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Traveling in Iowa


Our annual guide to some of Iowa’s famous, quirky and lesser-known attractions


It’s almost summer. Playing hooky is underrated. Life is short. Gas is $2 a gallon. Pick whatever reason you want, but if you take a vacation day and head west on Interstate 80, Highway 6 or anywhere in Iowa, you’ll find items of interest and amusement around every corner.

In our annual look at a few of Iowa’s unique roadside attractions, we learned Iowa is home to some of the nation’s most infamous crime sprees and that payphones are still a thing.

So get ready. Winter is over, and our state’s “windshield factor” is awesome. There aren’t any excuses anymore. You owe it to yourself to see, and explore, these treasures.

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa



Bonnie and Clyde shootout and bank robbery

Dexter and Stuart

Miles from Des Moines: 40


Bonnie Parker was badly wounded. She was bleeding from gunshot wounds to the abdomen, and the small-town girl from Texas was in agonizing pain. She couldn’t walk, and her illicit lover, Clyde Barrow, couldn’t carry her. He had injuries of his own, and his focus was on pointing his pistol and demanding a getaway car from an unwitting Dallas County farm family.

Marvelle Feller was an 18-year-old Dallas County kid. He had gone out to milk the family’s cows that July morning in 1933, and it was his family who ran into one of the most famous crime spree duos of all time, Bonnie and Clyde.

The depression-era bank robbers made at least two appearances in central Iowa. The stop near Dexter turned into the bloodiest shootout in the history of Dallas County, and it was also the beginning of the end for the Barrow Gang.

The marker just north of I-80 tells the whole story.

cv Bon Clyde bank pics and vault pics (4)

First National Bank of Stuart was robbed by Bonnie and Clyde on April 16, 1934. The current site is home to MK Salon Services.

Bonnie, Clyde and the rest of their crew had holed up between Dexter and Redfield. They were attempting to recover from a Missouri shootout a few days prior. A posse of about 50 local lawmen ambushed the gang. Three of the outlaws were able to make a run for it, but all five had been wounded.

Clyde’s brother, Buck, and his wife, Blanche, were left behind. Buck died shortly thereafter, and Blanche was arrested and incarcerated. Bonnie, Clyde and W.D Jones escaped the extended gun battle and ended up looking for a car to heist. That’s when they came across Marvelle.

At gunpoint, the youth carried Bonnie to the Feller family car, a 1929 Plymouth. He put her in the backseat, and the three bandits escaped arrest that day.

Fortunately, Marvelle and his family were unharmed, but they had a heck of a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

Nine months later, the duo came back to Iowa. They robbed First National Bank in Stuart, the current home of MK Salon Services. The safe is still in the salon, but it’s now been transitioned into a storage closet.

Bonnie and Clyde escaped arrest both times while in Iowa, but the shootout at Dexfield Park is widely acknowledged as the beginning of the end for them. Less than a year later, they were ambushed and killed in Gibsland, Louisiana.



Jesse James historical site

1156 Anita-Adair Road, Adair

Miles from Des Moines: 52


Jesse James and his notorious gang of outlaws committed at least a couple of Iowa crimes in the 1860s and 1870s. Early in their criminal careers, the rowdy young men had primarily been robbing banks, but that changed on July 21, 1873, which is the night they entered the train robbing business.

Just south of Adair is the site of the first moving train robbery in the history of the world. cv Bon Clyce Dex Park (2)A marker tells the story, along with the actual track the train ran on and a wheel from a locomotive of the era.

The train’s engineer was a Des Moines man named John Rafferty. About 8:30 p.m., he steered the train toward a sharp curve, not knowing James and his bandits were hidden and on horseback ahead.

The renegades had full stomachs, having called at the house of Mrs. Robert Grant earlier in the evening where she fed them homemade pie and wished them well. How’s that for “Iowa nice”?

The crew might have been full of Iowa pie, but it was still hungry for more riches. Rumor had it that $75,000 of gold was headed east, and they were fixing to redirect it into their personal coffers.

They loosened a track of rail, then tied a rope to it and waited. When the train chugged into sight, the men yanked the rope and the track in front of the train pulled out of line. Rafferty couldn’t stop the train in time, chaos quickly erupted, and the Iowa twilight devolved into disaster. The train came untracked and turned over. Rafferty never went further, and he never went back. The local 30-year-old family man was killed instantly.

When the safe was opened, James found the gold shipment had been delayed. The gang grabbed all they could — $2,000 from the safe and another $1,000 from passengers — then jumped on their horses and vanished.

An emergency telegraph was sent out, and pursuit of the criminals was immediate. But James and his boys got away. They were never charged with the robbery or with Rafferty’s murder.

The heist put the James gang in the crime annals of history. Many trains had been robbed while stopped, but this was the first known instance in which a locomotive was wrecked in order to be looted.


Windmill rest area

Westbound on I-80 near Adair

Miles from Des Moines: 50


cv 4-28 wind mill blade (3)

This windmill blade is very big.

Iowa is one of the windiest states in the country. Only Texas uses more total wind power. And the wind farm in Adair is one of the largest in the nation. The windmills stretch up to 400 feet in the air. Rural Iowa is fast becoming known for its windy prairies, and MidAmerican energy is building more windmills to capitalize. The rest stop near Casey has a windmill blade soaring into the sky and many facts about wind energy. One can lose a lot of time learning all these interesting tidbits.





Plow in the Oak

One mile south of Exira on Highway 71

Miles from Des Moines: 78


cv Plow in the OAKKKK (1)

The plow in the oak is one of Iowa’s most famous trees.

