Best town? Boring. Best restaurant? Hackneyed. Best tourist attraction? Nah.
Little Village staff and contributors would like to draw your attention to these truly Iowa-y sites, stories and experiences. Some are recommendations, others cautionary tales, but all make our godforsaken state just a little more amazing. Introducing, the Independent Iowa Awards.
MONUMENTAL SITES 🗿
A Tribute to 12 Black Lawyers
Down the street from the golden dome of the Iowa Capitol sits a 30-foot-tall testament to the defiance, brilliance and legacy of 12 Black lawyers who founded the National Bar Association in Des Moines in 1925. They formed the association after some members were denied admittance to the American Bar Association because of their race.
“The large-scale sculpture embodies the notion of communication among diverse peoples and a legal system that — though not perfect — strives to be balanced,” according to the Des Moines Public Art Foundation.
The Black founders from Iowa include a who’s who in Iowa history: George H. Woodson, S. Joe Brown, Gertrude E. Rush, James B. Morris and Charles P. Howard, Sr. The base of the sculpture bears the names of all of the founders, although their stories and the sculpture itself aren’t as well-known as they ought to be.
The next time you’re in Des Moines, stop by the sculpture at Hansen Triangle Park, Grand and 2nd Avenues, and marvel at the artistry. Learn more about the Black trailblazers and their quest to make Iowa more equitable. —Dana James
Elwood’s Giant Concrete Gnome
With a stout body, a kind face and a pointy red hat, Elwood is the gnome Reiman Gardens deserves. Standing 15 feet tall (hat included) he’s a good size for the 17-acre gardens on ISU’s campus. He also gives Ames a claim on a world record, as long as that record is carefully defined.
As soon as Elwood was erected in 2010, he became the World’s Tallest Concrete Garden Gnome. “Concrete” is the key word here. Soluś is an 18-foot tall garden gnome in Nowa Sól, Poland, but he’s made of fiberglass. And Guinness World Records bestows the title of World’s Largest Garden Gnome on Harold, a Canadian piece of work that’s one inch shy of 26 feet. Harold, who has an oddly proportioned body and disturbing face, started life as an attraction at a small amusement park on Vancouver Island and is made largely of scrap metal and, judging by photos, children’s nightmares.
Before Elwood, Gnome Chomsky of Kerhonkson, New York, held the concrete title. After Elwood, the 13.5-foot-tall gnome’s owners rebranded him as “The Original World’s Tallest Concrete Garden Gnome.” —Paul Brennan
Council Bluff’s Giant Concrete Phallus
Ask any film buff what was the greatest year for Hollywood films and the answer is inevitably 1939. The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and several other notable films were released that year. So was Union Pacific.
A fictional tale of square-jawed good vs. dastardly evil as the titular railroad heads from its eastern terminus in Omaha to Utah, ads for the movie promised “the greatest train wreck ever filmed.” Director Cecil B. DeMille specialized in such spectacles. He also specialized in self-promotion. DeMille combined the two as he staged the film’s world premiere in Omaha in April 1939, just a few days ahead of the 70th anniversary of the golden spike ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah, that marked the linking of the Union Pacific with the Central Pacific Railroad.
Omaha was an obvious choice for a special premiere. It’s the starting point of the Union Pacific in the movie, even though President Lincoln designated Council Bluffs as its eastern terminus in 1863. So, Council Bluffs staked its claim to movieland glamor with a 56-foot tall concrete replica of the golden spike unveiled in conjunction with the movie premiere across the Missouri River.
The giant concrete spike wasn’t part of DeMille’s premiere plan, but there were photographers at the unveiling, so he attended and made a speech. The Union Pacific Railroad designated the site near its passenger terminal in Council Bluffs “Mile Zero,” as part of the unveiling.
These days, if Council Bluffians want to catch a train they have to go to the Amtrak station in Omaha. But the golden spike monument, 100 times the size of the original spike and impressively phallic, remains. —Paul Brennan
Public Art in the Capital City
Iowa has a lovely natural landscape, but its cultural landscape is equally impressive. A glance at public art in Des Moines shows a wealth of photogenic colors, styles and historical influences.
Begin with the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines’ Western Gateway. Masterfully landscaped, this collection represents the most significant donation of artwork ever made to the Des Moines Art Center. Twenty-five works of art, with room for additional pieces, are featured in an accessible 4.4-acre park. This pedestrian-friendly entry greets eastbound travelers into the downtown area with an awe-inspiring welcome. Top photo ops include Jaume Plensa’s Nomade, Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin Large, and Robert Indiana’s Love.
Connecting New York City and San Diego is one third of Andy Goldsworthy’s Three Cairns behind the Des Moines Art Center in Ashworth Park.
Overlooking downtown Des Moines from the east, just outside the stately Judicial Branch Building, is James Ellwanger’s Shattering Silence, powerfully depicting breaking the silence of inequality, beginning with the landmark 1839 Iowa Territorial Supreme Court ruling that prohibited former enslaved man Ralph Montgomery from being extradited back to Missouri as a runaway slave.
Hundreds of Iowa bridges serve as functional public art, as well. Take High Trestle Trail Bridge, the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge and the bridges of Madison County, to name a few. —John Busbee
Davenport’s Favorite Shapes
Stone fortresses erected in the aftermath of the War of 1812. Mansions built by Mississippi lumber barons. Queen Anne style buildings with all the asymmetry, pointy roofs, dormers and decorative porches. Bridges with steel arches, stitching together the Iowa and Illinois sides of the Quad Cities.
The region’s distinctive silhouettes inspired Davenport’s odd little Architectural Sculpture Park in Lower Lindsay Park, located near the trailhead of the gorgeous Riverfront Recreation Trail. The concrete, wood and limestone shapes debuted in 1999.
“Nearly 50 area historic preservationists, businesspeople, recreation enthusiasts, and river activists came together over a two-year period to develop the community-built project,” according to the River Cities’ Reader.
Lower Lindsay got another collection of intriguing objects this fall: Sunday in the Park, a public art piece that brings to life the 1860s Georges Seurat masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte in 12 striking fiberglass figures.
“The sculptures were made by Thom Gleich of Davenport, with the help of Davenport Central and Augustana students who painted them with [Ted] McElhiney and Ben Sunday, using techniques that were similar to Seurat’s pointillism,” the Quad Cities Times reports.
