Of another era
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Editor's note: The University of Iowa offers lots to do throughout the year, from arts performances to readings, and lectures to recreation. But sometimes faculty, staff, and students want to explore areas beyond campus. So University Communication and Marketing is publishing a series of "daytripper" stories this summer, pointing to fun, interesting, and uniquely Midwestern destinations within a day's drive of Iowa City. Other stories in the series can be found here.
Ah, the “good old days.” That elusive, ever nebulous era that almost every adult has expressed a wish to re-visit. It’s a time and a place brimming with hearty food, amicable people, and warm conversation.
Thankfully for Iowans, it does exist, and not just in our memories. Tucked away between fields of corn and undulating hills is the town of Kalona, a countryside haven that’s done more than embody the good old days—it’s never left them.
Placed on the map in 1879 by a burgeoning railroad system, Kalona is home to the largest Amish Mennonite settlement west of the Mississippi. Though the town itself has changed with the times, many of its more conservative residents still eschew modern conveniences.
The Old Order Amish embrace a simple lifestyle that remains in line with the faith and traditions of their ancestors. They operate without electricity, and heat clapboard farmhouses with wood burning stoves.
A culinary cornucopia
But perhaps of most import—at least to the local tourists—is the tantalizing array of homemade pastries and other products they make available. Just 20 odd miles or so from Iowa City is the Golden Delight bakery, a family owned establishment on the outskirts of town.
Though the bakery is open all day, it’s best to stop by in the morning for a full selection of delectables. Cinnamon rolls are just $1, and other sweets are similarly priced. Most tourists travel here by automobile, but should you choose to bring along your trusty steed, rest assured a hitching post is provided.
If you’re not of the mind to eat dessert before a meal, head into town for a traditional Midwestern breakfast at the Kalona Family Restaurant. It isn’t Amish owned, but it’s certainly delicious. Particularly hungry patrons can opt for the 2 for you—a generous serving of two eggs, sausage patties, bacon slices, and pancakes, all for under $6.
History and handicrafts
No need to count calories, as you can while away the remaining morning hours taking a healthy stroll through downtown and the Kalona Historical Village. Composed of 13 restored buildings, complete with educational exhibits and memorabilia, the village depicts early life on the Iowa prairie from mid 19th century log homes to Victorian era splendor.
Quilting fanatics shouldn’t miss the on-site Quilt and Textile Museum that houses an extensive and well-preserved fabric collection organized into themed galleries. While you can’t purchase the displays, you can mosey on a few blocks over to the Woodin Wheel, which has Kalona’s largest selection of handmade, single needle quilts. The shop also has a fair variety of antiques, trinkets, and sweet-smelling organic soaps.
The tasteful and bizarre
Continue onward to Max Cast, the state’s lone commercial art foundry, and the resting place of art that “looks out of place almost anywhere.” This may be the only locale in which you can find a bronzed fried egg, or a cast iron garden gator to watch over your prized azaleas.
But don’t let the unusual nature of this endeavor fool you. The employees and founders are exceptionally welcoming, and were more than happy to show me around the studio and its broad array of drills, hammers, molds, furnaces, and altogether befuddling implements.
Still, a fiery venue isn’t for everyone, so be prepared to visit Yotty’s, a family friendly ice cream parlor a mere stone’s throw away. Here, you can cool off with a near quarter pound of vanilla ice cream on a stick, smothered in milk chocolate and graham cracker crumbs.
It’s arguably the finest sweet cream around, and followed by a mid-afternoon caffeine boost sipped on the comfy suede couches at the Kalona coffeehouse, you’re sure to be ready to tackle a round of good old fashioned shopping.
Can you say cheese?
If you’ve neglected to bring along a bonnet or eight buckle overshoes, there’s no need to fret. You can find both at the Old Country store, nestled two miles east of town alongside a small crab apple orchard and chicken run. Lit by skylights and hanging lanterns, it may be a far cry from your local convenience mart, but it has character of the sort that simply can’t be matched.
Clamber back onto your mule—or hop into the car—and make headway for the Kalona Cheese House, a dairy built in 1946 by a group of Amish and Mennonite farmers. Though originally it limited production to Swiss cheese, you can currently purchase and sample a plethora of varieties, including the now infamous curds, referred to affectionately by locals as squeaky cheese for the notorious sound it makes when chewed.
Finish the evening with a glass of wine and tender steak at the Tuscan Moon, where you can be treated to outdoor dining and a warm welcome by owners Paula and Warren Miller. There’s nothing like the good old days.