We are now more than half-way through the summer vacation season, and some of you may still be lollygagging about making summer travel plans. So, every year about this time, we offer a list of vacation possibilities to encourage you to enjoy our wonderful but all too brief Midwestern summers. In the past we have focused on museums and attractions in the state of Illinois; but now, with state funding for many entities uncertain, some of our state’s tourist destinations may be on reduced hours or not open at all. So, we have turned our attention this year to the neighboring state of Iowa. On the state financial solvency rankings, Iowa placed 25th (nothing to write home about), but it certainly beats out Illinois (47th). Oh, and did you know that New Jersey is even less solvent than Illinois?
An important criterion for highlighting Iowa tourist attractions is that they be places not likely to be crowded at the peak of the summer season. So, that automatically eliminates big museums, the Field of Dreams, the Amana Colonies, or any other attraction in Iowa where large numbers of people are likely to congregate because they have actually heard about the place. The following places you may be able to enjoy all to yourself even at the height of the tourist season.
There is nothing like beginning a vacation on a somber note; so, why not begin at the Buddy Holly Crash Site? On February 3, 1959, “The Day the Music Died,” up and coming singer/musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson died when their small plane crashed six miles outside of Clear Lake. Access to the site just off a main road is marked by a big pair of Holly’s trademark eyeglasses. While you are in the vicinity of Clear Lake, you will want to visit the town’s lighthouse. This lighthouse is particularly significant because it serves absolutely no purpose in the middle of Iowa.
Out west in Council Bluff, it is possible to visit the Squirrel Cage Jail. This is not and never has been a jail for squirrels. Rather it was an innovative law enforcement idea from 1885 that never quite caught on elsewhere. All of the jail cells were placed atop a giant Lazy Susan that would constantly rotate. That way the jailer could remain seated in one location and keep his eye on all the prisoners as they revolved. A couple of other jails were built according to this idea, but the jail in Council Bluffs is the only one that still rotates.
Fans of the fantasy genre and the paranormal have a plethora of choices in Iowa. We will just mention two here. While elaborate stone monuments often mark the burial places of the rich and famous, there is a stone marker in downtown Riverside, Iowa, that marks the future birthplace of Captain James Kirk, who several centuries from now will pilot the good ship Enterprise. The monument lists Captain Kirk’s date of birth as March 22, 2228; and who among us can prove it wrong? In tiny Villisca, Iowa, a local resident bought and restored the one time home of Josiah Moore. In 1912 an unknown ax murderer broke into the Moore home and chopped off the heads of all eight members of the family. The home is now furnished as it would have been in 1912. The Ax Murder House is said to be powerfully haunted and attracts not only those interested in true crime but also ghost hunters.
If we are ever going to make America great again, we have to start showing more pride in things that we can do bigger and better than anybody else. Fortunately, Iowa is chock full of “world’s largest” artifacts. There is the world’s largest wooden nickel in Iowa City; the world’s largest crater in Manson (You can’t actually see anything there because the crater has been filled in with rocks and soil); the world’s tallest double track railroad bridge across the Des Moines River at Boone; the world’s largest strawberry at Strawberry Point; the world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City; the world’s largest concrete gnome in Ames; and the world’s largest chee-to in Algona. In Audubon you can visit Albert, the world’s largest bull (He weighs 45 tons) and listen to a message from Albert about the importance of beef production.
Finally, remember that Iowa is a faith-filled state. In Polk City you can see the image of the Blessed Virgin in the trunk of a tree, and in Waterloo, there is a restaurant whose ceiling is decorated with murals from the Sistine Chapel, reproduced by a local artist using spray paint. Visitors to Iowa can have dinner beneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which is something you cannot do at the one in Rome. So, why are you still in Chicago? Enjoy your trip, but be back in time for the Sunday collection.