Category Archives: RECREATION

Gorgeous day for a tour of Iowa barns – in central Iowa.

We should have set aside more time but in three hours we still managed to visit four distinctive barns in Central Iowa (Story and Marshall Counties) on a spectacularly beautiful early Autumn day. Thanks to the Iowa Barn Foundation for making this opportunity possible, free of charge (although I now realize I need to make a donation to support the foundation’s worthy work of preserving Iowa’s old barns, and in the process, its rural heritage and agricultural history.)

The hardest part of the two-day fall tour — held annually  statewide (the spring tour focuses on one geographic region) — was deciding where to go since there are so many barns on display. The Foundation breaks the state into nine geographic regions, which is a helpful start. I looked at the regions closest to Des Moines (central and south central) to see how many barns are listed and their locations. I thought we’d head southeast to Madison County but a few minutes into the drive, as I was looking closer at the Foundation’s list, I realized that Story and Marshall Counties had some particularly cool barns and a few were within miles of each other so we could see several in an afternoon. My patient driver (Dirck) switched course and we drove northeast instead.

Some other tour-goers I met told me that the Foundation used to provide maps showing the specific locations of the barns/farms, which would be helpful. Without that, some tour-goers now map out their tour in advance — which is a smart idea and an improvement upon my last-minute geographical plotting. Although in remote locations, we found the barns easily, thanks to  GPS and 911 emergency system requirements that the smallest of gravel roads have names or at least numbers.

The four barns we visited differed  in terms of architecture and degree of restoration — although they were all similarly situated, on remote gravel roads in the countryside, usually beside a pretty old farmhouse and a prosaic modern metal shed that has largely replaced traditional barns. As my resident ag expert explained, old barns weren’t built for today’s agriculture. They don’t have big enough doors or enough space for large machinery.  And today’s livestock hang out outside, unless they’re stuck in big metal confinement sheds.

The experience of visiting each barn also differed. At the first barn in the small town of Fernald, north of Colo, – a rare square barn built in 1875 and restored in 2004 – we pulled up to a farmstead with no signs of life, but the door was open to the pretty red-painted wood barn with a limestone foundation, accented by nearby pink and orange asters.  Great that we could walk right in, where we found a sign-in book and a table laden with plastic containers full of sweets – sweet rolls, Kringla, cup cakes, cookies, brownies, chocolates. No invitation to partake and no place to donate. I couldn’t resist trying a few sweets – including a decadent peanut cluster and German Sweet Chocolate brownie.

Built on a farm bought by the Handsaker family in 1853, the square barn inside was very rustic — they all were, with late afternoon yellow light filtering in through the windows and spaces between the wood plank walls, spotlighting the interior’s sturdy latticework of wooden beams.  (Because the barns were built before electricity, and electric lights. they often have lots of windows and natural light.) It was refreshing to wander around with no directions or posted cautions couched in legalese (i.e. warnings about taking your life into your own hands by walking on narrow rickety steps up to the barn’s second floor hay loft or wandering on the sometimes less that solid feeling wood planks of the second floor, past openings with sheer drops to the bottom floor.) The downside is that these barns were definitely not built to be disabled-accessible.  We brought our dog Millie along and had to keep her on a leash to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid/harmful.

Two women later pulled up from Pottawatomie County (near Council Bluffs, about two hours west) and they appeared to be tour veterans. I got the impression they pick a different region to tour each year.  One woman has received a grant from the foundation to restore her grandfather’s 1905 barn near Oakland, Iowa. I need to find out more about the Foundation’s grant-making but I gather it awards grants for restoration that recipients must match – and they also must agree to open their barn to public view during the tour. I also gather the Foundation lives on private donations. One barn owner told us they got a $50,000 grant. I don’t know what the max or min or average is. Or how much that covers of what can be very costly restoration projects.

At the second barn we visited in Colo –a more traditional straight-walled barn built in 1885 —  we joined four other people (three from Ames, one from Nevada – the state, not the small Iowa town near Ames)  on a  casual tour mid-stream led by the young owner who along with his wife has taken on the barn restoration as a hobby after moving to the farmstead a few years ago. Unlike some owners we met, they’re not farmers.  They both work in Ames but wanted to  live out in the country on an acreage. They do have some cattle and pumpkins growing in the garden and a beautiful Victorian farm house with a tasteful modern day addition. Their partially red-painted barn in on the National Historic Register and they are doing intensive labor to rebuilt the inside to near original state, with plank-and-batten siding/paneling (aka board-and-batten or wainscoting that alternates wide boards and narrow wooden strips called battens) and using original materials (white oak, pine, cottonwood) which has meant finding and bringing back wood from Wisconsin by rail and then by truck, as well as wood found online (“I’m a Craig’s list junkie,” he told us.) They are taking advantage of modern-day technology by using power tools rather than hand drills.

