Aside from the considerable wreckage left behind by last night's twister, it's a perfect morning in western Iowa. Old men in over-alls, wielding rakes and chain saws, look up from the debris piled on their lawns and wave to my girlfriend and me as we stroll past. A girl of 12 or so whose best friend's sister narrowly avoided death, she claims, when a tumbling maple crushed her bicycle, falls into step with us on a downtown sidewalk and, after asking if we're here to shop and inquiring whether we've eaten breakfast yet, recommends a place for freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Yes, the streets are littered with asphalt shingles and blocked here and there by toppled trees, but that doesn't mean that the little town of Walnut—whose profusion of modest stores crammed with Depression-era glassware, wrought-iron beds, and wooden farmhouse cupboards has earned it the nickname Iowa's Antique City—can't welcome its two newest visitors with a smile.
The girl was right: we're here to shop. Having purchased antiques through the years all over the country, I've learned that Iowa is just the place to look for the sort of pieces I'm most fond of: a little worn, a little beaten up, but designed simply and built to last. If we don't find anything to buy, though, that will be fine, because mostly we've come to Iowa to clear our crowded minds of modern clutter. If the purpose of travel is to refresh the soul, then nothing could be more appealing than a state whose landscapes, towns, and residents seem to embody a time before one's birth. For people who've seen the world, and then some, Iowa is what her aunt's farmhouse was to Dorothy after she'd been to Oz.
We walk from the Antique City Bed & Breakfast—in whose candlelit drawing room we sat out last night's twister reverse-cheating at Scrabble (playing badly on purpose so that our fellow houseguests could beat us)—to what would be called the other end of town if Walnut were large enough to have two ends. The inventories of the antiques shops spill out onto the sidewalks and consist of just the right ratio of trash (a service-station sign riddled with bullet holes) to treasure (a painted-wicker porch swing). The store we like best is the Granary Antique Mall, in a building that's a wonder of rustic craftsmanship, a cavernous ark-like barn of beams and trusses, where Lola, my girlfriend, spots a wooden side table finished in adorable chipped cream paint.
"It's cute, but I'm not sure it's great. Let's pass," she says. This is how antiquers always think on the first day of a journey through new territory. The sense of possibility is high, the space in the SUV is limited, and who knows what awaits one farther down the highway?Something nicer?Maybe, maybe not. The things we pass up in our quest for better things are, very often, the things we long for afterward.
Which is one reason not to pass up Iowa.
Just a few miles south of Walnut, in Atlantic, we stop at a café called Ezzy's—sadly, since closed—for the locally famous Sunday buffet. For less than $10 a head (considerably less) we defy the American Heart Association by pouring white gravy over almost every foodstuff, from scrambled eggs to fried chicken to pork sausage—all flavors the gravy is thought to complement although, in reality, it is indistinguishable from them. In the countrified style of our fellow diners—including a well-mannered multigenerational family with two white-haired grandparents at one end of the table, five blond grandkids at the other end, and a graying middle-aged mom and dad between them whose job is to cut up the kids' and old folks' meat—we sip black coffee after every bite. However, white gravy being the Valium of the plains, we don't feel jumpy when we leave. Indeed, we're almost too sleepy to drive.
We stay the night in tiny Perry, 30 miles northwest of Des Moines, at the eccentrically splendid Hotel Pattee. Thanks to a $10 million restoration by a woman named Roberta Green Ahmanson, who grew up in the town, became a journalist, and married a California financier, the English Arts and Craftsstyle hotel is the fanciest lodging with the plainest setting that I've ever unpacked a suitcase in. Down in the basement there's an immaculate vintage bowling alley, up on the roof there's a modern sculpture garden, and in the chandeliered mahogany lobby there are enough Persian rugs to fly Aladdin to Mars and back. Meanwhile, outside in Perry, there's a laundromat with a broken change machine and a muscle car parked out front whose finish consists of gray primer and off-white house paint.
Every room at the Pattee has a theme. In ours, the theme is colorful folk art—so much folk art in so many colors and covering so many different surfaces, from the desk to the dresser to the TV cabinet, that my mind continues to swarm with purple animal shapes after I shut my eyes to go to sleep. We breakfast the next morning in David's Milwaukee Diner, the hotel's restaurant, where the night before I ate a "Maytag blue cheese cake" that successfully purged the white-gravy taste from my palate. At breakfast, I drink the best coffee I'll ever have in Iowa, admire the railroad-themed murals and décor, and try to remember a funny folk-art dream I had featuring a dancing orange milk-cow.
