The Art of Iowa
With its artists’ studios, heirloom gardens, and Norwegian-American museum, Decorah is Iowa’s present-day Lake Wobegon.
“Decorah is Lake Wobegon.”
—Decorah native Shirley Jenkins-Vermace
Except that, well, Decorah is in Iowa. And no one would confuse the delicate Upper Iowa River that winds through town for a lake. Nor has time appeared to have forgotten Decorah’s picturesque downtown, with its bustling natural foods co-op, artsy coffee and tea shops, elegantly restored historic hotel, and fine restaurants featuring risotto and goat cheese.
While Decorah doesn’t have a statue of the Unknown Norwegian, it does have Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American heritage museum. It also has an abundance of church suppers, bachelor farmers, and more goofy Norwegian jokes posted in shop windows and front yards than you can shake a maj stang (May pole) at. And, according to Kurt DeVore, technology director for Decorah schools, the town’s children (being groomed to attend nearby Luther College, no doubt) are well above average.
Thankfully, Decorah is a lot easier to locate on an actual road map than Garrison Keillor’s mythic town. Just head south and east on Highway 52 and cross into Iowa’s Winneshiek County, a scenic hilly pocket in the northeast corner of the state.
Though Decorah proudly celebrates its Norwegian heritage with an annual Nordic Fest (held the last full weekend of July), the town was actually settled in 1849 by English immigrants. Within decades, the challenges of frontier life, combined with a collapsed wheat market, chased weaker souls away. Norwegian, Irish, and German settlers took over, creating what is today a remarkably vibrant and unspoiled community of 8,000.
Built around the turn of the 20th century, the Hotel Winneshiek was restored just in time for the 21st. Even if you can’t get a room—there are only 31—the octagonal, three-story atrium lobby with stained-glass dome is worth a stop. 104 E. Water St., 800-998-4164
Intrepid types may want to try one of five outdoor-themed rooms in a renovated 1889 dairy barn at Chase the Adventure, just minutes from town. Rooms range thematically in décor, from a deer camp (appointed with bunks and mounted trophy heads) to a fishing hole (guests sleep in a flat-bottom boat—complete with a 1943 Johnson motor) to a duck blind (doze off behind a camouflage net). 1997 Middle Calmar Rd., 563-532-9821
Travel up the road seven miles to Spillville, where Antonín Dvorák wrote his New World Symphony, and you’ll find the recently renovated Old World Inn. The elegant Italianate brick storefront was built in 1871 by Swiss immigrant Florian Roman Eggspuehler, who ran it as a tavern, harness shop, and eventually a bootlegging operation. Florian’s descendent, Jack Eggspuehler, showcases all this history in the present-day inn, which has seven antique-furnished guest rooms and two dining rooms. 331 S. Main St., 563-562-3767
The Decorah area has several upscale dining choices. La Rana Bistro offers some of the best food and wine in town, with a Mediterranean-inspired menu built around fresh, locally grown ingredients. You’ll also find good food at the Hotel Winneshiek: the Victorian Rose offers traditional fine dining, while the more relaxed Albert’s Lounge specializes in barbecue ribs and sandwiches. At Spillville’s Old World Inn, guests can enjoy their prime rib in the classy main floor dining room or in the less formal brick cellar, where booths are set into two bootlegger’s tunnels. For a more casual meal, Hart’s Tea & Tarts serves lunch and afternoon tea. If you crave lefse—or simply a home-style meal—the Dayton House serves a Norwegian-inspired menu. For a caffeine fix, drop by Bookends & Beans, a coffeehouse and micro-bookstore. La Rana Bistro, 120 Washington St., 563-382-3067; Hart’s Tea & Tarts, 113 W. Water St., 563-382-3795; Dayton House, 516 W. Water St., 563-382-9683; Bookends & Beans, 309 E. Water St., 563-382-0100.
