Registration for Great Iowa Fall Ride Open!

Find gems along the RAGBRAI route

  • 12 July, 2009

By The Des Moines Register features staff:

Think of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa like one of the fresh pies for sale along the way: Some of its best parts are hidden under the surface.

On this year’s 442-mile route through the hills of southern Iowa, riders will discover out-of-the-way marvels that locals have loved for years – the barbecue joint in Mineola, for example, and the homemade chocolates in a Chariton general store. They might not show up in the guidebooks and tourism brochures, but these are the things that can turn a trip into an adventure.

And the best part: They’ll be around long after the bikers pedal away. People can discover many of the following finds whenever they’re ready to hit the road.

Pre-ride party

The sixth annual Mid-America Ribfest begins Thursday in Council Bluffs when barbecue chefs from around the country fire up their smokers and grills to compete for the coveted People’s Choice Award. A number of bands will keep things cooking, too, with free and ticketed concerts from Thursday through Sunday. The main event, a performance by the Barenaked Ladies, begins at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mid-America Center. Admission to Saturday’s evening events is $10 for RAGBRAI riders and $20 for the general public. For details: (712) 326-2295,

DAY 1: Council Bluffs to Red Oak

Mineola is a little dot on the map, the kind of Iowa town where you know if an eatery is cooking up slabs of meat just right, it will flourish.

The prime rib and barbecue ribs at the Mineola Steak House do the job. Its location on the 62-mile Wabash Trace Nature Trail helps, too. Combine meat, beer, margaritas and a laid-back ambiance in a town of 175, where bicyclists would have to work to be run over by a car, and it’s a cyclist’s dream.

On Thursday nights here during warm months, owner Clint Howard hosts up to 1,000 bicyclists making the trip from Council Bluffs and back on what’s called the Taco Ride.

When he took over the business 15 years ago at age 21, a month after he was of age to buy beer, he had no idea a bike ride would double business.

While tacos – six and a pitcher of beer for $13 – are a speciality on ride night because it was a tradition transplanted from another bar, regular dinner guests like to make the quiet 20-minute ride from Omaha to leave the city and chew on ribs.

Over the years, Howard has expanded the 100-seat dining room with a 70-seat party room, then a patio, then a beer garden, mainly for cyclists, who will be served breakfast burritos and Bloody Marys on RAGBRAI’s first stop. He’s got the place for sale and is confident it will continue to fuel bikers and motorists on a country drive for years.

“I’ll miss it terribly,” said Howard, 36, who likes to visit every table to check on customers.

During one Taco Ride, he was missing, joining his wife for in vitro fertilization. The result is Emersyn, a girl of three months. He wants to spend more time with her and heal while he goes through a complex digestive system surgery in the fall.

RAGBRAI will be a farewell for some cyclists.

“The only thing I can say is thank you. It’s from the heart,” Howard said.

408 Main St., Mineola, (712) 526-2078 – Mike Kilen

Also on Day 1:
Stop for rhubarb pie and root beer floats at Shirley’s Cafe in Emerson.

Evening entertainment in Red Oak
6-7 p.m. – Miller Light DJ interim, Fairgrounds Arena

6-7 p.m. – Sheltered Reality, Wilson Performing Arts Center

6-7 p.m. – Crusaders Gospel Quartet, Church of the Nazarene

7-9 p.m. – Raptors U.S. Air Force Band, Fairgrounds Arena

7:30-9 p.m. – Midwest Dilemma, Wilson Performing Arts Center

9 p.m. – Miller Light DJ interim between bands, Fairgrounds Arena

9 p.m.-midnight – Fishheads, Fairgrounds Arena

DAY 2: Red Oak to Greenfield


Corning, Iowa, residents look on during a news conference outside the birthplace of former host of "The Tonight Show" Johnny Carson, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006, in Corning, Iowa.

The latest childhood home in Iowa’s effort to become “The Land of 10,000 Birthplaces” is Johnny Carson‘s.

