This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.
STONE CITY — A drive along the Grant Wood Scenic Byway is like driving through a Grant Wood painting, with mile after mile of rolling hills, mostly along Highway 64 in Jones and Jackson counties. It’s a beautiful day’s drive from Stone City to Bellevue, covering 80 miles.
By fall, the “Young Corn” depicted in Woods’ 1931 painting has matured into fields of light brown stalks beckoning combines that kick up dust plumes in their wake. Conservation farming paints its own masterwork with alternating strips of cover crops, set against timbers ablaze in autumn’s glory. In the valleys, cattle graze on greens and gather around ponds and creeks, basking in the waning warm weather.
These are the scenes Iowa’s most famous artist remembered from his youth and painted as an adult. Born Feb. 13, 1891, on a farm four miles east of Anamosa, his family lived there until moving to Cedar Rapids following his father’s death in 1901. He immortalized the countryside in artwork that shaped America’s Regionalist movement during the Depression era.
Wood died of pancreatic cancer Feb. 12, 1942, the day before his 51st birthday. He is buried in Anamosa’s Riverside Cemetery on South Elm Street. His grave is marked with a simple flat headstone.
Begin your tour here, in the little Wapsi Valley village with huge views from atop hills on the way in and out. It bears the visual stamp from the limestone-laden hills and quarries which not only provided rock for a rail line across the state in the mid-1800s, but material for homes and businesses as far as the eye can see.
Wood painted a colorful chapter in the village’s history by co-founding the Stone City Art Colony there in the summers of 1932 and 1933. As many as 120 students came to learn from the masters and paint outdoors.
He also captured the town in his first major landscape, “Stone City, Iowa,” painted in 1930 — the same year as his most famous painting, “American Gothic.” A replica of the Carpenter Gothic style house lies at the foot of the big hill leading into Stone City, next to the historic St. Joseph’s Church. So grab a pitchfork, erase your smile and snap your own dour photo in front of the porch.
Most of the limestone buildings that once played key roles in the town’s early years now are privately owned, but for a taste of history, stop in for a bite and a view at the General Store Pub, open for lunch, dinner and drinks Wednesday to Sunday. Situated on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River, this piece of the past sports a double-decker deck with serene water views for outdoor dining, or you can soak up the historic ambience indoors.
Exit up the hill by the quarry to make your way toward Anamosa. A fascinating little stop along the way is the Anamosa State Penitentiary Cemetery, dubbed Boot Hill, and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Neat rows of limestone markers, weathered by age, denote common graves, unknown graves with remains moved from a previous burial site, and single graves of more recently deceased prisoners.
Grant Wood is a looming presence in this Jones County seat city. The latest homage to the city’s favorite son is a soaring 25-foot bronze sculpture of Wood’s “American Gothic” duo, titled “God Bless America.” Installed in June, it will remain in place for at least 10 months in a green space set back in the 300 block of East Main Street. Packing a giant wow factor, the statue is a beacon for soaring selfies.
The courthouse and state penitentiary dominate the west side of town. The penitentiary, built with prison labor from quarry to construction in the 1870s, now houses about 1,000 prisoners. The public can visit the adjacent Penitentiary Museum, open noon to 4 p.m. Friday through Monday from Memorial Day weekend to the first weekend in October, and other times throughout the year by appointment. Admission is $3 for adults and free for children and students.
Driving through town, you’ll find the Grant Wood Gallery at 124 E. Main St., featuring a research library, Wood prints and gifts; Starlighters II Community Theatre, 200 E. Main St.; and on the east edge of town, the National Motorcycle Museum, 102 Chamber Dr.
Among the many eateries, from fast food to sports bars and family fare, are fine dining options and craft brews at Tyler & Downings, a century-old family business at 122 E. Main St., and upscale Italian cuisine and Iowa-produced wine at Daly Creek Winery and Bistro, 106. N. Ford St.
En route to Wyoming (the town, not the state), you’ll come upon the one-room Antioch School, which Grant Wood attended from 1892 to 1901. It still stands sentinel three miles east of Anamosa and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The white wooden structure, built by E.M. Harvey in 1872, inspired Wood’s 1932 painting “Arbor Day,” chosen for Iowa’s quarter issued in 2004. The school lies along Highway 64, and is open 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays, from June through Oct. 15.
Continuing to Wyoming, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world, traveling high above scenic valleys.
Known as the “Christmas City” because of its canopy of lights during the holiday season, an especially striking feature is the Hotel Williams Historic Museum along Main Street.
Calkins Square also catches your eye. A pristine white picket fence surrounds the home of Dr. Martin Calkins, 1828-1890, a teacher, doctor and the city’s first mayor. The house dates to 1858 and is open for tours by appointment. Behind the house lies the Calkins Barn, a community center which can be rented for social gatherings.
Recreation opportunities abound in this Jackson County seat, from the Maquoketa River Water Trail and hiking trails at Prairie Creek Recreation Area to the natural resources of the Hurstville Interpretive Center and the crown jewel, Maquoketa Caves State Park, seven miles northwest of town.
The network of limestone caves, six miles of hiking trails and campgrounds are stunning throughout the year, but road construction closed the park through the end of August this year, and the campgrounds will be closed through Oct. 31. Still, this is a jaw-dropping experience, so pack a picnic basket and grab your hiking boots, flashlight and camera to go exploring.
We initially missed the turn to the caves, and stumbled upon the Hurstville Lime Kilns, near the Hurstville Interpretive Center. Panels at the site note the kilns produced 1,000 barrels of lime each week from local quarries, to be used for mortar in building foundations, plaster work and as a top coat. Operations stopped after 1920, when cement became popular. The kilns were restored in the early 1980s.
The arts are thriving in Maquoketa, as well, with events at the Ohnward First Arts Center; fine art exhibits and more at the Old City Hall Gallery and Maquoketa Art Experience; and the best in national indie musicians at the Codfish Hollow Barnstormers site, luring such big-time performers as John C. Reilly, Counting Crows and Norah Jones.
Continue your scenic drive northeast through Andrew and Springbrook, until the byway connects to the Great River Road at Bellevue.
The most beautiful view of a town whose name translates to “Beautiful View” lies atop the bluffs at Bellevue State Park. Drive the winding road upward, and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping panoramas of the river and town. Beautiful any season, it’s especially gorgeous draped in fall’s ever-changing kaleidoscope.
The park also sports hiking trails, a nature center, butterfly garden, camping, picnic shelters and a lodge.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, head back down to the highway, and watch for the turn into the Flatted Fifth Blues & BBQ in the historic Potter’s Mill, where food is served with a Cajun twist and a heaping helping of music.
The entire trek will whet your appetite for more.
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