An old college friend is riding shotgun. Well, actually, he isn’t, but a picture of him is. He’s the Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack, governor of Iowa, and he tells me from the flap of the Iowa transportation map sitting on the passenger side of the front seat, "As you travel through Iowa, you will find excitement in our towns and serenity in our terrain. . . . You will also discover why Iowans everywhere are the friendliest people in the world."
There’s no gratuitous name-dropping involved here. (All right, maybe a little—he’s the first governor I actually know.) Tom and his wife, Christie, both of whom I met when we were all freshmen together, are two of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. It’s pretty safe to say, they’d be your friends, too, if you visited Iowa.
Iowa symbolizes the heartland not just because it’s in the middle of the country, or even because it’s shaped somewhat like an actual human heart. Until this past summer, the state slogan was, for goodness sake, "Iowa, You Make Me Smile." There’s actually a town in south central Iowa called What Cheer.
There is so much to see in Iowa: the World’s Smallest Church (Festina), the Amana Colonies, the factory that actually builds a better mousetrap (Kness Manufacturing in Albia), the National Farm Toy Museum (Dyersville), the grave of Chief War Eagle at one end of the state (Sioux City) and the Buffalo Bill Museum at the other end (Le Claire). But for this pilgrimage, I concentrated on the Iowa landmarks that reach out to our imaginations.
He didn’t give them a definite age, and he even made the background so generic that it can be small town anywhere.
Wanda Corn, professor of art history a Stanford, on Grant Wood’s American Gothic
Small town anywhere—Eldon—is located a few miles southeast of Ottumwa, which "M*A*S*H" fans know as the home of Corporal Radar O’Reilly. In the late 1920s, Grant Wood came to Eldon with fellow artist John Sharp, who grew up there. Wood was intrigued by a modest little 11/2-story house with what he later called a "pretentious" Gothic window at each gable. He sketched the house on the back of an envelope and later used it as a backdrop for the sour-faced couple, who were actually his sister, Nan, and his dentist, B.H. McKeeby. While most people assume the couple to be husband and wife, Wood meant them to be father and daughter.
Upon first sight, the actual American Gothichouse is at once devastating (This is it?) and exhilarating (This is it!). To think that this little plain old house with an extraordinary window is the backdrop to the third most recognized painting in existence (behind the Mona Lisa and Whistler’s Mother) is, well, kind of cool.
As I’m walking around the yard, a German shepherd comes running up. "Don’t mind George," a woman calls out. "He’s real friendly." The woman introduces herself as Shirley Slycord. She and her husband, Wayne, live across Burton Street. Wayne takes care of the famed place for the state.
The Gothic House, built in 1881, isn’t just a monument. Eldon’s postmaster, Bruce Theiher, lives there. The Slycords, though, are the couple most associated with a house that fairly cries out for a couple. "Oh, yeah," Shirley says, "people ask to take our picture all the time. Heck, I keep a copy of the painting in my house. And we’re always happy to take pictures of visitors for them. If you’d like, we’ll take yours."
"A few years ago," Wayne says, "they took the painting from Chicago down to Muscatine for a special exhibition. I went over and got a special viewing."
Did he also get a special thrill, seeing the original of one of the world’s most famous paintings?
"Can’t say as I did. Heck, I see the house every day."
If you build it, they will come.
Voice in Field of Dreams
Prior to leaving for Iowa, I actually called Governor Vilsack—did I mention I know the governor?—for a scouting report. He rattled off a few places, saying, "You can’t go wrong anywhere in Iowa, and I’m not just saying that. One of my favorites, though, is Field of Dreams.Once, when I was driving through that part of the state campaigning, I drove up to it and sat in the bleachers, looking out over that pristine field. I got goose bumps just sitting there."
The book upon which the movie is based is about an Iowa farmer who cuts a baseball diamond out of his cornfield so that the ghosts of our past can play some ball. From this flight of fancy came the 1989 movie, filmed on the Lansing farm just outside of Dyersville. Field of Dreamsstruck such a chord in the American consciousness that more than 50,000 visit the site every year. Fathers and sons often come here to reconcile.
On this particular afternoon, a bus is parked, and tourists from New Zealand and Australia, Great Britain and the Netherlands are wandering around the field, the gift shop, and the Lansing farmhouse, the same one used in the movie.
The story of Field of Dreamsdoesn’t stop. In fact, you could make a couple more movies about it—one a love story, the other a drama. In 1995 a tourist visiting from Colorado met the farm owner, Don Lansing, and fell in love. She is now Becky Lansing. "Even now I pinch myself," she says. "Has life imitated art, or has art imitated life?"
The drama (Battlefield of Dreams)involves the ongoing feud between the Lansings and the Ameskamps, who own the left and center field portion of the field, along with their own gift shop and a corn maze. The Lansings feel the Ameskamps, who had originally plowed under their part of the field after the filming, are overcommercializing the site. Iowans may be very friendly, but it’s reassuring to know that they still have issues.
