Friday, June 28, 2013

Spending Time in Iowa

“Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it...."  Terrance Mann as played by James Earl Jones in the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Much to the probable chagrin of the Iowa Tourism programs, the Hawkeye State doesn’t really rank highly on most people’s list of places to spend a vacation.  When most travelers think of Iowa typically three things come to mind.  First and foremost are endless corn fields growing on top of other endless corn fields that seem to stretch endlessly from one horizon to another.  The only thing more endless than Iowa’s endless corn fields are the endless corn fields of Illinois and Nebraska.  Second, with few exceptions, people think of the word “flat.”  The third thing most people think about when traveling in Iowa is getting across it to their final destination as quickly as possible. Despite Iowa’s less-than-glamorous image those who think there is nothing that Iowa can offer them are wrong. In fact they are dead wrong.

Airfare to Minneapolis to attend my daughter’s recent wedding was $460 roundtrip from Tampa and even more ridiculous from Sarasota.  However Allegiant Airlines flew from St. Petersburg airport to Des Moines Iowa and returned me to Orlando Sanford airport for $126 roundtrip.  Rental cars in Minneapolis were about $100 more expensive a week than those in Des Moines for the same period.  Considering options I quickly chose to fly on Allegiant to and from Des Moines and to spend time before and after the wedding exploring the Hawkeye State.

I had spent time in northwestern Iowa in the mid-1970s when visiting my former wife’s extended family in that area.  My second trip as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee was to Clear Lake Iowa in September 1977 when my supervisor and I established the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Waterfowl Production Area Acquisition Program using Duck Stamp dollars to protect a bit of what was left of Iowa wetlands.  Later when I was a resident of Nebraska I spent a great deal of time in southern and southwestern Iowa exploring and eventually with the passage of time I had visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties.  Based on past experience I didn’t think there was much to see in contemporary Iowa until I pulled back the sheets and looked more closely at what the state has to offer.

My arrival in Des Moines was early which seems to be a pleasant trait of Allegiant Airlines.  I have now flown them on nine different trips and have arrived before the scheduled arrival time on each trip.  United Airlines or Delta – eat your collective hearts out.  My rental car was from Alamo and I chuckled as I told the Alamo agent that this was the first time since January 1978 that I had landed in the Des Moines airport and then it was on a brightly colored Braniff Airlines jet.  The Alamo agent snickered as she said “Sir, I wasn’t even born until January 1988.” 

Departing the airport and finding my way to I-35 and then I-80 I was immediately struck by the actual kindness and courtesy Iowans demonstrated to others on the freeway.  Iowa drivers slow down to allow cars to enter the freeway!  Iowa drivers (and those from Nebraska also) actually turn on their turn signal lights and move over one lane so they don’t impede other drivers.  Iowa drivers actually wave at you like you’re a long lost friend as you zip past them on the freeway going 75 mph.  During my entire 2,212 mile journey in a rental car not once did I see an incident of road rage.  When you approach a stop light in Iowa and the light turns yellow everyone comes to an immediate stop.  In Florida a yellow traffic light means “Speed up and get through the light and too bad for the other drivers if it turns red while I’m in the intersection.”   In Iowa a yellow traffic light means “slow down and stop so my neighbor can get to the grocery store before I do.”  In Florida where most people seem to be carrying a firearm you need to be careful not to instigate a case of road rage and become a death statistic.  In Iowa everyone treats you like you just walked into Floyd's barber shop on the old Andy Griffith Show.  There is actually a place left in America where everyone seems to like each other and get along.  It’s called Iowa.

Iowa has an extremely rich baseball history having supported professional baseball teams since the 1870s.  When you are not exploring the State Historical Museum in downtown Des Moines and learning about the glacial history of the state, or spending an afternoon at the Living History Farms in Urbandale, be sure to show up at Principal Park for an Iowa Cubs AAA level baseball game.  The night I was there I watched a double header between the Cubs and the Nashville Sounds.  The Iowa Cubs swept the doubleheader which makes me wonder why they’re not all in Chicago.  Dave Sappelt, a 2009 Sarasota Reds outfielder is now the starting left fielder for the Iowa Cubs.  Earlier this year Dave made it to the Show and made his major league debut in Wrigley Field.  It was awesome seeing another of “our kids” make it to the Bigs.

