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More than corn: Iowa charms visitors with small attractions

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa is more the Heartland of America than it is the middle of nowhere. There is no great metropolis here, no landmark monuments or places, as they say, which command you to visit at least once in a lifetime.


DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa is more the Heartland of America than it is the middle of nowhere. There is no great metropolis here, no landmark monuments or places, as they say, which command you to visit at least once in a lifetime.

But before you put Iowa in your rearview mirror for the temptations of St. Louis or Kansas City across the Missouri border, check out what the Hawkeye State has to offer.

Iowa is the birthplace and final resting place of a president, as well as some of the country's most revered actors and entertainers, artists, athletes and journalists.

One of the world's great rivers, the mighty Mississippi, spans the state's eastern border.

Iowa is also home to perhaps the most famous of all state fairs, indeed that "State Fair," the one immortalized on film and stage. Hollywood also made Iowa its "Field of Dreams," and Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep told the story of "The Bridges of Madison County."


From major universities to casinos to railways to riverboats, Iowa is much more than the Corn Belt of America. Did you know that Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were killed in a plane crash here, or that Cary Grant died suddenly on the evening of a performance in Davenport, Iowa?

Buddy Holly to Dwight D. Eisenhower

Iowa is divided into four geographical areas by interstate highways 35 and 80. If you enter Iowa from Minnesota on I-35, you can experience a lot of what the state has to offer in less than a week by concentrating your travel primarily in the northeast section.

Begin your journey in Clear Lake, about 40 miles south of Albert Lea, Minn., just off I-35. This is where the music died, as sung by Don McLean in the rock classic "American Pie." The place where on Feb. 3, 1959, a plane transporting Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the "Big Bopper," J.P. Richardson, crashed in a farm field just north of town, killing the three singers and their pilot.

Holly, Valens and Richardson were on tour and flying to Fargo, with plans for a two-night gig in Moorhead.

The Surf Ballroom, where the singers played their final concert on that fateful night, is worth visiting in and of itself -- not to mention its historical significance. Call the Surf or check with the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce for a performance schedule.

The Buddy Holly crash site, which includes a memorial to the singers, is located a few miles north of Clear Lake, with maps available at the chamber of commerce.

After leaving Clear Lake, continue south to Boone, located just west of Ames off of I-35. Here, you'll find the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, operating steam or diesel trains daily out of a vintage depot, Memorial Day weekend through Oct. 31.


The 22-mile ride takes passengers over two great bridges, including a 156-foot high trestle. Dinner trains are also available, as well as runs by the Winter Holiday Train three consecutive Saturdays after Thanksgiving.

You can also tour an Iowa railway museum, ride an electric trolley on weekends and browse through the gift shop.

On your way back east toward I-35, don't miss Mamie Doud Eisenhower's birthplace in downtown Boone. The museum includes historical exhibits which chronicle the lives of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the nation's 34th president and one of its most famous war generals, and his First Lady. The museum is open April through October and the rest of the year by appointment.

After leaving Boone, on your way back to I-35, you'll pass through Ames, home of Iowa State University. Sports fans can catch an Iowa State football game in the fall or take in a Cyclone basketball game in the winter. Or just tour the campus.

Bob Feller to John Wayne

Eighteen miles west of Des Moines on I-80 in Van Meter, you'll find the Bob Feller Hometown Museum -- a nice little stop even if you've never heard of the Hall of Fame pitcher.

Did you know, for example, that the baseball bat Babe Ruth leaned on prior to his farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, shortly before his death, belonged to Feller? That bat, as well as other memorabilia linking Feller to contemporaries such as Joe DiMaggio and Feller's good friend, the late Ted Williams, can be found at the museum (the bat was on loan to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown at the time of this writing, but the Feller museum received the right-hander's three no-hit baseballs in exchange).

Feller was also a World War II hero and his biography is a compelling one. Feller's father, for instance, built his son a baseball field, not unlike the Field of Dreams, on the family's property in Van Meter.


Feller, now in his 80s, still makes appearances at the museum and does autograph signings -- usually along with another Hall of Famer -- so be sure to call ahead to see if one of his visits coincides with yours.

Just 18 miles south of Van Meter are the renowned covered bridges of Madison County, found in and around Winterset. Sadly, one of the six remaining bridges burned down in early September, but the others are still listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Robert Waller immortalized the landmarks in his 1992 book "Bridges of Madison County," and Eastwood and Streep spent one summer in the area turning the book into a movie of the same name, released in 1995. Some Winterset residents were extras in the film, and love to tell about their brush with fame and encounters with celebrities.

