Small Towns of "Americana"
Rolling hills, farmlands, and fields of corn sometimes as far as the eye can see, this is Iowa. At least this is what many people perceive Iowa to be. This beautiful Midwest state is considered by many to be one of those “fly-over” states that you just want to hurry to get through. Those believers really miss out on something special.
It’s true that Iowa is full of farmlands and rolling hills, but this state has so much more to offer.If you look into the eyes of Iowa, you will see the unique beauty that it holds.Those rolling hills and farmlands provide a gorgeous forefront for spectacular sunsets!
The best way to enjoy Iowa is by taking a road trip.And there is NO better place to see this state’s beauty than by driving the Western Skies Scenic Byway.This road was designated in 1989 and spans approximately 140 miles. The byway at its eastern point begins in Stuart, Iowa (which is about 40 miles west of Des Moines off Interstate 80), runs north 15 miles to Panora, Iowa intersecting SR 44, then travels west on SR 44 to Missouri Valley, Iowa at the banks of the Missouri River.Along the way you will pass through many small communities, many with their own unique story.
The small communities on the Western Skies Byway are rich with history, and well-worth visiting. Audubon (both the town and county) was named after and dedicated to the famous ornithologist John James Audubon. Although he never officially visited Iowa, he made an impact on its people. A city park in Audubon was dedicated to his life work of art and conservation. Mosaic tiles depicting some of his works line the walkways of the park, and at its center is a statue of his likeness. Audubon is also home to the world’s largest bull, Albert. Albert is a statue of a Hereford Bull who stands guard at the edge of the town. He was built in 1964 and stands 28-feet tall. He was built as a promotional tool to help promote sales of Audubon steer and remains today a symbol of the town’s prosperity and history. So, when you travel The Byway, be sure to visit Albert and take a walk on Audubon’s Bird Walk.
The next stop on your Iowa road trip should be to visit two towns with generational ties to Denmark, Elk Horn and Kimballton.Elk Horn is well-known for its authentic Danish windmill, and the history behind it.In 1975, a local farmer of Danish decent, Henry Sornson, traveled to Denmark to visit his homeland.While there, he saw that time had eroded many of the country’s iconic windmills.Upon his return to Iowa he lobbied the community to raise enough money to buy one of those windmills with the hope of dismantling it and rebuilding it in Elk Horn.Within five months the community was able to raise the funds, and the process of the sale, dismantling, and relocation of the windmill Norre Snede began.Danish carpenters in Denmark carefully and methodically dismantled the windmill, numbering each piece so that it could be reassembled with reasonable ease in the U.S.It took 300 local volunteers approximately one year to reconstruct the windmill, and by the end of 1977 Elk Horn had their own official Danish windmill.
Like Elk Horn, Kimballton has a heavy Danish population, and a fun history. This town celebrates its roots to Denmark with a full-size replica of the Little Mermaid of Copenhagen, which is one of Denmark’s most popular tourist attractions. Kimballton’s Mermaid was sculpted from fiberglass by a pair of college students from California and set in “Mermaid Park” in Kimballton in 1978. Years of exposure had taken a toll on the statue. In 2008 The Little Mermaid (of Kimballton, Iowa) was recast in bronze, and now should stand the sands of time for years to come and for all who live in or visit the town to enjoy. These are only a few stories of the numerous towns along the Western Skies Scenic Byway. Most have their own unique tales to tell.
Wine A Bit
Wine in Iowa? Really? Yes… really. Iowa may not be Napa Valley, but the wines made here are really good. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a connoisseur, or should I say “sommelier”, but I have imbibed my share of wine over the course of my life. I grew up in West Virginia, home of a different kind of “wine”; but taking a short 2-1/2 drive to Erie one can find some good wines. And having visited the wineries in Erie often, I find the Iowa wines very similar. Iowa wines lean to the sweeter side and fruit wines, all of which are good if you can handle their sweetness.
