On the tourist trail in Iowa

Andrea Sachs

THE WASHINGTON POST – In the first weekend of 2020, seven Democratic presidential candidates blew through Iowa like a snow squall. Elizabeth Warren appeared in Manchester, Maquoketa, Davenport and Dubuque.

Bernie Sanders also stopped by Dubuque, in addition to Grundy Center, Mason City and Boone. Joe Biden logged significant miles around the Hawkeye State as well, visiting Waterloo, Davenport, Grinnell, Vinton and Des Moines.

I landed in the state capital at the same time as John Delaney’s Sunday event in Sheldon and checked into my room while Biden was speaking in Davenport.

If I had unpacked a little faster, I could have caught the tail end of Tom Steyer’s talk in Newton. But after the flight, I just wanted a drink, without the politicking.

Over the next few weeks, all eyes will bore into Iowa, the first state in the country to hold a caucus or primary. The Democratic candidates – 12 at the time of publishing, 14 during my visit – are blanketting the Midwestern state, jockeying for supporters before the February 3 caucuses. (A few Republicans challenging United States (US) President Donald Trump, such as Bill Weld and Joe Walsh, are also popping up in Iowa.) The politically minded will focus on the policies, positions and personalities of the POTUS hopefuls, but I was more interested in the datelines – the destinations and attractions that will be here long after the politicians have moved on to another state, another election. While the candidates come to Iowa for votes, I came to Iowa for Iowa.

ABOVE & BELOW: The town of Pella, which Dutch immigrants established in the mid-1800s, celebrates its Dutch traditions including a tulip festival and the Vermeer Windmill, at nearly 125 feet the tallest working windmill in North America; and Hamburg Inn No 2 holds a Coffee Bean Caucus, in which one person gets one vote and everyone participates in Iowa City. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

The Amana Colonies is home to Iowa’s only remaining woolen mill, which has been in continuous operation since 1857

For three out of every four years, Iowa is relegated to flyover status.

So, you can’t blame the state of corn, Hawkeyes and Herbert Hoover for basking in the spotlight while it can.

As a resident of Washington, DC, my ears have been rubbed raw by political talk. But in Iowa, the topic seemed refreshing and new. Like the time I spotted my college professor on a beach in Rhode Island. I found her more compelling in a different environment.

Businesses around the state are capitalising on this moment. Sock Spot, a vendor in the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, carries election-themed sport socks with candidates’ names (Mayor Pete (Buttigieg), Warren), public service announcements (“Do the right thing 2020”) and unifying slogans (“I vote for snacks”). The store’s owner, who was wearing chihuahua-print socks, said the Bernie and Trump styles with unruly hair (comb included, to tame the locks) were doing well. But if votes were based on sales, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes would become the next POTUS.

Raygun, a printing, clothing and novelty retailer with several locations around the state, slaps a crooked smile on the straight face of such serious subjects as politics, social causes and Iowa stereotypes. The company, which leans left, has created islands of candidate-related merchandise within its stores. Here, you can pick up books by Warren, Sanders and Biden, among others; T-shirts (“Give Pete a chance!”); and laser-cut ornaments (Warren hanging with Lizzo and a gun-toting cat).

If you have lost track of which candidates have dropped out of the race, check the discounted rack: The “Iowa for Beto” shirts are on sale.

On weekends, diners, including many Drake University students standing in line for breakfast at Waveland Cafe in Des Moines.

The place is packed; the clamouring for hash browns loud. But on a Monday morning, I had many seating choices: counter or booth, by the photo montage of regulars or the wall of signatures by journalists and politicians. Two bites into my rye toast, I noticed a familiar face with a Ned Flanders mustache and a Hawaiian shirt. I dropped my slice to say hello to Waveland owner David Stone. I asked him how the cafe had become a campaign and press stop during the caucuses. He said it gained national attention in 2000, when Tom Brokaw reported live from the 54-seat diner.

This year, CNN wanted to set up operations inside, but Stone declined: feeding frenzy before media frenzy.

“They can’t take over the restaurant on a weekend,” he said. “We are extremely busy, and I can’t have cameras getting in the way of my customers.”

Not even Aquaman could move the mountain of eggs and potatoes.

When Jason Momoa, a native Iowan, wanted to hold a family reunion at the diner last year, Stone agreed, but only if his party arrived at 7am and cleaned their plates before the official opening hour of 8am. “He complied,” Stone said of the herculean actor.

