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All-American Iowa

Catherine Ledner Enjoying a meal at Taylor's Maid-Rite, a Marshalltown establishment since 1928.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

Mason City, the place the music died. It happened in 1959, when Buddy Holly's plane went down in a nearby corn-field. To memorialize this tragedy and to bring a few tourists to the area in the freezing heart of winter, Mason City came up with a festival, Buddy Holly Days, which was later renamed 50's in February because Holly's widow allegedly wanted money for the use of her late husband's name. Can this story be verified?It can't. It is told to me in a downtown antiques store by one of those self-styled local-historian gals who hang around such places during weekdays hoping that someone like me will come along. I consider their small-town tales a grassroots art form and never question them on their facts.

At lunch in the Suzie Q Café, a 1940's prefab diner where delicious, lacy curly fries are manufactured on the spot using a hand-cranked machine clamped to the counter, Lola and I gloat about our purchase of a crystal chandelier for less than $200. There was an item I dismissed, though, that I fear I might never get another shot at: an ancient Parker Brothers board game called Going to Jerusalem that involves moving miniature plastic Jesuses around a series of colored squares representing various biblical holy sites. I spotted it at Marshalltown's Main Street Antique Mall, where it probably still resides today—a dusty testament to the fallibility of the great corporation that gave the world Monopoly.

Heading east into Winnishiek County on Highway 9, we enter the mountains—or what pass for mountains in a state we've been programmed to think of as dead flat. For my money, northeastern Iowa is our country's premier rural landscape, as woodsy and intimate as New England, but with wider horizons and more room to breathe, its sandstone-ridged hills cut by slow tea-colored streams where boys in cutoff denim shorts still fish with cane poles and bobbers, Tom Sawyer style. There are also lots of turtles on the roads. After braking for one of them, I glance off to my left and notice a miniature wooden chapel—capacity: four adults—that I recognize from a tourist pamphlet as the World's Smallest Church. I'll be danged. Well, don't you know.

In sleepy Spillville, along the Turkey River, we tour a museum devoted to the handiwork of the Bily brothers, two woodcarving bachelor farmers of Czech ancestry who, beginning in 1913, spent their winters building large musical clocks of almost inhuman complexity and detail. The museum's elderly lady guide, who wears long white gloves, directs our gaze to my favorite piece, the History of Travel Clock, which is fashioned of butternut, oak, and birch and depicts, beginning at its base and moving panel by panel toward its peak, the evolution of transportation from sailboats to steamships to automobiles to dirigibles to planes. I've never seen a working timepiece to match it, and words can't capture its astonishing intricacies or those of the massive creations flanking it, including the American Pioneer History Clock, which visually narrates the settlement of the continent while chiming the song "America" and dramatizing the Four Ages of Man using little mechanized figurines.

That the self-taught Bilys produced such wonders merely by staying busy on the cold evenings that people nowadays waste watching The Apprentice is a testament to how far we've fallen as a species. What a stunning and humbling museum, and how fortunate for our tender modern egos that it's hidden away in Iowa.

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