Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Feeling right at home at Seed Savers Exchange in rural Iowa, Part I October 18, 2018

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HAVE YOU EVER VISITED a place where you were so comfortably at home that you felt as if you’d been there before, but you hadn’t?

 

 

Seed Savers Exchange just north of Decorah, Iowa, feels that way to me. A nonprofit that preserves heirloom plants through planting and nurturing and seed saving, Seed Savers appeals to the farm girl in me. The peaceful setting. The red barn. The ruralness of it all. Iowa. So like my native southwestern Minnesota.

 

 

A tangle of plants, some towering, some not, drew me into a garden near the massive red barn where young women scooped seeds from ripe tomatoes during a mid-September visit. This is their work, this preservation of seeds. I thought of hippies and pioneers and how this tedious labor matters.

And I thought of biting into a sun-warm tomato plucked from the garden, juice trickling from the corners of my mouth. Memories from the farm.

 

 

 

 

I watch Monarchs and bees wend among towering stems of Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate blossoms, their flight like words of poetry in Diane’s Garden.

 

 

 

 

There’s so much to love about this place. Berries in the back of a pick-up truck. Chicks clustered, safe behind chicken wire. A path that leads away from the farm site to narrow streams. Quiet as only quiet can be in the countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

And then a second garden on the other side of the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center. Here my favorite flower—the simple zinnia and corn drying to harvest and sunflowers heavy with seed. And more, oh, so much more.

 

 

Inside the visitors center, the results of it all—rows and rows and rows of stocked seed packets. Bull’s Blood Beet. Rat-Tailed Radish. Hungarian Heart Tomato. What to choose from among all the alliterations, all the words that write of bounty and beauty. I choose Sea Shells Cosmos Mix for myself, Gold Medal Tomato for a niece with a passion for gardening.

 

 

I wish I could stay here, far from the stresses of life. I feel a peace in being here, sequestered from reality, from noise, from the world. There’s something about Seed Savers Exchange that feels comfortably familiar to me. Like I lived on this land once, walked below this blue sky, wandered among the waving blossoms of Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate. Yet I’d not been here prior to this visit. Except perhaps in the poetry of words and of memories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Seed Savers Exchange.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Scenes from the road in Iowa June 8, 2017

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Westbound from Illinois into Iowa along Interstate 80. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

IN IOWA EXISTS a comfortable familiarity for me. It’s not that I’ve explored much of this state, except the northern fringes. But Iowa feels like a friendly next door neighbor or cousin, the ruralness of this land creating an instant bond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For in Iowa—the Iowa I’ve seen—the lay of the land, the length of the sky, the scenes of barns and fields and small towns connect to my rural southwestern Minnesota roots.

 

 

I feel at home in Iowa, the place that is often the butt of Minnesota jokes. Outside the Twin Cities metro and the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota, our landscape mostly duplicates that of our southern neighbor.

 

The world’s largest truck stop, with eight restaurants, a movie theater, dentist and much more, has been open near Walcott off I-80 in eastern Iowa since 1964.

 

It’s OK to admit you like Iowa. Some of my favorite trips have been to Iowa communities—Clear Lake, Mason City, Decorah, McGregor, Marquette and Dubuque. These towns possess character and hold natural and historic interest for me.

 

Iowa 80, the world's largest truck stop.

Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop.

 

You know you’re in America’s agricultural heartland when you see a billboard advertising Pioneer seed.

 

 

Sometimes we need to step outside our boxes of preconceived ideas about a place and simply explore. Leave the metro and drive a gravel road, stop in a small town, delight in the simplicity of a rural landscape. Iowa and many parts of Minnesota are more than the middle of nowhere. If we choose to slow down, we begin to notice the nuances that define a place, that make it worth our time to visit and to appreciate.

 

TELL ME: If you’ve traveled to Iowa, what community would you suggest visiting and why? Or, if you haven’t been there, tell me what a visitor should see in your state or country?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

NOTE: All images were taken in late May 2016 on a return trip from Minnesota to Boston.