During our drive across the Western Skies Byway we ran across a quaint vineyard and stopped to break up the trip a bit. Breezy Hills Vineyards and Winery in Minden was a great find. The winery was founded in 2004 by Darrell and Roberta Morse. The vineyard is situated on three acres and set up nicely to grow a variety of cold-climate varietals. We met Roberta during our visit to the winery, and she was very gracious and knowledgeable. We sampled several of their wines, taking a liking to a couple of the dry reds, Tamarack Red and St. Croix, as well as the Blackberry wine. We bought a bottle of the Tamarack to go, and I am quite certain that we will buy more online.
Iowa was once the sixth largest producer of wine grapes in the country. However, years of bad weather, war, and prohibition in the 1930’s stunted the growth of the industry. With wineries like Breezy Hills making inroads in the industry, Iowa will soon be back on the map as one of the premier producers of great wines in the country.
The Bridges of Madison County
In addition to Iowa’s Western Skies Scenic Byway, another great drive is the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway of Madison County. This route covers 82 miles and centers around
the town of Winterset, Iowa. For movie buffs, this area was the setting for the award-winning movie “The Bridges of Madison County” starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Over the span of this drive, you will find six covered bridges, some dating back to the late 1800’s. Two bridges are still in use today, Cedar Bridge and Roseman Bridge. The Cutler-Donahoe Bridge was once spanning the North River, about 18 miles northeast of Winterset. It was moved to Winterset City Park in 1970 to rebuild one-third of the bridge’s roof and structure, and to make it ready for the city’s first Covered Bridge Festival.
The covered bridges are a great focus, but don’t forget about Winterset. From ice cream parlors and parks to its majestic county building, the City of Winterset is a great piece of Americana itself. Winterset is the county seat for Madison County; and it’s county building was built in grand fashion for this small town of less than 1,000. The town bakery makes some really delicious donuts and eclairs (or Long John’s as they called them). And the owner doubles as one of the town’s real estate agents. Antique stores, barber shops, and a town market are all also present… and let’s not forget ice cream parlors. Grab an ice cream cone and take a stroll through this quaint little town. You’ll feel young again, but young in another era. Those “good ol’ days” still exist in Winterset.
Gateway To The West
Before we toured this underrated region of the United States, if someone asked me what city is considered the “gateway” to The West I would’ve replied St. Louis. After visiting Iowa and having the chance to stay in Council Bluffs, Iowa for a few days I would answer differently. Council Bluffs, located directly across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, was an instrumental city in the development of the early railroad system in the United States. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln approved the Pacific Railroad Act, and as a result The Union Pacific Rail Road company was born. The act itself provided for the construction of railroads from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. The first western railroad was constructed westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa to meet the Central Pacific Railroad line which was being built to the east from Sacramento, California. The combined railway Union Pacific-Central Pacific became known as the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Over the past century Union Pacific grew its presence and is today the second largest railway (behind BNSF) in the United States. UP operates over 8,000 locomotives transporting goods throughout 23 states and over 32,000 miles of track. The company headquarters is located in Omaha, Nebraska, directly across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs. The area is rich with railroad history; and a must-see stop to learn more about the history of the U.S. rail systems is The Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
This was only a snapshot of things to do in Iowa. The state offers so much more, not only in the Missouri Valley area but to the eastern side of the state as well. Maybe that will be our next adventure. Who knows? Just remember the next time you think about passing over Iowa or any other “fly-over” state, maybe reconsider. You never know what adventures might be waiting for you.
To wrap this all up, this is the first of a series of blogs covering our adventures throughout the Midwest and Plains states. We, “DNA” (Doc and Alley) from House of Travel, visited eight states over seven days during this road trip. I know this sounds like a daunting and tiring task, but it really wasn’t. Good road trips are thought out and planned out, with some improvising thrown in. The great thing about a road trip is that when you see something that catches your eye, stop to check it out. You never know when you might find that quaint winery with great wines in the middle of nowhere. Until next time… “Keep traveling forward!”