An old iron plow is embedded in the heart of a giant oak tree at a legendary site about a mile south of Exira on Highway 71. Local legend says the plow was leaned against the tree by a pioneering prairie farmer who stopped work to watch Union soldiers pass by during the Civil War. Gripped with patriotic duty, the man joined up with the soldiers and left the plow for posterity. It’s still there. Every year, the plow is disappearing a little more as the tree’s trunk enlarges and swallows more of it. It’s even been raised up off the ground as the old oak matured to more than 100 inches thick.




Albert the Bull

1108 E. Division St., Audubon

Miles from Des Moines: 85


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Audubon’s Albert the Bull is the world’s largest bull, and the statue is a tribute to the cattle industry.

It took 75 gallons of paint to coat this 90,000-pound hulking behemoth of a statue. Albert is touted as the “World’s Largest Bull,” and 20,000 travelers allegedly stop to see him every year. The nearby park has modern campgrounds with picnic tables, a shelter house and a recreation area. In case you didn’t know, Albert is in the heart of t-bone country.



Tiny Church:

Morning Star Chapel

4038 Main St., Elk Horn

Miles from Des Moines: 85


On the other side of the mighty East Nishnabotna River is the burgeoning tourist destination known as Elk Horn. The town is home to three of the hottest spots in Iowa. If you have Danish ancestry, Elk Horn is where “spectacular” begins.

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This church in Elk Horn contains less than 50 square feet.

“My Father’s house has many rooms,” said Jesus Christ in the gospel of John, but odds are good He wasn’t speaking of Morning Star Chapel.

The tiny church measures only 6 feet wide by 8 feet long. It was built in the Waterloo back yard of 83-year-old Copenhagen immigrant Charles Walensky. He completed the project in 1951 when he publicly opened it for prayer, worship and meditation. Inside are four pews, a pulpit and some painted scenes.

Walensky died in 1959, his masterpiece was eventually donated to the Danish Immigrant Museum – now named Museum of Danish America – and was later donated by them to the Danish Windmill which moved it to a spot on its grounds in Elk Horn in 2013.

The inscription reads in part: “It is a church in every respect, and everyone is welcome to use it in any way he feels might be of some benefit to him.”

Warning: The door was locked on April 14, 2016. But someone once said, if you “knock, it will be opened to you.”



Danish Windmill Complex

4038 Main St., Elk Horn

Miles from Des Moines: 85


cv 4-28 Danish windmill more (1)

The Danish windmill, in Elk Horn, was originally built in 1848 in Norre Snede, Denmark.

The only working Danish windmill in America is also in Elk Horn. It was built in 1848 but wasn’t shipped to the U.S. until the 1976 Bicentennial. The city couldn’t afford to pay anyone to reassemble it when it arrived, so the townspeople did it themselves. The attraction is on the same piece of property as the tiny church and an old Viking abode. Tours are available for all three, and in the adjacent parking lot there is even an old pay phone that still has a dial tone.



Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum

115 Central Ave. N.W., LeMars

Miles from Des Moines: 154.6



Putting a marshmallow in the tip of an ice cream cone helps avoid a mess.

The Blue Bunny ice cream parlor in LeMars is the self-proclaimed “Sweetest Place on Earth.” The plant produces 150 million gallons of ice cream annually. The family-friendly hotspot offers cool treats and is equal parts ice cream parlor and museum. A brilliant business model enables visitors to eat ice cream while learning about better ways to eat ice cream.

For instance, did you know an ounce of marshmallow is worth a pound of cure? If you put a marshmallow on the inside tip of an ice cream cone, it will help you avoid a drippy melting mess. That’s ice cream knowledge you can use.

The Bunny’s menu offers cookies by the dozen, soda floats of many flavors and chocolate mudslides, or consider ensconcing yourself in six different types of ice cream with a “pick six.”

By the way, what do you get when a cow jumps on a pogo stick? Milk shake.

Closing … A 90,000- pound bull crafted from cement and other materials is cool, but nothing manmade compares to the beauty of the East Nishnabotna River meandering into a meadow or prairie areas reaching for heaven falling short and accentuating a clean blue sky. Everyone in our Hawkeye state knows what a certain Kevin Costner movie character might not know — this isn’t heaven, and we’ve all experienced too many cold winter months to think otherwise. But on some Iowa afternoons, it might as well be, especially when you’re playing hooky and gas is $2 a gallon.



Things to think as you’re trekking across the Iowa countryside


Taking off a button-down shirt with one hand while passing an 18-wheeler… it isn’t easy.

Why don’t I eat gas station pizza every day?

Fleetwood Mac is historically underrated.

How old is too old to pee on a tire?

Are barns subject to the same laws of gravity as everything else?

What do cows eat when wanting to cut calories from their diet of grass?

Are there carcinogens in gravel dust?

Was early Iowa the crime capital of the world?

How hard would it be to steal a cow?



Did you know?


Iowa is No. 2 in the nation in wind energy production.

Clyde Barrow was a great fan of Fords. In fact, he wrote a letter to Henry Ford telling him how much he liked his cars. The funny thing is, Ford later used Clyde’s letter to sell more cars.

Wells Blue Bunny in LeMars produces more than 150 million gallons of ice cream and 8 million pounds of chocolate coating a year.

Wireless Internet is available at rest stops now, at least in Iowa.

Approximately 50 licks is the average amount of tongue swipes you get from an ice cream cone. Use them wisely.



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