This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States focuses on the great State of Iowa, in the American heartland. Our tour guide today, for a second time, is my Embassy colleague David Edginton. Do you recognize the title he selected? If not, he explains near the end of the article.
* * *
IS THIS HEAVEN? NO, IT’S IOWA.
by David Edginton
In a previous guest post I talked about Oregon, where I grew up and went to university. In 1993 I moved to Iowa, which became my home for the next ten years. Iowa might not be at the top of your U.S. vacation destination wish list, but – with its warm hospitality, authentic Americana flavor, and beautiful natural scenery (including the mighty Mississippi River, serene Iowa Great Lakes region, rugged Maquoketa Caves, and bucolic fields of corn as far as the eye can see) – it should be.
Iowa’s east and west borders are formed by water – the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, tracked by two national scenic byways (the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway and the Great River Road). Between the rivers lie wonderful, diverse, renowned, and sometimes quirky travel destinations, including the birthplace and Presidential library of U.S. President Herbert Hoover, Dutch and German heritage communities, the world’s largest statue of a bull, the famous covered bridges of Madison County, and – of course – the iconic baseball diamond from the movie Field of Dreams.
Nestled amidst the States of Minnesota to the north, Missouri to the south, South Dakota and Nebraska to the west, and Illinois and Wisconsin to the east, Iowa truly sits at the crossroads of America. At 145,743 square kilometers, the State is roughly the same size as the South Island of New Zealand. We have just over 3 million residents, largely living in small towns and rural areas. (Our largest city, the capital of Des Moines, has just over 205,000 people.) We are an independent sort, and our State motto is “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”
Iowa’s nickname, the Hawkeye State, was adopted around 1838, before the territory was even granted statehood. The moniker appears to have originated when when James G. Edwards changed the name of his newspaper to The Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot in tribute to great Chief Black Hawk. Black Hawk was a leader and warrior of the Sauk Native American tribe who had won the respect of friends and foes alike during the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Native Americans have inhabited Iowa for more than 13,000 years, including the Ioway, Sauk, Meskwaki, Sioux, Potawatomi, Oto, and Missouri tribes. The Sauk and Meskwaki are associated with a millenium-old cultural phenomenon along the Upper Mississippi River known today as “effigy mounds.” The regional tribes of the time built mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtles, panthers, or water spirits. Native American lore describes the mounds as ceremonial and sacred sites. Archeologists believe the mounds delineated territories of choice gathering and hunting grounds.
Effigy Mounds National Monument, located just north of the tranquil Mississippi River town of Marquette, preserves 200 of these early Native American earthen mounds. The park has 14 miles of hiking trails and is only accessible by foot in order to prevent deterioration of the site. Park rangers give guided tours and prehistoric tool demonstrations from June to September. It is a must-see when visiting the State.
European exploration was first recorded in 1673 when Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet were dispatched by the French governor of Canada to explore the upper Mississippi River region. On June 17, 1673 they arrived at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, thus becaming the first Europeans to lay eyes on what would become the State of Iowa. One of Iowa’s premier state parks — Pikes Peak State Park – overlooks this spot and is a popular summer destination for camping and hiking.
Beginning in the 1830s American settlements began rapidly appearing in the Iowa Territory as homesteaders came west from the Atlantic seaboard, and by 1846 Iowa had become the 29th State admitted to the Union. By the 1860s, Iowa had become an agricultural powerhouse, supplying huge quantities of food to the rest of the growing nation.
Today, almost 90% of Iowa’s land area is still devoted to agricultural, which remains the largest industry. Iowa ranks first among the 50 States in corn, soybean, pork, and egg production, and 2nd in red meat production, net farm income, and overall agriculture export value. Iowa produces about a quarter of the country’s ethanol and biodiesel fuel. Farming is complemented by vibrant manufacturing, finance, research, and high tech sectors.
Among Iowa’s notable sons and daughters are a U.S. President (Herbert Hoover), Lord of the Rings lead actor Elijah Wood (which makes sense, given how much Iowa looks and feels like the Shire), the iconic John Wayne, St. Louis Rams star quarterback Kurt Warner, a U.S. Vice President (Henry Wallace), polling icon George Gallup, and five Nobel prize winners. Renowned African-American inventor and scientist George Washington Carver studied and then taught at Iowa State Agricultural College (later renamed Iowa State University) in Ames.
I lived in Cedar Falls from 1993 to 2003 and loved every minute of it. Established in 1845 as Sturgis Falls, the city honors its founders each year with a three-day celebration that bears their names, the Sturgis Falls Celebration. It’s the kind of typical American festival seen in small towns and cities across the country throughout the summer, featuring great food, live music, carnival rides, picnics, plenty of community spirit, sports, and a parade right down Main Street.
