Top-15 Takeaways After Completing My Tour Of Iowa
#15. Lakes Are The Exception Not The Rule--Growing up in Minnesota, I'm used to a culture of lakes. The average Minnesota county probably has two dozen of them, and while all of them are a big deal in their own way in terms of settlement patterns and tourism, it's quite a contrast with Iowa where a lake that would be deemed rather ordinary in size and depth in Minnesota is viewed as a state treasure in the Hawkeye state. It's almost rather amazing how the prevalence of lakes shrinks dramatically pretty much exactly at the state line. Northern Iowa is definitely the region of the state with the most lakes, but even there, the top tier of Iowa counties has at least 50% fewer lakes than the southern tier of Minnesota counties.
#14. College Sports Overshadow Professional Sports--I learned this more living in Iowa than by simply road-tripping my way through the state, but it still bears mention. Iowa is a state without any professional franchises, and while I had always heard murmurs about places in the country where college sports are of greater relevance than professional sports, it never really occurred to me till I get here that Iowa was among them. The rivalry between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University in particular generates passion every bit as electric among Iowans as a trip to the postseason would for home state fans of the Minnesota Vikings, Twins, or Timberwolves. This college sports fascination trickles down outside the state as well, with Iowans seemingly more interested in college football and basketball even when the hometown boys aren't playing than they are with the NFL or NBA.
#13. Country Music Rules--I've often heard it said by locals and long-distance visitors alike that country music dominates the radio dial in Iowa more than just about anywhere else. I like the music so I'm fine with that, but have heard numerous stories from frustrated visitors who don't like country music that they were driving through Iowa and found themselves repeatedly scanning the dial looking for something other than country music and often were unsuccessful in doing so. I'm less than sympathetic to this grievance given the dirt roads and cornfields surrounding them should make the culture pretty obvious and limit their expectations of hearing much jazz or light classical. Curiously though, I've found that even walking through the most urban mall in Des Moines--and specifically past an alternative tattoos and piercings store--you still hear country music playing on the radio inside.
#12. Amish And Maharishi Bring Vitality And Color To Small Communities--There's a surprisingly large number of Amish communities in rural Iowa. Hundreds of Amish households are scattered throughout the state with a half dozen or so counties home to the majority of them, counties scattered from the northeast corner to the southern tier of counties. Amish vendors and businesses can be found on remote country roads peddling their wares and providing choices to locals that otherwise wouldn't exist. I'm not sure when most of these Amish settled in Iowa, but I'm guessing they bought up a lot of low-cost land during the 1980s farm crisis. Either way, it appears to have been a good deal for rural Iowa. A more concise local impact was felt by the settlement of the Maharishi in and around the small southeast Iowa city of Fairfield. The Maharishi are a group resembling modern-day hippies with a very specific doctrine of enlightened thinking who established a college in Fairfield and have become a large percentage of the population in Jefferson County in recent years, increasing the area's population and keeping construction in the county vibrant putting together new Maharishi-friendly homes and businesses at a time when most of the area's neighboring counties have been in decline. Aside from the impact on locals, it's a treat a visitor to encounter the curveballs that the Amish and Maharishi bring to an otherwise homogenous region.
#11. Waterloo Isn't As Bad As Advertised--Anybody loosely familiar with Iowa cities has probably heard a lot of bad things said about Waterloo. Certainly there are parts of town that are dirty and that should be avoided by visitors, but if you explore beyond the north and northeast sides of town, it's not such a bad place. I have a couple of good personal associations with the city that have boosted my impressions since the first time I was there in 2000, but even looking as objectively as possible, the totality of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area doesn't qualify it as the armpit of Iowa. I can think of a half dozen other Iowa communities of stature that I would give a lower mark to overall. It's rather unfortunate that a few neighborhoods on the north and east side of Waterloo--and in all honesty, probably some racial stereotyping--have been allowed to define the city.
#10. The Dutch Define The State's Evangelical Reputation--Iowa is nationally renowned for its first-in-the-nation status in Presidential primaries and caucuses, and its critics frequently cite how unrepresentative the state is because it's so much whiter and so many more evangelicals than the rest of the country. Certainly, Iowa would rate among the five whitest states in the country, but it's reputation as a hotbed for evangelical voters is inflated because of the overrepresentation of Dutch-Americans in the Republican caucus. The Dutch are a fairly small percentage of the state's population and are mostly centralized in the state's northwest corner and a patch of towns in and around Pella east of Des Moines, but their relative wealth and monolithic allegiance to the most conservative reaches of the Republican Party make their footprint in Iowa seem larger than it is, as evidenced by the fact that despite being such an alleged hotbed of evangelical voters, Iowa has gone for the Democrat in six of the last seven Presidential elections. Regardless of politics though, the Dutch towns are fun destinations for visitors. Between the tulip festivals, the ethnic bakeries and meat markets, the attractive and tall blond gals, and the impressive architecture in their towns (in Pella every commercial building has to conform to Dutch building codes...even the McDonald's and Pizza Huts!) there's a lot to be admired when visiting Iowa Dutch country.