 

The art of an interstate rest stop in Iowa June 7, 2017

 

PRIME VACATION SEASON is almost upon us and that means many of you will soon hit the roads. And when you travel, especially long-distance, rest stops hold necessary importance.

A year ago, my husband and I drove 2,800 miles from Minnesota to Boston and back to attend our son’s graduation from Tufts University. Some days we spent up to 10 hours in the van. The need to stretch our legs, to pee and to take a break from roadway fatigue led us to many an interstate rest stop.

Hands down, Iowa has the best rest areas. Indiana, not so much.

 

The rest stop along Interstate 380 near Cedar Rapids honors artist Grant Wood and features his rural themed work on ceramic tile. The floor design mimics crop rows.

 

So what makes Iowa’s interstate rest areas so appealing? Themed rest stops, of which there are 16. These are centers of art and history as much as places to take a bathroom break, to picnic, to gather travel info and to stretch. And bonus, the sole facility we visited was clean.

 

My first view of the rest stop focusing on Iowa artist Grant Wood, who was born 40 miles to the northeast and then moved to Cedar Rapids with his family in 1901.

 

 

 

On our return trip from Boston, we stopped at the Grant Wood Rest Area northbound along I-380 south of Cedar Rapids in Linn County. At the time, I knew nothing of these unique stops for travelers. So imagine my surprise when we pulled off the interstate and into a place that looked like a cultural art center in the middle of, well, Iowa fields.

 

The many windows incorporated into the rest stop mimic the farmhouse windows in Wood’s “American Gothic” painting.

 

Wood’s work featured the rural Iowa landscape. Here his art is showcased in ceramic tile inside the rest area building.

 

Behind the rest stop building, visitors can consider the view through these window props.

 

Completed four years ago, “The View From Our Window: Grant Wood in Iowa” rest area honors Wood, painter of “American Gothic.” In my limited knowledge of Iowa art, this painting of a farm couple standing in front of a farmhouse is symbolic of Iowa as I view it. Rural, through and through. David Dahlquist of RDG Dahlquist Design Studio in Des Moines created the art at this interstate stop.

 

The green “waves” represent Iowa cropland.

 

Emerging soybean art inside the rest stop structure.

 

Real life farming in Iowa.

 

For this weary traveler, the Grant Wood rest area proved a welcome respite from the interstate and from the countless other rest stops that were nothing more than functional spaces to meet travelers’ basic needs. Expanding that purpose beyond—to include art and history—made an impression upon me.

 

Travelers can get a view of the U.S. on a map situated next to a duplicate of the farm woman Wood painted in “American Gothic.”

 

In other sections of Iowa, you can, for example, learn about Lewis and Clark at the southbound I-29 rest area at Sergeant Bluff.

 

Picnic areas are sheltered by machinery like structures.

 

These themed Iowa rest areas are most prolific along I-80. The Mississippi River is the focal point of the westbound stop in the Davenport area. Eastbound, the rest area at Grinnell highlights pioneers while one in Cedar County focuses on the Underground Railroad.

 

This sign inside the rest stop building honors Wood’s artist’s loft, 5 Turner Alley, in Cedar Rapids.

 

If you’re so inclined and looking for an inexpensive way to view public art and learn history in Iowa, you could plan a trip around visiting Iowa’s themed rest areas. If anything, it would be quite the unique vacation story.

 

 

TELL ME: Have you come across other such unique public interstate rest areas in your travels across the country? Or, offer your opinion of these Iowa rest areas.

FYI: Click here to visit the Iowa Department of Transportation website showcasing Iowa’s themed rest areas.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

And the Pulitzer Prize goes to… an editor in rural Iowa April 13, 2017

Art Cullen is in the center of this photo on The Storm Lake Times website. That’s his brother to the right, his son to the left.