Downtown Cedar Falls has been nationally recognized as a Great American Main Street, as well as one of the National Historic Trust’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations. Brick sidewalks, public artwork, and vintage lamp posts line the vibrant, historic district where you can enjoy shopping, dining, and entertainment. If you find yourself there and hungry, try my favorite restaurant, Montage, with its award-winning wine cellar. (I recommend either the Southwestern lime chicken or the piñon crusted grouper. And if you crave a taste of home, they have Marlborough-based wines in stock.)
Cedar Falls is also a college town, with the highly regarded University of Northern Iowa (UNI), one of the State’s three main public-fundedtertiary schools. The university is consistently named one of the “Best in the Midwest” by the Princeton Review and has ranked second for twelve consecutive years on the list of best regional Midwest universities by U.S. News & World Report. UNI’s teacher education and accounting programs are considered to be among the best in the nation. (If you are interested in learning more about UNI, contact our Educational Advisor Drew Dumas.)
Iowa’s State capital and largest city is Des Moines, named after the Des Moines River that cuts through the downtown. (The French Rivière des Moines literally means the River of the Monks.) The city has a population of about 205,000, with a greater metropolitan area of approximately 580,000 residents spread across five counties.
The Des Moines metro area has a strong economy led by finance, insurance, services, and trading companies. Forbes magazine ranked it the best place for business in 2010 and 2011, as well as the best city in America for young professionals. It’s also a beautiful, vibrant place with a strong art and culture sector, great restaurants, superb botanical gardens, and one of the most visually stunning State Capitols in the nation.
Set atop a hill, the Iowa State Capitol offers a panoramic view of the city’s downtown and surrounding landscape. The building was constructed between 1871 and 1886, and is the only five-domed capitol building in the country. Among its many stunning features are great windows, high ceilings, and a towering central dome covered with 23-carat gold. I worked as an intern in the Capitol 1991 when I was pursuing my degree in political science.
While living in the city, one of my favorite spots for a study break was the indoor Des Moines Botanical and Environmental Center. Set on the east bank of the Des Moines River, the 5.7 hectares center is one of the most popular tourist sites in the State, with tropical and sub-tropical plants, cacti, succulents, and exotic orchids all collected within a huge geodesic dome. Large koi, white catfish, turtles, and free-flying birds are also housed within the dome.
If you are going to be in Des Moines in August, be sure to visit the Iowa State Fair. A true American classic, the extravaganza inspired the novel State Fair, a broadway musical, and three motion pictures. It draws more than a million visitors each year to enjoy many hundreds of food stalls and exhibitors, 50 different foods on-a-stick, stomach-churning midway rides, a double Ferris wheel, sugar-dusted funnel cake, live country music, and much more.
The Fair places a great deal of emphasis on the agricultural culture of the State, and the program includes the traditional competitions for the largest farm animals — the Big Boar, Big Ram, Super Bull, Largest Rabbit, and even Heaviest Pigeon. There are also livestock shows for sheep, swine, beef and dairy cattle, horses, goats, llamas, rabbits, and pigeons, as well as cat and dog shows. A whopping 30,000 blue ribbons are awarded each year.
For us humans, there are hog-calling, cow-chip tossing, husband-calling, pigeon rolling, rooster crowing, pie eating, monster arm-wrestling, outhouse racing, and many other competitions. You can enjoy the vast baking, handicrafts, and agricultural displays. And you can’t miss the world-famous Butter Cow, an Iowa State Fair staple since 1911.
Yes, the full-sized cow is carved each year out of more than 600 pounds (272 kilos) of creamy delicious Iowa butter, as are a variety of companion sculptures in the same exhibition hall. The array of other butter sculptures varies each year and has included Jesus and the Last Supper, Elvis, Grant Wood’s American Gothic figures, John Wayne, the Peanuts comic strip characters, and Snow White & the Seven Dwarves.
Other great excursions for visitors and residents alike year-round are to towns and villages of European immigrant heritage that have retained their distinct cultures and traditions, including the Dutch-origin town of Pella, the German Pietist communities at Amana, and the Amish communities around Bloomfield.
Today, the landscape in Pella remains distinctly Dutch, with windmills and abundant tulip gardens that help to set the scene. For three days each year in May, Pella transforms itself into Holland in America as it hosts Pella Tulip Time, an annual celebration of the town’s Dutch ancestry. The festival features town residents wearing Dutch attire, parades, traditional Dutch foods, vintage crafts, and tulips. Lots of tulips.
The Amana Colonies are seven villages established by German Pietists and dedicated to communal living. By holding to specialized handcrafts, sustainable living, and traditional German farming techniques, the colonies maintained a self-sufficient local economy, importing virtually nothing from the outside.
Today, visitors can enjoy the culture and heritage of the Amana Colonies, including traditional restaurants, craft and woodworking shops, a winery, a brewery, and an array of seasonal festivals. I am particularly fond of the Ox Yoke Inn Restaurant, whose ample and delicious meals are served family style, holding true to the original Amana Colonies traditions.
