A Guide to Some Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2005 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
Why don't we start at the top and work our way down? Northwest Iowa's Hawkeye Point, near Sibley, could be considered the "top" of Iowa, soaring 1,670 feet above sea level. It's not as enticing to mountain climbers as, say, Pikes Peak or Mount Rainier since most of the land around it is 1,660-something feet above sea level, but for burger-with-fries lovers, a brisk hike to the summit is just what the doctor ordered. OK, part of what the doctor ordered....
Hawkeye Point isn't the only record-breaking tourist destination in Iowa's northwest quadrant. The region is also home to the World's Largest Grotto, the World's First Digital Computer, the World's Largest Ice Cream Factory, the World's Longest Double-Track Train Trestle, the World's Largest Bull, the World's Largest Bullhead, the World's First Reinforced Concrete Bridge, the World's Largest Pocahontas Statue, the World's First Moving Train Robbery, and, best of all, the World's Largest Cheeto!
What — you need more reasons to visit? Then read on.
World's First Moving Train Robbery
Good ol' American ingenuity! When the James–Younger Gang derailed the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific train near Adair on July 21, 1873, they ushered in a brand-new type of grand larceny: robbery of a moving train. The gang loosened a rail at the Turkey Creek cut southwest of town, and when the eastbound locomotive approached, they pulled the rail free using a rope. The engine ran off the tracks and tipped over onto its side, followed by the tender and two baggage cars. The train's engineer, John Rafferty, was crushed in the rollover.
Jesse James thought the train would be carrying $75,000 in gold bullion, but it turned out to only have $2,300 in cash aboard. He had missed the money train by 12 hours. To supplement their meager take, the thieves robbed the passengers of another $1,000. Twenty-eight children of the Chinese aristocracy and their two chaperones were riding the unlucky train that day; they returned home safely but would, from that point on, always refer to America as "Hell Country."
Contrary to popular myths, the CRI&P locomotive was not destroyed and buried at the site. The railroad fixed it up and put it back into service. The large iron wheel used for the roadside marker (erected in 1954) is in no way connected to the infamous event.
Derailment Site, Rte. G30, Adair, IA 50002
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Look for the train wheel marker 1.5 miles southwest of Exit 75 (I-75) on Rte. G30.
The Nazis and Baby Jesus
During World War II, a large POW camp was located at Algona; it held 3,200 captured German soldiers. With plenty of time on their hands, some of the prisoners decided to put it to good use. A group led by Sergeant Eduard Kaib began building a nativity scene in the fall of 1944. It wasn't a common crèche, but a 60-character, half-scale re-creation of the manger scene on December 25, 0 B.C.
The nativity took a year to construct. Of course it had Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the wise men, but it also had a flock of 30 sheep, a miniature Bethlehem in the distance, and a stream that flowed into a small lake. The men paid for the cement and plaster with their own funds, and erected the nativity near the prison fence so that local folks could peer through the barbed wire at the peaceful scene. (It was Christmas 1945, and even though the war was over, the men were still locked up.)
Whether or not it was their intention, it was a brilliant public relations move. Algonans loved it — so much so that when the Germans were released in 1946, the town asked them if could keep the nativity. The prisoners agreed, on the conditions that it never be resold and that it always be displayed free of charge. It has been erected by the Methodist Men's Club every holiday season since. A permanent display hall was eventually built for it at the fairgrounds, which is where you can see it today.
Kossuth County Fairgrounds, Fair St., Algona, IA 50511
Contact: Methodist Men's Club, First United Methodist Church, 201 E. Nebraska St., Algona, IA 50511
(515) 295-7241 or (515) 295-7242
Hours: December, daily 2–9 P.M.; January–November, by appointment
Directions: Rte. 169 south, then right on E. Fair St. to the west end of the fairgrounds.
World's Largest Cheeto
When Navy Petty Officer Mike Evans, recently stationed at Pearl Harbor, bought a bag of Cheetos for his three-year-old son, he never expected it would make him a celebrity. Inside the bag was a four-inch, 6/10-ounce, bright orange, edible glob with a five-inch waistline. Evans declared it to be the World's Largest Cheeto! Since the Guinness Book of World Records had no such established category (yet), Evans could not be refuted. He put the super-sized snack up for sale on eBay, and the bids started rolling in. Algona disc jockey Bryce Wilson (KGLA-FM) gathered $180 from local boosters to purchase the oddity with the intention of making it a tourist attraction, but he was soon outbid. When the auction reached $1+ million, eBay suspended bidding — the joke had gotten out of hand.
A frustrated Evans decided to donate his delicious discovery to the Algona crowd, but asked them to give the $180 they'd raised to a local food bank. Frito-Lay, who'd heard about the auction, kicked in another $1,000 for the charity.
