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Kilen: Oddball Iowa legends provide incentive for RAGBRAI breaks

  • 21 July, 2009


When pedaling a bicycle nearly a mile uphill, rewards are vital. Some prefer pie, beer or other nonsense. The refined bike tourists prefer cultural immersion: local oddball legends, large bulls, famous birthplaces.

Towns along the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa know this. They are smart.

Who remembers a random town that doesn’t tout some slice of Americana? Indianola gets a shot tonight but it’s not really a small town, so it doesn’t have to work as hard.

If you are Stanton, you might just stand on main street and tell people that, yes, the houses are all white in town and the Folger’s coffee lady, Mrs. Olson, was from here or that you’re a Swede like most everybody else.

Marvin Olson is wearing an American Legion cap on main street. He is a Swede.

“But we’re getting a lot of foreigners now, kids’ names you can’t pronounce,” he said, with a straight, wrinkled face.

If you know rural Iowa dry humor, it’s coming. “There’s no ‘son’ on the end.”

In Stanton, the first stop on Monday’s 72.6-mile leg, people work together. They conform. They all learn Swedish dances in grade school, said Stanton’s Joan Burke, and showed their skills off on a hayrack for riders.

But something odd happened in Stanton about six months ago. A man put blue siding on his house.

“You know what they call him,” one woman whispered.

A nonconformist?

Uh-huh, she said.

Knock on the nonconformist’s door and a man emerges from the blue house.

“It’s a bit strange but townsfolk got used to it,” said Dwight Vought, 62. “I knew people would ask me about it.

“It’s like my thing. In this world, we all like to be a nonconformist. Someone has to break the ice.”

Nearly 10 miles down the road, there is another town known for oddities, Villisca. It strikes some as unsavory that the home of a 1912 ax murder would be its claim to fame.

“We had 32 graduating seniors that got more than $200,000 in college scholarships last year,” Sandy Smith of Villisca said. “We had a young man in an accident, and they didn’t know if he was going to live. We raised $70,000 in a benefit.”

Yeah, but what about that house where a man axed a family to death?

Hugh Grady and Steve Beckley of Des Moines came bursting from the house-turned-tourist-attraction with wide eyes. One would think they were hamming it up.

“I have goose bumps,” Grady said. “In the room where the murderer smoked a cigarette, I swear I smelled cigarette smoke. All three of us did. I’m not making that up.”

Beckley said, “I thought it was just going to be touristy.”

On the contrary, strange things happen there, said the home’s owner, Martha Linn, who charged $5 to get in.

“Some people asked why we always have to be known for the murder home,” she said. “But what else draws people?”

She was told about the cigarette smoke.

“John, who is doing the tours, smokes,” she said. “It was probably his.”

A woman from Georgia, Sharon Tingley, said that’s why she comes to Iowa, this “cute” kitsch.

The riders hit Corning later in the day and hundreds trudged four blocks up a hill to see the old house were Johnny Carson lived. The lesson was if Carson could come from this tiny house, anyone could go on to greatness.

Then they went on a search, following signs announcing the state’s largest bull, just past Corning.

But the best of towns along this weeklong route, in others’ eyes, are ones that don’t quite have the marketing down. Think of Nodaway. All that’s left there is a few houses, a fire hall, a post office, a few people with nicknames like “Fat Man” Baldwin, who was handing out toilet paper at the Kybos, and blacksmith Hartford Cooper, who was working in his shop.

Just like he has for 38 years, repairing garbage Dumpsters and cattle feeders.

He said he nearly died last winter. He’s 72 and had pneumonia and got down to 113 pounds.

He was weak and on oxygen a few weeks ago but told his wife, “We have to get down to the shop. I have to get that work done.”

So he paced himself. He could weld for 15 minutes without oxygen, which otherwise could have caused an explosion. He added a few minutes more each week. Now, he’s back, tall and slim, and working all day.

He was showing riders his shop, dark and full of metal in an old shed with a wood-burning stove.

There were no signs or proclamations touting Nodaway as the home of a rare working blacksmith. Nothing for sale.

Just “Fat Man” and Cooper saying howdy, handing out toilet paper and good, old working man’s tales.

– Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register

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