April 10, 2011

We Grow More than Corn in Iowa--Author Mary O’Gara

When I think of Iowa, I think of small towns and friendships rooted as deeply as oak trees. We live a long time in Iowa; we rank third in the nation for people over 85 years of age. Those long lives and multiple generations braid us together like the rag rugs my childhood neighbors used to make.
My home town is Red Oak, and we prize our Victorian homes. Red Oak’s Heritage Hill walking/driving tour shows off our well-loved houses, each unique and built by local craftsmen.
 But just FYI, it’s the home my mother and I both grew up in, now on the national register.
Most people who haven’t been to Ioea associate the state with corn–and we encourage that image with our state’s song:
“We are from I-o-way, I-o-way, That’s where the tall corn grows.” Iowa is more than corn–although thank goodness we do have that with its deep blue-green leaves and golden tassles. A modern part of our farming heritage is an interest in science that makes our schools rank third in the nation. And all that corn? It’s one reason we’re also third in the nation for driving alternative fuel cars.
Iowa is politics. Our state motto is “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” It’s no accident that “As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.” People think of us as a Republican state, but we’re proud of our progressive history, too. One of my favorite places to visit in Iowa is the ruins of an eight-sided stone house that was a family home, a stagecoach stop and a stop on the underground railway.
Whenever I hear Johnny Cash singing “Forty Shades of Green”, I think of Iowa in May. Wheat, corn, oats, soybeans, sorghum–each crop has its own color, and the rivers and streams are lined with oak, elm, and walnut trees. We’re prairie country, rolling hills across the whole state.
Iowa’s a river state, with the Mississippi on the east and the Missouri on the west, and smaller rivers and creeks flowing through our cities and fields. You can still take an overnight cruise on a paddlewheel from Buffalo Bill’s home town, LeClaire, to Dubuque–or just an evening cruise on the river. http://www.riverboattwilight.com/
We have a lake district, too, but it’s more famous today for the fictitious University of Okoboji, “summer school” for all the college students who can wheedle jobs, than for its beautiful lakes. Our most famous genuine educational program is the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a graduate program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
The best food in the state, though, is probably at the Amana Colonies. The older restaurants still serve family style at big tables heaped with food. Amana wines are almost as famous locally as their furniture. My favorite merlot comes from Amana, but the old-fashioned wine that made Amana famous is piestengel, a dry white wine made from rhubarb. http://www.amanacolonies.com/
And of course I always point with pride to Iowa’s prime rib, so tender you can eat it with just a fork. No knives required when the beef’s done right. The Omaha stockyards moved to Iowa a few years ago, making all that famous Omaha beef, Iowa beef.
Iowa small towns host unique museums, from John Wayne’s birthplace http://www.johnwaynebirthplace.org to my personal favorite, the Villisca Ax Murder House, scene of a grizzly and still unsolved murder a century ago. http://www.villiscaiowa.com/  If you’re up to it, you can even arrange an overnight stay.
As a writer, I love to set stories in Iowa. Our small towns are tolerant of, um, eccentric behavior. Hey, it’s not really eccentric if you’re part of the town, right? You’re just “ours”–and we defend your liberties with our own. Whatever comes up–from hail to floods or blizzards–Iowans just handle it and move on. What better place for my characters? They’re expected to cope with whatever comes up, and they live where everyone knows everyone else.
In the anthology, The Trouble with Romance, my short story is set in a small town very much like my home town, Red Oak. I borrowed a friend’s home for her heroine’s family, and the blizzard car accident was stolen from the nights when cars drove into our family’s front yard in a storm.
I’m looking forward to seeing your comments, and I’ll give a copy of my anthology to the best comment on Iowa.


  1. I grew up in the Midwest and often miss the small town feel I came to know as a child.

    Iowa sounds wonderful. I'll have to visit someday.

  2. I'm an all over the place girl who has been seeking small town America, all my life. Well, most of it. I was born in a big city in South Africa (until I was 8) then we moved to the big town of Las Vegas. I knew only big cities at the age of 19 when I moved to a small (and I mean extremely small town) in KY. I figured out very quickly that just one corner store is way to small for me. So I moved to SC. I currently live in Ninety Six, SC - one of the most perfect small towns I have ever seen. I have found the small town I have been searching for all my life and I want to visit Iowa some day. Who knows, if I like it enough I might move. hahaha


  3. You're blog was wonderful and the love of your state obvious.

    I have family in Iowa...Now I have two reasons to visit!

  4. Mary, I want to go on the tour! I want to visit your house. It's beautiful. You're a lucky woman.

  5. Wonderful blog about Iowa. My sixth degree of separation to Iowa was a colleague/friend from Ames. You've opened my eyes to more than cornfields shining in the sun. Good blog, beautifully written, love the pix.

  6. Another interesting introduction to a state with more to offer than might be apparent to the casual observer.

  7. Iowa, part of the heartland! One of the states I have yet to visit.

    Love the eccentric characters--small towns seem to harbor them, don't they!?

  8. Didn't know a thing about Iowa , Mary. Thanks to you I now know quite a bit. Sounds like wonderful place to have grown up. I'm doing MI, but I know I've favored the Upper Peninsula, where I grew up and now live, Jane

  9. We did travel through Iowa and found the state lovely. What a lot of history you have. the only story I have for you is when we were traveling, my youngest was about 3. We told her we were stopping in Dubuque and she cried and cried. We finally figured out what she was saying. She did not want to sleep in puke.

    debby236 at gmail dot com

  10. Debby, I love the Dubuque story. Now if you'd told her about the candy at the Trappist monastery, she'd have been a lot happier. The Trappist nuns in Dubuque used to make and sell some of the world's best candy.

    I do love the history of Iowa, still consider myself an Iowan by heart and heritage. Best month: May when it's patchwork green, October when the red oak trees rival New England's maples and our NM aspen.

  11. Wasn't Music Man set in Ioway? Fun blog, Mary!

  12. Congrats go out to Debby....Mary O'Gara of Iowa picked Debby as the prizewinner for her section on the Fifty Authors Blog!

  13. I am really have to go back. I bet she would love that candy.



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