The World's Largest Cheeto has been left in its original, unnatural state, according to its caretaker and curator Tom Straub, who scrapped his earlier plans to shellac the megamorsel. Straub is the owner of Sister Sarah's bar and restaurant where the Cheeto rests today atop a purple velvet pillow on an orange blown-glass pedestal, protected by a Plexiglas shield, of course. You may stop by to admire it during regular business hours.
Sister Sarah's Bar, 1515 N. McCoy St., PO Box 684, Algona, IA 50511
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11 A.M.–Midnight
Cost: Meals $5–$15
Directions: On Rte. 18, a half-mile east of Rte. 169.
The Insect Zoo is not for the squeamish. Hundreds of creepy crawlies are housed in this Iowa State University facility, from grasshoppers and millipedes to hissing cockroaches and blister beetles. They've even got a nice sampling of mosquitoes, ticks, and lice. Best of all, your enthusiastic tour guide will gladly pull out the bugs so you can get a closer look.
If your flesh is crawling just thinking about the menagerie, perhaps a better way to view the collection is from a safe distance ... via the zoo's live webcam. You can control the camera's point of view and can zoom in and out on whatever you want, all from the safety of your own home.
The Insect Zoo is not open for folks to drop in unannounced. You must arrange a tour ahead of time. The one exception to the rule is in September when the Department of Entomology hosts the Insect Horror Film Festival. Students will screen a 1950s The-Cicada-That-Ate-Des-Moines-type of film with a science-based discussion before the show. They'll trot out the insects that inspired the flick and will assure you that they'd never, ever, let these critters near any toxic waste or radioactive material that might cause them to grow to enormous size.
Cross their bug-loving hearts....
Department of Entomology, Science II Building, Room 407, Ames, IA 50011
Hours: By appointment
Cost: Fees vary depending on type of visit
Directions: On campus on the south side of Pammel Dr., one block west of Stange Rd.
Insect Horror Film Festival
World's First Digital Electronic Computer
In the late 1930s John Vincent Atanasoff had an idea for an electronic computing device, and he needed some help to build it. He hired a graduate assistant named Clifford Berry, who turned out to be a brilliant mathematician in his own right. Between 1939 and 1942 the pair created what was later called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC, in the basement of Iowa State University's physics building. The machine could solve equations with 29 unknowns, with answers up to 15 significant figures. Not bad for a first try.
They didn't have time to celebrate, however: World War II broke out, both inventors enlisted in the service, and neither man nor ISU applied for a patent. Unfortunately, Atanasoff was too nice for his own good and had earlier invited a sneaky turd named John Mauchly to visit him in Ames while the ABC was being developed. The Ursinus College professor went back to Philadelphia and, with the help of the U.S. Army, came out with the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. He applied for, and received, a patent.
Mauchly was known as the Father of the Computer, at least until 1973. That year saw a decision on a seven-year legal battle between Honeywell and the Sperry Rand Corporation. The judge ruled that Mauchly had derived most of his ideas from Atanasoff and Berry, and invalidated his patent for the ENIAC.
A team of ISU professors have since rebuilt the ABC. They started by making a copy of the ABC's memory drum, the only surviving part of the original device, which they uncovered at the Smithsonian. The remaining parts were assembled with the help of manuscripts, interviews, and photographs. You can see it today in the Durham Center on campus.
Durham Center, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011
Hours: Monday–Friday 8 A.M.–9 P.M.
Directions: On campus, southwest of the Parks Library, southeast of Bissell Rd. and Osborn Dr.
Go ahead, take your Six Flags theme parks with high-concept rides and ticket prices to match. For my money, nothing beats a classic amusement park, and Arnolds Park is one of the best. Billed as the oldest park west of the Mississippi, Arnolds Park has retained much of its original character. The park opened in 1889 when W. B. Arnold built a Chute the Chute slide that jettisoned riders on toboggan boats out into West Lake Okoboji. Other rides were added over the years, including a Fun House, bumper cars, Tipsy House, Roof Garden ballroom, and, in 1927, the Legend roller coaster.
A 1968 tornado swept away some of the park, so it doesn't have all the rides it once did. But the roller coaster has been refurbished and a new Ferris wheel offers you a nice view of the lake. Better see the park while you still can.
Arnold's Park Amusement Park, Lake Park Dr., Arnolds Park, IA 51331
(800) 599-6995 or (712) 332-2183
Hours: Late May–Early September, hours vary; check Web site
Cost: Day Pass (over 48 inches) $16.95, Day Pass (36–48 inches) $12.75, Seniors (62+) $12.75, Day Pass (under 36 inches) Free
Directions: On the northwest side of Rte. 71, just south of the bridge over the waterway connecting East and West Lake Okoboji.