Unlike some of the owners, these owners did not grow up with or inherit their barn/farm so they have spent considerable time trying to figure out what various bits of the barn were used for and what materials they need to restore it. They hope to have the job done in a few years.

“I really do love doing this  kind of stuff – I don’t golf or play softball so I get out here to use my brain for a different purpose. I read a lot,” he told us. Noting how the  heavy wooden timbers are help together with wooden pegs (not nails) at the joints, he said, “When you think about all the ingenuity back then, it’s kind of staggering. It’s basically like a wood ship built,  upside down.”

The Barn Foundation’s website (full of interesting material) includes a piece by the previous owner written for the 2015 all-state barn tour, with great historical info:  The barn was built by an Irish family (the Mulcahys) who bought the land in 1872 from the federal government and they owned it until 1999 when it was bought, improbably, by a young couple from New York City who wanted to raise their kids on a farm. They started with the renovation- pouring a new foundation, putting on a wood shingle roof, and hiring “frame straighteners to square the roof.” Without this, the barn would have collapsed. The next owner (and author of this history) from Texas found the barn in distress, a decade after its renovation. He started another restoration, with a matching grant from the Iowa Barn Foundation. He loved the “old world air” of the farmstead, which includes other 19th-century burilindgs including two corn cribs, two chicken houses and a coal building. Interestingly, he notes: “I did not restore the barn to perfection; I believe one loses the historical essence of something when you replace all the parts with new. To that end, I’ve kept the original siding on the barn, warts and all. The barn has a sound foundation, roof, good doors and windows, plus nice red paint with white trim work. It looks like a structure that has survived the test of time and will for many years to come.”

The third barn (on Elmnolle Farm in State Center) is a massive round barn (65 foot diameter), made of peeling white-painted wood and a stucco roof, built in 1919 from a pre-cut kit designed and made to order in Davenport, Iowa. It cost $6000. I’ve seen a few round barns from the road but they are even cooler inside. They feel almost like cathedrals, the ceiling is so high and curved. There is a massive (12 x 35) clay block silo in the middle (built with blocks from Lansing, Michigan), surrounded by 13 dairy cow stanchions, five double horse stalls, two box stalls, two grain rooms, a milk room and tack room. Truly a “general purpose barn.” The barn is topped by a large round cupola with windows, louvers and a conical roof.

Although oddly round, the barn still has a classic inverted U-shaped, gambrel roof, aka “Dutch or barn-style roof,” which wikipedia tells me is a symmetrical two-sided roof with two slopes on each side, the first slope shallow the second steep, which is good for water run-off (preventing mold and mildew) but not as good as other roof styles at withstanding heavy snow or high winds. But the owner told us the barn’s overall round shape was, at the time, considered sturdier and better able to withstand strong winds than a straight-sided barn.

Considered experimental, back in the day, it was interesting to learn how the barn was laid out, like theater-in-the-round, for agriculture – apparently round barns were thought to make more sense space-wise than a more traditional barn, providing more storage and a circular layout so it’s easier to get to things than having to walk down long narrow corridors.    This barn was part of a century farm, which means the same family has owned it for 100 years. The woman showing us around turned out to owner of a parked nearby with the Georgia plates. She and her husband live there and here, on the farm first owned by her grandfather (“he was a little forward-thinking” she replied when I asked if people thought he was crazy to build a round barn)  and then her father (born the farm in 1916) and then her (born on the farm in 1941).

“As a little girl I loved to tag along behind my dad,” she recalls, although girls and women didn’t do as much farm work in those days as they do today. “I finally go to do a few things” including stacking hay. “It was scratchy and it was dirty.”

The round barn needs a new roof and shingles – no small or cheap task – and a new second-level floor, a bigger project than the maintenance effort they envisioned when they applied for their first grant of $50,000. They have been encouraged to apply for another.

