Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why I love Decorah, Part I November 26, 2018

Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in downtown Decorah draws many visitors interested in learning about their heritage.

 

TWICE I’VE VISITED DECORAH in northeastern Iowa. It’s one of those towns that feels comfortable, inviting, an ideal destination for someone who prefers rural to urban.

 

Decorah is named after Ho-Chunk Chief Waukon Decorah. I spotted this portrait by noted artist Charles Philip Hexom on a stairway wall at the public library.

 

What makes Decorah so appealing to me?

 

 

 

 

The architecture.

 

“Doe and Fawn” sculptures by Victoria Reed stand in a public plaza near a downtown co-op.

 

Love this mural of “Irene” painted by Valerie Miller of Steel Cow.

 

A stone sculpture on the Nelson & Co. building.

 

The art.

One of my favorite spots in Decorah, the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park, site of a former grist mill and gifted to the city in 1946.

 

The natural beauty.

 

Valdres House, one of many authentic Norwegian rooted buildings at Vesterheim. This is a typical Norwegian landowner’s house, dismantled and shipped from Norway to Decorad in the mid 1970s.

 

The downtown shops and eateries. The city’s appreciation of its strong Norwegian heritage, even if I’m of German heritage.

And the people. While at Pulpit Rock Brewing, Randy and I shared a picnic table with a young couple and their daughter (and her grandpa). They were quick to answer our questions about places to eat, sleep and explore.

Upon their recommendation, we stayed at a new hotel on the edge of town and met a trio of college friends together for their annual girlfriends’ reunion. They welcomed us into their circle at a gas-fired campfire on a perfect early autumn evening. When did hotels start adding this amenity? I loved it. There’s something about fire…

 

The Upper Iowa River runs through the 34-acre Decorah Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden. This view is from a scenic overlook in Phelps Park.

 

And water. Water is part of the draw for me to this river town.

 

Magnificent stone work at Phelps Park, which also includes a fountain (not on at the time of my visit) crafted from stone.

 

Upon the recommendation of the family at the brewery, we sought out Phelps Park. There we found extensive stonework done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder when I see such work, “How did they build this without modern equipment?”

Outside an historic downtown building with a corner tower, I chatted it up with an elderly man on a bench. He drives in from the farm every morning to meet friends for coffee and to sit and people-watch. He lives out by the supper club, he said, which meant nothing to me. But I pretended like it did. He’ll never see me again.

That’s the thing about travel. If you engage with the locals, you’ll learn a thing or ten about the place you’re visiting. Stuff you won’t find on a website, stuff best learned in conversation.

TELL ME: Do you chat it up with locals when you’re traveling? I’d like to hear your stories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Decorah. Have you ever visited Decorah and, if so, what appeals to you there?

NOTE: I took these photos during a mid-September visit to Decorah. The landscape obviously looks much different today. So if you’re not inclined to visit this Iowa city now, think ahead to next spring or summer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reason number one to visit Decorah, Iowa: The historic architecture July 10, 2013

The architecture on the historic buildings is incredible.

The architecture on the historic buildings is incredible.

“MOM, YOU’LL LOVE DECORAH.”

Except for getting sprayed with soda while dining at an Italian eatery (and no amends made save a perfunctory “sorry”), my husband and I loved this northeastern Iowa river town.

Our daughter Miranda, who visited a college friend here last summer, was right. We delighted in Decorah’s historic architecture, natural beauty and small town ambiance.

That Norwegian museum we need to tour next time we're in Decorah.

That Norwegian museum we need to tour next time we’re in Decorah.

Home to Luther College and the world’s largest collection of Norwegian artifacts at the Vesterheim—The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center, Decorah definitely presents a college town feel and an ethnic bend toward Norwegians. Interestingly enough, we didn’t tour either Luther or the Vesterheim. Next trip, because we will return.

Blue Heron Knittery is housed in the lower level of this architecturally stunning corner building in downtown Decorah.

Blue Heron Knittery is housed in the lower level of this architecturally stunning corner building in downtown Decorah.

So what exactly did we see? Mostly, we simply strolled through downtown admiring the historic buildings and occasionally popping into charming shops in this city of some 8,000.

On a Tuesday morning, the streets were teeming with pedestrians, including this Amish man from southeastern Minnesota.

On a Tuesday morning, the streets were teeming with pedestrians, including this Amish man from southeastern Minnesota.

Decorah, with numerous one-way streets, plenty of stoplights, an abundance of benches, information kiosks, bike racks, and planters overflowing with vibrant flowers and vining plants, rates as an especially pedestrian friendly community. First impressions count and this Iowa town does a splendid job of making visitors feel welcome via the relaxed setting created in the downtown business district.

It's the details that count, that show a community truly cares like vibrant plants in windowboxes.

It’s the details that count in creating an inviting downtown shopping experience.

Join me as we begin our journey through Decorah, today with a peek at that historic architecture and other photo-worthy snippets in the downtown.

So much to see along Decorah's downtown city streets.

So much to see along Decorah’s downtown city streets.

You'll find an abundance of trolls/gnomes.

You’ll find an abundance of trolls/gnomes.

The Storypeople workshop exterior pops with vibrant colors and images. I'll tell you more about Storypeople in a future post.

The Storypeople workshop exterior pops with vibrant colors and images. I’ll tell you more about Storypeople in a future post.

Window displays and signs are equally as interesting as the architecture.

Window displays and signs are equally as interesting as the architecture.

A building needn't be ornate to impress. I love the strong simple lines of Cary's Fabrication.

A building needn’t be ornate to impress. I love the strong simple lines of Cary’s Fabrication.

If I had excess discretionary funds, I would have purchased the woodcut art of Lennis Moore sold at Eckheart Gallery.

If I had excess discretionary funds, I would purchase the woodcut art of Lennis Moore sold at Eckheart Gallery.

More great buildings...

More great buildings…

FYI: Check back for more posts from downtown and elsewhere in Decorah, Iowa, including images of the historic hotel where we stayed, a beautiful waterfall, Storypeople, an historic home and a fish hatchery. I promise that by the end of this photographic tour, you will add this community to your list of “must visit” towns.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling