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Iowa Travel Tips



Des Moines, located at the fork of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, was established in 1843 as Fort Raccoon, a military post. The town might have been named Fort Raccoon, too, if the War Department hadn't stepped in deeming it too unpleasant a name, and suggesting Des Moines instead, after the earlier French explorers who had christened the river, Les Riviere des Moinesk, River of the Monks. Today Des Moines is a city of 400,000 friendly, polite and kind citizens. It mixes big-city amenities with a touch of small-town quaintness. Skyscrapers and shopping malls share space with parks, botanical gardens, and farmer's markets. The 3-mile Downtown Skywalk and 40 bridges connects 25 city blocks, and offers great views of the Capitol and some of downtown's most historic skyscrapers.

Statehouse (515) 281-5591
The five-domed Iowa State Capitol sits high on a hill surrounded by a 120-acre park of green lawns and grand statues. The 23-karat gilded center dome is emphasized by ornate bullseye windows embellished with decorative lintels of gold, topped with gleaming gold crosses. The grandiloquent interior -- with 29 different types of marble and 13 different types of wood -- is accented in elaborate stenciling, beautiful murals and colorful mosaics. (Note: interesting to see the American flag depicted in mosaic tiles). Four graceful wooden spiral staircases lead up to the dome (off limits to tourists) or to the Senate and House galleries, open to the public.

Check it out . . . The First Lady Doll collection on the first floor depicts each First Lady in her inaugural ballgown.

Check it out . . . The Supreme Court Room is a delight. The Judge's bench was hand-carved by a 20-year old German immigrant who painstakingly carved the most intricate designs from a solid piece of mahogany, which the building supervisor at the time had been saving for a special purpose. The unusually comfortable black leather chairs dedicated to courtroom spectators are originals, never restored. They look as though they've never been used.

Check it out . . . The Law Library on the second floor has gigantic, 45-foot ceilings with towering book stacks trimmed in grillwork of white wrought iron railings, reminiscent of the terraces in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. An extra-large spiral staircase of the same white wrought iron grillwork makes the library seem like a wedding cake.

Iowa Museum of History (515) 281-5111
Hands-on exhibits, dioramas and artifacts transport visitors into Iowa's past, making its history more palpable. On display are early farm machinery, an authentic Conestoga wagon, and three early 20th century airplanes suspended from the ceiling where, by going up a few flights of stairs brings the visitor very close to the open-air pilot seats of these planes. It's not too difficult to imagine soaring in these early, lightweight planes. The museum also has a coal mine exhibit featuring a replica of a coal mine, depicting how the workers were slaves to the "Coal King." The men worked six days a week in darkness, only seeing the sun on Sunday. An accompanying film tells of a Coal Palace, similar to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, but made of coal instead of corn. It no longer exists, but the film shows an old photo of it. (How come we don't do stuff like this anymore? What "palaces" would we make today? What Industry "King" would we honor today?)

Check it out . . . the "Heartland Comforts" exhibit is full of dozens of 19th century bed coverings and coverlets (double- and single-woven bedspreads), quilts (the "sandwich" spread of a single layer, topped with batting, and topped again with remnant squares of fabrics), and lastly, "counterpanes" (a single-layer bedspread with embroidery on top.)

Living History Farms (515) 278-2400
An Irish immigrant originally owned this farm and his mansion "The Flynn Mansion" remains on the grounds, beautifully restored. The farm became a "prison farm" before the 600-acres were turned over to the state to create this extensive agricultural museum. This open-air museum tells the story of Midwestern farming through three different working farms: a 1700 Ioway Indian Village, an 1850 Pioneer Farm, a 1900 Horse-Powered Farm, and a Modern Crop Center. Also on the complex is an 1875 Frontier Town, complete with the Flynn Victorian mansion, a doctor's office, a drugstore, a lawyer's office, a one-room schoolhouse, a pottery, a dressmaker's shop, carpentry shop, millinery, coffin-maker and a blacksmith. The entire museum is an absolute treat. All of the costumed interpreters are very well versed in their fields. Talking to the costumed guides was like visiting a character from the past -- but on very friendly terms, where you can ask the dumbest questions." The Mansion tours, the Victorian Carpentry House, the Drug Store, and the newspaper office were some of our favorites. We were really lucky to happen to arrive on "Horse & Buggy Days." We saw a parade of horse and buggies and a Victorian picnic on the lawn of the Flynn Mansion. Great Fun!

