Iowa struck us as beautifully colorful, friendly, and varied. In contrast with Montana, Iowa seems densely populated, despite the fact that it's almost all fields of corn and beans! Moving slowly, we visited several cities and got a good sampling of the state. (Our first time here we concentrated on the area near Mason City, in the far Northeast of Iowa.) Iowa State Capitol
In Des Moines, we visited the State Capitol. We have become State Capitol groupies. We like seeing the flags and the portraits of State legislators whose names are totally unknown to us (except for the rare few who have begun a political career at a state level -- there are remarkably few of these). We enjoy following a tour guide and marveling at the anecdotes of past dramas. This time we attached ourselves to a sixth grade history class and a gifted tour leader who must have been giving his lecture for decades. He and the teacher, who is also experienced and talented, kept the kids interested throughout. The climax for the children was the opportunity to climb all the way to the topmost level of the big dome. The best part for us was hearing the leader tell them "you are Iowans, you know these things (like, for example, the primary crop, and the year Iowa became a state)" He is proud of his state and his enthusiasm was infectious. It was a grand afternoon. Salisbury House
On another day, we visited Des Moines' Stately Home, the Salisbury House. It was built in 1923 by Carl Weeks, a man who had become enormously wealthy by manufacturing and selling face powder. He and his wife had spent vacations in England and loved the architecture of English country mansions, so he duplicated the King's House of Salisbury, England, in his home town of Des Moines. After they died it was left to Drake University, which in turn sold it to the Iowa State Educational Association for use as their headquarters. In 1999 the ISEA transferred the property to the Salisbury House Foundation, which is showing it to visitors and hoping to raise enough money to continue to maintain it. With an explanatory pamphlet in hand, we took the self-guided tour, and also had a peek at the library. Weeks was definitely a reader and book collector, and the Foundation discovered, to its surprise, that the books are worth more than everything else. Much of the value is in important autographs, the guide told us.
We spent a day at the Living History Farms, one of the best recreations of farm and town life that we have seen. By moving Sears, Roebuck house buildings from various places in Iowa, they have recreated an 1875 town along with three strikingly different farms: a 1700 Ioway Indian farm, an 1850 pioneer ox-powered farm, and a 1900 horse-powered farm. At each location, even though the tourist season was now long over, interpreters showed us what it was like to work on the farms or in the shops in town. The 1900 farm family lived in a house which had been purchased mail-order from Sears and Roebuck, and shipped by train - lumber, hardware, and plans - to Iowa. The staff emphasizes that all three are working farms, although the livestock (cows, pigs, chickens, and great big Percheron horses) are collected in the barns of the 1900 farm for the winter.
Closer in time to today, but farther in distance, was the exhibit of artistic work by Alfons Mucha, a Czech artist who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. Mucha is regarded by the art world as just an illustrator, but what illustrations! With his remarkable series of posters boosting Sarah Bernhardt's performances in Paris, he became a leading figure in the Art Nouveau movement (which both of us admire greatly). The exhibition featured an excellent video depicting Mucha's life and art. His descendants, who still control much of his work, sought a museum with a large amount of wall space for this extensive show. The National Czech and Slovak Museum of Cedar Rapids was the only such museum selected in the United States, for a rather unusual reason. The NCSM was hit by the devastating flood of 2008, and a great deal of the material from the museum's permanent collection is still in Chicago in the hands Czech & Slovak museum of conservators and restorers. The museum drew on the support of hundreds of local volunteers (20% of Cedar Rapids residents have Czech roots) to expand and relocate up the hill.
While at the NCSM we also saw dozens of costumes from every region of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a truly beautiful collection.
Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Iowa merited just one stop on our trip. We drove in to shop at Prairie Lights Bookstore, a large independent book store near the edge of the university campus. The most interesting aspect was the literary Walk of Fame, with quotations from famous writers embedded in the sidewalk. Otherwise it appears to be a pleasant city similar to many others of the same size. We were more taken with Grinnell and its smaller but pleasant campus which reminds us of Oberlin, our alma mater.
We paid a short visit to Amana, just west of Iowa City, where one of the longer-lived 19th century communal religious colonies from Germany had located on nearly 30 square miles in the valley of the Iowa River. The colony was mutually owned and quite Vermeer mill, Pella prosperous until a disastrous fire in the woolen and flour mills, followed by the Great Depression and the loss of isolation due to radio broadcasts, led to an end of the communal way of life after some 80 years. Today the Amana towns have museums depicting the old way of life (German is still spoken by many) and shops and restaurants for the tourists.
Pella is another city with aspirations of tourism greatness. It was settled by the Dutch in the 19th century. Now a 40-meter windmill is their anchor sightseeing object, along with a small village with restored or recreated buildings. Ironically, the people staffing Pella village were so involved preparing for Christmas and mailing out tulip bulbs from last Spring's Tulip Time that they could spare almost no attention for tourists.
Burlington is a Mississippi River town, settled earlier than the farmland to the west. In many respects, Burlington has seen its best times decades ago; our opinion is undoubtedly colored by the fact that it was cold, windy and rainy. The bright spot was Snake Alley, which Ripley believes is even more crooked than Lombard Street in San Francisco. It was engineered around 1890 in order to provide a convenient route from the large homes of the businessmen at the top of the hill to the downtown businesses. Since travel at that time was largely horse-powered, the bricks were laid with an eye to providing good traction for the horse's hoofs. Now it provided us a thrilling Snake Alley downhill trip in our pickup truck almost as wide as the "alley" itself. The hilltop mansions represent a wide array of architectural styles, but the district is seedy and not well maintained.
South of Burlington, Fort Madison is named after an army fort started in 1808 to provide military support for the Indian fur trade, and abandoned in 1813 while under siege from the Indians (part of the War of 1812). The old fort was only a memory until archaeological excavations in 1965 unearthed the site under the parking lot of the headquarters of the Sheaffer Pen Company. Again local volunteers rose to the challenge and rebuilt the fort in a nearby but similar tactical location. When we visited, the local girl scout troop was preparing for an overnight, sleeping in the barracks, so there was plenty of cooking food and firing guns! We spoke for a while with the local site manager, a Ph.D. in history, who had been reviewing all the letters and documentation. There was very little record material concerning the military action; most of the correspondence had to do with the Indian Agent and his trading activities. He agreed with us that the Canadians were making more of a celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 than the Americans. Indeed the New York Times just published a column observing that Canada was just a British colony until more than 50 years after that war; still, the U.S. did fail in penetrating or subduing its northern neighbor.