SIBLEY, Iowa — Twenty-eight years ago, Massachusetts native Dan Shaughnessy arrived in Iowa, eager to change his lifestyle.
“I’d been in Connecticut, which had a very high cost of living,” Shaughnessy recalled earlier this month. “I have a brother who lives in Greenville, a couple of miles south of Spencer, and he made it easier because he was someone who kind of knew the place; he’d come out here a year before me.
“I had four kids and a wife, and I got a job in Hartley at the meat plant at the time.”
Nearly three decades later, Shaughnessy still lives in Hartley. He’s now divorced and his kids have grown, and employment at the meat plant is in the distant past. Since April 2006, he’s owned and operated Shaughnessy’s, a bakery in downtown Sibley that represents a continuation of a career he first delved into while in high school.
Shaughnessy had rented and sold medical equipment for a company in Hartley for roughly five years before securing a job at a bakery in Spencer. He eventually was contacted by Kim’s Bake Shop in Sibley, which had formerly been Jim’s Bake Shop and just changed ownership.
“They called and they needed a baker, so I went to work here,” he said. “Then, they sold it nine months later to me.”
A baker’s life
The life of a baker can certainly include some crazy hours. Shaughnessy used to arrive at work as early as 2 a.m., but that’s changed somewhat in recent years.
“I have my granddaughter now, so I don’t come until about 4 or 4:30,” he explained. “I used to come at 3 and at 1 on Saturday, and I still come in early on Saturday but not quite that early. My son (Jim) comes in and fries donuts for me … and we’re ready to open at 7.”
Shaughnessy has continued to bake “pretty much the same stuff” over the years, including a lot of donuts as well as plenty of hamburger buns.
“Cakes are now starting to get popular again,” he said. “Last year was a horrible year. We already have a couple of weddings lined up along with graduations. A lot of the elderly people are just starting to come out again — and they’re your consistent customers.”
One of Shaughnessy’s most popular baked goods, he said, is called a General, the name coming from the mascot of the Sibley-Ocheyedan school district. The donut is filled with creme and has nuts on top.
Another frequently purchased treat from Shaughnessy’s is the bakery’s apple fritter.
“You can say the apple fritters are the best around,” Shaughnessy said.
Shaughnessy prepares plenty of buns, too, for individuals as well as for soup and pie suppers around the region. He also delivers baked items to the grocery store in Hartley, and also supplies donuts for both the Dyno’s Convenience Store and Jackrabbit Junction in Sibley. It remains to be seen how Shaughnessy’s business will be affected by the potential arrival of a Sibley Kwik Star location, which is tentatively scheduled to be built sometime this fall.
Labors of love
Shaughnessy grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. He’s a first-generation American, as his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland just 45 days before he was born. He has three brothers and four sisters, with another brother who is deceased.
Shaugnessy’s roots are evident in both his last name and the accent that remains in his voice nearly 30 years after his relocation to the Midwest. He had taken college courses at Salem State University in Massachusetts with an intent on pursuing a teaching degree, but said he ended up not completing his degree because he needed to earn money. He ultimately began working for ARA Services, and spent approximately 25 years with the company before leaving Connecticut for the less costly — and less frantic — lifestyle of Iowa.
After his 2006 purchase of the Sibley bakery, Shaughnessy said he benefited from the assistance of his young children (“child labor,” he added with laugh) who were still at home. These days, another youngster — his 17-month-old granddaughter, Jaila (Jim’s daughter) — can occasionally be spotted inside the business, though she’s not quite yet on the payroll.
Jan Harskamp, who worked at Jim’s (then Kim’s, then Shaughnessy’s) for 40 years, retired around Christmas 2019, Shaughnessy said. He has a part-time person who works mornings from 8 to noon as well as a part-time high school student who also helps out.
A few years ago, Shaughnessy would frequently work until as late as 5 p.m., even after his ultra-early morning arrival. When at a normal level of busy-ness, he’d bake close to 300 donuts every day. And, for at least 15 years, he cleaned a church in Sheldon after bakery hours, though he’s since retired from that activity.
On a good day, Shaughnessy said, he’s at the bakery until about 3 p.m., though the longer he works, the more product he can produce. With people’s lives slowly returning to normal in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few longer days are likely in his future.
At age 63, Shaughnessy said he has no plans to retire now.
“I’ve got my regulars, and I make enough to get by,” he said. “I’m really not in this to get rich.”