Signs of spring on a drive through Iowa’s Madison County

John Wayne
John Wayne - still portrait.jpg
circa 1965
Born Marion Robert Morrison
May 26, 1907
Winterset, Iowa, U.S.

On a not-quite spring day, we set off on a drive through the backroads of Madison County south of Des Moines – and found a few signs of spring – green (green!!) rolling farmland, ducks bobbing in water-filled ditches along the two-lane Cumming Road (aka county road G4R), some  blossoms and buds here and there.  In Winterset, we had lunch at one of our favorite spots – the Northside Cafe, an old-fashioned country cafe that’s gotten a new infusion of hipness (but not too much hipness) and improved cuisine thanks to its new owners, who used to own the long-gone-and-lamented Chat Noir in Des Moines.

The Northside looks much the same – a long high-ceilinged storefront whose pale linoleum corridor is bordered  on one side by a long wooden counter/bar with round swivel stools  and on the other by a row of booths with somewhat sagging vinyl seats and fake-wood formica tabletops. The ceiling is stamped tin. The  weathered clock on a shelf along the bar – with the sign that flips business adverts for local realtors and car mechanic – remains.  The walls have old photos of the cafe and a hand-drawn Union Township map spelling out who owns every patch of land in the area (from Vernon Goodwin to Alice Anderson). In the adjoining room are huge colorful wall maps of the world pulled down from their wooden rollers  for full display – the kind that used to hang in 1960s school classrooms.

There  are a few new touches – an etched-glass sign in the front window and some spiffy graphics. But you can still picture Clint Eastwood stopping by for a bowl of soup – as he did while in character during the filming of “The Bridges of Madison County.” The  soup, though,  is much better now – and we made sure to have some.  It’s the thick creamy seafood bisque that used to be served at Chat Noir – full of crabmeat and shrimp. We also split a  muffuleta sandwich (another Chat Noir favorite) and some sweet potato fries.  (Although we were tempted by the chili – billed as “John Wayne’s favorite,” a tribute to a local hero whose humble birthplace is another Winterset tourist attractions. A portion of the proceeds from each cup of chili sold goes to supporting “The Duke’s” birthplace/museum.)

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