Principal Park - Home of the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines

Most appropriately the Iowa Cubs game was preceeded by this clip from "Field of Dreams" shown on their Jumbotron

Follow Interstate 35 north from Des Moines through those endless corn fields and notice all of the wind farms that have been constructed to harness nature’s power.  Stop at the Fossil and Prairie Park in Floyd County to see a small patch of what Iowa once looked like and collect some brachiopod fossils while you’re there.  
A microscopic reminder of how Iowa looked before the corn fields and soybean fields and before the tile drains destroyed the natural basin wetlands - at the Fossil and Prairie Park in Floyd County

In 1880 there were an estimate 4 million acres of wetlands in Iowa.   In 1977 when my supervisor and I began the wetland acquisition program there were 27,000 acres left.  That’s right.  99.3 percent of the natural basin wetlands in Iowa had been destroyed.  Most wetlands in Floyd County have been destroyed and the interpretive center at the Fossil and Prairie Park tells visitors the story.

The Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Take I-80 south at exit 1B to the Center

At the west end of the state before crossing over the Missouri into football-crazed Nebraska, history buffs will want to make sure they stop off at the Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs where you can learn about the western expansion of settlement of the country as pioneers moved west along the Mormon, California, and Oregon Trails.  Dash north from Council Bluffs 100 miles to Sioux City and visit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and learn about the epic journey of those two explorers who set out to find the western edge of America.

Further east in Waterloo you can visit the Iowa Veterans Museum where you can learn about the contribution of Iowan’s to the nation’s defense.  Probably most moving to me was the story of the “Fighting Sullivan” brothers – five Waterloo Iowa brothers who joined the Navy in January 1942 with the stipulation that they had to serve together.  It was for these brothers that the museum was built.  All five brothers were aboard the USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal when the Japanese sunk the Juneau and the five brothers perished together.  Their tragic story was immortalized in a 1944 movie titled “The Fighting  Sullivan’s” that I watched many times as a child.  Now that story comes to life along with the stories of hundreds of other veterans at this wonderful museum in downtown Waterloo.

The National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque interprets the importance of the Mississippi River to the culture and well-being of the nation.  Nearby the Mines of Spain Recreation Area at the edge of town tells you about the early mining industry (lead and zinc).  Further south the Putnam Museum in Davenport interprets the natural world and how humans interact (and interfere) with that world.  Traveling southeast from Muscatine you'll see signs directing you to Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge, a patch of public land along the Mississippi River that welcomes visitors with open arms.  It used to be that the refuges were described as "the best kept secret in conservation" and it was intended that way.  Port Louisa seems to have broken that mold and invites visitors as they drive south along the river.  At the southeastern most point in the state is Keokuk a classic Mississippi River city and home to a massive Lock and Dam that supports the shipping industry on the river.

The University of Iowa in Iowa City has been a wrestling powerhouse (this is real wrestling not the fake WWE drivel on television) for as long as there has been wrestling.  The University of Iowa produced one of my college biology professors, Robert Calentine, who was the best all-around field biologist I have ever known.  Just east of Iowa City in West Branch is the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Presidential Library.  The three most recent and debilitating economic depressions in America were each caused by Republicans and Republican economic policies (Hoover, Bush I, Bush II).  Here at the Hoover National Historic Site you can get a glossed over interpretation of just how badly old Herb screwed up.  

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Presidential Library is located just off Interstate 80 in West Branch

Cedar Rapids is home to the National Czech and Slovak Museum which does a fantastic job of interpreting the contribution of Czech and Slovak immigrants in the development and settlement of the central United States. 
The best kolaches I've had in 30 years were at the Sykora Bakery in the Czech Village

A block from the Museum is the Sykora Bakery that had kolaches – a traditional Czech pastry – as its main menu item.  I had not had a kolache since the last one my maternal grandmother made for me in 1980 so I had one for each decade I had been kolache-deficient.  Those at the Sykora Bakery were almost as good as the one’s my grandmother used to make.  In fact they were so close to grandma’s that I went back a second day for more.

Not my Grandma Beranek's kolaches but close.

Across town from the Czech Museum is the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art that contains a very good collection of Middle American art.  It is certainly not the Musee d’Orsay in Paris or the Metropolitan in New York City (and you should not expect it to be) but you will find yourself mesmerized by the beauty and complexity of the art that is available here to enjoy.  Not far from the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art is the Grant Wood Studio where the iconic painting “American Gothic” was painted in the 1920s.  Southeast of Cedar Rapids are the Amana Colonies, a National Historic Landmark and a well-preserved community of communal living German immigrants.