Since 2004, the Hamburg Inn No 2 in Iowa City has held the Coffee Bean Caucus. The process is much easier than the actual Iowa caucuses. At the front counter, guests take a bean from a jar and drop it into a smaller container (a paper-clip holder?) embellished with the name of their preferred candidate.

At the end of the day, the staff transfers the beans to the larger Mason jars lined up on a shelf near the front door. The policy is one person/one vote, but everyone can participate, including non-natives (often called “captives” in Iowa-speak), children and foreigners.

“This gives us a really good sense of what the consensus in Iowa City is,” said Elise Prendergast, the front house manager, adding that Bernie Sanders won in 2016.

On the Tuesday morning I stopped by, Buttigieg and Sanders were bean-to-bean, and Mike Bloomberg’s canister was empty. Elise said the numbers are always in flux, however. After the December debate, Amy Klobuchar’s bean count rose.

The restaurant is lined with press clippings, and toward the back, you can genuflect before a shrine to past candidates and ex-presidents. In 1992, three years after leaving office, Ronald Reagan visited the Hamburg Inn and sat at what is now the Presidential Table.

According to the menu from his visit, he ordered meatloaf, french fries, green beans, a roll with butter and apple pie a la mode, which he ate first.

Of course, tastes and diets have changed since the Reagan years, so I asked Elise for her menu picks. She recommended the hamburgers and pie shakes, a blend of vanilla ice cream and pie – America in a glass.

At Eatery A in Des Moines, I ordered a Moscow mule and chatted with the mustachioed waiter about the restaurant’s former occupants, first a Blockbuster Video store and later Barack Obama’s caucus headquarters. I had read that a few campaign offices were nearby – Delaney’s is a few blocks away – and wondered if he had a Spidey sense about the diners’ identities. With the excitement of a wildlife enthusiast on safari, I asked him if he could point to any campaign workers.

“They wear buttons,” he answered, scanning the establishment. We didn’t see any lapel accessories, but he did notice a man and woman of distinction in the booth behind me. “Are you guys with the Well Pennies?” he gushed to the Des Moines-based folk-pop band. “I love your song Ooh La La.”

That night at the hotel, I fell asleep to the duo’s music and not the news headlines.

In Pella, a Dutch-accented town about an hour east of Des Moines, the woman in the white bonnet didn’t want to talk politics. She had more pressing matters to discuss: pastries. Bakeries all over town post signs in their windows for Dutch letter cookies.

However, the employee at Jaarsma Bakery explained that the S-shaped sweets are traditionally baked for Sinterklaasavond, or Dutch Santa Claus Day, on December 6. For more seasonally correct snacking, she suggested an almond banket, a pastry similar to a letter cookie but with more almond paste and shaped like a flagpole.

Jaarsma Bakery opened in 1898, about 50 years after the Dutch immigrants arrived in Iowa seeking religious freedom. The Old World traditions still run deep.

Since 1935, the town has held Tulip Time, a springtime festival celebrating the Netherlands’ flower power. The Vermeer Windmill, the tallest working mill in North America, soars nearly 125 feet high, its 82-foot-long blades whirring like a lazy fan. Five times a day, the Klokkenspel stirs to life with chiming bells and lively characters.

There’s Dominie Hendrik Pieter Scholte, who led the 800 newcomers to the City of Refuge, and his wife, Maria, who is in tears after all but one of her good dishes shattered during the crossing. (She is also upset about her new digs, a log cabin.)

Wyatt Earp earned a spot on the musical clock because the gunslinger grew up here. His childhood home is part the Historical Village, a collection of 22 buildings including the Werkplaats, where wooden shoes are made, and the Delft House, which contains vintage pieces of the famous pottery.

Continuing east, I left Pella’s self-described ‘Touch of Holland’, for the Willkommen mat of the Amana Colonies, a National Historic Landmark. Starting in 1855, German immigrants fleeing persecution (see Pella, with a Deutschland twist) established seven villages on 26,000 acres of land in central Iowa. They lived communally until the Great Change of 1932, when they split the shared nest for a more independent lifestyle. Today, about 1,600 people reside in the colonies.

During the winter months, the historical buildings keep limited hours, but Executive Director of the Amana Heritage Society Jon M Childers held the keys to the colonies.

We visited the communal kitchen in Middle Amana, and toured the exhibits at the heritage museum, which included the world’s first microwave and (empty) buckets of lard and barrels of pickled German cut beans from the subsistence days.