After a restoration by retired art teacher Jean Downey, the figures floated down the river — or perhaps they scootered down the Mississippi River Trail — from Credit Island this November, where they were originally placed in 2000 due to the island’s similarity to Paris’s La Grande Jatte. While Sunday in the Park is more accessible at Lindsay Park, it’s a loss for Credit Island, a historic and somewhat spooky recreation area hiding a rad red pedestrian bridge. —Emma McClatchey
Dogtown Mural Black Renaissance
Murals by Black artists and murals depicting Black people have popped up all over Des Moines in recent years. The vibrant murals with bold themes add some flavor and raise the visibility of people who sometimes operate in the margins of their own city. With a million things competing for a motorists’ attention, in flashes, the murals command attention away from the mundanity of driving to larger-than-life depictions of Black home ownership, Black achievement and Black joy.
East of Drake University in Dogtown, Black Renaissance, a mural by artist Jill Wells, a Drake alumna, is a visually stunning representation of BIPOC culture, featuring a songstress with long black braids at the center. The mural is located south of 24th Street and University Avenue at the music venue xBk Live. Wells said, “The Lotus flowers and foliage symbolize resilience, the black butterflies symbolize transition and renewal and the mural’s moody ombre color palette of blue, black, purple and pink represent royalty and dignity.” The mural’s design captures the spirit of music, Black entrepreneurship and community success, she said.
Hairstyles have served as an important part of Black culture for hundreds of years. Today, absent laws like the CROWN Act, which seeks to end race-based hair discrimination at school and at work, Black people can be penalized for hairstyles that represent their culture, like braids, locs, twists and Bantu knots. Think Black hair hate isn’t real? Even former First Lady Michelle Obama wanted to wear her hair in braids, but straightened it instead because she felt it would be too much for the American people. Let that sink in.
Black Renaissance is towering and resplendent. Black, Indigenious and people of color will see themselves reflected in the mural’s magnificence and braids and feel a connection to this time and place. Representation is everything. Even the mural’s name projects a rebirth — and maybe a bold new world where Black hair is celebrated and hair discrimination is a disgraceful footnote in the past. —Dana James
God and Hollywood on Mays Island
Visitors to Mays Island in Cedar Rapids may wonder why there’s a Ten Commandments monument in Plaza Park. Religious zeal? Not really. Some connection between Mount Trashmore and Mount Sinai (where Moses received the commandments, according to Exodus)? Nope. It’s more a tribute to the promotional skills of Cecil B. DeMille, a major producer and director in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
In 1956, DeMille had been a successful producer/director for over 40 years, but he’d never won an Oscar and he was bitter about it. His new film, The Ten Commandments, was a Technicolor remake of his 1923 film of the same name. Stuffed with stars, trading on the prestige of an all-American version of the Bible enjoyed in the Eisenhower era, it was designed to be Oscar bait. DeMille even came up with a unique way to promote the film.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles had been distributing paper scrolls featuring the Ten Commandments to schools and courthouses around the country since 1953, in hopes of improving the morals of Americans. DeMille saw a chance for a big publicity boost. He tried to talk the Eagles into upgrading their commandments from paper scrolls to bronze monuments in major cities to be unveiled in conjunction with his film opening in those cities. The Eagles opted for granite instead, and agreed to pay for creation and placement of the 1,600-pound monuments. DeMille agreed to provide stars from his movies for the monument unveilings.
Cedar Rapids got its monument in April 1957, but by then DeMille had lost interest in the monuments. A few weeks earlier, the even more star-stuffed Around the World in 80 Days had won the Oscar for Best Picture, and DeMille wasn’t even nominated for Best Director. There were no Hollywood celebrities present when the granite monument was erected in Cedar Rapids.
The Eagles kept the monument program going until 2006, and according to a site dedicated to tracking the granite blocks, they eventually placed 196 monuments around the country, including four in Iowa. After Cedar Rapids, monuments were placed in Iowa City and Burlington. The whereabouts of the fourth monument is uncertain, according to the site. It was originally in Des Moines, but was last seen in the Story County town of Maxwell. The site asks anyone who knows its current location to get in touch. —Paul Brennan
The Majestic Mount Trashmore
It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite thing about Iowa, because I’m about to leave it, and that sort of thing has a tendency to make you all misty-eyed about things you might have once considered unremarkable. However, one thing I know for a fact I’ll miss like a limb is the view from my office’s break room window. Every afternoon, when I grow weary of the indignities of customer service, I make myself a cup of coffee and sit in one of the plasticky industrial armchairs and look out at Mount Trashmore, a former Cedar Rapids landfill turned state-of-the-art, mixed-elevation recreation area. It is a grand, sun-dappled peak, on which children gleefully sled in the winter and young couples picnic in the summer. Its beauty makes my heart skip a beat. It is also, like, 90 percent actual garbage. How’s that for a metaphor? —Audrey Brock
EXCELLENT SERVICE 🍻
Iowa’s Coolest Bicycle Co-op
It can be a little bit intimidating to start fixing your bike, but there’s a place you can go to learn how to do it in the company of a bunch of dummies who are learning bicycle competency just like yourself. The Iowa City Bike Library, founded in 2004, has settled into its relatively new Highland Court location and truly come into its own. There are five available work stations, a ton of resale bike gear, an endless pool of tools and supplies, dozens of refurbished bikes for sale in the $100-500 range (and more in the back waiting to be fixed), as well as community outreach programs, Women/Trans/Femme nights, group rides, multilingual access and outreach, and just a ton of good vibes in the Library. You can go there to repair your ride, sign up to volunteer, buy some cool used gear, or maybe even just have a beer and sit on a work table to chat if you’re not in the mood to get dirty. It’s a load of fun and increasingly one of the most important resources this community has to offer. 10/10 would recommend! Fix yo’ bike! —Jordan Sellergren
So Many Taps, It’s Nuts
The appeal of The Cellar Peanut Pub in Pella and Newton is simple: lots of beer and lots of nuts. They serve more than 50 craft beers on tap at any given time from all around Iowa, and an unlimited source of peanuts. Owned by beer fan Marty Duffy V since 2002 and staffed by knowledgeable “pubtenders” ready to preach the craft beer gospel, this is one of those friendly neighborhood spots great for a quick drink, all-day hangout, and everything in between. —Kim Bates
History, Jazz and a Rad Jukebox
The Greenwood Lounge is a Des Moines institution. Need proof? The Greenwood opened the year that Prohibition ended: 1933. It has all the features and mystic dive bars aspire to. Constance Depler-style booze hounds hold court on the walls above the “stage,” watching over the goings-on. The “stage” is really just the place on the floor where the tables have been pulled to the side. The felt on the pool table has its very own topography, giving a great advantage to the many who have spent decades playing on it. Their jukebox selection is unrivaled, except maybe, just maybe, by The Alpine Tap down the street. But the plug is pulled on it around 8 p.m. nearly every night of the week because that is when the music starts.
