Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part I: Why you should visit Iowa, specifically Clear Lake June 1, 2015

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Clear Lake

Clear Lake in northern Iowa is home to one of Iowa’s largest lakes and many quaint, home-grown shops like J Avenue. The community also has a definite artsy vibe.

WHY VISIT CLEAR LAKE? In Iowa, of all places. Oh, yes, we Minnesotans have not always spoken highly of our neighbor to the south. But why, oh, why? They are a great bunch, I’ve discovered during the past three years of crossing the border to explore communities like Decorah, Marquette, Mason City and, most recently, Clear Lake.

A quissensitial small town scence

A quintessential small town scene photographed at the lakeside park on the end of Main Avenue in Clear Lake.

My husband and I have found exactly the type of towns we love—small, friendly, charming, historic, unique and not overly-crowded. The rural character of Iowa suits us, farm kids from southern and central Minnesota.

Lake Time Brewery, a great place to converse with the locals on a Friday evening.

Lake Time Brewery, a great place to converse with the locals on a Friday evening in Clear Lake.

You can joke all you want about pigs and cornfields. But I’ll tell you, this state is about a whole lot more than farming. It’s truly about a people who are down-to-earth friendly, like locals Connie, Nancy, Chris and “They Call Me Norm,” whom we met at Lake Time Brewery in Clear Lake. Or Anna, who served oven warm cookies with a broad smile at Cookies, etc. Or Mark, who guided us on a brief tour of the Surf Ballroom when the dance floor was officially closed.

Brick paver sidewalks line Main Avenue and the lakeside walk. That detail adds to the character and charm.

Brick paver sidewalks line Main Avenue and the lakeside walk. That detail adds to the character and charm of Clear Lake. Take time to read the messages.

As a traveler, you remember friendliness or lack thereof.

My husband waited a long time for this oversized and delicious burger.

My husband waited a long time for this over-sized and delicious burger at a downtown Clear Lake restaurant.

Just like everywhere, our visit to Clear Lake wasn’t perfect. Lunchtime at a downtown restaurant found us waiting an extraordinarily long time for our food with diners who arrived after us served before us. Eventually the waitress offered an explanation: A new cook.

This is not the restaurant with the near duplicate name. Just one of the many downtown Clear Lake dining choices.

This is not the restaurant with the near duplicate name. Just one of the many downtown Clear Lake dining choices.

And our lack of knowledge that two restaurants in town share nearly the exact same name led us to the wrong one for our evening meal.

Balloons marked a graduation reception at a public rental space in the lakeside park.

Balloons mark a graduation reception at a public rental space in the lakeside park.

Still, we loved Clear Lake. The welcoming shopkeepers, the relaxed pace, the lovely shops, just the general ambiance of this lakeside town appeals to us. There’s a sense of community. It’s a place where you can walk and bike and drive and feel at-home-comfortable. I expect if we’d ducked into any of the many graduation receptions in town, we would have been welcomed or at least politely told about another spot to grab a bite to eat.

We were just a few days too early for the seasonal opening of the South Shore Sweet Spot.

We were just a few days too early for the seasonal opening of the South Shore Sweet Spot which is shaped like an ice cream cone.

We were disappointed that a few attractions, like the Clear Lake Fire Museum and South Shore Sweet Spot, were not yet open for the season.

I would love to revisit North Central Iowa Gardens in Clear Lake at a later date.

I would love to revisit Central Gardens of North Iowa in Clear Lake at a later date.

And, had we visited later, Central Gardens of North Iowa would have been much more inviting with water flowing and summer flowers blooming. And, certainly, if Mark had not arranged a special tour for us at the Surf Ballroom, we would have been unhappy. Check ahead (especially if you’re driving some distance to tour the Surf Ballroom) or plan your visit for after Memorial Day. And probably before Labor Day.

Downtown Clear Lake on a Saturday morning in mid May.

Downtown Clear Lake on a Saturday morning in mid May.

But most of all, visit Iowa. It’s much more than pigs and cornfields.

FYI: This post introduces you to a seven-part series on Clear Lake, Iowa, which my husband and I visited on May 15 and 16. I’ll show you Clear Lake’s Americana charm, character and artsy vibe and take you to the lake, Surf Ballroom and inside a remarkable chapel.  Enjoy the tour.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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55 Responses to “Part I: Why you should visit Iowa, specifically Clear Lake”

  1. Dan Traun Says:

    A great look into a small Iowa town. Love small towns.

  2. Almost Iowa Says:

    It is good to see thriving business districts in small towns.

  3. Sweet Posy Dreams Says:

    Looks like a charming town. We’ve also been rediscovering how nice Iowa is. I love the rolling countryside in southeast Iowa — Grant Woods’ country.

  4. Such a great reminder that everyplace has charm if you look for it.

  5. Jackie Says:

    Well that J Avenue looks like a fun little place to explore, I like the little flower pots painted on the side of the building. Rick and I have wondered into Iowa but not too far, mostly just passing through. Im sure, like Minnesota they have much to be explored. Thanks for sharing your little adventure. Sounds fun as always!

    • Those flowers on the side of the building were one of my favorite discoveries. It’s details like this which make a community memorable. I have six more posts coming from Clear Lake. So you will know this Iowa community quite well by the time I’m through sharing my photos. Clear Lake is not all that far from Rochester, Jackie. It’s only an 85-mile drive for us.

      • Jen Coffman Says:

        So happy you love the pots!!! Years ago the alley was filled with dumpsters and wind-blown leaves & trash. In an effort to make the alley more useful and eye appealing, the pots were sponge painted on over a few sunny afternoons! They have been well received ever since! Something so simple & inexpensive, but so fun! ❤️

      • It’s details like these that add character to a community. I can tell that Clear Lake works hard to present a pleasant visual experience. My forthcoming posts will show more of those details. I tend to notice details.

  6. Beth Ann Says:

    Of course I wish your experience had been absolutely perfect in every way but at least you got some fun out of what you were able to accomplish. The nature of the town changes dramatically once the summer season hits. It is much more crowded and buzzing with activity which you may or may not like but it still holds a lot of charm. I am glad you made the trip to my neighboring town!

  7. Great pictures. I find myself wanting to snoop in the first building.

  8. Nick Says:

    I’m a regular weekender up there and absolutely love it. From ice fishing, to summer boating there is always something to do and it’s SO relaxing. Glad you found a couple of good bites. A couple others to try next time would be Ge-Joe’s by the lake and the Half Moon Inn.

    • Thanks for your heads up that Clear Lake is a wonderful community. I just spoke with a friend from church yesterday who lived in Clear Lake for more than 20 years. He moved to Faribault to be nearer family. He, too, loved Clear Lake and was quite involved in downtown activities. He said during the summer there are activities every weekend, which you confirm and so does my friend Beth Ann from nearby Mason City. Check back tomorrow for part II in this series.

  9. lizwilkerson Says:

    So glad to see Clear Lake featured somewhere!
    I love my hometown!
    Too bad you didn’t stop in during July 4th weekend…that’s when the town REALLY comes to life!

  10. Katy Flint Says:

    I LOVE Cookies, Etc…it’s probably my favorite spot in CL. Clear Lake is a great little town and there are TONS of them with uber friendly people in Iowa!

  11. Hey, Audrey! Nice to see a little Iowa here too. Did I mention we lived in Cedar Rapids and Ottumwa too? I have lots of fond memories of that state although none surpass my love for Marshall. Or at least the Marshall I remember so fondly.

    • I don’t recall you mentioning the Iowa living. But you may have. I was just thinking of Marshall last evening as I saw a magazine ad for biking in southwestern Minnesota with the word “Marshall” at the center of the ad. The photo, though, showed a winding, hilly road with what looked like mountains, or perhaps low hills, in the background. I don’t recall this type of landscape on the mostly flat land around Marshall. An ad snafu perhaps.

  12. I’m very much looking forward to this series on Clear Lake. This is one of our favorite towns in Iowa too.

    • And 15 miles closer for you than me. Why has it taken me this long to explore Iowa? I’ve been to Lake Okoboji when growing up. And the past two summers have taken us to other Iowa towns. I’m glad we decided to visit Clear Lake. The small town of Lake Mills was another favorite on our recent meandering trip. I’ll be posting about that, too, eventually.

  13. Don Says:

    Now this sounds like my kind of town. Loved your pictures and descriptions! Hummm any stop lights?

  14. Don Says:

    Well shucks………………..I may have to reevaluate my thoughts on this……………………..

  15. Linds Says:

    Clear Lake has been our home away from home for going on five generations. We’ve watched the town eb and flow, from the iconic Surf Ballroom, PMPark, The Ritz (fabulous lake side restaurant that burned down), The long gone Clear Lake Bakery; to the fun you find on Main Street and around town now. It would be hard to say what our favorite places are, as we frequent it all. We love to shop in Clear Lake for unique gifts. To us this includes the little town of Ventura too. Clear Lake is filled with kind, hard working people. We love our summers here, and off season too! Our families favorite time is Thanksgiving weekend when decorate and open Santa’s cottage in the park. For the bicyclists, two days ago we road through the bike trail and were pleasantly surpised as we maneuvered on the path through a wooded area filled with wild flowers… so beautiful! You can bike around the lake without going on the highway much, or you can choose all the country roads. Check into RAGBRAI! All that to say, what we enjoy most is family time, the beauty of the town and lake, the park, and the people! Even when it is high season, the people are still just as friendly, there’s just more of them!

    • This is a wonderful personal endorsement of Clear Lake as I’ve heard thus far here in the comments section. Thank you for taking the time to detail the reasons you love Clear Lake. That your family has called Clear Lake your home away from home for five generations shows me just how much you love this northern Iowa community.

  16. hotlyspiced Says:

    It does look very pretty at this time of year. That’s a shame about the mix-up with the restaurants and how weird to have two restaurants so close to each other with such similar names. And that’s a shame you had to wait so long for a burger but it does look very generous in size and I like the look of the chips on the side xx

    • The two restaurants with almost identical names are not near each other. Our negative experiences were not major issues and are ones that could happen anywhere. Our overall positive experiences in Clear Lake far outweighed anything negative.

  17. So glad you have found our little treasure of Iowa and look forward to Part II of your series on Clear Lake. We moved to this lovely community in the late 80’s and have since raised our three children here. We are proud to call Clear Lake our home! Thank you for visiting and hope you will come back soon!

  18. Judy Linahon-j avenue Says:

    Thank you for sharing Clear Lake with the world. It was nice to visit with you when you stopped by j avenue. Thank you for the business and all the kind words. Please feel free to visit us again. We have much to be proud of here. I grew up near Ventura and my husband in Clear Lake. Our fathers graduated from CLHS and our families have been here a long time. All Clear Lakers are proud of our town and are always eager to show off what Clear Lake has to offer. We are very fortunate to have a very progressive Chamber. They all work very hard to promote Clear Lake.

    • You are welcome. It was a pleasure to visit with you in your wonderful shop. And thanks for adding more to the story with your Clear Lake area connections. I agree that your Chamber works hard to promote Clear Lake. That is huge and other communities could learn from such efforts.

  19. Paul C. Juhl Says:

    I noticed that the artist, Grant Wood, was mentioned in some of the comments. Many don’t realize that Wood was a frequent visitor to Clear Lake. If you want to know more, stop by the Clear Lake Historical Society (in Dana’s on Main Street) and pick up a copy of “Grant Wood’s Clear Lake Summer.” It describes Wood’s enjoyment of Clear Lake during the last summer of his life. This is also where he finished his final two paintings and one of his lithographs.

    Clear Lake is a very special place for many of us.

  20. Sue Ready Says:

    wow impressive you have so many responses to one blog!!. I have been to Clear Lake and hope you got to the coffee shop which I loved. The town does have a lot of charm and almost like a step back in time. Kudos to you for featuring the town with things to do and places to visit. I hope their chamber is reading your blog 🙂

    • Sue, I’ve welcomed many an enthusiastic reader with a deep love for Clear Lake. It’s been great to get all of these insights. Yes, Libbey at the Clear Lake Chamber, my blogger friend Beth Ann from nearby Mason City and others have shared my posts.

  21. penny Says:

    I’m 5th generation Clear Laker. Love it here. Thank you for your compliments of our town. We may not be hopping all the time but those peaceful days are lovely too and serve their purpose of slowing us down to stop and smell the roses. Which is good for the soul.:-)

  22. Jmac Says:

    I grew up in Clear Lake, it’s a great town!

  23. Lee Davidson Says:

    I grew up in Clear Lake, graduated CLHS a semester early in Jan, 1970. I still wish I could come back, but all my children and grandchildren live here in OK, and I don’t want to move that far away from them. I think I could write more than 1 book about growing up on 18th St West. My favorite sport that I played was ice-hockey. It can be dangerous but only when played haphazardly. I caught a puck just under my right eye once that took less than 30 sec to swell shut! My playing was over for a while. So many friends and so much to do year-round!

    • Lee, thanks for sharing your hockey playing memory of Clear Lake. It’s a beautiful Iowa community and I can understand why you’d like to return. But I also understand why you can’t leave kids and grandkids.

  24. Becky Says:

    Clear Lake was a great place to grow up. I enjoyed all the photos and I recognized most all of them even though I don’t get back there much. Above all, it’s the people that make it so special.


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