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Iowa: a perpetual state of wonder

There are six covered bridges in Madison County. Until 1983, there were seven. What do you suppose happened to the seventh? Good story.

We'll get to that. We'll get to lots of good stuff _ because Iowa, it turns out, is a pretty wonderful place.

For years, too many non-Iowans thought of the state _ if at all _ as nothing but five hours of flat, corn-lined interstate between Bettendorf and Council Bluffs, interrupted only by an occasional college town.

But Dyersville and its "field of dreams" tickled imaginations a few years ago. Universal built it six years ago, and still they come, by the thousands.

Now comes The Bridges of Madison County, the movie. Robert James Waller's best seller about an Iowa farm wife who fools around while the old man and the kids are in Illinois showing off the family steer became a hit on the big screen partly due to the electricity between star/director Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

Dreamy fields and romantic bridges are luring people off I-80 onto two-lanes and, if they explore a bit, into surprises. Such as:

Mason City. Meredith Willson renamed it "River City" for The Music Man, and the town takes pride in the connection. There's also a rare Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel.

Spillville. When Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, in New York for a job, got homesick in 1893, someone told him about this little, mostly Czech, village in northeast Iowa. He spent the summer here. His apartment is on the second floor of a building whose first floor is a museum full of some of the most amazing clocks you'll ever see.

Elkader. George M. Cohan once played the city's 1903 opera house. It has been restored, and it's a beauty.

Boone. Birthplace of Mamie Doud Eisenhower. You're invited to visit the house. Just take a left at the town clock.

There's more.

I expected none of this when I crossed the Mississippi at Muscatine _ I just liked the name _ to begin a nine-day meander through a state I'd crossed often but knew next to nothing about.

"Iowans," says Connie Davenport of Keosauqua, "don't like to talk up their state. They don't like to brag. They think that's unseemly."

The hotel that became this trip's first stop, the Hotel Manning, has been owned by Connie and Ron Davenport for five years. Before that, they lived in Schaumburg, Ill. They like this better.

The hotel, a classic "steamboat gothic" inn on the banks of the Des Moines River, has been pretty much unchanged through years and floods and fashions since 1899, and the Davenports intend to keep it that way.

They aren't alone. Not much has changed anywhere in Van Buren County: the rivers, the hills, the pace.

"We don't have a traffic light and we don't have a franchise restaurant in the county," Connie says with pride. "Well, there's a blinking light in Birmingham . . ."

Keosauqua is a quiet place. Patrons at the VFW bar on First Street amuse themselves by trying to shoot quarters through a slot in the lid of a large water-filled pickle jar and into a shot glass on the bottom. The reward for success is a free beer. At this moment, there are seven quarters in the shot glass and at least 20 scattered on the bottom.

It's something to do.

"The kids," says Winford "Wimpy" Pilcher, working on a beer, "there's nothing here (for them) to do. For the over-21s, there's nothing here to do."

"There's two cafes, three bars and four hair places," says Dustin Canaday, nursing a Coke. "You have to do a 40-mile round trip just to see a movie."

For travelers, it's wooded, hilly, lovely green countryside _ a lot of the state is that way _ with treasures like the Hotel Manning and, down the road, a charming cluster of antiquities called Bentonsport. A little farther, there's the remnants of Bonaparte, a river town undergoing some restoration and in need of tenants with vision.

More than anything, it's still farm country. Local radio is a mix of Merle Haggard, swap shops, hog arrivals and herbicide commercials. The driving is good.

Alongside Iowa Highway 16, near Douds, stands an abandoned farmhouse. Remnants of white paint streak the gray siding. There is no glass in the windows, and sheer rags of what were curtains sway with the soft, warm breeze.

With the car engine off, the slow moan of a windmill adds to the sense of emptiness. A barn, the same weathered gray but without the streaks, shelters nothing but ground. I turn back to the house, with its curtains and think about the woman who, with love, had hung them and the laughter that may have been in that house and maybe the cursing and the generations that might have been born there and courted there and died there, how they might have prayed for rain that never came, and prayed for rain that did.

I stayed there a long time.