The fourth barn, red-painted wood, restored in 2006, had a lovely little cupola at the top and the owners had a thick scrapbook full of family photos and mementos from the many years the barn has been in the family. One was a hand drawn map with the names and locations of various horses that bunked in the barn. The cupola says 1906 on it but apparently that marks the date when the barn was moved, a little back from its original location nearer the road. The owner didn’t know how old the barn was but said it was on the property when his grandfather bought the farm in 1893. The owner pointed out handprints in the cement floor – made by his grandfather as a child and his sister. Although the barn is now empty, he said it used to house milk cows and hay bales. And the current owners kids kept goats, horses, sheep and pigs in the barn.

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Priya Indian, Rays – suburban Detroit 

  • E4BB38C9-2ED7-485D-9EDD-0B8AFA556349.jpegWe had good Indian food at Priya near Troy, including onion badjis (which the restaurant called onion pakora) and dosa, a southern Indian crepe, plus more traditional  fare like saag and shrimp tikka masala. Then onto Rays ice cream in royal oak where the kiddie scoop I got was just as enormous as the regular scoop. Not complaining.
  • Had a bit of a scare when Noah and I couldn’t find my moms memorial bench in the park on scotia road in Huntington Woods. We found it has been relocated temporarily to city hall while the park is being redone.
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Riding a new almost-loop along both sides of the Des Moines River – in DSM

Whether biking, walking or driving, I always prefer going in a loop — returning a different way than the one I just rode, walked or drove.  New scenery, new experiences, new, new, new! But it’s not always easy- – especially on bike trails around Des Moines.

Now we have a new almost-loop that takes us north of our Beaverdale/Drake Neighborhood, on both sides of the Des Moines River, thanks to the new improved bridge on NW 66th Avenue that crosses the river.  It’s all about “connectivity” — in this case connecting the Inter-Urban Trail to the Trestle to Trestle Trail , along the river’s west bank, to the Neal Smith Trail, along the river’s east bank. It’s not perfect — the second connection still requires navigating residential streets — but it’s better than it used to be.

From our house, we ride north to the intersection of  Urbandale Avenue and 34th street, where we hop on the Inter-Urban trail, winding through the woods eastward, across  30th street on Urbandale Avenue, past the HyVee on ML King Blvd and onto the  Trestle to Trestle Trail, riding north to the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

In the bad old days, we used to turn around when we got to the ice cream shop (Van Dees) in Johnston (where all good trails should lead) and retrace our route. Or we’d dare to wend our way north and east on neighborhood streets (including the once-scary NW 66th Avenue bridge) to connect to the Neal Smith Trail, where we’d ride south on the river’s east bank.

Now, thanks to the new bridge, getting to the river’s east side is a breeze — a pleasant discovery we made last Sunday.

The NW 66th Ave. bridge now has a self-contained bike lane!  On the west side of the bridge, there also is a new section of paved trail that leads briefly into the woods, away from the car traffic.  In the past, we had to ride on a sidewalk along the busy road to the bridge and then share the bridge road (which narrows) with cars.  At least once, we almost got blown over by passing cars while riding on the bridge’s slim and rough shoulder. NOT FUN!

Thanks to the new bridge, we can now ride safely to the east side of the river, head south to the  (Wakonsa) Trestle Bridge and then retrace our route on to the Inter-Urban trail and home.





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Filed under bike trails, biking, Des Moines

Sjolinds, Driftless Historium, Military Ridge State Trail biking, Grumpy troll, Blue Mounds, Stewart Lake, Marcine’s — in and around Mt. Horeb, WI

Stone House airbnb

Playing catch up.  On Sunday, we met our friend Jane for breakfast at Sjolinds (“shoe” linds)  in downtown Mount Horeb – cheerful Scandinavia fare (tried the Scandinavian fruit soup, bit too gelatinous for me and certainly for Dirck). We got a sneak peak at the very impressive Driftless Historium, a new local history museum (that I’m writing a story about) and then attempted to ride bikes in 94 degree heat on the Military Ridge State Trail. The trail is packed dirt and stone but really lovely. But the heat kept us from going far. We went a few miles east, which was all downhill (we barely peddled) but, of course, uphill on the return; Then we went a few more miles west which was more level but less shady and closer to the highway.

