nameplate Co.
“I should have retired long ago, but it’s never been more interesting,” Bennett said, citing an increased demand for the medical alert bracelets the company makes. “People call in and I love to chat with them. Sometimes we have to look it up on a map and see where they’re calling from.”
A growing number of customers with food allergies, diabetes, and conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, use the bracelets and medallions to notify emergency medical personnel of their condition in case the patient cannot communicate.
A breast cancer survivor, Bennett can relate to their difficulties.
“I like to encourage them,” she said. “It gives them hope.”
Christmas has become a busy time as the company segued into beaded bracelets and Black Hills gold jewelry that combine beauty and practicality as gifts.
Even with those factors, however, this year has been slow.
Bennett pointed to Google search engine algorithms as the issue. When that method changed, Oneida Nameplate’s website was no longer near the top of online searches.
“We’re just a small niche,” Bennett said. “At one time, we were one of three companies. Now there are 300 or more.”
Most of those companies have online experts to run their websites, she said. Genny and her husband, Don, 85, have had to learn as they go, as they have for nearly 50 years.
The couple founded their business in 1963. Then in Chicago, the newlyweds eventually made their way back to Iowa. Attracted by a vacant schoolhouse they purchased to serve as home and business headquarters, the Bennetts moved to Oneida in 1971.
“We raised our kids there,” Genny said of their son and daughter. “We like it this way. It’s rural and I grew up on a farm.”
At its peak, about 300 people lived in Oneida, which boasted a bank, barbershop, hotel and other businesses. Three rail lines that converged in Oneida long ago ceased passing through town.
Oneida’s population of 60 or so in the 1970s has dropped by half since then.
Residents decided Oneida should disincorporate in 1994.
Oneida Nameplate has been the only business in town for some time, now situated in a former farmers Grange building and employing a good tenth of the population.
Stepping inside the tidy building is akin to seeing Santa’s workshop in action.
Employees deep-engrave the charms and medallions and hand-polish each piece. Genny Bennett noted that the modern laser engraving used by other companies becomes illegible after a short time.
“Our products last forever,” she said, citing customers who wear bracelets they purchased decades ago.
Don Bennett punches out each piece in a separate workshop and handles orders for trophies, another arm of the business.
Neither plans to retire anytime soon. The couple’s three grandchildren might someday decide to run the company, but that task more likely will fall to current employees.
Genny said she would miss talking to customers, citing a conversation she had with a woman in Germany.
The woman said she saw a castle when she looked outside her window and asked what Bennett saw.
“I’m looking out at cornfields and soybeans,” Bennett replied. “Here we are in the middle of nowhere and sending stuff around the world.”