Back in the car, it was on to Eldon. The name may not mean much, but up the street from the town's main drag is what could be called Iowa's most famous house. It's called the "Gothic House" now _ for American Gothic, the Grant Wood painting of the farmer with his pitchfork and the farmer's wife, who was actually Wood's sister, Nan. It is a small house, even for the neighborhood.

Tiny Eldon (population: 1,070), it turns out, also has an old opera house in need of renovation. Fund-raising has been slow. The town is still recovering from the loss of Rock Island Line jobs 15 years ago. The 1993 floods didn't help.

Someone suggests that I see Pat Thomas, the city clerk, about the opera house. At her office, it turns out that she has seen me first.

"I saw you sitting in the cafe," she says, "and I thought, "A stranger. What's he up to?'

"

On this trip I will see pheasants, turkeys, quail, hawks, crows, ducks, geese and cranes. I see no eagles, which is another reason to go back.

On the road again, through Ottumwa, a city that needs an infusion of something and does not need another pawn shop, but a half-hour up the two-lane comes Oskaloosa, and it is a joy.

The thriving seat of Mahaska County, "Osky" has a courthouse square that's just about perfect: plenty of green, big trees, beautiful bandstand, the works, framed by 1870s buildings. The entire park, including the bandstand (both on the National Register of Historic Places), was renovated in time for 1991's Thursday-night band concerts, an Oskaloosa tradition.

Police Chief Jake McGee describes those nights: "People bring their lawn chairs or sit on the benches, the bank gives out free popcorn, and a lot of the older folks just pull up their cars. When the music stops, instead of applauding they honk their horns."

Another half-hour up Highway 163 is Pella, home of the Tulip Time Festival (this year's early May celebration was its 60th). The town goes Dutch in a big way, with many downtown shopfronts boasting Amsterdam-style gables and more on the way. Tulips are everywhere.

"We think it's kind of neat to have a mix," says the woman at the counter in the Wyatt Earp Boyhood Home. Yes, none can deny it, the legend of Earp touched this place. He didn't stay that long, but the house is nice.

Madison County was next. For more than a century, Madison County _ south of Des Moines _ was Iowa's lovely little secret. The only town in the region known to anyone but local farmers was Winterset, the county seat.

John Wayne was born in Winterset. The town's main north-south street became John Wayne Drive in 1989. Jan Pergoli, executive director of "the Birthplace of John Wayne" house and museum, says 40,000 pilgrims visited the place last year from 60 countries, including one each from Latvia, New Guinea and Cuba.

"People were coming to Madison County long before the (bridges) book came out," she says. "Now . . . there are more people coming to the area to see the bridges _ and then they're surprised to see the birthplace is here. It's been a wonderful marriage, I think."

Better than Francesca's. Her tentative grab at fantasy, told so juicily by Waller, was a huge hit in Madison County, and no wonder. Its annual Covered Bridges Festival (Oct. 14-15 this year) had been drawing a pleasant 40,000 or so. Last year, 69,000 showed up.

Christy Brittain of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce says, "I'd hate to even guess what it will be this year."

Jan Triplett, of Colorado Springs, Colo., 40ish, married, was in Winterset with her sister to see the bridges _ and to connect again with the book.

She said, "I think every woman has a period in her life when something so fantastic happens, but . . ." She hesitated. "I've been there."

Now she has been here. She will see all six remaining covered bridges. A seventh burned down in 1983 in a story as romantic as Waller's.

"There was a young man from here," says Christy Brittain, "who was having an affair with a married woman, and they had put their initials in the bridge. She decided to go back to her husband, so he wanted to get rid of the initials in the bridge," and he messed up.

"He did not mean to burn the bridge down. . ." Brittain says. "He still regrets it to this day, and he still lives around here. Unfortunately, he has to live with it the rest of his life."

Winterset has motels, but most tourists _ like Clint and Meryl _ stay in Des Moines, maybe 40 minutes away. On the way, they can stop in Van Meter, hometown of Hall of Fame right-hander Bob Feller. A museum for his stuff is under construction; for now, it's on display in a town bank.

I stop in Des Moines just long enough to take an obligatory picture of the State Capitol, then move on to Boone. I want to see Mamie's birthplace. It looks like Mamie. For those who don't remember Mrs. Eisenhower, she was the last First Lady who had no apparent agenda other than being her husband's wife, which annually put her atop the list of Most Admired Women.