 

HE BEAT OUT WRITERS from the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post.

He is Art Cullen, 59-year-old editor of The Storm Lake Times. On Monday he won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

 

A farm site just across the Minnesota-Iowa border on the west side of Interstate 35. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

That’s right. Rural Iowa. The state that welcomes visitors to “Fields of Opportunities.” The land of corn and beans and hogs. I like Iowa, just an hour south of my Minnesota home. It reminds me of my native rural southwestern Minnesota with fields, farm sites, small towns and wide open spaces.

That a writer from a northwestern Iowa community of around 10,000, from a newspaper with a circulation of 3,000, won the Pulitzer Prize delights me. You don’t need to be big city famous or work for some well-known newspaper to be recognized and honored. You just need to do outstanding work. It’s not easy being a journalist in a small town. I remember. I worked as a reporter, photographer and more at Minnesota weeklies and dailies decades ago.

To take a strong stand on the editorial page like Cullen did against corporate ag takes guts. And a deep understanding that the editorial page is the heart of the newspaper. As a journalism student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in the late 1970s, I heard repeatedly that message of editorial importance. It ranked right up there with the basics of reporting—who, what, when, where, why and how.

 

Small farming communities define Iowa. This is downtown Garner, just across the Minnesota/Iowa border. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Cullen clearly understands community journalism and the accompanying responsibilities of a strong editorial voice no matter the risks. And there are risks—financial and otherwise. Express an unpopular opinion and you risk raising the ire of advertisers, subscribers and others. Read a sampling of Cullen’s editorials, and you begin to understand why he won the Pulitzer Prize. Here’s a man determined to consider the facts and then offer his common sense opinion.

I doubt Cullen’s new-found fame as a Pulitzer Prize winner will change how he approaches his job at The Storm Lake Times, a newspaper he co-owns with his brother and where his wife and son also work. I expect he will continue to work with the enthusiasm of a man passionate about community journalism. I appreciate that family-run newspapers like his still exist in an age when too many towns/cities have lost their hometown papers to newspaper chains. When that local ownership is lost, quality and quantity of local coverage usually diminishes.

The Storm Lake Times remains undeniably local. Alongside a photo and headline announcing the Pulitzer Prize are stories about a cat sanctuary, a second grader finding a four-leaf clover and a popular area fishing spot. It doesn’t get much more down-to-earth rural, more “this is still life in Iowa even when you win the Pulitzer Prize” than that.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Iowa, rooted in rural July 16, 2015

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THE PEOPLE OF IOWA WELCOME YOU. Fields of Opportunities. Thus reads the sign welcoming southbound travelers crossing into Iowa from Minnesota along Interstate 35.

A farm site just across the Minnesota-Iowa border on the west side of Interstate 35.

A farm site just across the Minnesota-Iowa border on the west side of Interstate 35.

It seems a fitting slogan for a state that’s rural in nature, that stretches fields across the landscape. Sure, larger cities like Des Moines, Dubuque, Ames and Iowa City exist. But it is the small towns and farm sites and the people who live therein which best define this agricultural based state.

I expect all too many travelers have dismissed Iowa, failed to explore her Main Streets and backroads as they zoom along the Interstate, focused only on making good time to reach a destination. I have been guilty of that myself.

Between Iowa's northern border and Clear Lake, west side of I-35.

Between Iowa’s northern border and Clear Lake, west side of I-35.

On a mid-May trip to Clear Lake in northern Iowa, my husband and I traveled I-35 there, but then took backroads home. We drove through small towns and through the countryside, sometimes stopping, sometimes not. Randy has reminded me if we stopped everywhere I wanted to stop, we would never get anywhere. He is right.

So here are some snapshots from northern Iowa taken through dirty and rain-spotted car windows:

The tornado shelter sign caught my eye in Ventura, a small town just west of Clear Lake.

