Iowa - Des Moines, Pella, Kalona

Attack of the giant corn


Roadtripping in Iowa you see a shuck load of corn - it’s tall, it’s green, and it’s everywhere!

Corn has been a pillar of American agriculture for decades; it is easy to grow, it can thrive in pretty much any part of the country, and it can be turned into a variety of products. But because there is so much of it, with corn comes power, the corn kings lobby the government to get subsidies, that explains why a food that the body can’t even fully digest is Big Agra’s cash cow.

Agricultural politics aside, the corn fields sure were purty. Every so often, in among the sea of waving corn a red barn would stand stoic and proud. A flood of nostalgia would wash over me (based on fictitious memories of a childhood I never had in a country I wasn’t raised in).

We stopped at Kalona, it was small, sleepy, and a popular trading town for the local Amish. Bing, Bing, Bing, this was exactly what I was looking for in the Mid West.

There are about 25,000 Amish living in Iowa, the largest population west of the Mississippi.

I love the Amish, of course I don’t know any, who does?? But I’ve seen the movie Witness (case closed). We live in an overexposed world, a community who choose to live off the grid with more than a few cockadoodle rules and traditions, they intrigue me.

4th of July outfit - tick, Corn backdrop - tick, "Proud to be 'Merican!"

It was the 4th of July so we expected fanfare, parades, fireworks, Americans being ultra American, but Kalona seemed to have all that wrapped up by late morn. The slumbering Main St had practically fallen into a coma. We came upon the Quilt and Textile Museum. “Now we’re talkin” I announced, I was very keen to return from the Mid West with a quilt under my arm. We pushed and prodded at the closed door, nnooooo.

Perhaps our tug of war with the door had set off the curtain twitchers because within minutes a truck pulled up and an old man glided out of the driver’s seat with a booming “Hello!” and a big welcoming wave.

“Do you like to quilt?” he asked.

“She does” said Dom, nodding at me. Now, let’s be clear, I’ve always been more of a tartan blanket kind of girl, I don’t know the deal with quilts, I certainly don’t know how to make one, and up until the man spoke I didn’t even know ‘quilt’ could be a verb.

“Yup, I love quilts” I said inanely. The old man paused. I was petrified he was going to ask me to bust out a cross stitch.

“We’re closed, but I’ll give ya 5 minutes” he declared.

“Uh Oh” I whispered to Dom “If I have to make a quilt in 5 minutes, you’re doing the corners Mister!”

It turned out to be a 5 minute twirl around the museum, which was only slightly longer than our conversation with the man outside, but more than enough time in the 2 rooms of wall to wall quilts. There was nothing for sale, it was a museum not a market place, I couldn’t even walk away with a patch under my arm.

Our new pal trotted around behind us dishing out the history. The blankets were over 100 years old all handmade by the Amish at night by the light of a kerosene lamp, remarkable given the detail and precision. The colours weren’t as wild as you might see if the quilts had been made in Africa or South America, but for a coven of puritanical older white ladies working in the dark, the blankets were surprisingly bright and cheerful.

You had me at spool

Next door to the museum was a reconstruction of "Historic Old Town Kalona" complete with a church, a Founding house, a Stitch house, and Grandpa's house, (in Amish culture the grandfather gets his own gaf, where Grandma went seems to be of concern to no one!). This reconstructed town was a surprising find and a fascinating insight into the past.
Grandpa's Man Cave

Old Man Quilt, as I came to know him, directed us to the only restaurant in town that was open. My excited eyes POPPED out of my head when we were seated beside some Amish lads. They were head to toe the real deal; straw hats, beards with no mustaches, the whole corn on the cob!

I tried to be very nonchanlant and not stare, I talked idly to Dom about poor reception on my phone, as I disentangled my ipad from my chunky headphones in my oversized designer handbag. It was the Amish who dropped what they were eating to stare at us. We must have looked a sight; 3 west coasters, each with a different accent, all wearing shades on an overcast day (even the kid!), smart phones, tablets, car keys, jingling jangling in a fancy bag.

We munched on our grilled cheese sandwiches and listened to the men discussing a horse fare. Their lives seemed so wholesome, I wanted to be part of their world, as long as I could bring electronics and a fancy purse to the fare :)

Having lunched with (near) the Amish had fanned the flames of my desire to get a quilt. We took a walk around the small town to see if there was a sniff of a stitch for sale. As if to taunt me the pavements had mosaics of quilt patches every few feet.

Patchwork Hopscotch

We found an open antique shop, I got chatting to the owner of the shop about my new favourite topic, the Amish.

He said the “coolest” thing about them, his words, was that every Sunday they would each take turns being the “Church” house. In one sentence he had quenched my desire to live among the Amish. I appreciate that taking turns hosting the entire village must engender a great community spirit, but what if you’re a miserable git like me and have thoughts like “Oh God, not that shower coming over again, quick, stick up the ‘God’s gone fishing’ sign”.