#9. Dubuque Is One Of The Midwest's Most Unique Cities--River towns usually have more character than non-river towns generally, but the Mississippi River town of Dubuque in northeast Iowa is far and away the most memorable of Iowa's river towns. For the most part, that's a good thing with the city's numerous college campus and even more numerous Catholic churches dotting the landscape atop the hill and in the valleys, and its numerous bridges and vantage points of the river and the bluffs surrounding it. But what stood out the most for me in Dubuque is the neighborhood of Brooklyn/Baltimore-style row houses on the narrow streets just north of downtown that look like they're from a city in New England rather than Iowa. Some of these streets are kind of dingy as you might expect given the age of the neighborhood, one of the oldest in Iowa, but it gives the city real character. Dubuque has long been a bit run-down generally, but the city has made tremendous efforts to rise above its history as a dirty meatpacking town and restore its historic downtown and sell it as a tourist destination, with above-average success.
#8. Meth Is A Major Problem--Iowa and neighboring Missouri have made a lot of headlines in the last 20 years about the surge in methamphetamine use, particularly in the state's rural areas. It's hard to quantify the fallout from that epidemic just driving through the state, but when driving through counties and communities known to have the most prolific meth use, it isn't hard to identify the despair by the faces you see on the streets and the derelict properties lining the streets and farmsteads. Southern Iowa has the longest and most tangible problem with meth use, and while it's often hard to discern where general issues of localized poverty end and the meth problem begins, it isn't hard to tell that something is very wrong in the culture of several of those communities just passing through or stopping for gas.
#7. Northern Iowa=Minnesota South--Culturally, ethnically, and politically, you can drive 20 miles south of the Minnesota line into northern Iowa and not tell much difference. As a general rule, northern Iowans are of Scandinavian stock with a little Irish, German, and Dutch thrown in. They think similarly, vote similarly, farm similarly, and worship similarly to their counterparts in southern Minnesota. Growing up in southern Minnesota and going to college in northern Iowa, I took for granted that pretty much all of Iowa was an extension of Minnesota....a land full of Norwegian Lutherans who leaned center-left politically and all cheered for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings. Moving to Des Moines and exploring the rest of Iowa on my road trips shattered that caricature. I'm not sure where the dividing line is where "real Iowa" begins, but Highway 20 connected Waterloo to Fort Dodge is probably as good of a nexus point as anywhere.
#6. Southern Iowa=Missouri North--You don't have to go far south of Des Moines before you notice a twang in people's voices, more people wearing bib overalls with their lower lips swollen with tobacco dip, and cars up on blocks in considerably larger numbers than anyplace else in Iowa. The running joke among Iowans is that we should give our southern two tiers of counties to Missouri and it would raise the average IQ of both states. This would seem cruel if southern Iowans didn't so openly embrace their "redneck and proud" profile. There's a certain country charm to visiting the area, especially its more remote rural areas, but between the poverty, the meth, and the culture connection to the Show Me State, I would never want to live in southern Iowa.
#5. Iowa's Largest Cities Are Undistinguished But Have High Quality Of Life--You hear a lot of generally good-natured jokes on TV sitcoms and from media elites at the expense of Iowa, and particularly its largest cities, as being emblematic of Middle America bumpkins. Those of us from flyover country have come to accept this cultural frame and generally brush it off, but having visited all of Iowa's biggest cities and having lived in its largest metro area for more than nine years, I'll concede that there's little to distinguish Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ames, and even Iowa City from cities and college towns elsewhere in the country. From an outsider perspective, it's pretty easy to dismiss them as generic. But hidden in that lack of distinction are fast-growing metro areas with strong, diverse economies with relatively low rates of poverty that seem to rate among the top-10 or top-20 cities in the country for quality of life almost every survey. Let Hollywood and the Beltway keep yukking it up while we eat their lunch in terms of growth.