The tornado shelter sign caught my eye in Ventura, a small town just west of Clear Lake.

 

Along U.S. Highway 18 in the Ventura/Garner area.

Along U.S. Highway 18 in the Ventura/Garner area.

 

The Red Elevator, restored in 2009, gloriously graces the entry to Garner's Main Street. Garner is located west of Ventura.

The Red Elevator, restored in 2009, gloriously graces the entry to Garner’s Main Street. Garner is located west of Ventura.

 

Just another view of the historic elevator. We should have stopped to inquire about its current usage and history.

Just another view of the historic elevator. We should have stopped to inquire about its current usage and history.

 

Garner's downtown.

Garner’s downtown with some lovely historic buildings. I would love to see the old corner building, and the clock hanging from it, restored.

 

A perfect place for an antique shop in Garner.

A perfect place for an antique shop in Garner.

 

Iowa is known for its barn quilts and I spotted several, including this one near Garner.

Iowa is known for its barn quilts and I spotted several, including this one near Garner.

 

A century farm marker near Forest City.

A century farm marker near Forest City.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part VII: The character of Clear Lake, Iowa June 10, 2015

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CLEAR LAKE IS AN IOWA town with character.

Downtown Clear Lake offers an abundance of locally rooted eateries.

Downtown Clear Lake offers an abundance of locally rooted eateries.

It’s memorable in the sort of way that’s good. Main Street good. Welcome to our town good. Meander through the shops, dine in home-grown eateries good.

Relaxing outside a Clear Lake floral and gift shop, The Red Geranium.

Relaxing outside a Clear Lake floral and gift shop, The Red Geranium.

People watch. Kick back on a bench. Dip your toes in the lake or dig them into sand.

Even the backs of buildings possess visual charm.

Even the backs of buildings possess visual charm.

Fish or shop. While away a day or two. Take in the local history of the Surf Ballroom. Or simply amble downtown, right into a Norman Rockwell type scene.

Larson's Mercantile, like an old-fashioned five-and-dime, has a back corner devoted to fabric.

Larson’s Mercantile, like an old-fashioned five-and-dime, has a back corner devoted to fabric.

Walk the aisles of the mercantile.

Hanging baskets line the alley behind Larson's Mercantile.

Hanging baskets line the alley behind Larson’s Mercantile.

Take the back route through the alley.

Order a treat from South Shore Sweet Spot, shaped like an ice cream cone.

Order a treat from South Shore Sweet Spot, shaped like an ice cream cone.

Eat ice cream. Drink beer. Grab a burger.

From a window side counter (common in Clear Lake eateries) in a downtown restaurant, I photographed these guys crossing Main Avenue.

From a window side counter (common in Clear Lake eateries) in a downtown restaurant, I photographed these guys crossing Main Avenue.

Come in your cowboy hat or no hat.

Something I've never seen until visiting Clear Lake: a drive-through liquor store.

Something I’ve never seen until visiting Clear Lake: a drive-through convenience/ liquor store.

Clear Lake beckons with Americana charm rooted in character and small town Iowa friendliness.

FYI: This concludes my seven-part series on Clear Lake. Check back for more posts from my recent overnight visit to Iowa.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part V: The artsy side of Clear Lake, Iowa June 8, 2015

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ART IS, PERHAPS, in the eye of the beholder.

I loved the sweet surprise of these floral paintings brightening an alley in downtown Clear Lake.

I loved the sweet surprise of these floral paintings brightening an alley in downtown Clear Lake.

In Clear Lake, Iowa, I beheld an abundance of art. Everywhere. In the local arts center. Inside and outside shops. On historic buildings. In words, colors, designs, shapes. Sometimes obvious, sometimes not so much.

Historic buildings, like this one housing Thrifty White Drug, oftentimes are detailed in art.

Historic buildings, like this one housing Thrifty White Drug, oftentimes are detailed in art. You have to look up to see this intriguing sculpture.

