Monday, August 12, 2013

"You Really Ought to Give Iowa a Try" -- Travel Recap

What the heck did I do in Iowa for 4 days?

Especially given my excursions to some of the world's great sightseeing cities--London, Paris, New York, Venice, Vienna, etc.--the Hawkeye State might not seem all that exciting a destination.

But considering several of my primary interests--art, architecture, rock 'n roll, musical theater, baseball, movies and more--it shouldn't be too surprising how much I enjoyed much of what I did and saw in between the miles of cornfields (especially for those who saw my frequent on-the-go Facebook posts).

And I even ate better than I typically do in Europe.

This wasn't my first trip to Iowa--on a few occasions each, I've been to Dubuque, the nearby Field of Dreams in Dyersville and Davenport, the latter most recently last year--but this was the first time I got more than 25 miles into the state, having declined to partake in a 1980's family vacation to Des Moines.

While I am not one to traipse in overt patriotism, without direct intent it became clear that legendary Americans were a unifying element in my stops in 10 different Iowan cities. And that's without visiting the towns that gave rise to Donna Reed (Denison), Johnny Carson (Corning), Jean Seberg (Marshalltown), Glenn Miller (Clarinda) or Grant Wood (Anamosa & Cedar Rapids); though I also did not get to Eldon to photograph the American Gothic house, I did see another of Wood's paintings and place it depicts. 

So roughly in order encountered, and meant more as a recap than a travel guide, here's what I saw and did in Iowa between August 1-August 4; I was too early for the Iowa State Fair, somewhat intentionally. (Note: Some photos are mixed in, but most follow at bottom, under a page break.)

Des Moines

- Des Moines Art Center - Across three buildings, designed by esteemed architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, the DMAC has an impressive collection for a city of just over 200,000. Artists represented include Wood, Matisse, Dubuffet, Rothko and Hopper, whose Automat is likely the highlight.

- Salisbury House - An English manor-type mansion built in the 1920s. I only saw the exterior.

- Pappajohn Sculpture Park - An impressive collection near downtown

- Iowa State Capitol - One of the most beautiful I've seen, with informative free tours.

- Principal Park - Home of the Iowa Cubs, who were not in town when I was. My timing was also not right to see minor league games in Clinton, Cedar Rapids, Burlington or Davenport, though I did go to a Quad Cities River Bandits game at the latter last year. 

- Prairie Meadows - In the Des Moines suburb of Altoona, this is a horse racing track with a full-fledged casino. I bet a race and played some blackjack.

- Flying Mango (restaurant) - Highly recommended on TripAdvisor, it provided rather a delicious combo of Cajun catfish and loin back ribs, along with a watermelon margarita and chocolate cake. 

- La Mie (bakery) - Also a TripAdvisor top pick, this was easily one of the best bakeries I've ever sampled.

Clear Lake

- Buddy Holly Crash Site - Rather remote and even harder to find than usual due to some road closings (and unpaved roads), I nonetheless encountered at least 20 other people who had made the pilgrimage during a brief visit. 

- Surf Ballroom - This was where Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) last performed before their deadly plane crash on February 3, 1959. It remains a performance venue virtually unchanged since that fateful night, and after watching a Classic Car Cruise pass by, I caught a cover band called Denny & the DC Drifters. Richie Valens' sister Connie, who now lives in Iowa, was at the show, posed for a photo with me and even sang a few of his songs. 

Mason City

- Historic Park Inn - The only hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that remains in existence. Along with adjacent City National Bank building, also by FLW, the Park Inn went through an extensive renovation, restoring the exterior to its original state while creating a first-class modern hotel. I stayed here for one night and also took a tour. It is absolutely beautiful.

- Stockman House, Architectural Interpretation Center and Rock Glen - The Stockman House is a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that has been beautiful refurbished (and even moved from its original Mason City site). Tours are offered by the Architectural Interpretation Center next door, and several Prairie Homes designed by Wright contemporaries like Walter Burley Griffin are nearby.

- Meredith Willson Boyhood Home / Music Man Square - The Music Man has long been one of my favorite musicals, both on stage and screen. It was written by Meredith Willson, who based "River City" on his hometown of Mason City. Music Man Square is an indoor re-creation of several of the facades depicted in the movie, and includes a museum dedicated to Willson. Next door is his boyhood home, with tours available as part of the Square's $6.00 admission fee.

Downtown Mason City - Not extensive, but enjoyable to stroll with a couple impressive high-rise buildings, including a bank robbed by Dillinger.

- Meredith Willson Footbridge - It doesn't look like the footbridge that figured into the climax of The Music Man, but is named in honor of Willson and offers an impressive panorama.

- Charles H. MacNider Art Museum - This small collection of American Art is enjoyable if without superstar names. But I really enjoyed this photo of Hedy Lamarr by George Hurrell, and an exhibit on puppeteer (heretofore unknown to me) and Mason City native Bil Baird. If you've seen The Sound of Music movie, "The Lonely Goatherd" marionette number was created by him.  
- East Park / 457 Locomotive / Maze - An impressive locomotive known as the Cannonball 457, a large shrubbery maze and a kids playlot featuring Prairie-style structures make East Park a rather enjoyable place to visit Mason City.

- 1910 Grill - Located in the Park Inn and named for the year the building was designed. I enjoyed the Arrabiatta pasta and some terrific Creme Brulee.

- The Quarry (restaurant) - This was also right next to the Park Inn. The Strawberry & Goat Cheese salad and a wonderful Lobster Roll couldn't have been any better.

Winterset / Madison County  

 - Covered Bridges - It's been a long time since I read The Bridges of Madison County and I don't think I've ever seen the movie. But it was fun to see and photograph 4 of the 6 beautiful wooden bridges that remain. I got to Hogback, Cedar, Holliwell and Cutler-Donahoe.

John Wayne Birthplace / Statue - The Duke left Winterset with his family at the age of 4, but though photography isn't allowed, touring the small home now filled with memorabilia was nonetheless pleasurable. And funds are being raised for a much more extensive museum.

- Downtown Winterset - A quaint square built around an impressive courthouse. Supposedly seen in the Bridges movie, including the Northside Cafe, dating back to 1876. I had a good cheeseburger there.

City Park - This large park includes a covered bridge (Cutler-Donahoe) that was moved there, a stone bridge featured in the Bridges movie and the Clark Tower, an impressive stone tower built in 1926 and offering stunning views.

Van Meter

- The Bob Feller Museum - Even if I didn't once meet Feller, signing baseballs at the Field of Dreams store in Woodfield Mall, his story would be pretty impressive. An Iowa farmboy with a 100-mph fastball, signed by the Cleveland Indians before graduating high school, started his first major league game at age 17, won 107 games by the time he was 22, then signing up to join the Navy on Dec. 9, 1941 and serving throughout World War II. He came back to have several more stellar seasons, winning a total of 266 games, but theoretically could have won nearly 100 more if not for the war years. The museum's most prized possession is a bat Feller lent Babe Ruth to lean on during his last visit to Yankee Stadium, shortly before the Babe's death in 1948 (as seen in this photo).

Quick Stops along I-80 Eastbound

- Grinnell - Sullivan Jewel Box Bank - Late in his career, the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan designed several small bank buildings, including three in Iowa. I didn't get there in time for an inside look, but Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell is rather stately.

- Iowa City - University of Iowa / Old Capitol -  Other than Michigan State--and latter entries Penn State and Nebraska--Iowa is the only Big 10 campus I hadn't seen, so I had to quickly drive through Iowa City. I saw Nile Kinnick Stadium, named for the Heisman Trophy winner who died during WWII. (He also had played amateur baseball with Feller.) I didn't spend much time on campus--on a midsummer Sunday night--but saw the Old Capitol, the 1840 structure from when Iowa City was the capital of the Iowa Territory and the first building deeded to the University.

- West Branch - Herbert Hoover birthplace - Despite the homage from Archie & Edith, I don't believe history holds Hoover up as one the greatest presidents, with the Great Depression being a pretty major hiccup under his watch. But he is the only U.S. President from Iowa and the first born west of the Mississippi. To be honest, I was prompted to stop for a photo in the gloaming, only 15 miles east on I-80 from Iowa City, because of having seen this Grant Wood painting in Des Moines, painted while Hoover was president. (Not all of the buildings in the paintings still exist, but the birthplace cottage does.) 

- Davenport - Bix Lives - Having just visited Davenport (and the Quad Cities) in July 2012, I primarily used it as a stopping point on my way home, with a Motel 6 near the Interstate. But I got to town in time to catch the last 20 minutes of the last performance of The 42nd Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, a.k.a. Bix Lives, honoring an early jazz cornetist who hailed from Davenport and died in 1931 at just 28 years old.

And then I crossed back across the Mississippi River and I was back in Illinois, with a full day to get home but not much to compel me to get off I-88 (until I got to Elburn and found a "small sports pub" called Eddie Gaedel's--no, the little guy wasn't from there. A bit ironically, one of the few photos in the bar was the one of Babe Ruth leaning on Bob Feller's bat, which I had seen just the day before).

Based on all that I saw and did, and learned, I am glad to have--per "Iowa Stubborn" from The Music Man--given Iowa a try. 

--> Please click below to see many more photos of my trip to Iowa
(unless you can see them without clicking)

Connie Valens, younger sister of Richie Valens, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I gave Iowa a try for over 20 years, mostly against my will. I was Born and raised in Dubuque and graduated from University of Iowa.

Nevertheless, your Iowa excursion brought back a few fond memories. I think it's time for a return trip.

S. Solomon