Vacationing in Iowa5/7/2014
Windows down, toes out the passenger side bopping in the wind to a local country station that splits Tanya Tucker and Toby Keith hits with DJ announcements of senior living menus and auction calendars — ahh, it’s a road trip in Iowa summer.
This is our third annual Vacationing Iowa guide, which is designed to point travelers off the beaten path, into small towns, along windy “dead man’s curves” of county blacktops to those odd little nuggets that aren’t necessarily final destinations, but at least happy distractions along the way.
In past issues, we told readers about the Native American cave carvings in Otho’s Boneyard Hollow, Riverside’s Trekky lore as “the future birthplace” of Capt. James T. Kirk, Britt’s Hobo Museum and the Villisca Axe Murder House, to name a few. Well, here are a few more. So fasten all safety harnesses, because some of these old back roads can get bumpy.
Estherville Meteorite Center
814 Central Ave., Estherville
A 455-pound meteorite — the largest ever recorded in North American history — struck the Earth in Emmet County a few miles north of the small town of Estherville on May 10, 1879. It has since become aptly known as the Estherville Meteorite.
Now, this ain’t no “giant frozen chunk of poopy” like the one that was set free from an in-flight airplane commode in the movie “Joe Dirt.” It was, however, near comparable in size to the large petrified turd the mullet-wearing white trash boy wheeled around in a Radio Flyer and considered his best ally.
Upon impact, the Estherville meteorite buried itself 15 feet into some of the richest, blackest soil on Earth. Portions of the rock remain on display across the world, including in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., and within the walls of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.
Estherville residents Bob and Lili Jensen made sure to purchase a piece of the meteorite in 2010. Otherwise, their plans for opening the Meteorite Center at the intersection of Highways 9 and 4 would have left the project wanting of that crucial piece.
An original sculpture of the famed meteor was created by Dubuque artist Tom Gibb to supplement the attraction. The Estherville Arts Council purchased it in 1980, and it was cleverly dubbed “Estherville Meteorite.”
“Although it is by no means intended as any kind of realistic representation of a meteor, it is meant to capture the spirit of the occurrence,” Gibb admitted.
33rd and Floyd Blvd., Sioux City
Seeking salvation? Find it at a worship park named Trinity Heights, the pensive vision of founding Father Harold Cooper. It’s well worth the drive to Sioux City.
Nothing will make a sinner swallow a lifetime of guilt quite like the vacuum stare of a 33-foot-tall Jesus Christ. Any attempt to turn and run in shame will only leave you a coward in the gaze of the Virgin Mary, weighing in at approximately 5 tons of solid steel, an uncomfortable reminder of the last time you coveted thy neighbor’s lawn mower — or wife.
But Trinity Heights is a place for salvation, not fear, says Mary Stevens, director of the park’s St. Joseph Center.
“The word people use to describe this place is ‘peace’ — P-E-A-C-E — something the world needs more of,” she said. “It’s a very special place.”
Located on the city’s north side, Cooper dreamed up the park after encountering a stainless steel Virgin he’d come across during a visit to Santa Clara, California, in 1985. According to legend, the holy man made it his mission to bring such an embodiment to Sioux City, but the land he coveted for his Trinity Heights dream project was owned by a savings and loan company, which ironically wanted more for the deed than the old priest could afford. So he and his team of righteous Catholics gathered at the site daily to negotiate the terms with relentless prayer intimidation.
Perhaps it worked. A real estate crisis erupted in 1987, and Cooper was able to buy the land for cheap. The statuesque Immaculate Mary Queen of Peace debuted at the park in 1992, towering over visitors at 30 feet high. Christ had risen there six years later.
Then sculptor Dale Claude Lamphere obliged the priest with additional biblical moments captured in clay, including: a statue of Archangel Michael slaying the serpent, shrines of Mary’s most famed moments and one of only three wood-carved “Last Supper” murals in the world where Lamphere used his own family and friends from the nearby town of Le Mars (a.k.a. “Ice Cream Capital Of The World”) as models for the piece, according to Stevens. Oh, and an anti-abortion memorial, too.
More than $1 million worth of Catholic art is on display among many private-nook prayer stations at Trinity Heights (though few standard activities are permitted in the scenic park: no pets, no sitting on rocks and no raucous good times are allowed.) Still, Trinity Heights draws a reported 100,000 visitors each year.
Iowa’s Largest Fryin’ Pan
In the small town of Brandon stands the biggest damn fryin’ — not frying — pan Iowa has ever seen. You can almost hear the stats being read by John Travolta’s “Michael” in the motion picture, reading a quirky travel guide from the hatchback of a station wagon: “Iowa’s Largest Fryin’ Pan has an 8-foot base and is 9-feet and 3-inches at the rim with a 5-foot handle for a total length of 14-feet-3-inches, and weight of 1,020 pounds.”