Look up. Look down. Look around. Simply look and you will see it.

Creative window displays draw shoppers into businesses like Lake Lifestyle.

Creative window displays draw shoppers into businesses like Lake Lifestyle.

I appreciate a community with details that visually please me. And Clear Lake does. In so many artsy ways.

South Shore Sweet Spot was not yet open for the season when I visited Clear Lake. But I could admire the artsy architecture. No mistaking this for anything but a place to buy ice cream treats.

South Shore Sweet Spot was not yet open for the season when I visited Clear Lake. But I could admire the artsy architecture. No mistaking this for anything but a place to buy ice cream treats.

On a downtown shop window.

On a downtown shop window, inspiring words. Poetry really.

This stacked album sculpture in Three Stars Plaza next to the Surf Ballroom honors Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. All three musicians died in a 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake after performing at the Surf.

This stacked album sculpture in Three Stars Plaza next to the Surf Ballroom honors Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. All three musicians died in a 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake after performing at the Surf.

All around town you'll see posters from the annual Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom. I found this one at the AmericInn Hotel.

All around town you’ll see posters from the annual Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom. I found this one at the AmericInn Hotel.

Even collectible glassware is art, including this Carnival glass pitcher at Collectors Wonderland.

Even collectible glassware is art, including this Carnival glass pitcher at Collectors Wonderland.

Shelves and shelves of Clear Lake apparel fill shelves at Larson's Mercantile.

Shelves and shelves of artsy Clear Lake apparel fill shelves at Larson’s Mercantile.

The Clear Lake Arts Center centers the arts in this community. It's impressive.

The Clear Lake Arts Center centers the arts in this community. It’s impressive.

Iowa artists Pam Dennis and Ryk Weiss collaborated with local students and adults to create this tree sculpture from cattle panels, metal banding and clay. It is located at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

Iowa artists Pam Dennis and Ryk Weiss collaborated with local students and adults to create this tree sculpture from cattle panels, metal banding and clay. It is located at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

The tree sculpture (above) calls for an up close study of details.

The tree sculpture (above) calls for an up close study of details.

Inside the Clear Lake Arts Center, I delighted in these cornstalk panels suspended from the ceiling.

Inside the Clear Lake Arts Center, I delighted in cornstalk panels suspended from the ceiling.

The arts center galleries showcase an abundance and variety of outstanding art.

The arts center galleries showcase an abundance and variety of outstanding art.

There's art in signage and architecture.

There’s art in signage and architecture.

An artsy scene (in my opinion) at the Village General Store, a second-hand store along the highway.

An artsy scene (in my opinion) at the Village General Store, a second-hand store along the highway on the north side of town.

Signage always grabs my attention, including these graphically pleasing signs in a downtown window.

Signage always grabs my attention, including these graphically pleasing signs in a downtown window.

Window displays, like this one at Collectors Wonderland, are art in themselves.

Window displays, like this one at Collectors Wonderland, are art in themselves.

FYI: Check my posts from last week to read my first four photo stories from Clear Lake, located along Interstate 35 in northern Iowa. Two more installments remain in this series.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part IV: Touring the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa June 4, 2015

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

WHEN I MENTIONED to a friend that my husband and I were going on an overnight get-away to Clear Lake, Iowa, he immediately asked if we were touring the Surf Ballroom. We were.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

The Surf is the focus for many visitors to this north central Iowa community. It wasn’t our main reason for traveling here. But we knew we couldn’t visit Clear Lake without seeing the famous Surf, site of Buddy Holly’s final Winter Dance Party performance before he, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a February 3, 1959, plane crash along with the pilot.

This display references "American Pie."

This display references “American Pie.”

It was, writes Don McLean in his song, American Pie, “the day the music died.”

Another tribute to the Surf's most memorable performed, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Now I’m not much of a music history person, nor a person with musical talent. I can’t read a note. I don’t have a particularly good singing voice. I typically cannot tell you who sings what and even had to ask my husband, before our arrival at the Surf, what songs Buddy Holly sang. He cited Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day.