The iconic American painting "American Gothic" by Grant Wood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Despite my rabid interest in history and especially immigrant history I was not ready for the fascination and fanaticism that Iowans possess for baseball.  Just west of Des Moines off Interstate 80 is Van Meter, the boyhood home of “Rapid Robert” Feller, the best pitcher ever in the history of the Cleveland Indians.  Stop here and spend an hour and notice how quickly you are transformed back to your youth following baseball. The center piece of everything in the Bob Feller Museum is the iconic bat that Babe Ruth propped himself up on when he gave his farewell speech in Yankee Stadium shortly before his death.  As luck would have it the bat he used was Bob Feller’s bat and Feller had the Babe sign the bat after the game.  Both the bat and the signature are preserved for everyone to see in this Van Meter museum.
Exterior of the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter Iowa

The bat used by Babe Ruth to prop himself up as he gave his farewell address in Yankee Stadium on June 13, 1948 

The Babe and Bob Fellers bat 

Across the state to the northeast is the small town of Dyersville and the farm where the movie “Field of Dreams” was filmed. I was one complete goose bump as I drove up to the baseball diamond where, as the voice told Ray, “If you build it he will come.”  Maybe 50 people were there when I arrived at the field of dreams.  More than 65,000 people a year flock to the farm to be taken back to an easier time in their lives.  Here you can sit on the same bleachers used in the movies and you can walk into the same corn fields where the players disappeared each day.  You can stand behind home plate and fantasize about what could have been and you can play catch with your dad one more time.  I honestly had tears streaming down my cheeks as I took in everything I could about this field and everyone’s dreams.  Baseball history in Iowa doesn’t stop with the Field of Dreams.  Tucked away in a Benton County corn field is the tiny village of Norway that proudly proclaims itself to be the “Baseball Capital of Iowa” (and has a t-shirt to prove it) where the movie “Final Season” was filmed. 

Entrance to the Field of Dreams, Dyersville Iowa

From behind home plate on the Field of Dreams

Father and son playing catch on the Field of Dreams just like Kevin Costner's character wanted to do with his father in the movie

The house from the movie "Field of Dreams"

This scene from the movie comes alive and overwhelms you as you look out over the field.  You can almost hear James Earl Jones' voice booming from the baseline as you sweep yourself back to your childhood at the Field of Dreams

The baseball highlight of the trip was attending minor league games in the Quad Cities, in Burlington, and in Cedar Rapids. I thought before this trip that Bradenton Marauders fans were among the most demonstrative of minor league baseball fans. We don’t even come close to Iowa minor league fans.  Not by a mile. 

Exterior of Modern Woodmen Stadium on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport Iowa

The Quad City River Bandits hosted the Kane County Cougars at Modern Woodmen stadium in Davenport on Saturday night. Parking at Modern Woodmen cost $2.00 per vehicle but when you pay the $2.00 you are given a certificate for $2 in “Bandit Bucks” to go toward the purchase of any item in the stadium concessions.  Among the 64 minor league stadiums where I have watched games, Modern Woodmen has to have the most spectacular view of them all – possibly combined.  It sits beside the Mississippi River within a long homerun of the river’s bank and a tall bridge over the river passes just to the south.  American white pelicans soared gracefully over the outfield occasionally dipping down to the water’s edge.  
The setting for Modern Woodmen Stadium is one of the most scenic if not THE most scenic of any baseball stadium in minor league baseball!

The game I watched (the River Bandits won in 11 innings) was preceded by a game of “vintage baseball” played using rules that were in effect in 1858.  An announcer best described as a baseball historian explained how the game was played in the days when nobody wore a glove, when there were no umpires, and when if you hit a ball and it was caught on the first bounce you were out.  Batters were known as “strikers” then and pitchers were known as “hurlers” and an out wasn’t an out it was an “ace.”  As the historian explained the game I learned that there is a historical basis for those annoying cowbells that fans ring all the time at Tampa Bay Rays games because in 1858 when you crossed home plate you still had not scored a run until you rang a cowbell that sat by the edge of the field.  We also learned why we have the seventh inning stretch.  It seems that President William Howard Taft was attending a game of the Washington Senators and he sat on a wooden bench.  After the third out in the top of the seventh inning, Taft’s ass was sore from sitting so he stood up to stretch.  When everyone else saw the President stand they too stood and from that simple act we have the tradition of the seventh inning stretch.