There’s jazz jams and cover bands every week, as well as countless up-and-coming local acts and regular sets from Iowa music legends like Dave Zollo, Bob Pace, and The Soul Searchers. There is usually no cover, but tips are encouraged, collected in a plastic beer pitcher by the front of the speakers. Be sure and tip Bill too, and thank him. He’ll be behind the bar, saying very little and probably wiping a glass. But know that he’s been the one holding the whole Greenwood scene together for many years behind now, and hopefully many more to come. —Avery Gregurich
Ames’ Homiest Book Store
Tucked into Main Street in downtown Ames, between a supply store and a kitchen store, sits a cozy book shop with a selection of previously loved and newly released books, curated to serve readers of many languages, ages and interests. Dog-Eared Books hosts eight separate book clubs (from Thrills & Chills to the Good Trouble Book Club for Middle School Students), two lit-centric podcasts, the “Off the Leash” blog, an ISU Emerging Writers’ Series, trivia and other events that reflect their philsophy, which is in part: “We believe reading and storytelling make us better humans, connecting us and allowing us to better care for one another.” From personal experience, I can say that they’ve upheld this mission statement. Not only do they have sections based on pop culture (including BookTok) and classics, they’re ready to uplift local authors. Book submissions, author signings and book launches are all part of their business. I can’t think of a cuter place to gather books for the winter. —Kim Bates
Cedar Rapids Wins at Pizza
Across this Iowan landscape there stands a little known hill. A hill that I would die upon. A hill called Cedar Rapids is the Best Pizza Town in the State. “Balderdash; [insert restaurant here] has the best pizza!” you may have just exclaimed. But allow me to present three exemplary Cedar Rapidian pizzerias. Continue reading…
Drink a Manhattan in Cedar Falls
If spending a night in the Cedar Valley, make a trip to Montage on the beautiful Cedar Falls Main Street. Whether it is a date night or a friend’s night, Montage provides a laid-back experience at one of the best restaurants in Iowa. Start the night with one of their specialty drinks such as an Old Fashioned, margarita, martini or an Iowa Manhattan.
Once seated under the mood lighting, order a mouthwatering meal such as a flatbread or pasta dish. My recommendation is the Thai chicken pasta. Cooked with chicken, green and red peppers, green onions and carrots tossed in a rich peanut sauce on Campanelle pasta, all the ingredients blend to make a perfectly made meal. —Sean Dengler
Read, Tan, Maury
The front door of Book Trader Tan America in downtown Newton holds an ancient poster of a bikini-clad model advertising some by now equally ancient tanning lotion. Once inside, a stark divide forms. To the left, there is one of the better selections of well-organized used books in the entire state, including everything from romance pulp to the classics. And to the right, there is a salon made up of six tanning beds.
As the name suggests, Book Trader Tan America operates both as a bookstore and a tanning salon. This isn’t some designed gimmick either: As this is their 23rd year of business, they seem to have something figured out. Along with their impressive and constantly changing inventory of books, they also have a large selection of horror DVDs, mid-’90s CDs, and board games. Also, a TV is always tuned into that legendary Wheel of Fortune/Maury lineup throughout the afternoon and plays at a decent volume to accompany your book browsing or tanning experience. They have various sales and specials throughout the week, both on books and tanning session packages, so keep a look out for whatever it is you are after. Book Trader Tan America doesn’t judge and aims to please. Get off the interstate and check it out. You will never see anything like it again. I promise. —Avery Gregurich
The Tastiest Southeast Asian Dining on Ingersoll
Whenever I’m spending a few days home in Des Moines, I make a point to hit Lucky Lotus, a cozy Southeast Asian eatery on Ingersoll Street. The restaurant’s aesthetic is too good. As you walk in, you’re greeted by bright neon lights, lanterns hanging on the ceiling and an abundance of plants. There’s also a giant vintage-y Des Moines Asian Foods sign in the back of the space along with old framed family photographs of the Chens, the family behind LL. Brothers Kevin and Souriyno opened LL in 2019 and are the children of the couple who once owned Café Fuzion, a former restaurant on the East Side.
Let me assure you that anything that you order off of LL’s seasonally rotating menu will be excellent. I like to order their Thai rolls as an appetizer, which are colorful and almost too beautiful to eat, stuffed with veggies and vermicelli noodles, and served with peanut sauce. I’ll be honest, I usually keep it real simple and order the pad thai with tofu (the greatest pad thai in Iowa, IMHO) with a little spice. Next time I visit, I’d like to try the Tom Kha, a hearty coconut milk soup with lemongrass and veggies, the Green Curry, or maybe the Sweet Potato Panang. All sound like perfect options to grab on a cold winter night in good ol’ DSM. —Sid Peterson
A Wrestling-Themed Restaurant with a Fandom
Professional wrestling is always playing on the TVs inside of The Flying Elbow, a gourmet hamburger and hot dog restaurant located in downtown Marshalltown. This place leans hard into their wrestling lore, from the myriad of plastic action figures sprinkled around the dining room to the names of the dishes on the menu. There’s their version of a roided-out Big Mac, the George the Animal. And there’s the 24-inch Python Burger, complete with grilled red and yellow peppers, nacho cheese and Cheeto dust.
Owner Garrett Goodman started The Flying Elbow as a food truck in 2017, and within a year had been able to move into a brick-and-mortar building. In the years since, Goodman has grappled with everything that’s been thrown at him. First, the tornado that tore through Marshalltown in July of 2018 also destroyed their building and shuttered their business. Then, as he was working on securing a new location, the pandemic began. They finally reopened in their new location in September of last year. This May, they were voted the #1 Burger in Iowa for 2022 by the Iowa Beef Industry Council and Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. And they weren’t even on the list of restaurants to choose from: their many fans, or “Elbowmaniacs” wrote them in. Who doesn’t love an underdog story? —Avery Gregurich
Best Annual Outdoor Festival Dedicated to Food
The DSM World Food & Music Festival has been around since 2005 and has only grown! It first started in the Historic East Village, moved over onto the downtown bridges, and now exists at Western Gateway Park. This past September, over 50 food vendors, representing 27 countries lined the streets of Locust and Grand between 10th and 13th streets. Each year, the festival also kicks off the event with a Naturalization Ceremony, brings a diverse lineup of music and performances to the main stage, and organizes cooking demonstrations and workshops. Pro tip: bring cash, specifically dollars with you to the festival. Each food vendor offers dollar-taste items that lets festival-goers try many different cultures’ cuisine. —Sid Peterson
ENTERTAINING FOLKS 🎭
The End of an Era in Iowa Radio
“Thirty-seven years and four months, but who’s counting?”
That’s how long Iowa blues icon Bob Dorr has been hosting his rock and roll history show, Backtracks — a mainstay of Iowa Public Radio’s top-notch music programming. But on New Year’s Eve 2022, that all comes to an end. Dorr isn’t retiring, thankfully: The voice that brought Iowa its very first rock and roll public radio show (even further back, in 1972) will continue bringing us the Beatles Medley and Blue Avenue. But he is stepping away from his three-hour weekly deep dive into the obscure and delightful details of rock music’s past. Continue reading…
Corny State, Clever Jokes
Iowa comedy is thriving. Don’t take my word for it — check out Teehee’s Comedy Club, tucked away near the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines.
This independently owned club brings in both up-and-comers and the best Iowa and Midwest comedians around, every weekend. Teehee’s also has improv shows, Karaoke Night, Bad B*tch Bingo night, Coral Thede’s show Tits Up! and so much more. Come for the comedy, stay for the entertainment. And if you love craft beer over national brands, good news: Teehee’s “support local” ethos extends to their beer menu.
The City of Five Seasons could not let Des Moines facilitate an Iowa comedy renaissance alone. After Penguin’s Comedy Club closed, Cedar Rapids comedy needed a new home, and found it at The Lucky Cat. With shows on the weekend and a Tuesday open mic, The Lucky Cat also has trivia nights, improv shows and other events to keep those in the I-380 corridor busy.
No one need travel out of state to see great comedy. The Hawkeye State’s got you. —Sean Dengler
Eastern Iowa’s Best Small-Town Day Trip
One of the most charming small towns in Eastern Iowa, Mt. Vernon, is only a 30-minute car ride up from Iowa City, and just outside Cedar Rapids. If you like antique shopping and really good pizza, maybe you ought to escape to MV for a day.
Start by heading to First Street Community Center, a former middle school/high school east of Main Street. There are a couple of great upscale thrift shops tucked on the second floor of the building, like the Green Door and Room 222 Antiques. If you have time to poke around, also check out the Robert Schueler Art Library, a space filled with antique art books and prints (also on the second floor). Lincoln Wine Bar, also on First/Main Street, is another spot to hit. They have a large selection of tasty woodfired pizzas and wine, plus live local music from time to time. —Sid Peterson
A Moondog Daydream in Dubuque
Out in the strip mall world that comprises the outskirts of Dubuque, Moondog Music sticks out like a Bernie sticker on a farm truck. Wandering along the crowded aisles and dodging the hanging tapestries, music heads will find a huge selection of new and used vinyl, CDs, cassettes and DVDs. Truly, their new LP and CD selection is among the best in the Midwest, and they are a registered vendor for all Record Store Day releases.
Moondog also operates an impressive head shop, sells a whole line of disc golf equipment, and peddles a small selection of rare books, including some works by the Beats, Bukowski and a few collections of underground comics. They will also guide shoppers if they are in the market for high-end turntables and receivers. Don’t sleep on their exquisite selection of bumper stickers, either. They have the usual fare, sure, but also stock some real philosophical deep cuts to stump fellow motorists. It’s either a reason for rejoicing or an indictment of our times that Moondog Music is book-ended by a Coldstone Creamery and an Advance Auto Parts store. For the last few decades, they have been holding out and holding strong in good ol’ Dubuque, and we should all be glad for that. —Avery Gregurich
Movers and Shakers (But Mostly Shakers)
Have you ever sat at a restaurant table and thought, “These salt and pepper shakers are too bland”? Well, you will after a visit to the Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery. Check out over 16,000 salt and pepper shaker sets in all sizes and shapes, ranging from chickens and owls to cucumbers, onions or grapes.
Longtime Traer resident Ruth Rasmussen had been keeping her extensive shaker collection in a pair of sheds before the city purchased it in 2008, fundraising to build a permanent home where they could be preserved and enjoyed by the public.
Shaker enthusiast or not, this gallery is one of those niche Iowa gems worth pulling over for. This small building tucked on the outskirts of downtown Traer may look like a quick visit, but you’ll want to stick around for a while. —Sean Dengler
Coolest Annual Conference for Musicians
Each year, the Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) hosts a conference called Music University specifically for the Iowa music community. The event’s geared toward musicians and all interested in the music industry. Participants can attend workshops, listen to local and national speakers and network. This year’s workshops included one about copyright and royalties, another about building a career as an independent artist, and another focused on Iowa music venues with a promoter roundtable. Music University is always free and takes place at Drake University. Make sure to follow DMMC on Instagram for details on next year’s conference. —Sid Peterson
Baby Goat Therapy
Personally, I believe goats are the cutest animals. They’re one of my favorites due to their mischievous nature, their sass and energy.