The tour buses have gone on this late summer afternoon, and a few scattered couples remain. I walk into the cornfield, but can’t find James Earl Jones. I toe the pitching rubber, close my eyes, but no Kevin Costner. I sit at the top of the bleachers, but Burt Lancaster doesn’t come and sit beside me. Then I look up and see a heavenly sky pressing down on an Iowa field.
Stars appear, and shadows fallin’. You can hear my heart a-callin’.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets, "Oh, Boy!"
On the road out of Dyersville, I hear Buddy Holly a-callin’ from the great oldies station KIOA and decide on an impromptu pilgrimage.
The place the music died is Clear Lake, Iowa, two hours north of Des Moines and about four hours out of my way. But what the heck. Night has fallen when I find the Surf Ballroom. This is where Holly, Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba"), and the Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace") performed on February 2, 1959. Hours later, their plane went down shortly after takeoff from nearby Mason City.
The art deco Surf, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, still jumps. It hosts ballroom dancing on Sundays, local rock acts, the occasional big name (Hootie & the Blowfish, Marshall Tucker, Shirley Jones). But on this night, the place is dark. Out in front is a memorial to those who died in the plane crash: THEIR EARTHLY LIFE TRAGICALLY ENDED IN A PLANE CRASH. THEIR MUSIC LIVES ON. Nice.
Having received sustenance, I go off in search of food. Sharing the parking lot with the Surf is Lu’s Sports Bar & Grill. There I watch the "Monday Night Football" game, then compliment the cook on a delicious patty melt.
As I’m driving away, it hits me. The cook looked remarkably like the Big Bopper. And the bartender with the pretty face? She had a ponytail a-hangin’ down.
You’re a persistent cuss, pilgrim.
John Wayne to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The sign on the door of the Birthplace of John Wayne in Winterset says HOWDY PILGRIM. The guest book inside the gift shop lets you know just where the pilgrims have come from: Tennessee, Massachusetts, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, New York, and Tokyo. And that’s just today.
"We get about 30,000 people a year," says Jan Pergoli, the executive director of the museum. "In the course of a year, we get all 50 states and 60 foreign countries. The Duke touched a lot of lives."
The Duke just barely touched down in Iowa, though. He was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset on May 26, 1907, presaging his larger-than-life persona by weighing in at 13 pounds. His father, Clyde, was a pharmacist descended from Scottish pilgrims, his mother, Mary, a telephone operator of Irish descent. Dad didn’t do particularly well as a druggist, so he tried farming, moving the family to California when Marion was 7.
The museum, in the carefully preserved home on South Second Street, traces the Duke’s life, from the picture of the woman physician who delivered him to the eye patch he wore in True Grit.There are souvenirs donated by Maureen O’Hara. There’s his hat from Rio Lobo.
Rumor has it that Wayne came back to Winterset unannounced in the ’50s to see his birthplace. He died before the museum was dedicated, but if he does make another pilgrimage sometime soon, he’ll be pleased. I reckon.
I ask myself over and over, What happened to me in Madison County, Iowa?
Robert Kincaid in The Bridges of Madison County
Didn’t read it. Didn’t see the movie. But I am conscious that The Bridges of Madison Countyis the romantic flip side to Field of Dreams.I am also smitten with the thought that our two biggest cowboy stars, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, spent some time in little Winterset—the Duke while growing up and Clint while making Bridges.
Six of Madison County’s original 19 covered bridges remain. The bridges, built in the late 1800s, were covered to help preserve the flooring timbers, which were more expensivethan the lumber used for the sides and roof. Farmers did the work to pay off their poll taxes.
Therein lies the essence of Iowa culture. A hundred years after farmers planted those seeds, a book (and then a cult and a movie) bloomed. Why does so much popular culture come out of Iowa? Because its people know how to sow, how to nurture, how to reap. There is clearly something about Iowa that inspires, something that produces great pop to go along with the great corn.
No matter what you think of the book, the beauty of the bridges is inescapable. The colors, the geometry, and the flow in and out of the landscape are all pleasing. At the Roseman Bridge, the most famous of them, thousands of love messages—PAM +LARRY FOREVER, MARRIED DEC. 1, 1963—are scrawled and carved inside. This is where Francesca first took Robert Kincaid, where she tacked the invitation to dinner, where she asked that her ashes be spread.
A middle-aged couple enter the bridge and furtively carve their names in one of the timbers. When they come out, I ask them if they would like me to take their picture.
Photos by George Olson, Steve Ohrn, Lee Speakar and Tom Bean
This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
- Get a copy of AAA’s North Central TourBook and its Iowa/Nebraska map.
- For more information, call the Iowa Division of Tourism at (888) 472-6035