Here in Modern Woodmen Park just like on Iowa highways, everyone was friendly and kind and amazed that someone from Florida would travel all the way to Iowa just to watch a minor league baseball game.  Landshark Lager beer is sold in Modern Woodmen Park as a “specialty” beer and one of the food vendors sold foot-long bratwurst.  I very much enjoyed going to a game here with 4,402 other fans on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Exterior of Community Park, home of the Burlington Bees

Sunday at 2:00 p.m. the Burlington Bees hosted the Clinton Lumber Kings in a Midwest League battle.  Baseball has been played in Burlington since about 1880 and its local stadium (that does not charge for parking) is called Community Park and it was built in 1971.  Here most of the seats in this retro ball park are bleacher benches and Landshark Lager was only $3.00 a can.  The Lumber Kings demolished the Bees and at the end of the game everyone stood around talking with their neighbors just like people do all over the rest of Iowa.

The Burlington Bees are the Low A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels

My last game of the trip was between the Burlington Bees and the Cedar Rapids Kernels in Perfect Game Park in Cedar Rapids.  Because the Kernels are an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins I was cheering for the Bees even though I was wearing a Kernels baseball cap.  Before the game I was given a personal tour of the stadium by an enthusiastic Kernels employee who showed me the shrine she had built to the history of Cedar Rapids baseball.  Way back when baseball great John McGraw played in Cedar Rapids and more recently Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was there.  She told me about both of those great players and would have told me about everyone else who played here but we simply ran out of time.

Perfect Game Stadium, the home of the Cedar Rapids Kernels the Low A Affiliate of the Minnesota Twins

This game was played at noon to accommodate a bunch of youth groups and I sat directly behind home plate with several Burlington Bees pitchers.  Before the game we were treated to the playing of the national anthem by the Garnett Bell Ringers who call themselves the “Ding a Lings.”  This group of 900 year old ladies was classically Iowan to the core and did a very good job of playing in harmony through the anthem. Just before the first pitch the announcer admonished everyone in attendance sitting in the 80 degree sun to put on extra sun screen and he then added that we should all “drink extra water on this very hot summer day.”  Ah, I hate to tell you Iowa, but after living in Florida for six years 80 degrees is nowhere near hot!  I actually felt a little chilled sitting out in that sort of weather. When the game ended the Kernels had beaten the Bees by 6-4.  It was not a good couple of days for Bees fans.

I flew home from Des Moines to Orlando Sanford airport the next day and found myself sad that I was leaving the endless cornfields of Iowa.  A lot has changed in Iowa since I first started traveling there.  Farm land that we purchased in 1977 for $1,500 an acre is now selling for $11,000 an acre if you can find someone willing to sell.  There are signs everywhere telling everyone that ethanol is “home grown fuel” and there are hardly any fence rows remaining.  Gasoline was $0.17 a gallon in Vinton Iowa in April 1972 but now in Vinton it's $3.39 a gallon. And despite traveling all over most of the state I did not see a single hog farm where there used to be hundreds.  I wonder if the hog farms were turned into corn farms in response to the market for corn brought on by the production of ethanol? Through all of these outward changes however Iowans have not changed.  They like most Midwesterners would give you the shirt off their back not necessarily because you need the shirt then but because they thought you might need it at some time in the future.

Departing the Orlando-Sanford airport I entered Interstate 4 and drove west through the mid-day madness of Orlando traffic.  There are very few cities that bother me to drive in - Bangkok and Johannesburg and  New York and Miami and Los Angeles are fun.  Orlando is pure hell.  I’m not sure if it’s because the roads are all clogged with thousands of Tommy Tourists not knowing where or how to find a rat named Mickey but for whatever reason I detest driving in Orlando.

A "normal" day in traffic headed to Ratworld

Traffic moved along slowly with Florida drivers cutting people off and blasting their horns and making quick and dangerous lane changes. As to be expected nobody used their turn signals and several people were seen with their heads out of the window screaming at other drivers.  It was a typical Orlando scene and as I approached the Amway Center all traffic on the Interstate came to a complete halt.  More horns were blaring and more fingers were flashing and blood pressures were rising and everyone was getting mad.

Everyone, that is, except for the van in front of me.  It had an Iowa license plate from Linn County and the driver had his turn signal on as he waited patiently so he could safely change lanes.


  1. Talking about baseball.....You forgot about IOWA BASEBALL MUSEUM OF NORWAY. The IOWA BASEBALL MUSEUM OF NORWAY, BOB FELLER MUSEUM, FIELD OF DREAMS and the CEDAR RAPIDS KERNELS will be the subject of one of 21 Christmas Trees featured at the HERBERT HOOVER MUSEUM from late November 2013 to early January 2014.

    1. Actually if you read the post you would see several pictures I took at the Bob Feller museum....and you would see mention of Norway and the movie "Final Season". Perhaps you need to read the story again?

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