Roadtrip Iowa: 10 Sites - American Gothic to Buddy Holly
Some people think: corn. Some people think: politics.
I think: variety. My state is just north of Iowa, so I’ve ventured through more than once.
Here are 10 eclectic things to see if you’re passing though.
The American Gothic House - Eldon, Iowa
1) Grant Wood's American Gothic site - Eldon, Iowa
Off the beaten path lies the rustic house used as the backdrop for Grant Wood’s iconic, American Gothic, in Eldon, Iowa. Pitchforks and costumes are kept handy so passersby can stop and pose for future Christmas cards and screen savers.
The actual 1930 painting is housed in Chicago’s Institute of Art. Wood’s sister, Nan, posed as the woman; his dentist posed as the man. I like the way the 3 lines of the pitchfork are echoed in the farmer's face, overalls and the house's window.
If you want to see other Grant Wood (1891 - 1942) paintings, visit the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art - they have the largest collection in the world. You can also tour Wood's studio nearby.
Eldon and Cedar Rapids, Iowa
2) Surf Ballroom - Clear Lake
Buddy Holly (“Peggy Sue”), J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (“Chantilly Lace”) and Richie Valens (“La Bamba”, “Donna”) played their final concert here at the Surf Ballroom for the Winter Dance Party, February 2, 1959. After the show, heading to the next night's gig in Moorehead, Minnesota, their small airplane crashed just minutes after takeoff during a snowstorm, in a nearby farm field, killing all aboard. Newlywed Holly was 22; Richie Valens was just 17.
The ballroom looks just as it did in 1959. You can sit in one of the retro wooden booths that rim the beach club-themed stage or pose with the old black rotary phone Buddy used to call home that night. Reproductions of the original tour posters are available at the small gift shop as are postcards, key chains and 50’s style shirts.
Surf Ballroom booths
Phone used by Buddy Holly & Richie Valens
The crash site is located 5 miles north of the Surf in a cornfield on private land.
There is a small plaque shaped like 3 record albums and a guitar commemorating the trio at the spot; visitors can ofen be found quietly filing out between the rows of corn to pay their respects, leaving pennies, flowers or guitar picks.
Memorial in cornfield - Buddy Holly crash site
Buddy's Influence on The Beatles
If you listen to Buddy’s hit, “Words of Love”, you can see where The Beatles got their fresh, melodic sound. Buddy recorded the song in 1957, tracking his own lead and harmonies separately, then joining them together. The Beatles covered Buddy’s hit on their Beatles for Sale album, recorded in 1964. Paul McCartney was and is a huge Buddy Holly fan; he owns the rights to Buddy Holly's songs and narrated the film The True Buddy Holly Story to set the record straight after the Hollywood-ized Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, played loosely with the facts.
Don McLean's hit song, American Pie, described the loss as "the day the music died". Today, more than 50 years after that final concert at the Surf Ballroom, the music lives on.
Buddy Holly - Words of Love
The Beatles doing Buddy Holly's Words of Love
How to Find the Surf Ballroom
Buddy Holly - Think It Over
3) The Music Man
Ten miles east of Clear Lake is Mason City. If you ever saw the musical “The Music Man” about a con man who tries to trick Iowa townsfolk into purchasing marching band equipment (featuring a 7 year old Ronnie Howard), you’ll enjoy Mason City. It is the birthplace of author Meredith Wilson who based the story on his hometown.
Music Man Square features a 1919 style streetscape with a soda fountain, shoppes and Music Man museum all constructed to resemble sets from the 1962 film. Wilson's Queen Anne style boyhood home is also available for touring.
Future director Ron Howard in The Music Man: super cute, but this is why rock & roll was invented
Music Man Square & Stockman House, Mason City
4) Frank Lloyd Wright's Stockman House - Mason City
Also in Mason City is architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Stockman House. Built in 1908, the Stockman is a fine example of Wright’s Prairie School architecture. Wright revolutionized home designs of his day by introducing spaces that flowed into each other, without dividing walls, much like what is still popular today.
The Stockman House is furnished with Arts and Crafts style furniture and Wright designs. We got a private tour of the place since we were the only patrons there. Nice FLW coffee mugs and notecards for sale too.