Originally constructed in 2004 to promote Brandon’s Semi-Annual Cowboy Breakfast, this pan can fry 528 eggs (44 dozen), 352 half-pound pork chops (176 pounds) or 88 pounds of bacon at one time. And it has.
In May 2005, the Brandon Area Community Club and more than 100 volunteers served a crowd of about 1,700 people a menu of eggs, ham, fried potatoes, biscuits and sausage gravy, orange juice and “cowboy coffee.” The breakfast and other donations have raised more than $150,000 for community projects.
See and taste the morning feast at Brandon’s next cowboy breakfast on the third weekend of September. Just follow the aroma of sizzling bacon.
White Pole Road
Today this unique-to-Iowa historic stretch of street is seemingly nothing more than an old highway lined with electric posts which are painted white as high as the delinquent teenaged community servants can reach with their paint brushes — an effort to preserve Old Highway 6 history. It runs parallel to Interstate Highway 80, so it’s usually desolate and unappreciated by interstate travelers. But for those riding on fumes, nodding off at the wheel or throttling a moped, it’s a haphazard discovery of Iowa history
In the early 1900s, it was virtually impassible. Iowa made history and set a record in road building when 10,000 farmers worked together to build the 380-mile “Great White Way” (which was probably as racist as it sounds). It followed along the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad from Des Moines to Council Bluffs, providing pre-Interstate motorists with a straighter, flatter and shorter route across the state with plenty of stops.
Since then, old White Pole Road is sporadically marked with many of Iowa’s famed moments. It traverses a historic brick roundhouse, Drew’s Chocolate Factory and the site of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde shootout (Dexter); All Saints Catholic Church, which was dedicated in 1910, victimized by a hate-fueled arson in 1995 and eventually restored into a cultural center, and a former bank once robbed by Bonnie and Clyde that was turned into a police station and then a hair salon (Stuart); and the site of “the world’s first robbery of a moving train,” performed by Jesse James and company (Adair).
Today it’s most known for the miles-long and multi-community annual White Pole Road Garage Sale.
Friendly Gas Station Man
Menlo, according to its highway welcome sign, is a “town of few and friend of all.” It’s so friendly, in fact, it may be the most Canadian town this side of the Great Lakes. It’s just nice — the people, the offerings and the prices: The Menlo Café is quiet and cozy and leaves you ready for a nap rather than a long drive; Short’s Bar offers stiff and suspiciously cheap drinks, pool and a patio with baggo; and the seemingly welcoming gas station at the town’s entrance, which, upon closer inspection, is more of an ironic ruse.
It feels like the set of a movie, and the station is just a prop. It’s unclear if anyone works there, if it’s ever open for business or if it even sells gas (no apparent functioning pumps are present). Wanderers will likely find themselves regretful for passing up the opportunity for fuel at the last town. Arms crossed and befuddled, they stand in the shadow of the town’s map-marker, “The Friendly Gas Station Man,” a 1934 Kalbach Oil Company sign made by a Nebraska Neon Sign Company. It’s a personification of a service station attendant who might have once actually worked at the Station, donned in a blue uniform. At night, the man-shaped sign is neon-lit so onlookers can still see his comforting greeting. His arm, bending at the elbow with a slow mechanical moan, brings the right hand from his forehead out to the road, literally waving from 20 feet above… when it’s plugged in.
Often referred to locally as the Menlo Hand Man, the antique sign has been the town’s claim to fame ever since the Friendly Gas Station Man (who could really benefit from an actual name — George or Charlie, perhaps) appeared on the cover of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s official roadmap in 2009.
600 block of Washington Street
Historic Heritage Hill neighborhood, Burlington
Most people have heard of the serpentine Lombard Street in San Francisco, California, famed as “the crookedest street in the world” (let’s try to ignore the fact that “crookedest” technically isn’t a word.) But what people may not know is — and pardon the sophomoric nah-nah-na-nah-nah-ing — they totally copied Iowa.
Snake Alley was inspired by European vineyard paths and was built by the town’s German founders in 1894. Its experimental design offered a shortcut to the business district; Lombard Street’s design was the suggestion of a local property owner named Carl Henry as a way to reduce the hill’s natural 27-percent slope and was built in 1922.
Snake Alley is composed of tooled, curved limestone curbing and locally-fired blueclay bricks traversing seven hairpin turns, which span 275 feet; Lombard Street’s crooked block is about 600 feet of brick pavers with eight sharp turns.
Though Lombard Street is longer and more famous, no one can argue that Snake Alley doesn’t make the most out of its opportunity to host travelers.
And one more thing, California may have the “crookedest” fame, but Iowa has Ripley’s. Snake Alley was officially deemed “The Crookedest Street in the World” by “Ripley’s Believe It, Or Not!” in the 1940s.
So there. CV