Carson was born inside the tiny home at 500 13th St. in 1925, and lived in Corning for four years.

Long a rental home falling into disrepair, the birthplace was bought two years ago for a song – $18,000, said Frannie Mack, of the non-profit Johnny Carson Birthplace Society, which is overseeing its restoration.

The museum in the early stages but visitors can see it during RAGBRAI and by appointment at other times.

Carson’s father Kit was a utility company manager and mother Ruth a homemaker who cared for Johnny and siblings Catherine and Richard. The family later moved to Nebraska. Carson, who died in 2005, became the 30-year star of “The Tonight Show” with an impish grin that glowed from many late-night televisions.

“I went to bed with Johnny for years,” said Mack, 86, who met Carson’s dad as a boy. “Darn it, Johnny went to heaven, and now Ed McMahon joined him.”

So far, the society holds Carson correspondence, photos and memorabilia and is trying to gather more.

500 13th St., Corning, (641) 322-5229, – Mike Kilen

Also on Day 2:
– Cruise through the neighborhoods in Stanton where the homes are painted white and the water tower looks like a coffee pot. The tower honors its Swedish heritage and the birthplace of actress Virginia Christine, who became Mrs. Olsen of Folgers coffee fame. A 96-foot coffee cup water tower was erected to complement the pot in 2000.

– And, take a look at the murder house in Villisca, where eight people where killed in 1912 with an axe as they lay in their beds. Said to be haunted, the house has been the subject of book, TV shows and a film. 323 E. Fourth St.

Entertainment in Greenfield:
3-5 p.m. – Exit 113, Courthouse stage

5 p.m. – Miss Iowa, Courthouse Stage

5-8:30 p.m. – Brick ‘n’ Bob and the Young Guns , Main Stage in Beverage Garden

9-11 p.m. – The Nadas, Main Stage in Beverage Garden

DAY 3: Greenfield to Indianola

Christine Carlton, co-owner of the Two Saints Winery, offers a spot to relax on the winery deck.

Two Saints Winery is blessed with a sweet spot in the rolling hills of Warren County, a mile north of the RAGBRAI route between Greenfield and Indianola.

Visitors will find the turn to the winery – 20th Avenue – a mile east of St. Charles, on the road to St. Marys.

Open to the public since early 2008, Two Saints will expand its regular Tuesday tasting program – 14 wines to sample – by giving visitors a chance to buy Cajun food from Fat Tuesday, a new Des Moines eatery, said winery co-owner Christine Carlton.

Two Saints, located on eight acres, has been a work in progress since 2003. A new banquet facility can seat 200-plus and features a catering kitchen.

“We hope people will come, sit down and find a pleasant place to relax a little bit,” Carlton said.

Plenty of space should be available, she added, mentioning that the large viewing deck that overlooks the vineyard gets rave reviews from visitors for its size and scenic location.

15170 20th Ave., St. Charles; (641) 396-2102, – Tom Perry

Also on Day 3:
Visit the home of Henry A. Wallace, who served as vice president of the United States from 1941-1945. Wallace was the developer of commercial hybrid seed corn who founded Pioneer Hybrid and also served as the USDA secretary. 2773 290th St., Orient

Evening entertainment in Indianola
4-5:45 p.m. – Sonny Humbucker Band, all on town square

6-6:45 p.m. – Caitlin Nicol-Thomas Band

6:45-7:10 p.m. – Opening ceremony/fly over

7:10-8 p.m. – Caitlin Nicol-Thomas Band

8-8:25 p.m. – Miller Lite DJ

8:30 p.m.-midnight – Johnny Holm Band

DAY 4: Indianola to Chariton

You can still see the fading paint on the side of the brick building on the northeast corner of the square in Chariton: Fresh Meat.

In its 104 years here, Piper’s Grocery and Candy Store has been many things, including a slaughterhouse. Today, it’s is known for its homemade chocolates, which Bob Piper, the son of the founder, began selling in 1947.