Jon drove me by the 163-year-old Amana Woolen Mill, Iowa’s oldest and only working woolen mill, the site of a new boutique hotel that is scheduled to open in the fall.

In between stops, he told me how as a Boy Scout, he provided “security” for Ted Kennedy, who visited during his 1979-80 run for president. (The boys encircled the former Massachusetts senator.)

More recently, Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke at the Festhalle Barn about a month apart in 2007; a year later, Bill Clinton stumped for his wife at the Amana RV Park. He also picked up a blanket from a shop Jon had set up in the registration office, for those chilly nights in Chappaqua, New York. I asked Jon what could politicians learn from the Amana colonists.

“Amana is inclusive,” he said. “People sit and listen. It feels like a big family.”

In the fantasy baseball movie Field of Dreams, the voice said, “If you build it, he will come.” Meanwhile, the voice in my head said: “If you offer a house tour that doesn’t involve standing outside in freezing cold, she will come.” Someone clearly heard me. I recognised the two-story clapboard farmhouse in Dyersville from a corn field away. It sat above the baseball field, which looked smaller in person. I buzzed the doorbell and a guide ushered me inside. After putting on protective booties, I followed her through the kitchen, where a photo of Ray and Annie Kinsella, the fictional field-builders, sat on the counter.

In the living room, the 1989 film played on a boxy TV, the sound off to prevent the tour guides from going mad.

I learned all sorts of movie trivia, such as the actor who played the “voice” remains a mystery (maybe Ray Liotta or Ed Harris, the husband of Amy “Annie” Madigan?) and the corn grew so high, thanks to human intervention, that Kevin “Ray” Costner had to stand on a 12-inch platform.

I stared out the bay window, a renovation care of Universal Studios, but didn’t see any ghost players emerge.

Maybe they are waiting for Major League Baseball to finish building its regulation field adjacent to the FOD. On August 13, the New York Yankees and White Sox will compete in Iowa’s first regular-season game to a crowd of 8,000. On this January morning, I had zero fans to cheer me. But I did have the voice in my head reminding me that the sooner I rounded those bases, the quicker I could return to my heated car.

Winter is prime time for viewing bald eagles in the Midwest. The birds of prey, which start arriving in September, hunt for food along Iowa’s major rivers. I started my search for the country’s emblem in the cafeteria of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque. The restaurant overlooks Ice Harbor, a man-made offshoot of the Upper Mississippi. No luck on the birds, but even better, I found Jared McGovern, the museum’s curator of conservation programmes, eating a chicken sandwich.

Jared told me to look by the lock-and-dam systems along the Mississippi River, where eagles often feast on the fish uprooted by the rushing water. I followed Jared’s instructions, driving out to Lock and Dam No 11 (nothing) and Eagle Point Park (maybe something) in Dubuque. Standing on the lip of the park above the Mississippi, I caught a glimpse of two dark-feathered birds (juveniles?) and a third with a white head (mom or dad?). I tried to snap a photo to send to Jared for confirmation but couldn’t free my hand from my mitten in time.

Back in the car, I continued south on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway to Bellevue (Lock and Dam No 12 and Bellevue State Park), Green Island and Sabula, the state’s only island city. In Davenport, seagulls circled Lock and Dam No 13 and Canada geese pecked at the frozen banks. The next day, I had moved on from the bald eagles; I now only cared about blankets. I had returned to Amana and was walking down the street when a mother exclaimed to her son, “Bald eagle”, and pointed at the sky.

The little boy and I both looked up and watched the bird soar toward the setting sun. Tinted in golden light, the bald eagle looked regal and proud, even if he was just going to freeload in a farmer’s field.

I also spotted my button. A few hours before my flight back to Washington, I was drinking coffee at the Scenic Route Bakery in Des Moines when Jackson Boaz walked in wearing a “Students for Warren” pin on his wool jacket. The 15-year-old high school freshman from Northern California started every morning at the cafe with a cup of oatmeal. Iowa in January, he said, was “too cold for parfait”. The young campaign volunteer shared his impressions of the state with me.

“I love the energy here in Des Moines and in Iowa as a whole,” he said. “They have this sacred role as the first in the country. It’s like the political Super Bowl.” Anything else? “The food has been pretty good.”

Jackson was leaving in mid-January but hoped to return to Iowa for the caucuses – and maybe the oatmeal, too.