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Picket fences: real and metaphoric

After the Hotel Pattee closed, I drove up Iowa Highway 141 looking for the future incarnation of Iowa’s picket fence past. Because of the movie “Field of Dreams,” Iowa economic development has fully deployed the strategy “Build it and they will come.” It might now be instructive to remember that: 1) The “they” in the movie were dead baseball players; 2) The Pattee was the grand slam evocation of Iowa’s ghostly past and; 3) Hollywood isn’t the best role model for economic development.

Purchased in 1993, the Perry hotel was Christian philanthropist Roberta Green Ahmanson’s celebration of old fashioned small town values. She officially spent $10 million remodeling it and another $10 million on related restorations. The hotel was a de facto Christian ministry. Prayer cards were placed on guest pillows and C.S. Lewis’ Christian books filled the nightstands. Biblical verses were a large part of the décor and there was a chapel in the basement. Ironically, the only discernible growth in the town’s church membership in the last 13 years stemmed from something else — the $1 million the town raised to build a meat processing plant. That attracted Hispanic workers who now comprise nearly a third of Perry’s 8,000 residents. The local priest told me they are the “entire growth industry” of his Catholic parish.

With 100 employees, including 33 fulltime workers, the Pattee bled money for a decade before Ahmanson applied a tourniquet. Workers were informed of the closing by a Seattle public relations firm while she traveled abroad, provoking talk about “rich Christian hypocrisy.” On my visit, all downtown action had an Hispanic accent. Casa d’Oro was packed but none of the quaint little shops and boutiques near the hotel were open. Without the Pattee, Perry looked like Columbus Junction, which is to say it is young and alive and bi-lingual.

As much as any other restaurant in Iowa, the hotel’s David’s Milwaukee Diner revived old fashioned food values like sustainability, kindness to animals and buying locally. A stunning number of extraordinary Iowa foods found a market in David’s kitchen: Pickett Fence dairy products, Northern Prairie chevre, Doc Carver’s lamb, Milt Sheeder’s poultry, etc.

I found some really good news about those foods seven miles down 141 toward Des Moines. Picket Fence Creamery’s (PF) country store is as real as Ahmanson’s picket fence values are metaphoric. The store is also the perfect fix for “fresh and local” foodies in farmer’s market withdrawal. Besides their fabulous milk, cream, cheese and ice cream, all made without homogenization from their own naturally raised and organically fed cows, PF stocks an all-star lineup of other local foods produced with similar standards of good husbandry and stewardship.


Their own beef is raised without artificial hormones. The cattle graze pastures and drink Xenia Rural Water, which is frequently tested for chemicals and fertilizer run-off. They also raise pigs from piglets born at Kay Christian’s farm in Woodward. The pigs grow up outdoors, never in confinements and eat grains, grasses and milk like the pampered pigs of Parma. Chickens roam free range in Grimes and in eastern Iowa. Bison are raised in Tama, elk in Linden and lamb in Jefferson. Fresh eggs came from several local farms where chickens free-range. Fabulous ducklings came courtesy of Martzahn Farms in Green.

Most of the processed items used local sustainable foods in their recipes: Rave’s of Boone’s north German dessert sauces and cheesecakes were based on home grown berries and wines; R&D Country Style cheese products from Ames used PF cream; Country Lane Bakery of Woodward’s candies and other sweets were made with PF dairy; Keller’s Country Store in Dallas Center supplied granolas, candy, trail mix and apple butter, as well as their famous Lebanon bologna. There were mustards and salsas from familiar farmers market vendors, plus Zimmerman’s peanut butter, as well as Russ and Frank’s BBQ sauces, Iowa maple syrups, Log Chain honeys from Allerton and Krough Family corncob sweetener from Atlantic. All wines were from Iowa, too, including Breezy Hills, Jasper, Penoach, Madison County, Sugar Grove and Summerset. CV

By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com

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