The Iowan
looking for something?

ROCK ON! 6 Ways to Rock in Iowa




by Beth Wilson

The early settlement of Lone Rock — some two dozen residents, their creamery, store, and post office — picked up and moved a mile and a half southwest in 1899, resettling on a new arm of the Chicago and North Western rail line. Its 175-ton namesake rock — a 25×15×12-foot boulder likely deposited by a melting glacier thousands of years ago — was left behind. The mammoth mound was easy to spot in the middle of the prairie, and for years it had served as an important landmark for 19th-century travelers heading by coach to Spirit Lake.

By 1972, however, the slab of granite was covering valuable cropland. What a farmer saw as a nuisance, the town of Lone Rock — sans rock — saw as an opportunity. A couple of dogged Kossuth County supervisors, one a former demolition expert with the military, devised a plan. One crane, one semi trailer, and 30 sticks of dynamite later, four large pieces — each one a separate and full load for the semi — were relocated and reassembled on the grassy lot that is today a city park. (A collection of smaller fragments was lost in the blast to the larger cause, and many current residents of Lone Rock safeguard their souvenir-size portions.) The feat becomes more extraordinary considering the news coverage dateline: January.

With a playground nearby, the rock — held together by a secure cable and a devoted community — is often topped with exploring children, and plenty of adults have stopped to have their photo taken in front of the massive boulder. Just a stone’s throw away sits a 1900 Chicago & North Western Railway depot that since 1989 has housed an historical museum. An adding machine from the old stockyards, a jail cell with aged padlock, blacksmith tools, baseball uniforms, a canvas voting booth, scrapbooks of clippings and photos, and more artifacts offer many glimpses of Lone Rock’s past.

That impressive rock outside offers one big chunk of it.

The Depot Museum & The Lone Rock Rock
Front Street West, Lone Rock
By appointment
or 515-925-3253

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Grotto of the Redemption

Built with no blueprint, the world’s largest grotto is a testament to one man’s faith. Father Paul Dobberstein devoted more than 50 years of his life creating West Bend’s Grotto of the Redemption. An estimated $4 million worth of gems and natural rock formations are incorporated into nine separate grottos.

300 North Broadway, West Bend Iowa
GPS: N42.96401 W94.4451

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Iowa Gemstones

Its drab exterior conceals its inner wonder. Crack open a geode, Iowa’s state rock, and discover an intricate history told with sparkling quartz crystals and companion minerals, sometimes lending smoky, sea green, orange, and pink hues. Though they’re found in other places around the globe, the greatest abundance and variety of geodes lies within a 70-mile radius of the intersection of the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers near Keokuk.

Keokuk Area Convention and Tourism Bureau
800-383-1219 or 319-524-5599

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Freedom Rock

Every May, Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II takes his brushes and his reverence to the Adair County countryside. There on a 12-foot-high granite canvas he salutes our soldiers, sometimes, by request, mixing his paint with a veteran’s ashes. His annual tribute on Freedom Rock debuts each year for Memorial Day.

120th St., Menlo Iowa
I-80 Exit 86; 1.5 miles
south on Highway 25




#2 Parks ‘n’ Rock

by Gaela Wilson

Jutting from the earth to form a spinal column of rocky vertebrae, Devil’s Backbone towers above the Maquoketa River. This ancient ridge of bedrock — bypassed by creeping glaciers during the last ice age — was likely a popular hideout for cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and bank robbers when Iowa was just a young territory. It holds a vastly more important distinction as the inspiration for Iowa’s first state park.

Settlers rapidly transformed vast areas of Iowa’s landscape during the first 50 years of statehood. As wetlands were drained, prairies plowed, and forests cleared, township plat maps revealed a profound alteration of the state’s ecosystem. Two botanists grew increasingly troubled. Thomas Macbride at the University of Iowa and Louis Pammel at Iowa State College, along with other early conservationists, issued a clarion call. Iowa scientists and committed citizens mobilized by a disappearing landscape spent more than two decades pushing the Iowa legislature for action.

Led by a new Board of Conservation in 1917, concerned groups — including ecologists, biologists, archaeologists, even a cartoonist — set out across the state to document the historical, scientific, scenic, and recreational character of Iowa. The report they handed to the governor two years later, a 400-page tome offering intricate descriptions and photographs of Iowa plants, rocks, animals, and waters, served as a proposal for a network of public areas for the common good — preserved pockets of natural wonders established near every population center in the state.