The candy counter dominates the front of the store. Inside the glass cases are slabs of chocolate, peanut butter, maple and vanilla fudge; mounds of chocolate-coated peanut, coconut, almond, raisin and cashew clusters; and medallions of sweet, soft mints in pastel colors.

The sign still says Piper’s, but after Bob Piper’s death in 1987, the store was bought by one of his clerks, Anne Kerns, and her husband, Jim. They kept the worn wood floors and painted tin ceiling along with the name.

“I had fallen in love with it,” said Anne Kerns, 76, who still helps out at the store, even though her daughter, Jill Naylor, took over ownership in 1999.

Part of the fun of walking into Piper’s Candy is that it’s a real old-time general store. You can find fine pottery and bags of popcorn, small antiques and angel food cake mix, garden seeds and Full Throttle energy drinks.

“People who come in have such strong memories of this store,” marvelled Naylor, 47. “Everything moves forward. But it’s nice to keep this place as a connection to history.”

901 Braden St., Chariton, (800) 479-1343, – Mary Challender

Also on Day 4:
The Willis Log Cabin will be open for visitors in Lacona. It was built by William and Martin Willis in 1846. Uncovered in 1980 when the house built around it was being torn down, the cabin was dismantled and numbered, log by log, and stored. Work on rebuilding began in 1996.

Evening entertainment in Chariton
8-9:30 p.m. – Hairball, 1980s rock impersonation act, main stage

9:30-10 p.m. – DJ, Main stage

10-11:30 p.m. – Hairball, Main stage

6-8 p.m. – One Lone Car, Stage Two

DAY 5: Chariton to Ottumwa

If you’ve ever watched “Roseanne,” you know a bit about the Canteen. The Lanford Lunch Box, the hole-in-the-wall joint Roseanne ran with her sister Jackie, is reportedly modeled after Ottumwa’s beloved purveyor of loose-meat sandwiches.

But television can’t match the character or charm of the original. Located since 1936 in a yellow block building overlooking an alley, the Canteen has lived through numerous urban renewal efforts, including having a parking garage built almost on top of it.

Inside, the building, which measures about 20 by 25 feet, is dominated by a horseshoe-shaped counter equipped with red bar stools. The menu is limited to loose meat sandwiches, chips, malts and an array of pies, so the average order consists of just a quantity and a topping specification.

The sandwiches are assembled by a crew of seven women, each with a defined territory. Two women share kitchen duty, one is in charge of slathering the buns with ketchup, mustard and pickles, two serve as waitresses, one works the cash register, and one fills the buns with meat.

“That’s a senior position,” a regular confided in a tone of respect, pointing at the hamburger scooper.

The sandwiches come wrapped in wax paper, making it easy to tell regulars at the Canteen from newbies. Rookies unwrap their sandwich, and the hamburger spills out as they eat. The veterans just fold down the paper and eat it, so the loose meat falls into the wrapper.

The Canteen was purchased in 1976 by its current owners, Earnest McBeth, a retired school principal and farmer, his wife Shirley, a longtime beauty salon owner, and Shirley’s sister, Lauralee Staley.

The 78-year-old McBeth said she doubts the Canteen has changed any during its existence. It still has the same wood-paneled walls, same painted concrete floors, the same photographs of JFK and FDR on the walls.

112 E. Second St., Ottumwa, (641) 682-5320 – Mary Challender

Also on Day 5:
On Rathbun Lake is the new Honey Creek Resort, Iowa’s first state park resort with water recreation, 18-hole golf course, multi-use trails, boat docks and campgrounds. Those who take the short ride from the route to the lodge will find entertainment by 9-mile North Country Band plus food and beverages. Later, visit Ottumwa’s 2-year-old Bridge View Center and the Beach, an indoor-outdoor water park.