The Pygmy Patch in Van Meter, Iowa is a most wholesome goat-centric experience. It was formed in 2019 by two farm owners and a yoga instructor to provide an interactive experience for themselves and guests. At the Pygmy Patch guests are welcome to sign up for yoga classes where baby goats roam around and hop on you. You’ll also have time at the end of the class to cuddle and play with the goats. They offer classes open for the public or private classes for birthday parties or special events. —Kim Bates
GRAND HISTORY ⚔️
Best Place to Find a Crinoid
What did you think the Crinoid Capitol of the World stored in those big, beautiful bluffs? 500 million years ago, Burlington, Iowa sprawled beneath a warm bath of salt water filled with various evolving creatures, including a concentration of crinoids — sweetly nicknamed sea lilies — a simple Mississippian marine animal for which the town is now celebrated. And do not fret, you don’t have to excavate a 200-foot hill overlooking the river to find one; just take a walk and you’ll spot little stone tubes and discs within the limestone architectural details all around town. —Jordan Sellergren
Black Iowa History You Weren’t Taught in School
Growing up Black in Iowa, I’ve often wondered how Blacks ended up living in towns like Newton, Keokuk and other Iowa cities. How and when did they get there? Why did they stay? What were the contributions they made — not taught in Iowa classrooms?
The Iowa History 101 Series does a tremendous job answering those questions and uncovering hidden Iowa history in an engaging way. The 60-minute webinars over Zoom debut on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month and approach Iowa history with a cultural lens. Explore how:
- Black Civil War veterans shaped Iowa cities and fought for equality in communities across the state, like in Newton and Keokuk.
- Black and white Iowans in the early 1900s celebrated Juneteenth.
- Redlining played a role in how the city of Des Moines (and Iowa) was shaped and why its neighborhoods look the way they do.
- The nation’s first Black troops trained to be officers during WWI at the 17th Provisional Training Regiment and Medical Officer Training Camp in 1917 at Fort Des Moines on the city’s south side.
Want a more complete understanding of Iowa’s people and places? Sign up for the webinar series. With nearly 70 webinars available on a variety of topics, some hidden gem of Iowa history awaits. Maybe you’ll see your own family history reflected in ways you haven’t thought about before, and learn something new about the state you call home. —Dana James
Best Copy of a Real Fake Giant
George Hull lied when he arrived in Fort Dodge in July 1868. He said the giant block of stone he had quarried out of the acre lot he’d bought by Gypsum Creek was for a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It wasn’t.
Hull, a cigar maker from upstate New York, was on a mission to prove it was foolish to believe in the literal truth of the Bible, especially passages like Genesis 6:4, “There were giants in the earth in those days…” He’d come to Fort Dodge because the area’s gypsum was known for its blue streaks, which might resemble veins to those willing to believe if the gypsum was carved to look like a body. The five-ton block was shipped to Chicago, where two stone cutters were waiting. The finished product was transported in secret to the farm near Cardiff, New York, owned by a relative of Hull, and buried.
On Oct. 16, 1869, two unsuspecting workers were sent to dig a well where the carved stone was buried. Newspapers, eager to make a buck, made the discovery of the “petrified remains” of a 10-foot-tall giant into a national sensation. Ministers, eager to believe, declared it proof the Bible was right about giants. Scientists said it was a fake. P.T. Barnum knew a fake when he saw it, but was eager to muke a buck off people eager to believe. After his offer to buy the Cardiff Giant was rejected, Barnum made his own.
Others did too, and soon there were a dozen giants touring the country. By then, everyone knew the Cardiff Giant was a fake. Eventually, people stopped paying to see the fake fossils, and the original giant is now in the Farmer’s Museum of Cooperstown, New York. Barnum’s is in Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Michigan.
A century after news of the Cardiff Giant transfixed the nation, the Fort Dodge Museum and Frontier Village decided it had a 10-foot hole in its collection. That hole was filled in 1980, when Iowa sculptor Cliff Carlson carved a block of local gypsum into an authentic copy of the fake giant. The copy is still on display, commemorating Fort Dodge’s contribution to one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century. —Paul Brennan
George R.R. Martin’s Three Years in Dubuque
The man whose mind sprang forth the heart and soul of Tyrion Lannister once taught print journalism, freshman composition and science fiction lit at Clark University, at the time an all-women’s Catholic college in Dubuque.
In the 1970s, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin owned an 1880s brick Italianate in the area between the bluff and the river north of downtown. Martin has said his favorite historic Dubuque landmark was the Fenelon Place Elevator, a funicular railway that he depicted in his werewolf novella The Skin Trade — published in the 1989 horror fiction collection Dark Visions, also featuring Stephen King and Dan Simmons — set in a fictional town inspired by Martin’s time in Dubuque and Chicago. —Jordan Sellergren
There’s Always An Iowa Connection
The State Historical Society of Iowa is a top destination and most assuredly is not your grandfather’s museum. It has transformed the old concept of “things in glass cases” to interactive, engaging exhibits, offering an enticing variety of themes sure to captivate. Besides, it’s a rite of passage for every young person to hear the trumpeting call of the wooly mammoth just inside the south entrance.
What has become one of the most popular exhibits is “Hollywood in the Heartland.” This special exhibit is filled with titillating memorabilia capturing the stories of Iowa celebrities and business leaders who contributed to history and lore. Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman is featured, as is Brandon Routh (a.k.a. Superman). Norman Lear wrote and directed Cold Turkey, which was filmed in Greenfield. Other memorable films have special behind-the-scenes stories, including Field of Dreams and Bridges of Madison County. Visitors can discover African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s Iowa connection, and how Iowa screenwriters influenced many of the feature films that dot most “top” lists.
Historical exploration happens at other venues, too, such as Hoyt Sherman Place. The home of a Des Moines founding father has been transformed, housing the first art gallery west of the Mississippi. Visits are encouraged, admission is free — even to see the multi-million-dollar masterpiece painting in their collection. —John Busbee
Iowa’s Only Impeached Civil War Hero
Iowa was a bulwark of the Union in the Civil War, with more of its citizens joining the U.S. Army than any other state per capita. Over 13,000 Iowans gave their lives to defeat the Confederacy. Many veterans went on to politics or government service, but none achieved the dubious fame of William W. Belknap. Continue reading…
The Highest-Flyin’ Iowan, George Nissen
Ever mangled a childhood ankle by slipping through the springs of a trampoline on a bad bounce? Well, send your letters to George Nissen of Cedar Rapids, because he’s the one who invented ‘em.