The antiques trail that morning takes us north and east past rolling lullaby hills and plowed-up fields whose soil is as rich and dark as devil's food cake. In Boone, we knock on the door of an establishment called the Soup & Snoop that I'm hoping can sell me a T-shirt with its name on it, but when no one answers we drive away and find ourselves in the village of Nevada, which proudly bills itself on a roadside sign as The 26th-best small town in America. I ask the owner of a surprisingly funky vintage-clothes store which scientific sociological survey determined Nevada's ranking, but she can't tell me. She seems to grow defensive, so Lola buys a lace dress to cool her down. We make our getaway and head to Marshalltown, where we end up eating lunch at the oddest restaurant in the state, perhaps the nation: Taylor's Maid-Rite.
This story deserves some telling. Maid-Rite is an Iowa-born chain of first-generation fast-food franchises (it was founded in 1926) that never caught on outside of its home region and has pretty much died out even there, perhaps because its signature dish—the sublimely uncomplicated Maid-Rite burger—resembles something created in a VA hospital during a catastrophic budget crunch. The recipe for this minimalist comfort food consists of barely seasoned loose ground beef (cut from whole hindquarters hanging in the basement) spilled haphazardly onto a white bun and served with pickles, a little bit of onion, and a thin swipe of mustard but no ketchup. According to the counterman I chat with, Taylor's Maid-Rite hasn't offered ketchup since its opening in 1928 because hoboes used to steal bottles of the condiment from diners and mix it with hot water to make soup. By nipping such pilferage in the bud, the restaurant has not only saved a tidy sum that must come to well over $30 by now, but has also removed the slightest possibility that its touchingly loyal customer base will ever demographically expand past the group of guys in old John Deere caps who appear to have just finished eating when we sit down but who linger another 10 minutes, I surmise out of simple amazement at seeing two new faces. When we clean our plates with the plastic spoons provided to gather up the unruly crumbled burgers, the fellows nod at us as if to say, "Thanks for sticking with it. You're one of us now." Then we go downstairs to view the carcasses.
"Save any room for pie?" the counterman asks as we stand beside the meat hooks. "It's all homemade, you know."
"You bet," I say.
I can't believe I said it, but I did, and I don't regret it. The pie is excellent.
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.
Antiquing, of course, is just a fancy term for driving in circles through the countryside and stopping in towns that you might not stop in otherwise, to poke around among things you might not notice, let alone pick up and handle, unless you were pretending to think of buying them. It's an excuse to do very little, that is, and 90 percent of antiques-shop owners know this, which is why they rarely follow up aggressively on their customary opening question: "Is there anything special that I can help you find?" Rather than tell them no, not really, I like to answer: "Yes, the perfect corn-bread pan."
This means that once in a while I have to buy one, and in Decorah, Iowa, I do, after a restful night at the Hotel Winneshiek that makes me want to stay in town forever, walking up and down the streets under the bluffs of the Upper Iowa River, wishing that my butter-brickle ice cream cone would never melt and my cell phone would never ring. Decorah is a town that Disney World ought to buy whole and ship to Florida and populate with smiling lifelike robots who, when a stranger asks them for directions, ask him if he needs a lift as well, which is what happens to me outside the hotel when I mention my interest in a certain local landmark. Only in Iowa. The children would be amazed.
Passing through Postville on our way to the Mississippi River, we spot a number of black-clad Hasidic Jews in cars and on foot, a reminder that the town is home to one of America's largest kosher meat processors, which was opened in the 1980's by a sect known as the Lubavitchers, many of them from New York City. Dark religious dress is common in Iowa. Somewhere back in the middle of the state, I don't remember quite where, a van full of somber-faced, hatted and bonnetted Anabaptists—they looked like the Amish—jerked their heads around in unison at the sight of Lola as she stepped out of an antiques shop, in designer sunglasses, a short denim skirt, and a pink halter top. The heads stayed turned as the van rolled down the street until they could stay turned no more. Lola said to me, "I feel like Cleopatra." For a moment there, she might as well have been, which, for a woman, is a good feeling, I'm told.
In McGregor, once an important steamboat port on the upper Mississippi, I pay my dues in a town with more antiques stores than Iowa has rhubarb pies by picking up two more cast-iron corn-bread pans and realizing, with a twinge of melancholy, that I've become a character I never thought I'd be and have always regarded as on a par with those dotty old ladies who hoard stray cats: a confirmed collector of bric-a-brac. It's a sort of creeping softheadedness brought on by nostalgia for my own Midwestern youth and intoxication with fresh air. If I stay much longer in Iowa, I'll find myself in my garage next winter whittling wooden clocks by candlelight.