Entertainment in Ottumwa:
4 p.m. – She Swings, She Sways, Central Park

4 p.m. – Matthew Clay, Sez Who, Standing Hampton, Beverage Garden

DAY 6: Ottumwa to Mount Pleasant

If you want to view what is likely the nation’s most unusual collection of memorabilia from the golden age of traveling theater, head southeast of the Mount Pleasant square and pay a visit to the Theatre Museum of Repertoire Americana.

Perhaps Iowa’s best kept secret, with fewer than 600 visitors a year, the museum chronicles the era between the 1890s and the mid-1940s when hundreds of theater companies traveled from small town to small town, putting on plays in tents and opera houses.

Each company had its own geographical area, said Martha Hayes, collection supervisor for the museum, and Iowa was prize territory. Of the estimated 400 companies in the United States in the 1920s, some 168 – more than in any other state – were headquartered here or considered part of Iowa within their territory.

Among them was the company owned by actors Neil and Caroline Schaffner, who donated their collection of theater artifacts to the Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association to begin the Theatre Museum in 1973.

Hayes, 79, said the theater companies would generally spend about a week in a community, putting on as many as six different plays in that time. For the most part, the troupes eschewed serious drama in favor of broad comedy, as evidenced by the museum’s display of joke props including a trombone with a plunger on the end and books labelled Hymn and Her.

405 East Threshers Road, Mount Pleasant, (319) 385-9432, – Mary Challender

Also on Day 6:
The overnight town will welcome riders with the theme, “Have a Blast in Mount Pleasant,” paying homage to two Iowa Wesleyan alumni James Van Allen, renowned astrophysicist and discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belt circling the earth, and NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station. The entrance to town will feature a rocket ship that is ready for liftoff. The rocket will “blast off” as riders near the campus of Iowa Wesleyan.

Evening entertainment in Mount Pleasant
5:30-8:30 p.m. – Gimmik, Iowa Telecom Stage

9 p.m.-midnight – New Soul Cowboys, Iowa Telecom Stage

DAY 7: Mount Pleasant to Burlington

John McCormick is following his passion, and he invites all bird lovers to join him.

The 59-year-old retired teacher and counselor is the owner of For Our Birds & Gardens, a Burlington shop specializing in wild-bird feeding.

According to the “National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation,” more than 874,000 Iowans participated in wild bird-feeding in 2006. Few know more about it than McCormick, who has spent 12 years transforming seven acres of cropland around his home south of Crapo Park into a bird sanctuary.

McCormick planted more than 4,000 trees and shrubs, with each selected to provide food, cover or nesting sites for wildlife. He has also created vast gardens filled with nectar-producing flowers like salvia for hummingbirds, and marigolds and zinnias for butterflies.

When he started work on his sanctuary, McCormick said the land was populated by maybe 10 different species of birds. Now he thinks he’s up to about 81.

“You go out in the morning, it’s unbelievable. You sit on your deck and they’re really singing,” he said

1923 Agency, Burlington, (319) 752-7718, – Mary Challender

Also on Day 7:
After one of RAGBRAI’s shortest and flattest days ever, riders will tackle Burlington’s famous Snake Alley, one of the steepest and most crooked streets in the world.

Entertainment in Burlington
11 a.m.-3 p.m. – The New Imposters, main stage

8 p.m.-midnight – Jefferson County Green Band, The Drake

6:30 p.m. (gates open) – Burlington Bees versus Fort Wayne, Community Field, RAGBRAI riders pay $4

Comedy Night at Whitey’s Bar & Billards, (319) 752-3635


  1. Matt

    Two words, ‘rhubarb pie’.

  2. Nancy H'

    My daughter Dayna, born in Oregon, and married to a man from Indiana whose family is from Iowa. This is her first long-distance bike ride; she has been training. Her husband has done RAGBRAI many times with family members. So watch for the most beautiful brunette on the route, and that “GEM” will be my Dayna.

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