Check it out . . . The Tangen House, referred to as a "carpenter Victorian house" was designed by a woman who entered the plans in a contest back in the 1870s. When the judges found out she was a woman -- unschooled in architecture -- they almost disqualififed her, but decided that her plans were, after all, the best submitted. The seven doors leading outside (four in the kitchen alone) make the place cool and breezy, even while cooking on a old wood stove. We happened to walk in while the costumed guide was making lunch . . . scalloped tomatoes, a cabbage-and-onion skillet dish, and two loaves of bread baking in the oven. And yet, the house remained at comfortable temperature. We loved this house!

Tip: The museum hours are 9-5. However, even though Frontier Town is the first thing you'll see upon exiting the Visitor Center --skip it -- and catch the wagon ride to the three farms, about a mile away. We made the mistake of seeing the town first because it was first thing. Well, it takes a long time to tour each building and talk to each "proprietor." When we caught the three o'clock wagon for the Farms Tour we were told it was the last trip, and therefore we could only visit the 1900 Farm or we'd miss the last wagon ride back. (Visitor's are not allowed to walk.)

Terrace Hill, Governor's Mansion (515) 281-3604
Built by Iowa's first millionaire in 1869 this Second Empire architecural estate is now the residence of Iowa's governor and family. Sitting on the highest hill in Des Moines, the fabulous Terrace Hill Mansion has been restored to its original appearance, featuring period furniture, a grand staircase made of six different kinds of wood, radiant stained glass windows,reaching floor-to-ceiling, crystal chandeliers, marble fireplaces, lustrous woodwork, exquisite stenciling, elaborate statuary and a charming Victorian garden.


Legend has it that the town of Winterset was originally intended to be called Somerset or Summerset, but the weather, more often winterlike than summerlike, inspired the alteration to Winterset. This town has the largest collection of covered bridges -- six of the original nineteen -- made famous by the Clint Eastwood movie "Bridges of Madison County." The entire town is full of sites that appeared in the movie, such as cafes, bars, and gas stations. You can even tour inside "Francesca's House," the farmhouse chosen by Warner Brothers as the perfect setting for this Iowa love story. Winterset is also the birthplace of Marion Morrison, a.k.a. John Wayne, a.k.a. "The Duke."

Tip: Winterset celebrates the annual Madison County Covered Bridge Festival the second full weekend in October. Some of the highlights include guided tours of the bridges, and Francesca's House, displays of native crafts, and an annual Civil War reenactment. You can also see demonstrations of quilting, tatting, basket weaving, rug braiding, tinsmithing and blacksmithing.

Tip: The covered bridges in Madison County are favorite spots for exchanging or renewing marriage vows.

Check it out . . . Harmon Tunnel in nearby Pammel State Park is an unusual highway tunnel. Dug by hand in the 1850s, it was originally used to divert water for a grist mill. Today, tourists can drive their car over a ford in the Middle River, a bit scary at first, because it appears as though your driving right into the river, but of course, it's just that the bridge is immersed in about six inches of water.

John Wayne Birthplace (515) 462-1044
This modest, four-room house has been restored to its original appearance of 1907, the year John Wayne was born. The house is decorated with authentic period furnishings and filled with memorabilia and photo's of the actor's career.

Madison County Historical Complex (515) 462-2134
An 1856 brick mansion is the centerpiece of this complex that features fourteen 19th century buildings, including a log school, stone barn, blacksmith shop, post office, train depot, a church, and a mercantile building, making a complete 19th century village atmoshpere on this 18-acre complex.

Francesca's Farmhouse (515) 981-5268
The farmhouse chosen for the movie set actually exists, and today it's open to the public. See the front porch where the lovers first met, the kitchen with its yellow formica table where they had their first meal, and even the bathtub where they found love among the bubbles.


Timberline Best Holiday Trav-L Park, Waukee (515) 987-1714
This quiet campground sits on 40 acres of beautiful lawns, parks, woods and cornfields. Meticulously maintained, it offers a playground, heated pool, basketball court, volleyball court, Rec Room and shady walking trails. The atmosphere is very pleasant. And modem hook-ups are available in the office. Lovely hosts and clientele. Close to all Des Moines attractions.

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