Just back from a catch-up trip to the pretty town of Winterset in Madison County, about 40 minutes south of Des Moines. This is the place I take our out-of-town visitors to see rural Iowa at its bucolic best – and even on a dreary November day, there was a certain beauty in the work-a-day rural life as seen from the two-lane highway that leads off of I-35 from Cumming southwest to Winterset, winding past old farmsteads with fields of cut corn, baled hay and pastures with grazing horses, cows and lambs. I had to wonder how long the area will stay this way, given all the rural exurban developments that are also cropping up – big suburban-style houses on small acreages and the occasional “party barn.”
For years, I’ve pretty much added the John Wayne birthplace to my tour as a little footnote – it’s a small unassuming white house. But now there’s a big new building kitty-corner housing the John Wayne Museum so it’s harder to ignore (and I’m writing a travel story about it for a newspaper). The museum isn’t big – but it’s worth a stop (and, I guess, the $15 admission). There’s one big room full of memorabilia from the old western movie star – including his 1972 custom-made Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon – a long metallic green number across from an old “side car” (aka a horse-pulled buggy) used in the 1952 western “The Quiet Man” directed by John Ford and co-starring one of Wayne’s favorite leading ladies, Maureen O’Hara. There’s letters of appreciation from movie c0-stars (Bob Hope, James Stewart, Lucille Ball and Kirk Douglas – who noted he and the Duke “didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things but shared a love of country.”) and presidents (Reagan, Bush), costumes from his many westerns and military movies (including a white western-style shirt smeared with fake blood – i.e. a “special effects blood stain” – from the movie The Shootist), family photos of wife 1, 2 and 3 and his many kids; an a signed Andy Warhol print of Wayne as the iconic cowboy. I also enjoyed the short movie tribute inside a little mock theater with plush seats reportedly from L.A.’s Grauman Theater, showing clips of “The Duke’s” films and costars – including two surprising ones, Lauren Bacall and a young Ron Howard. A nice woman who grew up in London but has long lived in Winterset showed me around the humble middle class house where John – actually Marion Morrison – was born in 1907 and lived for three years before moving to nearby Earlham and then at around age 7 to California. A family photo, including the family pet “Duke,” offered an unexpected clue to how he got his nickname. The four-room place doesn’t have the original furniture but it is period and gives you a feel for John’s humble beginnings.
I also stopped at the 1st Avenue Collective, which has surprisingly good crafts including many by Central Iowa artists – and a very cool location, in the old county jail (used for that purpose from 1903-1992) , with several cells with painted metal bars and worn walls now displaying ceramics, linens and handmade dolls.
And of course no visit to Winterset is complete without a visit to the Northside Cafe, one of the best places in Iowa – let alone rural Iowa – to eat. I had the killer muffuletta sandwich and seafood bisque that was full of fresh shrimp and crab. It took considerable will power to save half the sandwich for my husband – and to NOT order some pie.