An avid and accomplished gymnast, Nissen was inspired by circus performers, who would do tricks on a trapeze and land safely on a net below. He created the Nissen Trampoline Co., with a factory on Ellis Blvd in 1946, and would go on to become the finest name in hurling children and adults (even Air Force trainees, which I picture as the most whimsical iteration of Full Metal Jacket) for many years. In 1977, Nissen hauled a trampoline to the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza and bounced on it as part of a promotion to the Egyptian Gymnastics Federation.
Trampolining would become a worldwide phenomenon, and even an Olympic sport in 2000. Nissen was given the honor of testing out the Olympic trampoline at age 86, the culmination of a life dedicated to the bounce. —Malcolm MacDougall
Best Turn-of-the-Century Scapegoat
If you haven’t heard of the Van Meter Visitor until this very moment, it’s possible that’s because the Van Meter Visitor burned itself from your memory with its ungodly stench. This luciferian winged creature was allegedly spotted in 1903 by multiple witnesses (all reputable townsmen!!) in sleepy Van Meter, just southwest of Des Moines along the Raccoon River.
Looking like an alien pterodactyl in a sketch by cryptid researcher Kevin Lee Nelson, the Visitor was said to have robbed, stolen, terrorized, shot lasers from its fore-horn and released stenches that would erase human minds of all thoughts, and soared above town before descending back into its home — an abandoned mine at the edge of Van Meter — where it was eventually sealed for eternity by the town mob. —Jordan Sellergren
GREAT OUTDOORS 🌲
Ride the Rails in Boone
If you’ve ever wanted the views that come with hiking while skipping the “hiking” part, then rail biking in Boone, Iowa is the activity for you. You’ll still get a workout, but steel wheels on steel tracks make for an easier time.
The 12.5-mile trail takes you from open farmland to the Des Moines River on a rail explorer, which is a pedal-powered vehicle that rides on railroad tracks (don’t worry—no trains ride these rails). Riders have the choice between a two seat or four seat for their ride. This allows couples, groups of friends and families to enjoy the tour together. They operate rain or shine and allow people of all ages to join. There’s something special about breathing in fresh air, getting the wind through your hair and laughing with friends. —Kim Bates
Iowa’s Most Mountainous Town
Sitting alongside downtown Lansing, Iowa in Allamakee County lies Mount Hosmer, a bluff just over a thousand feet that rises over the Mississippi River. Located in the Driftless region of Northeast Iowa — an area spared from the many glaciers that would eventually flatten the state and turn it into a hotspot for agriculture — Lansing and its surrounding area looks and feels like a different state altogether, far removed from the flat expanses typically associated with Iowa. Deep valleys wind through rock and tree-covered hills, and those lucky enough to drive through the area are taken on a tour of some of the most diverse and beautiful geography the state has to offer (cell phone service not guaranteed).
For those who take the trip to Lansing, the view from Mount Hosmer stands above all, offering an incredible view of the Mississippi and the nearby Black Hawk Bridge, which spans over 1,600 feet across the river and on into Wisconsin. A winding paved road offers both cars and pedestrians access to Mount Hosmer’s summit, with memorial plaques, overlooks and various park amenities along the way. After taking in the view, visitors can look to Shep’s Riverside Bar and Grill for food and drinks while overlooking the Mississippi (albeit at a lower elevation), or head to the Driftless Area Education and Visitors center down the road for an interactive look of the history of the driftless region, including countless artifacts used by the area’s indigenous population long before the arrival of Europeans.
The Magic of a Suspended Canvas Parabola
I’m suspended between a sappy evergreen and a light pole, several feet above the grass, gently swaying with the wind in College Green Park. I have a book, water bottle and snacks — kettle-cooked chips, some variety of carbonated fruit juice, or whatever else I can find at the co-op. Is there anything better than hammocking?
College Green is the closest green space to my apartment, but it isn’t my favorite hammocking spot in Iowa City. The trek there takes me past the Old Capitol, through Hubbard Park, around the Iowa Memorial Union Amphitheater and across the green pedestrian bridge. Off to the left are two trees near the railroad crossings. I string up my hammock there, overlooking the Iowa River. As the sun sets, the water becomes a mirror, reflecting lights from the Memorial Union and Advanced Tech Lab. Once a family of deer strolled past, and I watched them munch on the tall, banked grass. —Adria Carpenter
Spend a Day on the Trail
It might be getting too chilly to bike for some, but once the weather warms I invite you all to share the joy I had in October 2022 on a warm, windy, sunny Saturday when there was nothing else pressing to do but ride my bicycle between Solon and Cedar Rapids.
Jump on the Cedar River Trail in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village or on the six-mile stretch of trail parallel to Hwy 382 in Solon, and head toward Ely. Then keep going till you hit Solon or Cedar Rapids, depending on where you started. Get yourself a drink and then head back in the other direction for home for the second half of a 30-total-mile ride. It’s a 99-percent paved, mostly flat joyride of rural Iowa beauty capped by places to eat and drink. Up the ante and climb Mt. Trashmore, then take the mountain bike trail back down. —Jordan Sellergren
Tubing in the Driftless
If you need a good warm weather activity, head to the Driftless Area and tube down the Upper Iowa River. The beautiful landscape of northeast Iowa provides a breathtaking view as you float down the river. This part of the state looks like nowhere else in Iowa, and is perfect to look at during the slow pace of a float, especially with a few drinks along the way. The rugged, tree-covered bluffs with valleys in between make for a remarkable sight. Unlike the rest of the state, which is organized into cities or square miles of farmland, Mother Nature divided up the Driftless Area. Homes dot the landscape where she left a bit of hospitable land, and she pushes floaters down the river at her will to witness the beauty of what she made. This area is the most breathtaking part of the Hawkeye State. —Sean Dengler
Tame Hike, Killer Views
I’ve had out-of-state friends tell me there are no good hiking trails in Iowa. Well, Squire Point in North Liberty proves them all wrong. Don’t let the hidden opening and steep hill leading down to the entrance deter you. If anything, let it encourage you. This beautiful trail wraps around the Coralville reservoir and it’s perfect for hiking with your family, friends, dog, etc. Along the path there is workout equipment to play on or include in your hike if you’re there to get a work out in. Regardless of the season, the path offers great views. In the summer, the wind from the lake cools you; in the fall, you’re surrounded by warm golds, oranges and reds. In winter, the snow clinging to the trees and ground below your feet feels like a wonderland, and the plants flourishing in the spring remind you of new beginnings. I highly recommend. —Kim Bates
Best Small Town Ruled Over by a Giant Fruit
My first-ever no-parents road trip in high school took my friends and I through Strawberry Point, and it’s held a special place in my imagination ever since. The 15-foot-tall fiberglass strawberry atop a pole outside of the city hall/police station is an obvious attraction — a 1960s town marketing ploy that has certainly paid off in the Instagram age — but the community over which it looms is pleasant as well.
One can wake up, grab coffee, do a little shopping, eat all three meals and go to bed again all within the walls of the quaint and historic Franklin Hotel/coffee shop/restaurant. I’d recommend stepping outside, however, and into the spacious intersection of Mission Street and Commercial/Elkader during the Friday Night Farmers Market season to hear some music and shop a broader range of local crafts, baked goods, flowers and produce. (Note: you are obligated to tithe 10 percent of your strawberry purchases to The World’s Largest Strawberry down the road.) The evening market was founded in 2021 to provide an open-air venue for vendors and live music amid COVID spread, but is likely to outlast the pandemic.
Once you’ve collected enough snacks to constitute a trail mix, consider venturing outside of The Great Fruit’s gaze. Strawberry Point is adjacent to Iowa’s oldest state park, Backbone State Park (est. 1919), full of the Driftless Region’s signature steep ridges, thick forests, ancient dolomite walls, trout streams and 21 miles of rugged trails for adventurous hikers, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers to conquer in the name of the One True Berry. —Emma McClatchey
The Divine Superposition of Shoefiti
As I walk to work, a pair of shoes tied by laces hangs over the telephone wires, and I always take a moment to watch the “shoefiti” slowly turn towards the right, like a compass, then pause, and after a few seconds, unhurriedly turn back towards the left.
In high school, classmates told me that hanging shoes marked gang territory, drug hotspots, or were used to memorialize dead gang members, but it’s hard to believe my small Southern town had a strong gang presence. Maybe people toss them for good luck, as a celebration, as a prank, or just because they can.
The best shoefiti in Iowa City is outside the Little Village office. I call them the Dubuque Street Sky Shoes. They have a counterpart, the North Dubuque Street Sky Shoes, which are near the Emma Goldman Clinic. I spotted the East Court Soles while biking home one night, and I think the Burlington Power Shoes are still suspended, though I haven’t found them since my initial encounter.
It’s the mystery of shoefiti that fascinates me. I’ll never know why those shoes adorn Iowa City’s telephone lines, and I don’t really want to know the answer. I want to watch them dangle, framed by the sky, clouds and buildings, and wonder who wore them, and why they’re there. Maybe I’ll toss my shoes one night and find out. —Adria Carpenter
The Highest Place to Get High
Iowa has a range of cornside attractions, from the Field of Dreams in Dyersville to the Buddy Holly Crash site in Clear Lake (if you’re new to Iowa — yes, the spot where the music died is a tourist destination).
One you might not expect to find on flat farmland is Hawkeye Point, Iowa’s highest point of elevation. Within four miles of the Iowa/Minnesota border, about 30 miles west of Spirit Lake and Okoboji in Osceola County, Hawkeye Point — a whopping 1,670 feet above sea level — is marked by a kitschy sign and flat circular mosaic depicting the state of Iowa. Visitors can wander the area, taking in street signs that point to far-flung destinations around the world, a bulletin board of license plates, an American Gothic photo stand-in, boulders, benches and a nearby historic silo.
Want to stick around a while? Check if the Hawkeye Point campsite is open for reservations. I’m not saying you legally can or should take advantage of the remoteness of the location and the one-third-of-a-mile-high altitudes to get as stoned as a Coloradan, but in theory one could. —Emma McClatchey
PRODUCTS & ODDITIES 🍈
Iowa’s 100th County
Ah, Bloom County. The reason my Gen Z-cusp mind sees the ’80s primarily as black-and-white pen illustrations. Comic creator Berkeley Breathed famously lived in Iowa City for four years, so as is the grand Iowa tradition, he’s ours forever. This is, however, cemented by the fact that the boarding house in which Opus, Bill the Cat and a variety of other Bloom County characters live is based on Iowa City’s most chaotically aesthetically mangled house, the Linsay/Lindsay/Bloom County house on E College Street. If you’re in the mood to relive a childhood Sunday spent on the floor of your folks’ living room looking through the Sunday funnies, pop on down to your local library and get out a collection or two! —Malcolm MacDougall
Most Popular Four Letters in Iowa
If you’re from Iowa, then you have undoubtedly encountered an ICON.
To University of Iowa students and professors, that’s the Iowa Courses Online course management system. For the nerds in the room, it’s the Mindbridge Foundation’s Iowa Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. Art lovers will be familiar with Fairfield’s ICON Gallery: Iowa Contemporary Art. In Central Iowa, there’s Iowa Confluence Water Trails. In the northeastern part of the state, you’ll find ICON Donuts, with locations in Cedar Falls and Waterloo. If you work with the prison system, you’ll have encountered the one real acronym of the bunch: the Iowa Corrections Offender Network. And perhaps the newest instance is found at ICON Arts Academy, now auditioning for the 2023-24 school year.
That’s a lot of ICONs.
The oldest by far is the ICON Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, established in 1975. The Mindbridge Foundation (which is also responsible for AnimeIowa and Gamicon) held the 47th ICON in October 2022. Alternating locations between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City/Coralville, ICON carries the prestige of being the oldest science fiction convention in Iowa. More than that, it’s a damned good time. It’s the perfect mix of welcoming and close-knit, with ample opportunities to volunteer and a track record of fascinating guests, starting with inaugural Guest of Honor Roger Zelaney in ICON’s first year. (I met Cory Doctorow there in 2010 and still get that geeky buzz when I think back on it.)
Iowa Contemporary Art came next, establishing a nonprofit in 2003 and opening its gallery space in 2007. In 2016, the master plan for the Iowa Confluence Water Trails was adopted, working toward education in conservation, water safety and more by increasing access to 150 miles of rivers and creeks across Central Iowa. ICON Donuts & Sweetery was established in Waterloo in 2018, opening its Cedar Falls location just last year, in November 2021. ICON Arts Academy, intensive arts education for students 14-19, is just getting off the ground, building a new home for dance, theater, music and design students in Iowa City.
