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February 18, 2012

Exploring Madison County, Iowa

by Anne Paddock
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Several years ago, Robert James Waller wrote a book called “The Bridges of Madison County” about an Iowa farm housewife who falls in love with a National Geographic photographer visiting Madison County, Iowa to photograph the beautiful covered bridges. The fictional story that seemed so possible put Iowa on the national map for something other than the Iowa Caucus and the Iowa State Fair (not that those events aren’t fun and entertaining, too). As a result, people have flocked to Madison County to see the covered bridges and the residents of Winterstet, Iowa being the friendly midwestern group they are welcome visitors to the annual Covered Bridge Festival, provide maps to the various bridges along with written historical accounts of their origin, and have a website to showcase the other sites in the area.

Madison County is about 30 miles southwest of Des Moines and was named after James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. Originally, the county had 19 covered bridges but only 6 remain today, with 5 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One bridge, the Cedar Covered Bridge that was built in 1883 was destroyed by an arsonist in 2002 but was completely rebuilt in 2004.  Each of the bridges are unique and can be found by referring to the tourist map that can be downloaded or obtained through the Chamber of Commerce/Welcome Center at 73 Jefferson Street in the town of Winterstet.
The Madison County Covered Bridge Festival is celebrated on the second full weekend in October on the Courthouse Square in Winterstet, the county seat.  The festival consists of a parade, craft demonstrations, music, storytelling, and an abundance of seasonal foods: candy apples, fresh donuts, and the midwestern version of the sinful deep fat fried funnel cake. In addition, various vendors sell their crafts.

In 2012, the Covered Bridge Festival is scheduled to take place October 12-13.  But, if your travels happen to bring you to central Iowa in the Spring and pie is one of your favorite food groups, consider attending the “Pie Squared Festival” which is described as “An All American Celebration of Pie” on Saturday, May 26, 2012.  The festival takes place on the square in Winterstet and offers more than 200 pie choices made by the locals.

A story about Madison County wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that Winterstet is also the birthplace of John Wayne.  A few years ago, my friend, Denise and I did a cross country road trip from upstate New York to Iowa (think Thelma and Louise without the convertible or the men to mess up the hair and the trip).  Along the way, we stopped in Chicago to see “Wicked” and do some shopping before continuing on to Iowa, a state she had never visited.

We spent a day in Madison County so she could see the bridges (which I have seen numerous times before but always get lost trying to find them because the locations are rural).  Finding some extra time at the end of the day, we decided to tour the birthplace of John Wayne.
Who would ever guess that John Wayne was born “Marion Robert Morrison” in a small town in Iowa? Somehow I can’t envision anyone calling John Wayne “Marion” and getting away with it.  For me, tough guy John Wayne always seemed bigger than life with that brusque exterior that seems to be in total contrast to the warm friendly Iowans I know. Over the weekend of May 25-26, 2012, the John Wayne Birthday Celebration will take place with a dinner, cavalry charge, theater shows, band demonstrations, and some of his most famous films shown at the “Iowa” theater on the town square in Winterstet.
A modest four room house that has been completely restored and filled with John Wayne memorabilia, the John Wayne Birthplace house can be seen by guided tour.   Check the website for days and hours because the hours vary by season.

John Wayne’s Birthplace
216 2nd Street
Winterstet, Iowa 50273
515-462-1044
www.johnwaynebirthplace.org

Finally, consider stepping back in time by having lunch at the Northside Cafe, an old-fashioned restaurant that has been open since 1928 in Winterstet. Located at 61 West Jefferson Street, the Northside Cafe had a cameo appearance in the movie version of “The Bridges of Madison County.” Or, stop in at Montross Pharmacy at 118-120 North 1st Avenue in Winterstet for lunch at the old fashioned soda fountain counter.  The place is a cross between a pharmacy, store, and diner.  The only thing missing is the Cleaver family.

Helpful Hints:
  • Iowans often give directions using the words “north, south, east, and west” which can be infinitely frustrating to someone traveling mid-day with the sun straight above. When I asked a AAA representative why locals use these words, I was told that most Iowans have a compass in their car because all 4 directions look the same at mid-day.
  • Lunch is often referred to as “dinner” and Dinner is often referred to as “supper.”
  • Iowans are notoriously helpful and friendly. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions.
  • Many roads in rural Iowa do not have street signs although locals know the address of most everyone and can tell you how to get there.
  • Some of the bridges in Madison County can not be driven across because of weight restrictions, so you will have to backtrack.

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