Mount Horeb’s Grumpy Troll brewpub was packed with hot sweaty people like us — including several motorcyclists.  We ended up on the second floor, eating newly introduced nachos. Pleasant place. And cool temps! To really cool off, we went to the local swimming hole — Stewart Lake County Park — which reminded me a bit of Ithaca.  Small body of water, murky and warm on top, colder toward the bottom, lined with woods including the occasional white birch (my favorite). Across from the sandy beach, some kids took turns climbing up a sagging pine tree and jumping when they reached the top. Dangerous but looked like fun. We drove to nearby Blue Mounds and spotted people eating ice cream cones on the porch of the local convenience store so we joined them. (The one employee was very busy scooping cones and working the cash register.) Onto Blue Mound State Park where we climbed up a high old wooden observation tower (I got a splinter holding onto the railing) for a stupendous view of rolling green Wisconsin dairyland – with pristine red wood/stone foundation barns, century farms with white farmhouses, the occasional golden limestone house like the stunner we airbnbed in. As our friend Jane suggested, we drove from the park along Ryan Road (near Highway F) for more glorious views from high on a ridge. We also drove past  Campo Di Bella Winery which also offers farm-to-table meals and farm stays. Looks promising!

Dinner was classic townie – Marcine’s, a tavern in the small town of Mount Vernon, that Jane took us to. Fortunately we just missed the band (which could have been very loud) but sat at high top tables and drank beer and ate very good burgers. Place was packed.  Later, we finally could really enjoy the porch at our airbnb (cooler temps, fewer bugs), where we sat on a quiet night and chatted with our airbnb host Nina, a former professional juggler who does various jobs now (including helping out at the famous Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds).

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Filed under bike trails, biking, Madison

High Trestle Trail with Dog/Madrid (Iowa); Picket Fence Creamery/Woodward (Iowa); Hotel Pattee/Perry (Iowa)

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Selfie overlooking the High Trestle Bridge

For my sister’s final day in Des Moines, we finally got half way decent weather (high 40s!, some sun!) so we took a day trip with our sweet Lab mix rescue dog Millie northwest about 40 miles to the High Trestle Trail. What a treat to have the entire bridge to ourselves on an early spring day — and always a spectacular view and surprising structure to find in the middle of Iowa. (It was recently dubbed by the BBC as one of the world’s eight spectacular foot bridges.)IMG_1109 (2)

The good news is that it’s now easier to walk to the bridge quickly along the trail, thanks to a handy sign along highway 210 just west of Madrid, Iowa that helps you clearly find the dirt road (QF Road) that leads to the trailside parking, which is about a ten-minute walk to the bridge.

We stopped at Picket Fence Creamery in nearby Woodward,Iowa and tried a little tub of ice cream and some chocolate milk (that we earlier saw being bottled in the little shop beside the dairy that is on a largely unpopulated dirt road in the country). From there we drove ten minutes further west to the Hotel Pattee which is still hanging in there (last I heard it was for sale again) and is still incredibly impressive, with one-of-a-kind rooms, each decorated with art and artifacts to honor a specific aspect of small town Iowa life. The desk clerk gave us the key to the 1913 farmhouse room but several other rooms were also open so we wandered in them as well (the southeast Asia room, the Irish room, the Russian room…unfortunately the RAGBRAI room wasn’t open)…

Anyway, the three stops made for a perfect half-day road trip from Des Moines, perfect for visitors.

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Filed under Agritourism, bike trails, DESTINATIONS - Iowa, DINING, LODGING

Here’s my story about the (Iowa) Farm Crawl in the Minneapolis Star Tribune!

Hot off the press (and Internet), here’s the story I wrote last fall about “Farm Crawl 2017” that just squeaked in before the start of 2018.  click here to see the story online.

Midwest Traveler: Iowa’s Farm Crawl, where a farm is a farm

Iowa’s annual Farm Crawl is a quaint detour through some of the state’s smaller farms.


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Gorgeous fall day for a “Farm Crawl” in Southern Iowa

We drove an hour south of Des Moines on what turned out to be a lovely fall day (after a few initial sprinkles) for the 11th annual Farm Crawl — a driving (not crawling) tour rural in Marion, Lucas and Warren counties of five farms plus a local pottery place and a sale on the grounds of an 1850’s country church, where FFA (Future Farmers of America) kids set up shop, selling their iron works and meat from their “Cattle Project.”

Such a great way to see the Iowa count side and out-of-the-way small family farms, driving up and down hilly gravel roads, tire wheels kicking up dust, flocks of birds suddenly flying in formation from a telephone line, lots of open land and then suddenly, a rare round barn or a tidy red barn or a ramshackle farmstead or the sun-dappled  lawn of an old country church at a rural crossroads.

The Iowa we love.

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Filed under Agritourism, DESTINATIONS - Iowa