ia: The best of Iowa arts and culture
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Produced in partnership with the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs
The 11-mile Trout Run Trail loops around Decorah, crossing several trout streams and following the Upper Iowa River. Here, a cyclist passes “the Cut.” Photo: Mary Willie.


By Wini Moranville

While writing travel stories for ia, I’ve spent pleasure-filled stretches of time poking around revitalized downtowns and small-town main streets that went from boom to bust to boom again. A winning example is downtown Cedar Falls—nearly abandoned and threatened by the wrecking ball in the ’80s. It now flourishes as a lively entertainment and shopping destination.

Decorah’s downtown has never made that kind of comeback—and that’s because its main-street life never went away. While other cities and towns saw their cores decline as suburban malls went up, such a thing never happened in this county seat of 7,500-plus. Water Street—the two-lane main street running through the city’s center and lined with historic buildings—remains the area’s retail hub and a boon to travelers who love poking in and out of the shops and boutiques of a vital town’s core.

“Decorah is landlocked by rivers and bluffs, so sprawling development wasn’t an option,” explains Kristina Wiltgen, executive director of the Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce. “You’re going to travel a good hour to get to a place with malls. This encourages people to do business locally.”

Indeed, more than 75 shops and businesses (mostly independent) thrive in the downtown area, where you can buy everything from menswear to baby chicks to musical instruments. The Winneshiek County Courthouse, the high school and its sports fields, a movie theater, and even the county fairgrounds all lie within a walkable central area. And with many of the town’s residents living and working nearby, and Luther College close at hand, it all adds up to a kind of buzzy and populated civic life that makes a visit here especially gratifying.

Fortuitously, the restrictive terrain that keeps Decorah’s center so robust adds to the appeal of a weekend visit here. The city is nestled in northeast Iowa, legendary for its dramatic limestone bluffs, rivers and wooded valleys, offering some of the state’s best hiking, biking and canoeing.

Here’s how to make the most of a 36-hour foray.
Near Orient, Pizza on the Prairie is a fun Friday night event featuring pizzas, side dishes, desserts and drinks in a rural al fresco setting.


By Karla Walsh

With a mission to promote local food and sustainable agriculture, the Wallace Centers are known for their elbow-rubbing farm to table dinners and cooking classes. All that changed in early 2020, as the coronavirus altered daily life in Iowa and beyond. But rather than hang things up until a vaccine was developed, Deb Houghtaling, president and CEO of the Wallace Centers of Iowa, decided to get creative.

In late June, the Wallace Centers launched the inaugural season of Pizza on the Prairie, an all-ages weekly Friday evening event hosted at their historic Orient property featuring pizzas, side dishes, desserts and even cocktails using produce grown on their own farm.

“Visitors can walk through our prairie, sit beside the historic farmhouse, look at the gardens and orchard, and enjoy a meal that features products grown literally feet away from where they’re eating,” Houghtaling says. “All social distancing procedures are followed and we require reservations to limit capacity.”

Whenever possible, anything not harvested on their property is sourced from other Iowa producers and farms such as Milton Creamery, Early Morning Harvest, Picket Fence Dairy, Mangalitsa Estates, Graziano’s and Harvest Barn Marketplace. Recipes are developed by the Wallace Centers staff chefs Hans Walsh and Katie Porter.

One attendee raved to Houghtaling, “This is what it means to live in Iowa and enjoy the summer outside.” Another said upon checking in, “I just got here and this is already my new favorite thing.”

Due to early successes and a safe, sustainable way to still create a communal experience centered on local food, the Wallace Centers plan to expand the season for 2021—possibly from May through October. As for this year, a few weeks still remain in the Pizza on the Prairie series. A $5 per person deposit secures your spot, which can be used toward your food and drink purchase. Visit here to check for upcoming availability each Friday now through Sept. 25.
This old plum butter recipe, created by Friendly Lucas, Iowa's first first lady, won a Blue Ribbon at the 2016 Iowa State Fair. Photo: Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs


By Michael Morain
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

If you ever make plum butter, which is like apple butter but more jammy, wash the fruit well but don’t worry about the worms.

They’ll “give it a meaty flavor, so do not be squeamish,” according to a recipe Margaret Lucas Henderson recorded from her great-grandmother and Iowa’s first first lady, Friendly Lucas, wife of Robert Lucas, the first Iowa Territory governor in 1838. The instructions involve boiling the plums (and potential worms) in a big pot of water, mashing them through a colander and mixing in lots of sugar—about two-thirds of a cup for every cup of plums.

Is it any good? You bet. Staffers at the State Historical Society of Iowa made a batch for the 2016 Iowa State Fair and won a blue ribbon. (And with a name like Friendly, it has to be good.)

By all accounts, Friendly was an excellent and resourceful cook, scrounging what she could from the pantry and garden. Friendly and her husband later retired to a comfortable brick home just a short buggy ride from the then-Capitol in Iowa City. They named the place Plum Grovenow a state-owned historic site—after a cluster of plum trees that grew east of the house.

The site is closed this summer due to the pandemic, but you can always learn more about Plum Grove and try Friendly’s recipe for plum butter at home. And if it tastes a bit meatywell, that’s how you know it’s authentic.

Friendly's Plum Butter
As recorded by Margaret Lucas Henderson, a great-granddaughter of Friendly and Robert Lucas.

  • Sneak up on plums and get as many as you can.
  • Wash well (a few worms give it a meaty flavor so do not be squeamish).
  • Cover with boiling water and cook till tender. Take potato masher and mash—skins and all.
  • If you are short plums and want to use all the bulk available—put skins and all into a colander—use potato masher and mash, mash, mash. Take pits out with your fingers. Put through as much of the skins as you can.
  • For each cup of pulp you have to use 2/3 cup of sugar.
  • I cook mine in the oven—slowly—testing for consistency.
  • A small portion in a saucer—put in refrigerator will tell you when the jam or butter is just right.
  • Put in jars and seal.
  • Call an armored truck and take to your safe deposit box before anyone becomes aware that you have such a treasure in your possession.
The Valle Drive-in Theater west of Newton provides an outdoor space for a fun summer night. Photo: Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.


