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Archive for the tag “Iowa”

It’s a Wonderful Life in Denison, Iowa

September 29, 2019

Insignia found on all police cars in Denison, Iowa

Little Denison, Iowa is known for two things:  it is the county seat of Crawford County, Iowa; and it is the hometown of Donna Reed, a famous American actress of the mid-twentieth century. Reed (born Donna Belle Mullenger) was best known for her portrayal of Mary Hatch Bailey, wife to George Bailey in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The town beams pride at its famous daughter and her famous role. “It’s a Wonderful Life” emblems are printed on city vehicles, including police cars. At 6:00 in the evening, local church bells ring “Auld Lang Syne” in an homage to the movie’s triumphant final scene.

They say it’s a wonderful life here; let’s see.

The Donna Reed Performing Arts Center is the town’s center. When I dropped by the curator asked me to come inside and review the memorabilia, which is exactly what you’d expect for a museum in small-town America.

Donna Reed Performing Arts Center, Denison, Iowa
Gallery of Donna Reed photos

The Center also produces plays from time to time and the street in front of the museum is lined with handprints of various actors. I recognized Bonnie Franklin and Mike Farrell. A replica of Donna Reed’s Hollywood Boulevard star is its most prominent fixture.

Classic scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” are posted on streetlights near the museum. They say that Seneca Falls, New York, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Bedford Falls, but Denison, Iowa wants to make its own claim.

Denison has a population of 8,298 as of the 2010 Census. It’s a pretty typical American small town.

Downtown, Denison, Iowa
Residential area, Denison, Iowa
Conner’s Corner Bed & Breakfast (now closed)

Although Conner’s Corner no longer operates as a B&B, you could try another B&B right next door, called The Providence Inn.

Nearby the Crawford County Courthouse was completed in 1905 in the Beaux-Arts style. Young Miss Mullenger would have known this building as the center of her little town. She would have known well the Civil War statue in front (Iowa was a proud Union state).

Crawford County Courthouse
Crawford County Courthouse, Denison, Iowa

Inside the courthouse the walls are marble, railings are carved wood and wrought iron. Paintings on the wall depict scenes from the county’s pioneer history. One such painting was done in the “painting of light” style highlighting storefronts along Broadway in Denison.

View of the Iowa countryside from the steps of the courthouse

Finally, Donna Reed actually grew up on a farm near Denison, not in the town itself. Here are some photos of fall cornfields ready for harvest in the undulating terrain of western Iowa.

Fall cornfields and wild sunflowers
Endless fields of grain in western Iowa
Crawford County in the state of Iowa

All photos were taken by the author in June 2005, September 2011, or March 2017.

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

Donations are happily accepted if you’d like to help defer my costs.
Thanks,
Tim

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The Little Norse Town of Decorah, Iowa


Water Street business district, Decorah, Iowa

August 31, 2019

I didn’t realize what treasures were in store for me when I arrived in Decorah, an otherwise un-notable black dot on the map of northeastern Iowa. Arriving at 4:15, I was just in time to find the Winneshiek County Courthouse and get inside before it closed at 4:30.

The courthouse was built in 1905, features three stories, a tall central cupola/clocktower, and a Union Civil War memorial dominating the front lawn. Brownstone blocks were used for the first floor while the second and third stories were built with Indiana Bedford limestone.

Winneshiek County Courthouse, Decorah, Iowa
Winneshiek County Courthouse, front entrance
Winneshiek County in the state of Iowa

Once inside I quietly wandered around the ornate hallways of the old courthouse, hoping that I could avoid any security guards chasing away occupants before closing up. The interior walls of the courthouse are lined with brown granite. Glass designs adorned the underside of the courthouse cupola; gold leaf designs accented wall decorations.

Winneshiek County Courthouse, interior hallway
Winneshiek County Courthouse, underside of the cupola
Perhaps referring to the local Civil War regiment?

Despite all the glitz and glamor I found on the upper floors, this photo of 1949 courthouse personnel quickly became my favorite. The difference in fashion between then and now is striking. The photo was taken 4 years after the end of World War II. One can only imagine the thoughts behind the smiling faces: relief, sadness at loss, and a return to normalcy and the good life.

I was out of the building by 4:45, but it being the month of August I still had plenty of daylight to walk around town. West Broadway runs just behind the courthouse and is lined with magnificent houses considered part of the Decorah Historic District. I spent 30 to 40 minutes walking up and down the street photographing classic old mansions and posting the photos on Facebook. Several dozen of my Facebook friends enjoyed the tour along with me, giving the gallery likes and good comments. Some of these houses have been converted to bed and breakfasts (look them up if you like! link is here), while others are private homes.