The exterior ticket booth.

The exterior ticket booth.

Looking toward the interior lobby doors.

Looking toward the outside, this interior set of lobby doors are hefty and heavy. To the right is the original coat check area, not shown in this image.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

Yet, even for someone like me who is rather musically illiterate, the Surf proved an interesting place. Built in 1948, the current ballroom (the first burned down) is on the National Register of Historic Places. And rightly so. From the exterior ticket booth to the heavy doors that lead into the dark lobby, where you can check your coat, the Surf holds that feel of yesteryear. It’s difficult to explain. But you feel that sense of entering a different world from a bygone era the minute you step inside. As if you’ve left Iowa. And today.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

You'll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

You’ll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

Here you’ll discover a hallway museum of musicians’ photos, posters and history. And inside the lounge you’ll see stars’ guitars and more photos and other tributes to those who have performed here. If a musician’s picture is displayed, then he/she’s played/been here.

The ballroom stage.

The ballroom stage.

On the Friday afternoon we arrived at the Surf, we almost didn’t make it into the actual ballroom. Black curtains were pulled across two entrances and marked by “closed” signs. I peeked through the curtains to see musicians for Lee Ann Womack setting up inside. I failed to notice on the Surf website that the dance floor occasionally closes if a concert is scheduled. So be forewarned: Check the Surf calendar. Even better, call ahead.

But then, as luck would have it, Mark, who’s been working Surf security since 1978 and clearly loves this place and his job, parted the curtains and invited us inside with the admonition to keep our distance from the stage. He’d overheard our disappointment and said, “Since you drove a long ways…” We’d traveled only 85 miles. But another couple had driven nearly four hours from Omaha.

In the back are layers of booths, all original.

In the back are layers of booths, all original, and beach-themed murals.

Portraits

Portraits of Ritchie Valens, left, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson hang inside the ballroom.

Signatures...

Signatures…

He led us onto the original maple floor dance floor, pointed us to the original booths (where I slid into one; it’s a tight squeeze), noted the beach themed décor (it is, afterall, the Surf), took us into a small room where musicians and others have signed the walls…

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

I wished I could have lingered longer in the ballroom, asked Mark to switch on more lights for better photos. But I didn’t press my luck. If not for his graciousness, I would have remained on the other side of those black curtains.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Shortly before our visit,

The day before our visit, the king of blues died. B.B. King’s promotional poster hangs in the lounge.

Lee Ann Womack's band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit.

Lee Ann Womack’s band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit. This was snapped just outside the front entry doors.

About a block away, this outdoor sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson.

About a block away, this outdoor turntable/album sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson. You can also visit the plane crash site about five miles from town. Because of rainy weather, we did not go there.

FYI: Please check back next week for the three remaining installments in this series of seven posts from Clear Lake, Iowa.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III: Lured to the water in Clear Lake, Iowa June 3, 2015

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A view of Clear Lake from the public boat landing at the end of Main Avenue.

A view of Clear Lake from the public boat landing at the end of Main Avenue.

IT IS THE LAKE or the Surf Ballroom, I expect, which draw many to visit the community of Clear Lake in northern Iowa.

The Walleye Classic opened Saturday morning under foggy skies.

The recent Walleye Classic opened under foggy skies.

At 3,684 acres with 14 miles of shore line and an average depth of 10 feet, the lake is among Iowa’s largest.

This sign along Main Avenue welcomed anglers to the annual Walleye Classic.

This sign along Main Avenue welcomed anglers to the annual Walleye Classic.

The only fish I saw while in Clear Lake was a clay one in an outdoor sculpture at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

The only fish I saw while in Clear Lake was a clay one in an outdoor sculpture at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

A fitting decal on a pick-up truck parked lakeside.