A tour of her house, filled with Mamieabilia and a healthy amount of material on Ike, is fun. Like the '50s as we remember them, it is devoid of cynicism: just Mamie and Ike. It is also in some trouble. Attendance has declined to 6,000 a year, half what it was in 1980, when Bob Hope presided over the opening.

Ames, like Des Moines, gets a pass. Beckoning, about 15 miles north, is Story City, which has three elements I find irresistible: an ethnic identity (in this case, Scandinavian), an old movie theater and an antique carousel.

The 1913 carousel opens on Memorial Day, the theater (the Story City Opera House) turns out to be little and nice, and the Valhallah Restaurant puts on a mean smorgasbord.

I attend Sunday services at Hampton's United Methodist Church. I am neither Hamptonian nor Methodist, and I feel it. The eyes of the pastor, Samuel J. Hahn, find me, even though the church is crowded, and I'm sitting in the next to last row, and my mind returns to my stop in Eldon ("A stranger. What's he up to?").

Then, something remarkable happens: The service ends with the children's choir, the Blue Angels, singing Shalom Haverim _ Goodbye Friends _ in Hebrew. I can feel myself grinning. At the door, Pastor Hahn thanks me for visiting. I do not say, "You bet." I thank him back.

I head north to Clear Lake.

To most Iowans, Clear Lake is a resort town just west of Mason City. To rock fans, Clear Lake is the Surf Ballroom, site of the farewell concert of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the "Big Bopper," J.P. Richardson. They would die that night, Feb. 3, 1959, in a plane crash north of town.

The ballroom's street is named for Holly now, and the Surf has just been restored to its '50s splendor. A February festival, also at the ballroom, has been happening for years.

The town doesn't have the picture-book quaintness of Winterset, but it does have two Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on the square and a third not far away. Downtown has been boosted by an indoor mall that has been cleverly integrated into turn-of-the-century storefronts down the street from a bank once robbed by John Dillinger.

A morning's drive east is Decorah, home of Nordic Fest (July 28-30 this year) and hub of one of Iowa's most scenic areas, Winneshiek County. Iowa River bluffs look like the Adirondacks here. Roads wind. Trout beckon. Olsons and Hansons abound.

Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum, is here, a handsome tribute to all immigrants. So is the Clarksville Diner, a culinary tribute to New Jersey.

Best of all, there's Spillville.

Touching a harmonium touched by Dvorak is a kick. His New World symphony made its debut soon after this Iowa visit 102 years ago, though he didn't compose it here, yet the countryside seems as one with that music.

The Old World Inn, a few steps away, serves good Czech food. Near the center of town stands massive St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, an expression of Bohemian craftsmanship and devotion to faith.

Rosalyn Poshusta has been manager or assistant manager of the museum for 20 years. As many as 30,000 people, she says, have come through the place during a year.

Silliest question she gets: "What time is it?"

For me, it is almost time for Dyersville. An overnight stop in Dubuque puts it off a little, as I check out downtown Dubuque and its Cable Car Square antique district and like it. I ride the Fenelon Place Elevator to the top of the bluff and enjoy the view of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Then, Dyersville.

I am a little afraid to see the Field of Dreams, for reasons that don't matter to anyone but me. If you loved the movie, you already know.

I have carried with me to Dyersville the first mitt I ever owned, the Hank Sauer model my father brought me, in a red box, 41 years ago. On this day, cool and drizzly, I have the thrill of the grass to myself. Glove on, I walk out toward brown cornstalks unharvested beyond left field, and I think private thoughts.

The tour is ending. A stop in West Branch finds Herbert Hoover's hometown, a beauty, and a museum in his honor that's interesting and refreshingly candid about a president caught by a Great Depression he did not create and could not ease.

A detour north to Clinton discovers an art deco ballpark, where the Midwest League Lumber Kings play.

Downriver comes Princeton and then Le Claire, hometown of William F. Cody _ Buffalo Bill. His house is there. So is a museum in his honor.

Is it heaven? No, it's Iowa. That's enough.

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