A caravan of vehicles headed east out of Lamont on a May morning in1920, and after a picnic lunch and a ceremony punctuated by live bands and speeches, Board of Conservation Chairman Pammel stood before a crowd of 5,000 and formally presented over 2,000 acres to his fellow citizens. There, among dramatic limestone cliffs rising more than 80 feet above the river and exposing stacked rock strata dating back about 430 million years, Iowa celebrated its first state park.

Backbone State Park
1282 120th Street
Strawberry Point, Iowa

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Waubonsie State Park

Grab your binoculars and set out on the trails. Hike across Waubonsie State Park’s narrow ridges of wind-blown silt to discover pawpaws, yucca, snow-on-the-mountain, and, if you’re lucky, a Chuck-wills-widow or a Great Plains skink!

2585 Waubonsie Park Road, Hamburg Iowa

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Ledges State Park

In the cool shadows of sandstone cliffs and deep woods, visitors can rock hop, bug watch, and animal track along Peas’ Creek in Ledges State Park. The fine craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corps is showcased in stone trail steps, stone shelters, and the park’s iconic arch stone bridge. Canopies of oak, hickory, maple, and basswood present visitors with a spectacular autumn leaf show.

1515 P Ave., Madrid Iowa

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Pikes Peak State Park

Sitting high atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Pikes Peak State Park offers visitors not only a magnificent vista but also a peek into the past. Earthen effigy mounds in animal, linear, and conical shapes were built between 500 and 1200 A.D. by Native Americans to celebrate their relationship with Mother Earth.

32264 Pikes Peak Road, McGregor Iowa




#3 Rock ‘n’ Roll

by Tim Ackarman

In the 1950s a new musical genre evolved from roots in blues, country, jazz, and gospel. Teenagers soon embraced “rock ’n’ roll,” which earned play on radio stations and flourished in ballrooms across America.

Iowa once featured over 200 ballrooms, more per capita than any other state. Those venues provided rockers ample opportunity to perform, and a rich rock tradition soon developed. Visitors can step back in time to the formative years of rock and beyond at the Iowa Rock ’n Roll Music Museum in Arnolds Park on Lake Okoboji. Permanent displays include a reproduced recording studio, a ’60s era radio broadcast booth, and an array of memorabilia.

The museum is operated by the Iowa Rock ’n Roll Music Association (IRRMA). This organization celebrating rock in Iowa isn’t just interested in preserving history, however; it’s still in the business of making it. IRRMA promotes rock to youngsters through music education, a guitar art program, and annual scholarships. On Thursday nights from mid-June to mid-August the association presents Rock the Roof, a concert featuring two bands and an open jam session at the Roof Garden ballroom.

The association accepts nominations for its Hall of Fame throughout the year. Those individuals, groups, and venues recommended by a selection committee and ultimately chosen by the IRRMA board are inducted each Labor Day weekend during the Hall of Fame Spectacular, featuring a concert (highly regarded Des Moines bass guitarist Dartanyan Brown will be both an inductee and a performer this year), an antique car show, a memorabilia auction, and a FanFare event during which visitors can meet inductees and others in the music industry.

This year’s opening ceremonies will include the Spectacular’s newest tradition, the second annual Guitar Marching Band. Last year a contingent of 14 pounded the pavement while hammering out riffs, and organizers expect more this year. “We just know it will grow because it was such a hit last year,” says IRRMA Executive Administrator Doris Welle.

The Iowa Rock ’n Roll Music Museum
91 Lake Street, Arnolds Park

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Surf Ballroom and Museum

Fate linked the Surf Ballroom to rock ’n’ roll history when musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a 1959 plane crash after playing at the now iconic venue. In addition to hosting concerts and events throughout the year, the Surf celebrates its rock’n legacy with an annual Winter Dance Party, a multiday music festival paying tribute to rock ’n’ roll’s formative years. The 2012 Winter Dance Party will be held February 1–4. Historically significant in its own right, the 1948 structure is also a storehouse of memorabilia from the big band and rock ’n’ roll eras.

460 N Shore Drive, Clear Lake Iowa

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Fifth Annual 80/35 Music Festival 

Visitors to 80/35 can expect a two-day music festival spectacular featuring famous national acts, budding regional performers, and Iowa favorites. This decidedly urban and progressive festival held in Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park offers stunning stages in the streets and brilliant beats bouncing off buildings.

Held the first week of July 2012 (specific dates TBA).
Advanced tickets available in March; schedule of performers released in April.

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

The Poison Control Center

“Blazing fundamental rock with extreme likability.” So says online music venue 83Music regarding the 2011 release by an edgy quartet from Ames. The Poison Control Center just wrapped up a 264-show national tour. If you missed the band’s summer appearances in Iowa, you’ll have more chances to catch them in their home state this fall.