Mason City is home to several other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, including The Historic Park Inn Hotel, which opened in 1910. One hundred and one years after its original opening, restored to its original design, the hotel reopened in 2011 as the last standing hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
5) Bridges of Madison County - Winterset
Yes, there really is a Madison County, although you won’t find Clint Eastwood or Meryl Streep here. It’s a relaxing step back in time. We enjoyed checking out the six different covered bridges in the area – pick up a map to the sites in town and you’ll feel like you’re on a treasure hunt. Our kids enjoyed the English hedge maze located next to the Cutler-Donahoe bridge.
Holliwell Bridge with bird nest - Madison County
Cutler Donahoe Bridge- Madison County
Also in Madison County's Winterset: antique gas pumps, little shops lining the town square, and the birthplace of actor John Wayne, open for tours. If you have time, check out the hot air balloon museum in nearby Indianola for balloon launches.
How to find Winterset
6) Effigy Mounds National Monument
Effigy Mounds National Monument – Located on Iowa’s eastern border, you’ll find a quiet, secluded National Monument with great views of the Mississippi River below. Effigies are lumpy mounds of earth used as burial grounds by Native Americans many years ago. Viewed from above, these mounds form the shapes of eagles, serpents, bears and other animals. The visitor center offers a short film and a Junior Ranger program where kids can earn a special patch.
7) Field of Dreams movie site - Dyersville
Dyersville – If you’ve seen Kevin Costner’s movie Field of Dreams you may enjoy visiting the ballfield and adjoining cornfield located just over the border from Illinois in Dyersville, Iowa. The film combined three all-American treasures: baseball, corn, and James Earl Jones, whose baritone voice intones, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball... baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again”. Jones, famous as the voice of Darth Vader, could almost convince even me that baseball is the answer to all life’s woes. If you build it they will come.
Also in Dyersville is the popular Ertl Toy Museum. Die-cast John Deere tractors and other metal farm toys are on display and available for purchase. Many a Midwestern kid grew up with these things, so I’m told by my husband. According to their website, www.rcertl.com, in the last 20 years alone, they've sold over 58 million of these sturdy tractors and farm implements. As Linc, from the Mod Squad, would say, "Solid".
Where to find Field of Dreams - Dyersville, IA
8) Laura Ingalls Wilder site - Burr Oak
Anyone who’s read the beloved Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder or enjoyed the tv show from the 1970s knows that Laura was born in a log home in Pepin, Wisconsin in 1867, then moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota (Little House on the Prairie) and then became a teacher in DeSmet, South Dakota (Little Town on the Prairie).
What some may not know is that Laura and her family lived in Burr Oak, Iowa for a year in 1876-77 at the Master's Hotel. Fleeing Minnesota for Iowa after the grasshopper invasion destroyed their crops, the Ingalls were down on their luck; infant son Charles Frederick, died on the journey, somewhere between Minnesota and Burr Oak, though his actual burial place has never been located.
Visiting the Master's Hotel, seeing the small kitchen where Ma and Laura prepared meals for hotel guests and the back room where the Ingalls all lived, my heart went out to them. Laura and her family persevered, however, and one year later they were able to leave the questionable atmosphere of the Master's Hotel (whiskey and gambling) and return to Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys
Burr Oak, Iowa
9) Herbert Hoover Birthplace and Presidential Museum
Herbert Hoover, (August 10, 1874 – October 20, 1964), was the 31st President of the United States, during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1933. In West Branch, Iowa you can visit the 14X20 foot cottage where he was born. His blacksmith father built the small home, and tried to provide a tight-knit, but strict, Quaker upbringing for Herbert.
Orphaned by age nine, Herbert learned the virtues of patience, community and hard work in West Branch. After a career as a mining engineer, Hoover served as US Secretary of Commerce. He also headed up US food relief and distribution efforts in war-torn Europe after World War I, saving many from starvation.
Herbert Hoover's attempts to halt the Great Depression - raising taxes on the wealthy, construction of public works, such as Arizona's Hoover Dam, and eliminating inefficiencies were not enough to stop the slide. Hoover was defeated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1932.
Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum
Where to find West Branch
There are many interesting sites to see on your way through Iowa. And if those don’t do it for you, there’s always the corn.
Which Iowa site would you most like to visit?See results without voting
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