Maps, pie, and song greet travelers
at the state’s northern gateway
Story and photography by Tim Ackarman
Dressed in a bright red button-down and standing behind an equally bright red counter that sits strategically at the top of the stairs, Norlyn Stowell is hard to miss. His greeting is delivered with a broad smile for each new arrival. “Can I get you to sign the guest book?”
This day, travelers from 17 states, three Canadian provinces, and two different regions in Australia will oblige.
Some visitors seek travel information. Others plan to do a bit of shopping or grab a bite to eat. A few are there to simply enjoy some friendly banter during a brief respite from the road. Norlyn offers guidance to all, and few leave the rest area disappointed.
The Top of Iowa Welcome Center and Rest Area near Northwood is not the spartan roadside pit stop of generations past. Sure, there are outdoor picnic tables, obligatory restrooms, and a collection of vending machines dispensing cold drinks and snacks. But the second floor of the two-story, 80- by 40-foot red barn sets this rest stop apart.
Those charting a course for the next leg of their Iowa journey will find hundreds of maps and brochures from nearly every community and attraction in the state. Visitors to the Barn Boutique can browse a selection of regional wines, home-style canned goods (from apricot preserves to sauerkraut), and an array of jewelry, baskets, quilts, objets d’art, and other quality gifts handmade by Iowa artisans.
When hunger (or a sweet tooth) strikes, a thick slice of homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie served à la mode is only a few feet away. The Cow Pie and Coffee Shoppe offers fast, friendly service to travelers; it also regularly hosts locals stopping by to sip coffee at a leisurely pace as they catch up on each other’s news.
Besides serving as Top of Iowa greeter, Norlyn — who runs his real estate and insurance business in Emmetsburg during the week — endears himself to the boss by helping with everything from maintenance to interior design. “It’s kind of a family endeavor,” says Jean Stowell, the boss. Jean has managed the facility since it opened in June 1998.
“There’s no sense me being in town when she’s out here,” says Norlyn about his weekend trips to Northwood to spend time with his wife.
The Top of Iowa “family” strives to make the welcome center, well, welcoming. They accommodate church groups, pay deference to the predominant local heritage with Norwegian festivals, and host concerts — both planned and impromptu. “We have good acoustics in this building,” boasts Jean. “Travelers get a kick out of it when people just burst into song.”
Top of Iowa represents the melding of several visions. In 1993 business and government leaders in Winnebago and Worth Counties sought to attract visitors by forming the nonprofit organization I-35/105 Welcome Center Inc. The group obtained land at exit 214 and began laying the groundwork for a visitors’ center at the state’s northernmost interchange.
The Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) was also interested in adding a welcome center at this gateway location just four miles south of the Minnesota border. “During the planning process, [the I-35/County Road 105 intersection] was determined to be a key location for an Iowa Welcome Center,” says LuAnn Reinders, Welcome Center and Research Manager with the Iowa Tourism Office.
The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), meanwhile, was in the process of updating or replacing aging facilities, including a pair of I-35 rest stops (both northbound and southbound) in nearby Clear Lake. Working with IDED and targeting the I-35/105 interchange made sense. “We had always thought the Welcome Center should be near the location where you enter the state,” explains Steven McMenamin, DOT Rest Area Administrator.
When state officials learned there was already a private group with land at exit 214 and an interest in running a welcome center, a partnership was proposed. “It seemed like a good fit,” says McMenamin.
This unique public-private alliance remains a good fit well over a decade later. The center’s staff of 19 is employed by I-35/105 Inc., which is overseen by a 10-member board.
A contract with IDED (now called the Iowa Economic Development Authority, IEDA) allows Top of Iowa to serve as an official Iowa Welcome Center. Iowa DOT owns the building and contributes significantly to operational expenses for the entire facility.
Visitors seem to appreciate the investment. Their agendas vary throughout the year. “In October and then later in the winter it’s basically the business traveler, point A to point B,” explains Jean. Onsite mail drop-off is a convenient amenity offered for business professionals, and Jean makes her office copy and fax machines available for the occasional urgent need. “We’ve handled some real estate transactions and trucking permits,” she notes.
Through the summer travel season and again during the winter holidays, Top of Iowa often bustles with those journeying for pleasure. Many have specific plans; others are searching for things to see and do. Encouraging travelers to make Iowa their destination by showcasing the best the state has to offer is a core mission at Top of Iowa — and the aspect of the job Jean enjoys most.
“It’s a true labor of love, not only to learn about Iowa but to teach others about Iowa.”
Sarah and Jeff Young of Omaha take a break from the road to walk Velvet and Bonnie (top).