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 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 week, all eyes will bore into Iowa, the first state in the country to hold a caucus or primary. The Democratic candidates are blanketing the state, jockeying for supporters before the Feb. 3 caucuses. (A few Republicans challenging President 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 destinations and attractions that will be here long after the politicians have moved on. While the candidates come to Iowa for votes, I came to Iowa for Iowa.
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, D.C., my ears have been rubbed raw by political talk. But in Iowa, the topic seemed refreshing and new. Businesses around the state are capitalizing 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, 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 discount rack: The “Iowa for Beto” shirts are on sale.
On weekends, diners, including Drake University students nursing hangovers, stand in line for breakfast at Waveland Cafe in Des Moines. The clamoring for hash browns is 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. Owner David Stone said Waveland 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.
Since 2004, the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City has held the Coffee Bean Caucus. Guests take a bean from a jar and drop it into a smaller container 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. Everyone can participate, including non-natives.
“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 a Tuesday, Buttigieg and Sanders were bean-to-bean, and Mike Bloomberg’s canister was empty. Elise said the numbers are always in flux. After the December debate, Amy Klobuchar’s bean count rose.
Toward the back, you can genuflect before a shrine to past candidates and ex-presidents. In 1992, Ronald Reagan visited the Hamburg and sat at what is now the Presidential Table. He ordered meatloaf, french fries, green beans, a roll with butter and apple pie a la mode, which he ate first. Elise recommends 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 bartender about the restaurant’s former status as Barack Obama’s caucus headquarters. 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.
Dutch and German colonies
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 for Dutch letter cookies. The employee at Jaarsma Bakery explained that the S-shaped sweets are traditionally baked for Sinterklaasavond, or Dutch Santa Claus Day, on Dec. 6. For 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, 50 years after Dutch immigrants arrived in Iowa seeking religious freedom. Since 1935, the town has held Tulip Time, a spring 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. Wyatt Earp earned a spot on the musical clock because the gunslinger grew up here. His childhood home is part of the Historical Village, 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 headed for the Willkommen mat of the Amana Colonies. Starting in 1855, German immigrants also fleeing religious persecution established seven villages on 26,000 acres here. They lived communally until 1932, when they split the shared nest for a more independent lifestyle. Today, about 1,600 people reside in the colonies.
The historical buildings keep limited winter hours, but Jon M. Childers of the Amana Heritage Society held the keys to the colonies. We visited the communal kitchen and the church in Middle Amana, and toured the heritage museum, which featured the world’s first microwave oven and (empty) buckets of lard and barrels of pickled German cut beans from the subsistence days. We drove by the Amana Woolen Mill, Iowa’s only working woolen mill, the site of a forthcoming boutique hotel. Jon told me how as a Boy Scout, he provided “security” for Ted Kennedy, who visited during his 1979-80 run for president. Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke at the Festhalle Barn in 2007; a year later, Bill Clinton stumped for his wife at the Amana RV Park. He also picked up a blanket.
“Amana is inclusive,” Jon said. “People sit and listen. It feels like a big family.”
If you build it ...
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.”
I recognized the two-story clapboard farmhouse in Dyersville from a cornfield away. It sat above the baseball field, which looked smaller in person. I buzzed the doorbell and a guide ushered me inside. In the kitchen, 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.
I learned all sorts of trivia, such as the actor who played the “voice” remains a mystery, and the corn grew so high that Kevin “Ray” Costner had to stand on a 12-inch platform. I stared out the bay window, 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 Aug. 13, the Yankees and White Sox will compete in Iowa’s first regular-season game to a crowd of 8,000.
Where eagles soar
Winter is prime time for viewing bald eagles in the Midwest. I started my search at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque. Curator Jared McGovern told me to look by the lock-and-dam systems along the Mississippi.
Standing on the lip of Eagle Point Park above the river, I caught a glimpse of two dark-feathered birds (juveniles?) and a third with a white head (mom or dad?). I continued south on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway to Bellevue, Green Island and Sabula, the state’s only island city. In Davenport, gulls circled Lock and Dam No. 13 and Canada geese pecked at the frozen banks.
The next day, I was walking down the street in Amana 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.
A few hours before my flight home, I was drinking coffee at the Scenic Route Bakery in Des Moines when Jackson Boaz walked in wearing a “Students for Warren” pin. The high school freshman from California started every morning at the cafe with a cup of oatmeal. The campaign volunteer shared his impressions of the state.
“I love the energy here in Des Moines and in Iowa as a whole. 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 dang good.”
Jackson hoped to return to Iowa for the caucuses — and maybe the oatmeal, too.