For those of you who have been coming to Arnolds Park for years, stop by the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum. They've got remnants of the dismantled rides, including a classic bumper car, curved mirrors, and the robotic, piano-playing clown that greeted Fun House visitors. They've also got a speedboat that sank in West Lake Okoboji, but was recently recovered from the murky depths.
Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, Okoboji Spirit Center, 243 W. Broadway Ave. Arnolds Park, IA 51331
(800) 270-2574 or (712) 332-2107
Hours: June–August, Monday–Saturday 9 A.M.–9 P.M.,Sunday 10 A.M.–6 P.M. September–May, Monday–Friday 9 A.M.–5 P.M.
Directions: Adjacent to the amusement park.
The Spirit Lake Massacre
Thirteen-year-old Abbie Gardner was certainly worth more than two horses, 12 blankets, 70 yards of cloth, two powder kegs, 20 pounds of tobacco, and some ribbons, but Dakota leader Inkpaduta took what he could get. Inkpaduta had captured Gardner and three other women three months earlier during the Spirit Lake Massacre, and knew the locals weren't in a bartering mood.
It all started in 1851 when the Dakota nation made a treaty with settlers entering the area. Inkpaduta saw them as invaders, one of whom had murdered his brother Sidominadota and displayed his severed head on a spike. Inkpaduta's frustration boiled over during the harsh winter of 1857. His breakaway tribe was starving, and he tried to barter for food with the settlers, who refused. On March 8 fighting started and, over the next six days, 33 settlers were killed, including Abbie Gardner's parents and brother Rowland. An unknown number of Dakota were also killed.
The female hostages were taken captive; two were later killed, but Gardner and hostage Mrs. Marble were eventually released in exchange for the goods listed above. Inkpaduta evaded capture, lived to see Custer ambushed at Little Big Horn in 1876, and fled to Canada, where he died in 1881.
After a failed marriage, Abbie Gardner returned to the scene of her family's murder in 1891 and, bless her soul, opened the cabin as a tourist attraction. Visitors paid to hear Gardner recount details of the massacre and her captivity. Gardner was well stocked with postcards and souvenir trinkets for anyone who wanted to bring a piece of the tragedy home. ... and you can still do so today! The restored cabin still stands beside a granite shaft over the Gardner family's graves. The adjoining mini-museum has two beautiful paintings of the massacre, including the Sad Fate of Mrs. Thatcher, who drowned in an icy stream. Some believe Gardner painted the scenes, but nobody knows for sure.
Abbie Gardner State Historic Site, Pillsbury Point, 34 Monument Dr., PO Box 74, Arnolds Park, IA 51331
(712) 332-7248 or (712) 352-2643
Hours: June–September, Monday–Friday Noon–4 P.M., Saturday–Sunday 9 A.M.–4 P.M.
Directions: At the intersection of Miriam Lane and Circle Dr., just west of the amusement park.
Albert, the World's Largest Bull
Travelers beware: you don't want to mess with Albert. No sirree, at 35 feet from hooves to horns, this bodacious bovine is not a critter you'd want on your bad side. Oh, he looks kindly enough, but behind those baby blue eyes is a heart of cold steel. And concrete. Forty-five tons of concrete, to be exact. You see, Albert is a statue. A very big statue.
Albert was the brainchild of the Audubon Jaycees. Local beef producers had been promoting their product every year since 1951 through an effort dubbed Operation T-Bone. The marketing campaign was running out of steam, and it needed a gimmick. So Albert, named after Albert Krause of the First State Bank (now the Audubon State Bank), was constructed in 1963–64 using metal from recycled windmills, lots of concrete, and 65 gallons of paint.
This huge Hereford is 100 percent bull, as is plainly obvious from his 5-foot-high testicles. They're worth mentioning because local sweethearts have developed an interesting way to declare their undying love: they scrawl their names on Albert's low-hanging scrotum. In the fall, it's also common for Audubon's football opponents to repaint Albert's danglers in the days leading up to a big game. Is nothing sacred??!?
Albert the Bull Park, E. Division and Stadium Dr., Audubon, IA 50025
Hours: Always visible
Directions: On the east side of Rte. 71 at the south end of town.
Battle Hill Museum of Natural History
Dennis Laughlin, founder and director of the Battle Hill Museum of Natural History, gets the same question posed to him all the time: "Where do you get all of these animals?" His Web site clears up any confusion: "Well, Mabel, they don't just walk in here and give themselves up, that's for sure. ... Not ONE animal in our collection was killed specifically for our displays! In fact, SEVERAL were!" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Oddball Iowa by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2005 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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