You can also combine literature and sightseeing by visiting Iowa’s Madison County. In 1992, University of Northern Iowa business professor Robert James Waller penned one of the great American novels of the later 20th century, The Bridges of Madison County, about a lonely Italian war bride living in Iowa in the 1960s who engages in a love affair with a photographer visiting the county’s famed covered bridges. The book sold 50 million copies and was made into a hit movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Madison County‘s covered bridges are well worth a visit, even if romance does not ensue. Six of the nineteen bridges remain in original condition and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, namely the Roseman, Holliwell, Cedar, Cutler-Donahoe, Hogback, and Imes covered bridges. You can combine your visit to the area with a stop in the Madison county seat of Winterest, the birthplace of iconic American actor John Wayne.
If you are an energetic outdoors type, you can tour the bridges by bicycle. If you’re a serious cyclist, you should come for RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), a seven-day bicycle ride that draws recreational riders from overseas and throughout the United States. The event was born in 1973 when two of the Des Moines Register newspaper’s feature writers decided to go on a bicycle ride and file new stories across Iowa – and ended up picking up more than 300 other riders along the way, creating a State-wide sensation.
Now in its 40th year, RAGBRAI is reputed to be the oldest, largest, and longest bicycle touring event in the world. Riders traverse the entire State – starting by dipping their rear wheels in the Missouri River, finishing when their front wheels hit the Mississippi River, and stopping in towns along the way. The route averages approximately 475 miles (760 km). More than 10,000 official riders participate in the event, with thousands of unregistered riders joining the pack each day.
The tour has a party atmosphere and is great fun. Each year eight host communities are selected as the overnight stops, and those towns lavish traditional Iowa hospitality on the riders with entertainment, feasts, and other festivities. Many riders participate as part of a team, often with a light-hearted approach. For example, Team DAWG are known for barking as they arrive and leave communities, the Subtle Savages ride in kilts, and Team Dragbrai ride in drag.
If you do the ride, you’ll see Iowa’s great natural beauty. The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America, flowing more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km) north to south. A great way to experience the river is to step back in time and take a cruise on a historic steamboat, paddle wheeler, or even Victorian-era luxury liner, referred to as “floating palaces” by iconic American novelist Mark Twain. Two of most prominent ships operating on the Mississippi are the Celebration Belle and Twilight Riverboat.
Another way to explore the Mississippi is by biking or driving along the 3,000 mile Great River National Scenic Byway, which runs the entire length of the river in the U.S. The Iowa section of the road runs from Lansing to Keokuk and presents a wide variety of recreational and entertainment opportunities, from beautiful scenic views of majestic limestone bluffs, to charming river towns such as Dubuque and Bellevue, to boating, fishing, climbing, hiking, and camping options.
I also highly recommend visiting the Iowa Great Lakes, a group of natural glacial lakes in northwestern Iowa. Referred to simply as Okoboji, the area is a popular tourist destination featuring fishing, motor boating, sailing, swimming, water skiing, and lake-front rental houses. When you visit, you’ll see ubiquitious bumper stickers, mugs, and shirts touting the fictitious University of Okoboji, where many locals claim to have received an education. Festivals and sporting events are held under the school’s banner, including the University of Okoboji World Tennis Classic.
Iowa has an extensive system of State parks, forests, and wildlife preserves teeming with abundant, diverse wildlife and recreational opportunities. If you are a bird fanatic, you’ll particularly enjoy the three impressive birding trails, including the Makoke which winds through 8 counties. Perhaps the most unique park in the system, though, is Maquoketa Caves, a system of bluffs, limestone formations, and 13 caves that provide adventure and a chance to explore thousands of years of geological history.
The huge Dancehall Cave includes walkways and a lighting system. Some of the other caves can only be explored by crawling and climbing. A trail system links the caves, formations, and overlooks. Highlights along the walking trail include the dramatic “Natural Bridge” which stands 15 meters above Raccoon Creek, as well as the 17,000-kg “Balanced Rock.” Each season brings exceptional beauty — from spring wildflowers to the lush greenery of summer to fall’s dramatic golds and crimsons to peaceful winter beauty decorated with snow and icicles.
For me, no discussion about Iowa would be complete without mention of the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville. Perhaps it is because I first played baseball with my son there, or that it is emblematic of the perfect calm that one can find on a late summer’s day in the Hawkeye state. The site has always moved me.
If you are not familiar with the movie, it is essentially a story of redemption between a father and his son. “Is this Heaven? No it’s Iowa,” refers to a scene in the movie in which the ghost of famous American baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by Ray Liotta) has just appeared at the Field of Dreams and – amazed by the beauty around him — poses the question to the main character Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner). With a knowing a smile – a smile Iowans know quite well – Kinsella responds, “No, it’s Iowa.”
Kinsella would get no argument from me. Iowa is a very special place that has to be visited to be fully appreciated.
The State is filled with exciting, wonderful things for families and solo tourists to see and do, whatever your interests. You’ll be glad you came. Of course you’ll see new sights, take great photos, enjoy the culture, and have a great vacation, but you’ll also end up developing a personal connection with the places and people that you meet. Iowa is that kind of place.
* * *