Of course, we would be remiss not to mention our own dear, departed Icon: Iowa City’s 1993-2001 alt weekly whose staff went on to found Little Village. —Genevieve Trainor
Iowa’s Best Non-Commercially Viable Native Fruit
Though Iowa’s not quite the tropical fruit capital of the USA, it’s a native home to one of the most distinct and little-known fruits of the northern states, the pawpaw. With a collection of folksy names—Hoosier banana, custard apple, banango — and a taste that’s reminiscent of mango, banana and a slight overtone of yeast, it’s just waiting to be the hottest new trend in craft beers. It’s not commercially viable since it bruises easily and doesn’t transport well, but thanks to dedicated fans ’cross the Midwest, you can get your own pawpaws to plant and enjoy right in your backyard for cheap. Iowa’s one of the worst states for biodiversity, so planting native flora like the pawpaw tree is one small way you can help Iowa be that little more ecologically diverse. —Malcolm MacDougall
Hooray! for the State’s Tastiest Tap Water
Your drinking water has to be pretty top notch in order to get mentioned in a song like “Hooray! For Ames Water” by Smiling Stone Soup. But lucky for Ames, it’s just that good.
Water Treatment Plant Superintendent Lyle Hammes says that good drinking water starts with a good water source. “We’re sitting on a very good aquifer here in Ames,” he explained. “It’s an alluvial aquifer. It’s very plentiful in water and it has good water quality that we get to start with.” Continue reading…
Most Interesting DSM Neighborhood to Watch Grow
In the past few years, some of my favorite new local businesses have sprouted up in HPOP, Highland Park/Oak Park. Des Moines Mercantile, a modern general store that opened in 2020, is incredibly fun to browse through. They have the coolest coffee table books, such as one I bought about music festivals around the world. Next door is The Slow Down Coffee Co, a coffee shop and community gathering place that also opened in 2020, and it’s worth checking out. They frequently host LGBTQIA+ game nights, artist meetups, book clubs, and so many other fun events. (Tip: follow their Instagram @slowdowndsm to find these events!) In the past month, a new vintage shop, the Divine Times Vintage, opened on Euclid, and I’m excited to check it out! They have multiple vintage vendors in the space and a great mix of clothing, home goods and furniture. —Sid Peterson
Best Local Tributes to American Gothic
After moving to Iowa last year, I was surprised to learn that American Gothic was an Iowan artifact. I recognized the painting, but couldn’t tell you much about it, and could tell you even less about Iowa. So, I visited the Grant Wood collection at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, and after examining a few paintings I thought, “Wait, was he gay?” That was my second surprise, and my third was learning that the painting itself was in Chicago, not Iowa.
Perhaps as a consolation prize, or to inform oblivious outsiders like me that Iowa exists, Iowans across the state have made their own American Gothics, from eye-catching recreations to chuckle-worthy parodies.
Last year, I spotted the American Gothic Barn near the entrance to Palisades-Kepler State Park. It’s hard to miss and exactly what it sounds like: a barn-sized version of Wood’s masterpiece, painted by middle school art teacher, Mark Benesh.
The Grant Wood Rest Stop is also impressive. Outside, it features rolling hills, covered picnic wagons, themed windowpanes, and inside, cornrow tiled-floors, mosaic restroom artwork, and cutouts of the farmer and daughter (my fourth surprise was learning they weren’t married). I encountered another mosaic rendition in the women’s restroom at the Eastern Iowa Airport. It’s cute.
But my personal favorite is a low-effort, black-and-white sign on Highway 1. The front reads, “You’re keeping up with the Joneses – You’re in Jones County, Iowa!” beside the farmer and daughter. The other side reads, “You’ve kept up with the Joneses – You’ve been in Jones County!” and shows their backs. On both sides, the figures are on the right, so they don’t actually align. It’s so lazy that it’s endearing. —Adria Carpenter
A Burgeoning Film Festival Scene
Seventeen film festivals are scattered throughout the state and calendar, offering a seductive dive into the world of indie filmmaking. At iowaculture.gov/media, Produce Iowa provides a list with links to fests of all stripes, including Ottumwa’s horror-filled Halloweenapalooza, Iowa City’s newly minted, lit-centric ReFocus Film Festival and Des Moines’ 48 Hour Film Project and Latino Film Festival.
Most fests have a mix of short, animated, student and documentary films, anchored with some features. The appeal lies not in the slick blockbuster allure of major studio projects, but in experiencing the raw testing ground for emerging filmmakers. Often, recognizable stars will work on small indie films as “passion projects,” sometimes to keep the creative juices flowing in this elemental world of indie filmmaking, or to produce a small project that wouldn’t even be looked at by major studios or distributors.
A top benefit of attending film festivals is direct contact with many of the filmmakers. Festivals will feature panel discussions, giving film fans firsthand glimpses into the processes and challenges of filmmaking, along with the rewards. For longtime attendees of festivals, they capture their own tales of seeing a career launched, or a rising star in their nascent stages. All is grounded in making films for the aesthetic rewards it brings — and, for some, the outside chance that scouts at festivals may see a film that catches their attention, and finds a fast track to distribution. Lights, camera, action. —John Busbee
Iowa’s Influence on Nouvelle Cuisine
While reading through a copy of The French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney — a book to be pondered as much as followed, with wonderfully evocative writing and a delightful exploration of French food techniques — I noted the author made a surprising amount of references to Iowa, in particular Des Moines. A quick Google turned up that Olney (1927-99) was born in the northwestern Iowa town of Marathon. He attended college at the University of Iowa before becoming a food writer in France, where he was a contemporary of Simone Beck and Julia Child. Olney was one of the strongest voices in the push for seasonal menus and locally sourced foods in the ’70s; Chez Panisse owner and farm-to-table activist Alice Waters considered Olney a major influence on her career and approach to food, as did sommelier Kermit Lynch.
After being out of print for a while, The French Menu Cookbook is back in a new edition, so I highly recommend picking it up, stopping by a local farm or signing up for a CSA, and taking a stab at a pot au feu, a duck-leg confit or possibly, if you’re feeling extra bold, some calf’s brains and tripe. —Malcolm MacDougall
This article was originally published in Little Village’s December 2022 issues.