Maps of the sites of the bridges are available at the Madison County Chamber of Commerce in Winterset. Also note that the Madison County Covered Bridge Festival is set for Oct.12-13, in Winterset.

Here, too, is John Wayne's birthplace. The modest four-room home has been restored to reflect its appearance on May 26, 1907, when "The Duke" was born. An impressive collection of John Wayne memorabilia includes an eyepatch worn in the movie "True Grit," a hat from "Rio Lobo" and a prop suitcase from "Stagecoach."

Hundreds of rare photographs are on display, as well as letters from Lucille Ball, Gene Autry, Maureen O'Hara, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Doublas, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan and George Burns.

Wyatt Earp to Herbert Hoover

After leaving Winterset, wind your way west through the backroads of Iowa, following state highway 92 to Pella, where with a little imagination you might think you're in the Netherlands.


Everything about Pella is Dutch, from the canal, to the 1850s windmill -- largest in the state -- to its architecture. Windmill tours are available as part of a trip through Pella's historical village, which also includes famed lawman Wyatt Earp's boyhood home, a miniature village depicting the Netherlands and lots of Dutch architecture.

From Pella, it's about 82 miles to the historic Amana Colonies, featuring seven old-world villages tucked in the rolling hills of the Iowa River Valley.

Historic sites and museums, working artisans, Iowa's only operating woolen mill, more than 65 specialty shops, restaurants, live theater, nine wineries, Iowa's original micro-brewery, heirloom furniture shops, hiking trails, and an 18-hole championship golf course will keep you busy for a day or as long as you want to spend here.

After leaving Amana, hop back on I-80 and continue east for 34 miles, passing the state's original capital -- Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa -- until you arrive in the tiny town of West Branch.

There, you can visit the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, a history lover's paradise. The museum itself is a treasure, with its bountiful exhibits and artifacts relating to Hoover's life, which was dedicated mostly to serving his country.

The museum also shows numerous documentaries on Hoover, the presidency and related topics in addition to its rotating special events encompassing a variety of similar subjects as well as some dedicated to regional art and history.

You can also tour the Hoover birthplace, his father's blacksmith shop, a Quaker meetinghouse, a pioneer schoolhouse and the President's gravesite.

Grant Wood to the Music Man


For the final leg of your tour through Iowa, begin in Davenport, located 46 miles east of West Branch on the Iowa and Illinois border along the banks of the Mississippi River.

Be sure not to miss the collection of paintings by Regionalist Grant Wood at the Davenport Museum of Art. You won't find his signature "American Gothic" here, but many of his depictions of rural life are.

Next door, the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, one of the state's largest museums and the first one established west of the Mississippi, offers more than 160,000 artifacts and specimens. Here, you'll also find an IMAX Theater.

Don't leave Davenport without taking a ride on the river. The Celebration Belle riverboat offers lunch, brunch and dinner cruises.

Now it's time to head north 71 miles to Dubuque, another old Iowa river town. Be sure to check out Cable Car Square in the historic Fourth Street area at Bluff Street, highlighted by the Fenelon Place Elevator.

Conceived and built in 1882 by a former town mayor who grew tired of the half-hour carriage ride from downtown to his home on the bluffs, a cable car elevates passengers 189 feet from the base.

It is billed as "the world's shortest, steepest scenic railway," and once at the top it's hard to argue. The perch offers a panoramic view of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Just 27 miles west of Dubuque, in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, is the (baseball) Field of Dreams, looking just as it did at the time of the release of the 1989 film. Baseball fans know the rest of the story. Bring your bat, ball and glove and "have a catch," or just sit in the bleachers and dream.


The National Farm Toy Museum is located in Dyersville, three miles southwest of the Field of Dreams.

Next stop, River City. Make that Mason City, which noted song writer and playwright Meredith Willson based his fictional city on in The Music Man.

Don't you know we got trouble, right here in River City?

Visit Music Man Square, featuring a 1912 streetscape with an ice cream parlor/soda fountain, candy kitchen and gift shop, all in set designs from the movie. Also visit a museum highlighted by Meredith Willson memorabilia, music-related exhibits and a children's exploratorium.

The Meredith Willson Boyhood Home and the Music Man footbridge will also likely amuse and bemuse fans of the musical and curiosity seekers alike.

Also here is Stockman House, the only Prairie School house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Iowa.

From Mason City, it's only eight miles back to Clear Lake, and you have come full circle. Now, can you put Iowa in your rearview mirror.

Shriver is a freelance writer living in Des Moines, Iowa. He can be reached at cubzfans@msn.com

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