The views open up on the highway outside of Balltown—all-the-way-to-the-horizon panoramas of braided silver Mississippi River channels and rank on rank of grassy, pillowy hills, their outlines magically softened by the humidity and studded with white houses and red barns that could be pieces in a vintage board game called something like Going to Dubuque. In Montana or Colorado, one expects such bracing scenic expanses, but to happen upon one on a ramble through Iowa makes a person feel like Balboa topping a rise and seeing the Pacific for the first time. As an excuse to linger in the area, Lola and I pull over for lunch at Breitbach's, which boasts of being the state's oldest restaurant and the only one to have served "both Jesse James and Brooke Shields." (How far America has come. Oh, Pioneers!) Behind the bar is a haunting, naïve mural of the misty river, supposedly painted by a "gypsy" who traded the artwork for room and board during the Great Depression. (But did he steal the ketchup to make soup?) Attached to the walls and dangling from the ceiling are scores of old iron farm tools, wooden chairs, oil lanterns, and other odds and ends, most of which are for sale, our waitress tells us. We eat our french fries, drink our malts, and shop—all without leaving our table. I spot a corn-bread pan.
"It's becoming an illness," Lola says. "No more."
And in no time we're back in Walnut, across the state, because no time is all it takes to cover Iowa once you say good-bye to the back roads, where a curious driver, weary of modernity, could lose himself for months, tracing ever smaller and smaller grids using grain elevators and water towers as beacons and the acquisition of the perfect corn-bread pan as his motivation. But Lola wanted that chipped cream-painted table, the one that she claims would fetch a tiny fortune in a Shabby Chic store in New York City, and so we turned west again and hit I-80, which is as straight as the part in a small-town banker's hair, except that the hair is made of cornstalks.
Back inside the Granary Antique Mall, we're prepared to dicker for the table, and accept no less than the easy 10 percent discount that most any dealer will give anyone who asks as a sop to the customer's hard-bargaining self-image. We've learned a lot on our lazy, wayward shopping spree, where most of the stores smell overpoweringly of rose petaland-cinnamon potpourri and have plump orange cats curled up on their glass showcases, and where the genuine items from the past are mixed in with plenty of what Lola calls "untiques"—cleverly dinged-up and distressed new pieces that probably come by the shipload from Indonesia, where underpaid workers sand and dent items to give them the look and feel of treasures from Grandma's attic. The main thing we've learned is to buy on impulse the moment a piece strikes our fancy, lest the thing lodge itself deep inside our psyches and grow into a symbol of paradise lost.
"It was standing right there," Lola says, pointing a finger. "Next to the green grain bin and the pink planter."
"Well, it doesn't seem to be there now."
It takes us a while to acknowledge the obvious: the charming table, all tippy and uneven, its legs carved into spool shapes, its drawer stuck shut, isn't here anymore.
But Iowa still is.
When to Go
Temperatures in March range from 25 to 47 degrees. The best time to visit is late April through October, when temperatures are generally mild and pleasant—spring can be rainy and there's a chance of tornadoes in mid and late summer.
Des Moines International Airport offers nonstop flights to and from 15 destinations, including Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Atlanta. Travel to Iowa is also accessible via Nebraska's Omaha Eppley Airfield, four miles from downtown Omaha.
We recommend renting a car upon arrival—Walnut is about a11/2-hour drive from Des Moines and a 50-minute trip from Omaha.
Where to Stay
Antique City Bed & Breakfast
400 Antique City Dr., Walnut; 712/784-3722; doubles from $55.
Recently restored to the tune of $10 million. With a rooftop sculpture garden and a basement vintage bowling alley.
1112 Willis Ave., Perry; 515/465-3511; doubles from $139.
104 E. Water St., Decorah; 563/382-4164; doubles from $99.
Where to Eat
David's Milwaukee Diner
Hotel Pattee, 1112 Willis Ave., Perry; 515/465-7370; breakfast for two $20.
Part of an old Iowa chain. Home of the Maid-Rite burger.
106 S. Third Ave., Marshalltown; 641/753-9684; lunch for two $15.
Suzie Q Café
A 1940's diner. 14 Second St. N.W., Mason City; 641/423-5021; lunch for two $10.
The state's oldest restaurant?Odds and ends for sale.
563 Balltown Rd., Balltown; 563/552-2220; lunch for two $15.
Where to Shop
Granary Antique Mall
602 Pearl St., Walnut; 712/784-3331.
Main Street Antique Mall
105 W. Main St., Marshalltown; 641/752-3077.
What to Read
Pick up a copy of the bimonthly magazine Iowan to learn about various happenings in the state. For a comprehensive listing of antiques shops, it's best to check out Iowa's Complete Guide to Antique Shops and Malls (DJ's Publishing).
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