The American Gothic House

I left Lake Keomah State Park around 10 on this very muggy morning.  Jeez, it felt like the Deep South, not southern Iowa, but at least it wasn’t raining.  I headed down several highways, twisting and turning through the cornfields for an hour, as I made my way to the little town of Eldon.  Rich and Janet has mentioned Eldon to me the previous evening and they told me about the American Gothic house there.  You know what I’m talkin’ about, right?  That famous painting with the bald guy holding the pitchfork in front of his house?  I knew of the painting when they mentioned it to me last night, of course, but I didn’t realize it was based on a real house, and located in this little town of Eldon. 

Above:  In the morning I headed southeast to the small town of Eldon, Iowa, home of the "American Gothic" house, then I crossed the Missouri state line.  From there I headed north, visiting the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, then I drove to Madison, where I had gone to grad school.

I reached Eldon around 11 a.m. and pulled into the parking lot of the American Gothic House Center and a cheerful woman in her 40’s greeted me, then told me the story.  A painter from Iowa, Grant Wood, was driving around southeastern Iowa back in 1930 and stumbled across this house in Eldon and he loved it.  He made a quick sketch of it, then when he got back to his studio, he decided to place a couple sturdy Midwesterners in the front of it ("the kind of people I fancied should live in that house," said Wood later).  So he used two models, including his dentist as the man holding a pitchfork and his sister Nan (short, I'm guessing, for Nancy) for the woman next to him. 

As it turned out, neither model was real happy with all the attention the soon-to-be-famous painting would garner.  His dentist was a private person and was irritated with all the publicity (don't know if he continued to be Grant's dentist after that).  However, rumor has it that his dentist mellowed a bit years later and didn't seem to mind it as much.  And Grant's sister Nan was embarrassed to be considered the wife of this balding man who was nearly twice her age, so Grant tried to convince her that it was a “father / daughter” painting, though I never considered it that.  To me, it was always a man with his wife.

With its sturdy Midwestern theme, "American Gothic" became one of the most famous paintings in America.  In fact, a recent study indicated that it’s the second-most recognized painting among Americans, next only to the Mona Lisa.  Grant Wood died young, at age 50, and never returned to Eldon again after that first visit.  But the house still sits here and now there’s a Visitor Center, too.  I love to visit “Americana” places like this when I take road trips around the country, so when Rich and Janet had mentioned it to me the previous night, I decided I had to see it.

After I toured the interesting displays in the museum, the friendly staff person encouraged me to dress up, just like Grant’s dentist, and take a selfie in front of the house.  She didn’t have to twist my arm and I quickly found the right size black coat, then grabbed a pitchfork and put on a pair of fake round glasses (I decided to forego the overalls, however).  I went outside to the house and set up my tripod, then took a few pictures of myself looking as stoic and Midwestern as I could.  You be the judge.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

A Field of Dreams... in Iowa?

After leaving Eldon, I continued southward across Iowa because I wanted to cross the Missouri state line.  I knew this would likely be the closest I’d get to Missouri on this particular trip, so I wanted to make it state #20.  I crossed the Missouri line, took a picture of the sign, then drove back into Iowa.  Mission accomplished.

From there I headed north on U.S. 218 to Iowa City and by 4:30 p.m. I was in Dyersville, a small farming town near Dubuque.  I’d been wanting to visit Dyersville for over 20 years ever since I learned that one of my favorite movies, “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner, had been filmed on a farm outside of town.  Even better, as I learned, the owner of the field had decided to maintain the field just as it’s portrayed in the movie, allowing visitors to experience a bit of baseball magic just like Ray Kinsella. 

I had to check this place out, so after stopping at the Dyersville Chamber of Commerce to get a map and directions, I drove out to the farm, which is a few miles outside of town.  There were a few cars in the dirt parking lot on this late afternoon, and I parked, got out of my truck, and strolled around the field.  The whole setting, including the farm house, looked just as it had in the movie.

I was a little confused over who currently owns the site, however.  Since the early 1900s, it was owned by the Lansing family who, after the filming ended in 1988, continued to maintain the ballfield for many years, allowing visitors to experience the Field of Dreams at no charge.  In fact, the only revenue they generated was from the souvenirs they sold.  And there are signs around the facility implying that the Lansing family still owns and operates the site.  But I later read online that the Lansings had sold the site to a corporation in 2011 for about $5 million.

Either way, the site continues to attract about 65,000 visitors a year and there’s still no admission fee.  The site is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day from April through October and you’re welcome to run the base paths or perhaps play a few innings.  After walking around the field, I took a panorama photo and bought a few souvenirs, including a green foam “Field of Dreams” can cooler.  Where so many places like this around America have been turned into tourist traps, where you’re charged an arm and a leg to see some famous site, it was refreshing to see how the owners of this site – whether it be the Lansings or the corporation – have decided to manage the Field of Dreams.  My hat (in this case, a Seattle Mariners baseball cap) is off to you folks. 

After about an hour, I got back in the truck and headed through Dubuque, then crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin and followed U.S. 151 all the way to Madison.  I actually got a hotel room here rather than camp, and I checked in around 10 p.m., then I stayed up until 2 a.m. working on a presentation I was going to give in a few hours.  It had been a long day.

The Field of Dreams


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