If the weather is pleasant, pull together a picnic from the Oneota Community Co-op and head to one of the area’s beautiful parks. Twin Springs Park (off Highway 52, just west of town) is popular with locals for its scenery and trout stream; Dunning’s Spring Park (in town, off Ice Cave Road) has a 200-foot natural waterfall and an ice cave. 415 W. Water St., 563-382-4666
THE TO-DO LIST
Art Studio Tour
Perhaps it is the isolation, low cost of living, or dramatic terrain, but in recent years this area has produced a bumper crop of visual artists. You can find their work displayed year-round in the Agora Arts gallery off the lobby of the Hotel Winneshiek, or at small shops, such as the RiverRoad Gallery in nearby Lansing. Visitors can get an even better look October 13 to 15 at more than 40 regional artists during the Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour. Potters, printmakers, photographers, painters, quilters, metal smiths, cabinetmakers, glass blowers, fiber artists, and book and jewelry makers all display their work, and in many cases, their workplaces. The tour covers a lot of territory—from Kendallville and St. Lucas in the west to scenic Lansing and Harpers Ferry on the Mississippi in the east. If you want to chat with the artists and enjoy the fall colors, don’t attempt to cover the whole route in one day. RiverRoad Gallery, 266 Main St., Lansing, 563-538-4180; Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour, www.iowaarttour.com.
Visitors come from around the world to learn about heirloom plants and biodiversity at the Seed Savers Exchange and Heritage Farm. While the gardens and grounds (including walking trails through the preservation gardens and historic orchard) are in bloom from Memorial Day through September 30, a visitors’ center is open with information, seeds, and gifts from March to December. Gardeners visiting from May through September should also not miss the Willowglen Perennial Nursery, which specializes in unusual perennials and has fabulous display gardens 15 miles northwest of town. Seed Savers Exchange and Heritage Farm, 3076 North Winn Rd., 563-382-6104; Willowglen Perennial Nursery, 3512 Lost Mile Rd., 563-735-5570.
With its main complex of 16 historic buildings in downtown Decorah, as well as several other sites, the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is said to be the largest Scandinavian ethnic museum of its type in the country. The collection consists of more than 24,000 artifacts, including displays of rosemaling, woodcarving, and other folk arts, in addition to a farmstead and country church. 523 W. Water St., 563-382-9681.
The nearby Porter House Museum showcases an eclectic collection—from antique furnishings to tropical butterflies—in a 1867 Italianate mansion. 401 W. Broadway St., 563-382-8465.
For a brief period in the 1870s, the writer Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family lived up the road from the Burr Oak hotel, which Pa helped manage and is now a museum. The hotel is the only Wilder building that remains on its original site, and it is full of period furnishings and information about her time in Iowa. 3603 236th Ave., 563-735-5916.
Two oddly charming historic gems are displayed together in Spillville, at the Bily Clocks Museum & Antonín Dvorák Exhibit. The ground floor features 40 hand-carved clocks, designed and built by bachelor brothers Joseph and Frank Bily. The Bilys carved scenes from history, religion, and culture into the altar-like clocks—some of which stand nine feet tall. The collection is on permanent display in the building where Dvorák stayed with his family in 1893. The preserved apartment on the second floor displays artifacts from the period and information on the composer’s time in Spillville. 323 S. Main St., 563-562-3569.
The Decorah area offers excellent trout fishing, canoeing, and kayaking along the Upper Iowa River, as well as biking and hiking on a variety of (often hilly) trails. Didn’t bring a bike? Rent one from Decorah Bicycles and take off on the Oneota Trail that crisscrosses town. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent from Hruska’s Livery in Kendallville. Decorah Bicycles, 101 College Dr., 563-382-8209; Hruska’s Livery, 3233 347th St., Kendallville, 563-547-4566.
Don’t forget to bring along your thermos of Fisher’s Coffee and slice of Bebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb Pie. MM
Natalie Pearson is a freelance writer based in Iowa City.