#4. Iowa Has A Lot Of Old Industrial Towns--Outsiders would not necessarily consider Iowa as part of the "industrial Midwest" but the state has a surprising number of old-line manufacturing towns more reminiscent of what one may expect from Michigan or Ohio. Iowa's manufacturing towns have a legacy in agriculture production, with giant meatpacking plants, tractor factories, and railroad hubs scattered about the state. The state's southeast corner is most densely packed with gritty, declining blue-collar communities such as Ottumwa, Burlington, Fort Madison, and Keokuk, but the rest of the state has its share of smaller cities defined (often visually so to the semi-informed visitor) by their industrial past as well, including Mason City, Fort Dodge, Charles City, and Oelwein. If Iowa's thriving major cities are an impressive look into the state's future, its blue collar towns are a depressing look at the pillars of its past that will never come back, and is denying thousands of its residents a middle-class living as a result.
#3.The Two-Sided Coin Of Modern Meatpacking And Immigration--While I mentioned Iowa's overwhelmingly white population earlier, there are numerous dots on the map all over the state with considerably more diversity. In particular, the Mexican-American population has exploded in the last 25 years, and their settlement in unlikely rural communities in Iowa is the direct result of prolific jobs in the food processing industry. This has been a controversial development in Iowa. It's undeniable that the Latino population has revived a lot of moribund downtown business districts with new businesses, frequently catering to ethnic-themed businesses such as Mexican grocery stores. But the surge in Hispanic workers at these food-processing plants originally came as a result of union-busting that dramatically cut wages in packing houses. Long-time Iowans lost middle-class jobs before new immigrants came to town to take those jobs at considerably lower wages and benefits. The transition happened a quarter century ago but its legacy continues as some of the communities with the earliest and more numerous immigrant settlements are approaching or have already become majority-minority, which is easy to see driving through scattered little towns in every corner of Iowa and observing the residential foot traffic. Whatever one may think about the cultural effect about the migration, and people have strong opinions on that, it's hard to argue that the economic effect has been anything other than a huge net negative for rural Iowa.
#2. The Town Square--I had always heard general references to the idyllic "town square" in folklore but hadn't really experienced it until I started thoroughly exploring Iowa. Having visited 87 county seats in the state of Minnesota, only one has the traditional "town square" with the courthouse surrounded by a square of downtown businesses. In Iowa, particularly the southern half of Iowa, almost all county seats have it. And even in the poorest counties, those town squares are charming, well-maintained, and boasting a thriving Main Street business sector. I'm actually a little envious for my home state that Iowa has had the success it has with this format. And I wonder how many other places in the country feature the town square in their county seats. Is it as prolific in the south, the border states, and the lower Midwest as it is in the southern half of Iowa? I guess I'll have to do quite a bit more exploring in those directions to find out for sure.
#1. Agriculture's Boom Hasn't Trickled Down--One of the prevailing themes in America today is the diverging trendlines in income distribution, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, a phenomenon defined by an investor class devouring the overwhelming majority of growth in the country and paying microscopic tax rates on all of their dividend, even as good jobs go overseas and wages fail to keep up with inflation for workers. Iowa may not fit the stereotypical template in the way our inequality is occurring, but it's still happening here at least on par if not ahead of the national average. In the past quarter century, most sectors of American agriculture have been in a sustained boom period, with increased production efficiencies collaborating with historically high crop prices being the new normal. Being in the heart of the heartland, a lot of rural Iowa counties went from having zero millionaires 25 years ago to dozens of them today, almost all farmers (or heads of agribusinesses posing as farmers). How has this impacted the 90+% of the population of these counties that doesn't till the land? Not all that well actually. Factories in their towns have closed or moved to Mexico. The food processing operations in the countryside usually employ immigrants at as low of wages as possible. And most strikingly, the main streets of small farm towns across the state are lined with the Cadillacs and new trucks of farmers for morning coffee or lunch at the local cafe, but the business sectors of those streets are otherwise in considerably worse shape than they were a quarter-century ago when the farmers were far less rich, in many cases with most of the storefronts boarded up. There's a reason why, despite having some of the best per capita economic growth in the country in the last 20 years, Iowa has also had amongst the slowest population growth in the country, and the trend shows no signs of changing.
I have visited all but one county in the state of South Dakota. I've visited all but a handful in North Dakota. I've been to the majority of counties in Wisconsin. And I'm about to do some thorough exploring of Missouri and Illinois in the years ahead. We'll see if I'm compelled to speculate on overarching themes in any of those states when the time comes, but my hunch is that I've already completed the tours of the two states the left the most diverse set of impressions on me.