Follow the Band
Explore discography, find upcoming shows, and more online.




#4 Rock ‘n’ Rail

by Joe VanDerZanden

Shortly after Steve Roe unlocks the Rock Island Depot each day at 6 a.m., 10 or so other retired Rock Island employees begin arriving for morning coffee. Same schedule each day, like clockwork. These are railroad men. “I get some doughnuts, they put a little money in the kitty, and it pays the light bill,” says Roe, who ran freight trains on the Rock Island Line from 1956 until 1980. Now he volunteers with the organization that restores and operates the historic depot and museum.

Competition, legal issues, and the development of the Interstate Highway System contributed to the demise of the Rock Island Line. The last passenger train stopped in Eldon in 1969. Final freight traffic rolled through a decade later. All of Rock Island’s rail and rolling stock was either sold or scrapped.

At its peak in the 1930s and ’40s, the line spread across the Midwest like a giant iron web. Originating from Chicago, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad eventually stretched into 14 states. Chartered in 1851, the rail line reached Iowa in 1854, and in less than a generation it reached every corner of the state. In the line’s heyday up to six passenger trains a day stopped in Eldon. Even more freight trains chugged through. When the line folded, the track around Eldon was abandoned, leaving just the Rock Island Depot. It sat for more than 20 years until Roe and three other former Rock Island employees formed a nonprofit organization and purchased it in 2001.

With the exterior now completely restored, the Depot Museum houses exhibits and Rock Island memorabilia. Visitors can examine railroad artifacts such as a collection of railroad lanterns and authentic Rock Island oil cans. A restored caboose is also on display. While the building, exhibits, and photographs are filled with history, the most memorable part of a visit to the depot will likely be the stories and railroad lore offered by a tour guide who once worked the Rock Island Line.

Rock Island Depot Museum
Corner of KD Avenue and Railroad Street, Eldon
Those unable to make the early morning coffee hour can arrange a tour by contacting Roe or other museum volunteers. Contact information as well as details, history, and links are at

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Make Tracks

At least 60 former railroad depots, many beautifully restored, are in use around the state as local history museums or for other purposes. Find a list of these historic sites at

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Historic General Dodge House

Civil War veteran, Union Pacific railroad builder, and Council Bluffs native General Grenville M. Dodge built a lavish Victorian mansion in his hometown in 1869. Tours of the Dodge House are available Tuesday through Sunday. Plan your visit at

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Hawkeye Express
Fans of football and trains might want to check out the Hawkeye Express. Since 2006 the Iowa Northern Railway Company has moved fans from satellite parking areas in Coralville to Kinnick Stadium on game days.


•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Iowa City – Chicago Passenger Rail

Last fall the Iowa and Illinois transportation departments received $230 million from the Federal Railroad Administration to initiate intercity passenger rail service on a route from Iowa City to Chicago. Learn more about the development of this high-speed rail line and the future of IDOT’s passenger rail service at

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

Experience the only excursion railroad in Iowa: the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. Dinner trains, desserts trains, picnic trains, and special seasonal trains steam through the Des Moines River Valley from Memorial Day until October 31. Visit


#5 Giant Rock

by Katrina Brocka

The biggest hoax of the 19th century began with a colossal chunk of Fort Dodge gypsum. When the Cardiff Giant was unearthed more than a thousand miles away in upstate New York, many believed it to be the remains of an ancient giant — an amazing discovery that revealed new insight into human history. Just as George Hull had hoped.

It was Hull who quarried the 12-foot block of Iowa rock, then commissioned the “giant” in his likeness, grooved the base to simulate centuries of erosion, aged the stone with sulfuric acid and a studded mallet to create pores, and buried the beast where he knew it would be found in 1869. So enamored with this tomfoolery was P.T. Barnum that he had his own “giant” carved and then displayed around the country. The jig was up soon enough, but not before the shrewd pranksters had made a few bucks.

Revelation of the incredible ruse only fueled the big rock’s fame. The giant continued to travel the United States, occasionally returning to Iowa (and displayed in the home of Des Moines publisher Gardner Cowles, Jr., in 1935), until The Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown,New York, negotiated his final resting place in 1948.

No matter. Iowa had more gypsum, and in 1972 yet another Cardiff Giant took form. Mined in the same quarry as Hull’s original, this one reposes in the Fort Museum in Fort Dodge. Iowa’s own Cardiff Giant was carved from an even larger block of gypsum, measuring 14 feet long, 8 feet across, 5 feet thick and weighing 25 tons. Sculpture Cliff Carlson of Wesley chiseled the block down to the original fake’s proportions.