By Jeff Morgan
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

What’s old is new again. A new generation of movie fans has discovered the thrill of seeing a movie under the stars—something their parents or grandparents enjoyed a long time ago.

“Many Iowans saw their first fireworks at a drive-in on the Fourth of July,” says State Curator Leo Landis, who helped organize the current “Hollywood in the Heartland” exhibit at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. The theaters “catered to the families of the baby boom and early Generation X.”

A few Iowa theaters are still catering to families this summer, when the pandemic has pushed so many activities outside. At least four drive-ins—near Davenport, Maquoketa, Newton and Spirit Lake—are lighting up their screens through Labor Day.

Drive-ins like these started popping up in Iowa in the 1940s and peaked at nearly 70 in the 1950s and ’60s. Iowa's first drive-in, the Starlite, opened in Waterloo in 1947, followed by the Valle in Newton in 1948, and another Starlite, in Algona, in 1949. Before the western-themed Corral Drive-In opened in Atlantic that same year, the local paper described its “sapling fences … where attendants will wear jeans, boots, western shirts and hats.”

“It was a good, cheaper form of entertainment,” says Jim Kopp of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. “People could sit in their cars, and they didn’t need a babysitter because they could bring their babies. They even had playgrounds for the kids.”

By the 1970s, tighter restrictions and higher land prices signaled their decline. But fast-forward: Randy Lorenz, who owns the Blue Grass Drive-In near Davenport, says outdoor movies were becoming more popular even before the pandemic hit. Attendance has bumped up at the Blue Grass since he opened it six years ago, and “every year is getting better,” he says.

As of 2018, there were 317 drive-in theaters in the United States, including the following four in Iowa:

·        Blue Grass Drive-In Theater in Blue Grass, west of Davenport.
·        61 Drive-In in Delmar, south of Maquoketa.
·        Valle Drive-In Theater, west of Newton.
·        Superior 71 Drive-In Theater, east of Spirit Lake.

Check their Facebook pages for the latest titles and showtimes.
"The Great Gamble" is a new suspense thriller novel by David Bluder, the husband of University of Iowa women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder.


We’re making space on our bookshelves for several recently published books by Iowa authors:

“The Great Gamble” by David L. Bluder (Ice Cube Press): In this suspenseful thriller, FBI agents delve into a classified operation that draws them into the hidden, corrupt and deadly underbelly of sports gambling, a world that involves drug cartels and international intrigue. As Melissa Isaacson, an award-winning sportswriter for ESPN and the Chicago Tribune says, the story is “made all the more frightening by … the fact that his fictional account may not be so far from the truth.” Bluder, who’s married to University of Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, lives in Iowa City. This is his first novel.

“Iowa Gardens of the Past: Lost and Historic Gardens of Iowa 1850-1980” by Beth Cody (Iowa Garden Press): Even non-gardeners will be captivated by this 320-page coffee-table-style hardcover book, which features more than 250 color and grayscale images of Iowa gardens from the mid-1800s to 1980. Cody, who lives in rural Amish country near Iowa City, covers formal rose gardens, Victorian-style flower beds, Japanese-inspired gardens and midcentury modern landscaping, among others. Find more information at

“Coffee With Cleo” by Cleophus Franklin Jr. (Infusionmedia): A graduate of Morningside College in Sioux City, Franklin eventually became the founder, president and CEO of the global consulting firm Franklin Strategic Solutions in Cypress, Texas. “Coffee With Cleo” is a collection of 10 leadership lessons and personal stories of inspiration and self-reflection, based on Franklin’s years as an executive with such brands John Deere and Case-New Holland. Part of the proceeds from the book’s sales benefit the Morningside College Franklin Leadership Foundation.
Barbara Stinson, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, is encouraged by how the global community has come together to fight food insecurity in Iowa and across the globe.


Across the globe, the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity. Supply chains and incomes have been disrupted, and farmers have struggled to get their products to market as economies shut down. In a first-of-its-kind study in late May, Feeding America estimated about 17 million Americans became food insecure during the pandemic, adding to the previous total of more than 37 million before the pandemic. In Iowa, about 1 in 10 people experienced food insecurity before COVID-19, according to the Iowa Food Bank Association.

Barbara Stinson, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, based in Des Moines, has watched this all unfold over the past several months. The organization operates as a "magnifying glass" for innovation in agriculture and food, a subset of work that has only become more important as COVID-19 continues.

"We're trying to support those on the ground ... improving nutrition, increasing productivity for farmers, improving the science, improving the seeds, all these various important activities," Stinson said on the latest dsm Culturecast podcast. "It's so important that this work continues. This work has to accelerate, actually."

While the news has been grim over the past few months, Stinson has been encouraged by the overwhelming response by the global community, particularly those on the ground connecting food waste to those in need. She's also seen the research community step up in ways never seen before.

"I think it's tremendous how everyone is mobilizing online and are very effectively continuing good science," Stinson said. "Because [researchers] are providing the information online, more people have access to it. The information is spread further, and the results are hopefully taken up and scaled up quickly. I think we're going to see some acceleration of the work because everyone is devoted to [finding solutions]."

Listen to the full episode here. You can subscribe to find more interviews like this at Apple Podcast, Google Play Music, Spotify and more.

Iowa Stops Hunger is a yearlong Business Publications Corp. initiative to bring awareness and action to food insecurity in Iowa.

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