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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

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.


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