“Bed and Breakfast on Broadway”
Home on West Broadway, Decorah, Iowa

The most famous mansion was an Italianate villa called the Porter House Museum. The owner was not a railroad magnate (rather a dry goods merchant) but such was the prosperity among northern states after the Civil War that riches came to many.

Porter House Museum

No fine American block would be complete without stately churches. The first church below is Lutheran, the next is Episcopalian.

First Lutheran Church
Grace Episcopal Church, Decorah, Iowa

Many of these houses displayed Norwegian flags. Norwegian immigrants came to Decorah starting in the 1850s, prospering smartly.

A few blocks below Broadway, Water Street is the business district in Decorah. The street is full of 19th-century architecture and reminders of the town’s Norwegian heritage. The royal blue flags lining the street say “Norse” and are probably a reference to Decorah’s Nordic Fest, held annually the last weekend of July, often drawing crowds of 50,000 or more.

Water Street business district

Here are some more photos up and down Water Street. Some of the buildings and detail are just magnificent:

Detail on corner of building shown above
Water Street view with cliffs in the distance.
Water Street with Hotel Winneshiek (on the left)

The classic Hotel Winneshiek offers a fine dining restaurant on the ground floor and rooms for about $100 (when I last checked). I didn’t stay there because I already had reservations elsewhere, but it looks like a great place so I’m including a link to the Hotel Winneshiek & Opera House.

Several reminders of Decorah’s Norwegian roots appear around town:

Westerheim Norwegian-American Museum
Decorah wall mural featuring Norwegian singers
Home on West Broadway with both Norwegian and American flags
Old Painter-Bernatz Mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Decorah lies in the valley of the Upper Iowa River in the “driftless” region of northeastern Iowa, meaning that the landscape was never leveled by glaciers during the Ice Ages. As a result, the area landscape features old limestone cliffs and ravines forming natural caves and viewpoints. One of these is known as Pulpit Rock, which I visited the next morning and climbed for the view:

Pulpit Rock, Decorah, Iowa
View from Pulpit Rock

I really couldn’t get enough of this town. I overheard others walking by me saying it was the “cutest town they’d ever seen.” It’s my new favorite Iowa town and deserves a place on your bucket list.

A link to the town’s Wikipedia page is here. Visitor’s info is here.

All photos taken by the author between August 29-30, 2017.


A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

I’m trying to travel to all of America’s county courthouses, and each month a post about my visit to the most interesting county seats. It’s only a hobby — but donations are greatly appreciated to help defer my costs.
Thanks,
Tim

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September 30, 2014

Today is the last day of September and therefore the final day that can possibly claim any pretense to still being summer, so I’ve pulled together a few photos to honor the occasion.  Mostly photos in this post — the season’s political ads have made me tired me of words.

Sunflower Fields near Pollack, South Dakota:  A lot of South Dakota sunflower fields were ripening in August. The farmer told me that prices were down but yields were up.  Breaking even with last year.  He’s probably already off to Arizona for the winter.

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Canola Fields near St. Andre, Quebec, Canada: Bright yellow canola can turn a plain field into an impressionist landscape.  Nice of them to add the purple flowers along the roadside, though I imagine the more stolid types would call those weeds.  The rocky hills in the background are probably glacial deposits; they form the boundaries of the St. Lawrence River Valley.

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One More Bright Yellow Summer Field — Countryside near Leuven, Belgium:  2 photos of canola fields in Belgium plus a nearby farming village.  These were taken in the month of May, but it sure looks like summertime to me.

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Iowa — Farmhouses, Baseball, Cornfields, Old Churches, and Loess Hills:  The first two photos are from the Field of Dreams farm/set near Dyersville; the third shows late-summer cornfields outside Sioux City; the fourth is a view of the old St. Donatus church in July; the fifth shows a country road winding through the Loess Hills (yes, hills in Iowa!) along the eastern banks of the Missouri River floodplain.  The Loess Hills are ancient accumulations of wind-borne glacial debris.

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The Hot Summer Sun near Scottsbluff, Nebraska:  Scotts Bluff was an important landmark along the Oregon Trail. It rose so suddenly out of the Nebraska prairie that Oregon-bound wagon trains could see the rock formations for days before reaching them.  These photos to me epitomize the summer heat.  Bugs, dust, sweat, sunburn, biting insects, and rattlesnakes enhanced the experience.  In winter the bluffs are subject to blizzards and covered in snow.

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Finally, in the High Country Autumn Comes before September Ends — San Juan Mountains of Colorado:  All these photos were taken in and around Durango and Telluride Colorado in late September, 2012.

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IMG_6514There.  Summer is done for another year as the Colorado aspens introduce autumn once again.

The month of October begins tomorrow.  At the stroke of midnight you may buy your mega-bags of Halloween candy at Walmart without suffering social aspersions.  Enjoy.

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