The display room in Fort Dodge was built around the statue, with great care taken to protect the gypsum from hard light and dry conditions that would crack the soft rock.

Fort Museum
South Kenyon & Museum Road, Fort Dodge

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

That's a GIANT Bull

I’ll take American Hodgepodge for $600, Alex. This big bovine (and staff favorite) was featured on Jeopardy on February 16, 1998: “A 45-ton statue of a bull named Albert decorates the Iowa town named for this 19th-century bird artist.” (The Lightning Round should have asked how many gallons of paint are required to cover Albert the Bull’s 90,000-pound frame: 65.)

Albert the Bull
East Division Street, Audubon Iowa

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Those are GIANT Moccasins

Let’s set the record straight. There is nothing to see under that skirt. Pocahontas, sporting a beaded belt and stitched moccasins (hers happen to be size 25), is hollow under her garb. The daughter of a Virginia Native American “king,” she provides a larger than-life welcome to The Princess City.

Princess Pocahontas
Intersection of Hwy 3 and NE 6th Street, Pocahontas

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

That's a GIANT Bite

This one-of-a-kind cheesy golf-ball-size piece of fried cornmeal is one huge rock of seasoning that somehow made it through quality inspection straight into Algona’s heart. Displayed on a velvet pillow under bulletproof glass, the alleged world’s-largest Cheeto bears the teeth marks of the only person who ever managed to get his mouth close to it.

Emerald’s Fine Foods and Libations
1515 North McCoy Street, Algona Iowa

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •


A prominent point of interest in Strawberry Point for 43 years, the giant Strawberry has long been an Iowa icon. Made of fiberglass, this ripe roadside attraction measures 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide, weighs1,430 pounds, and sits atop City Hall. The 2010 film World’s Largest: A Documentary About Small Towns with Big Things opens with Strawberry Point’s landmark!

Strawberry Point City Hall
111 Commercial Street, Strawberry Point Iowa


#6 Eagle Rock

by Terri Queck-Matzie

Darry Chiles hasn’t had a cigarette since 1969. He stubbed out his last butt right around the time that the Reverend Clayton Brooks stood on the courthouse lawn and challenged the good folks of Eagle Rock to do the same.

The Romanesque Adair County courthouse still stands in the middle of the downtown. The historic opera house turret still looms above the town square. Shoppers still stroll in and out of storefronts that line surrounding streets. The old railroad depot still sits at the south entrance to town, where the Christopher Mott Society once patrolled cars for smoking material.

When Cold Turkey arrived in movie theaters 40 years ago, it brought to the silver screen the story of a town that accepts a tobacco company’s challenge to quit smoking for 30 days for a $25 million payoff. Written, directed, and produced by Norman Lear, the film starred Dick Van Dyke, Tom Poston, Bob Newhart, Jean Stapleton, Pippa Scott — and the town of Greenfield. The southwest Iowa town of 2,100 didn’t make $25 million but did see financial benefits.

“They paid [the city] to film here,” says Chiles’ sister-in-law Nancy Gross, former Greenfield city councilwoman, of Tandem Productions. “They left a lot of money in this town.” Gross’s garage was rented and remodeled for the opening scenes of the film.
Nearly 1,000 local extras found themselves part of cinematic history, with scenes also filmed in Orient, Macksburg, Winterset, and Des Moines. As a member of the local Lions Club, Gross, like other club members, donated her $15 a night to the civic organization, funding community projects for years to come. And Chiles signed a real-life pledge on July 17, 1969, giving up his three-pack-a-day habit and joining many fellow Greenfield residents in a real-life campaign that garnered national attention.

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

The Kit Kat Klub sign no longer graces the corner building on the south side of the square. It, along with other signs and memorabilia from the movie, is on display at the Adair County Heritage Center, located on the corner of Lakeview Drive and Highway 92 in Greenfield.

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

In the decades since the filming of Cold Turkey, numerous film companies have gone on location in Iowa, spurring movies that not only captured the nation’s fascination — The Bridges of Madison CountyField of DreamsZadar! Cow from Hell (What? You missed that one?!) — but also sparked a flood of tourists to the filming sites. With its small towns and crop-adorned countryside, Iowa has been the backdrop for many motion pictures.

Films such as State FairThe Music Man, and Cedar Rapids find story lines in the lives of Iowa’s people.



All content © 2017 The Iowan/Pioneer Communications, Inc., and may not be used, reproduced, or altered in any way without prior written permission.