A fitting decal on a pick-up truck parked lakeside.

Anglers fish in a lake known for walleye. While I was in town, the Clear Lake Fishing Club was hosting its annual Walleye Classic.

The public dock stretches and corners into Clear Lake.

The public dock stretches and corners into Clear Lake.

I wasn’t interested in fishing, but rather in following the shoreline, in viewing the lake. Water mesmerizes, soothes. And I was seeking a bit of calm, a respite from the worries of life, a place to celebrate 33 years of marriage. I found that in Clear Lake, where I walked a short distance onto a dock in a public access area at the end of Main Avenue and focused on the water.

Teens' shoes abandoned along the brick pathway by the public beach.

Teens’ shoes abandoned along the brick pathway by the public beach.

The docked Lady of the Lake.

The docked Lady of the Lake.

A couple was fishing right next to the tethered cruise boat.

A couple was fishing right next to the tethered cruise boat.

On the opposite side of a public boat landing, my husband and I crossed the sandy beach to water’s edge. He dipped his hand into the water, declared it cold. Not unexpected on May 15. We observed a young family testing the waters, teens tossing stones into the lake, and, farther down, a couple fishing next to the tethered Lady of the Lake. The cruise boat tours the lake.

Boats stacked behind the Clear Lake Yacht Club next to the public access.

Boats stacked behind the Clear Lake Yacht Club next to the public access. The club features numerous racing events.

This art, photographed at J Avenue, a shop located on Main Avenue, summarizes lake activities.

This art, photographed at J Avenue, a shop located on Main Avenue, summarizes lake activities.

The single boat I spotted speeding across the lake Friday afternoon.

The single boat I spotted speeding across the lake on Friday afternoon, May 15.

Boat traffic was minimal during our visit. Too early in the season. Weather too dreary. But I expect on a summer weekend, this place is crazy busy with anglers, boaters, sunbathers and others recreating on and along Clear Lake.

Plant growth in the lake tints the water green.

Plant growth in the lake tints the water green.

The name is a bit of a misnomer. Water quality and clarity are not clear. We’re not talking pea soup, but green. Definitely not clear like northern Minnesota lake clear, although clearer than I expected.

The only sunset I saw was this one in a painting at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

The only sunset I saw was this one in a painting at the Clear Lake Arts Center.

I read that the lake setting presents spectacular sunsets. If not for the clouds and grey skies prevailing during our visit, I might have experienced that.

Many of the downtown shops sell water/lake/nautical themed art like this photographed at The Red Geranium.

Many of the downtown shops sell water/lake/nautical themed art like these photographed at The Red Geranium.

Still, I was not disappointed. Clear Lake is lovely. Not just the lake, but the community.

FYI: Please click here to read my first and second posts in this series from Clear Lake, Iowa. Check back for more stories in this seven-part series.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part II: Discovering the Americana charm of Clear Lake, Iowa June 2, 2015

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Clear Lake, almost Norman Rockwell like in Iowa charm.

Clear Lake, almost Norman Rockwell like in Iowa charm.

AMERICAN FLAGS, SEEMINGLY methodically planted curbside, present a patriotic flair.

Vintage lawn chairs for sale seem ideal for a local lake home or cabin.

Vintage lawn chairs for sale seem ideal for a local lake home or cabin.

Vintage weathered lawn chairs beckon.

Pink potted geraniums cluster around a lamp post.

Starboard Market, a highly-recommended local sandwich shop and deli. We, unfortunately, did not eat here because of the wait.

Starboard Market, a highly-recommended local sandwich shop and deli. We, unfortunately, did not eat here because of the wait.

An empty stroller sits outside a busy downtown deli.

Downtown Clear Lake features interesting historical architecture.

Downtown Clear Lake features interesting historical architecture.

This is Clear Lake, a northern Iowa community of nearly 8,000 along Interstate 35 that retains its small town Americana character in an historic downtown lined with quaint shops, eateries and more.