He warned me there were 7 (or was it 17) sects of Amish and not to mix up the Amish and the Mennonites. I walked away with an antique Amish (or was it Mennonite) baby quilt under my oxter. Mission accomplished.

Back on the road, I noticed a lot of the barns we passed were adorned with a large rustic metal stars. It has to do with my best friends, the Amish, barn stars are used in Amish communities (although not exclusive to Amish) to bring luck, like hanging a horseshoe over their barn.
It's miller time!

Our next stop was in Pella, a Dutch town settled by 800 Dutch settlers in the 1800s. To make the Dutch heritage clear there were windmills everywhere; marking the corner of the town square, in people’s front gardens, and even a huge working mill with parts supplied by the Netherlands (the Vermeer Mill). Tulips lined the streets. Make no mistake, we were in clog country.

Straight off the casting couch for Dutch Town most of the inhabitants we saw were tall and blonde. It was everything I hoped a Dutch settled town would be. There was even an historic street with buildings built in the style of 19th century Netherlands. On this archaic avenue we happened upon Wyatt Earps boyhood house. That blew me and the tulips away. I knew about Wyatt Earp, I’ve even been to Tombstone (for that story read here), but part of me still thought of him as a fictional character (thanks to Hollywood), seeing his childhood home brought the reality of the cowboy lawman to life.
Some colourful characters hanging around the town square

Large bells labeled Tulip Time hung over the town square which looked like an active center of the community. It was a lovely spot to chill our clogs and chat to some elderly locals (still tall, still blonde).

It was time to hit the big smoke, we drove on to Des Moines.

Our first walk around the city of Des Moines put us in mind of Minneapolis, lots of skyways and skyscrapers. We stopped for dinner and half way through the meal the couple beside us leaned in to say “Where are you from? And what on earth brings you here?” All asked in the nicest possible way. I was so tempted to say "I'm big in the quilting world" ;)

Munchkin Man Cave
On the walk home I had a sudden urge for peppermint tea. We went into the first place we saw called Java Joe’s. It was a terrific find, as well as tea they sold empty burlap sacks (for some reason I like burlap sacks but I have no idea why). There was a little alcove hidden away with “It’s a Small World” painted above it. Róisín was in like a shot, I managed to squeeze in to discover a small children's play cave with tons of beaten up toys and books. Róisín was in her element.

Back out in the big world, tea in hand, I spotted a chap sitting down at a random outdoor piano. We sauntered over to the spot called Cowles Common just as the man began to play. From a distance he looked homeless, up close he may have just been extensively hipster, I couldn’t tell the difference. He had lost himself in his excellently played classical music. Across from the piano was a beautiful water feature, sprays of water shot into the air. It was a hot evening, local kids ran in and out of the water. It wasn't long before our kid was doing the same, high fiving the local children with a splash.

Absolutely saturated, Dom picked up our wet mess and walked the 2 blocks back to our hotel. We watched the 4th of July fireworks on our TV as we listened to them cracking through the air outside.

The next morning we took a drive and grabbed breakfast near Drake University. At 94 degrees it was hard to stay outside for long, we did manage to stop at the State Capitol building which has a diminutive version of the Statue of Liberty right in front of it. It was a gift from the boy scouts to represent the fight for American liberty. As it was the 4th of July weekend, coming upon the statue seemed appropriate (and ridiculously cute).

Lady Liberty looking cute-sy woote-sy
Despite the suffocating heat we were not going to miss out on another sculpture garden (for stories on Minneapolis sculpture garden - read here). Nobody puts baby in the corner of a sculpture garden. It was free and it was excellent! The stand outs were the Alphabet Man (a 27 foot tall hollow kneeling man made from welded letters of the alphabet in eye catching white), and the Pondering Rabbit (a wiry bunny parody of Rodin’s The Thinker).
Man of many words

Starting to sizzle we cut our way through the humidity and into the Science Center. I am a nerd so of course I loved it, even though I spent most of my time in the Children's section at the "Supermarket" and "Bubble stop", on my own of course, Dom and Róisín were busy exploring Mars.

Our great Mid West Roadtrip had come to an end, it was time to catch a plane. Dom had one last request before we dropped back our car, to procure a photo of the Iowa state sign. Dom is collecting photos of him standing at every state sign. With my laser focus locked on the sat nav’s dotted state line, I navigated us off road through a narrow slip between the corn fields! It was a bumpy, lonely, scary ride, the corn fields around us growing higher. I asked Dom if he had ever seen the Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest, he said no, “Good” says I “Keep driving and don’t look up”. We got the photo of the sign, we got back on a highway, not a gun wielding crop duster in sight, phew!

So-long Middle America, there’s more to you than meets the eye, you expanded my mind, we will be back.
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