The lake draws visitors here. A park, boat launch, beach and dock are located at the end of Main Avenue.

The lake draws visitors here. A park and public boat launch, beach and dock are located at the end of Main Avenue.

Park on one end of Main Avenue and stroll your way to the lake, one of Iowa’s largest. Dip your toes into Clear Lake, which isn’t all that clear.

All of the cookies sold at Cookies, etc. are made from scratch using secret family recipes, divulged to only a few select employees. Monster cookies are the top seller.

All of the cookies sold at Cookies, etc.. are made from scratch using secret family recipes, divulged to only a few select employees. Monster cookies, left, are the top seller. The cookies my husband and I purchased were warm from the oven. Cookies, etc. ships. The shop also serves muffins, cinnamon rolls, specialty coffees, other beverages and smoothies.

And, even if it’s only 10 a.m., follow the advice and fresh-baked cookie aroma of Cookies, etc.: “Life is short. Eat cookies.”

Flowers and plants bordered two three sides of the corner Larson's Mercantile, a popular stop for shoppers.

Flowers and plants border three sides of the corner Larson’s Mercantile, a popular stop for shoppers.

Pop into the many shops, including the popular Larson’s Mercantile, like a step back in time into a five-and-dime.

Friendly owner Tom Wilson welcomes me to Collectors Wonderland, where I took pictures and purchased a vintage lamp.

Friendly owner Tom Wilson welcomed me to Collectors Wonderland, where I took pictures and purchased a vintage lamp.

Delight in shopkeeper friendliness, a seemingly signature trait of Clear Lake folks.

Lake Time Brewery is a must-stop for good beer and great conversation with the locals.

Lake Time Brewery is a must-stop for good beer and great conversation with the locals.

Hang out on the patio of Lake Time Brewery where the welcome is as comfortably enthusiastic as Cheers.

The Surf Ballroom draws musicians and music lovers from all over. It is the final venue played by Buddy Holly,

The Surf Ballroom and Museum draws musicians and music lovers from all over. It is the final venue played by Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens before they died in a plane crash in February 1959 outside of Clear Lake.

This is Clear Lake, a destination get-away for my husband and me on our recent 33rd wedding anniversary. Situated only 85 miles to the south of our Faribault, Minnesota home, it was the perfect quick retreat into a rural lakeside community that caters to visitors like us and those who are more interested in recreational water sports or the historic Surf Ballroom.

Clear Lake retains its strong rural roots.

Clear Lake retains its strong rural roots.

Along its northern exit, Clear Lake appears like any other Interstate community with chain restaurants, hotels and gas stations. But take the highway toward downtown and the distinct characteristics of this town emerge. You’ll see its rural side in grain bins and fields.

You'll see lots of boats, like this one parked in a residential driveway.

You’ll see lots of boats, like this one parked in a residential driveway.

Boats point to the lake’s importance here.

The plan was to visit the iconic Barrel Drive-in on Saturday morning. However, it wasn't open yet and rain was falling. So the only image I have is this one, which does not show the drive-in.

The plan was to visit the iconic The Barrel Drive-in on Saturday morning. However, it wasn’t open yet and rain was falling. So the only image I have is this one, which does not show the drive-in, only its landmark chicken. The drive-in is known for its broasted chikcen and homemade root beer.

And long-standing eateries like The Barrel Drive-In showcase the uniquely local flavor of this place.

This art for sale at J Avenue pretty much summarizes Clear Lake.

This art for sale at J Avenue pretty much summarizes a visit to Clear Lake.

Clear Lake is worth a day trip or an overnighter with plenty to see and do. We certainly did not see and do it all. But we got a great sampling of all this Iowa community offers.

FYI: Please check back for more posts in this seven-part series from Clear Lake, Iowa. I’ll take you to the lake, the Surf Ballroom, a quaint chapel, the arts center and more.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling