Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Des Moines, IA to Amana Colonies, IA

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Date: Sat, 16 Sep 95 15:47:00 UTC

Copyright (c) 1995 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Note: In newsletter 3 I commented that Sitting Bull was killed at Ft. Robinson. I've been corrected. It actually was Crazy Horse. I'm working from memory a lot of times, so if anyone finds errors in my history, feel freel to email corrections.

Chapter 5 - Sept 9 to Sept 15 Des Moines, IA to Amana Colonies, IA - 1437 miles cumulative

Des Moines is not a particularly easy city to get around by bike, at least not from the direction we were coming. We stayed at the Walnut Woods State Park which is on the south ide of the Raccoon River, the city is on the north. The only way to cross the river within a reasonable distance from the camp was either on the interstate (illegal in Iowa) or on 63 rd St. which was all torn up with construction. Great choice, break the law or come within a hair's breath of getting killed. We did both.

In the city itself there were limited shoulders and the drivers seemed to not be overly excited about our presence. So we tried to stick to sidewalks whenever possible. But Des Moines is starting to put in some really nice bike paths, the city is relatively small (at least compared to San Diego) and the folks we talked to were exceptionally friendly. So all in all we actually did like Des Moines as far as medium sized cities go.

We spent one entire afternoon in what's called The Living History Farm. This is a 600 acre area just to the northwest of the city that is dedicated to showing the changes in argiculture over the past 300 years. It was absolutely fascinating and we learned so much. One half of the park has small examples of three farms from the 1700s to 1900s. The 1700s farm was an Ioway indian village complete with bark covered dome shaped huts and beans, corn, and squash growing in the field.

The next farm was from the 1870's. It included a log home and barn, wheat and corn in the field, and a large "kitchen garden, with tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, spices, etc. We learned that a typical farm of that time would have had a 1 acre "Kitchen" garden and about 16 to 20 acres for the corn and wheat. The labor required to grow the wheat and corn was about 32 hours per acre. Add to that caring for the animals, barn, house, fences, and other stuff you can see that the pioneer farmer was busy indeed.

The final farm was from 1900. Now we were finally up to the era of white wood sided farm houses and red barns. Although the house was still rather primitive in it's fixtures. The kitchen had a hand pump for water, but you pumped into metal bowls, no sink. All cooking and heating was done with a Franklin stove. One real interesting "appliance" was a large wooden box having two cylindrical shaped tubs inserted in the top. Evidentally the box was filled with sand. There were two round soap stones that you'd heat on your stove. You put food in the metal cylinders, heated soap stones on top, and tighten down the lid. In the evening dinner was done. This was the early version of today's electric crock pot.

The other half of the park was an 1870's village. Several buildings were either moved from various Iowa sites or reconstructed based on available plans and pictures and then set up to look like 1870 vintage. There was a furniture maker/undertaker, potterer, brick mansion, school house, blacksmith, general store, doctor's office, miliner, church, newspaper, law office, druggist, to name a few. Most buildings were staffed by docents who had a wealth of information when asked.

We learned, for instance, that rock salt was used for pottery glaze. They'd simply throw the rock salt in the kiln and the vapors would deposit an uneven, orange peel texured finish. In the mansion we learned that the wealthy would have these long, drawn-out, multi course meals whenever they were having guests. Yet during the meal they weren't supposed to discuss religion, politics, business, or gossip about the neighbors. So my question to the docent was, just what did they talk about. She didn't have an answer. Also, it was quite the fashion for women to have waists that were 15 to 25 inches in circumference. So girls started wearing corsettes at about age 12 which actually reshaped their lower ribs. Women were considered so fragile and tended to faint a lot simply because their respiration was severly limited.

In the doctor's and lawyer's offices we learned that both of these trades, like all other professions of the time, were generlly learned by doing an apprenticeship. Lawyers would read lots of books and then study what an experienced lawyer did. After "reading law" with her husband, Anabell Mansfield of Iowa became the first woman in America to gain admittance to the bar. Doctors, or rather surgeons, would be absoutely frightening today. Generally a surgeon was not the book learned doctor. He'd be an assistant, dentist, butcher, or basically someone good with a knife. Since they didn't know much about controlling infection, most surgeries were just amputations. Remove the injured part and, viola, no infection and the patient lives. Also since they didn't have or really know how to use anesthetic, the best surgeons were the ones who could do it the fastest. Who cares if he graduated from Johns Hopkins, can he cut off a leg in less than 10 minutes.

In the miliner store we saw some of the costumes used by the more well off women when they were in mourning for a loved one. In the usual unfair practices of the time, women were supposed to mourn for 2 1/2 years while for men it was just 6 months. During mourning the woman dressed in black and was generally an outcast of society. Her costume came in four phases. Phase 1, 1 year and a day, she wore dull black everything and a black hat with a heavy black veil, much like a nun's habit. For those of you who saw "Gone with the Wind" this was the outfit Scarlet wore when she shocked everyone by dancing with Rhett, a real taboo.

For the next 9 months she could wear some decoration in the form of black braided trim. Everything was still dull but at least the veil was gone. The next 6 months she could start using a more shiny black material and even some other colors, like dark green. Perhaps even a black feather and some white beads for ornament. For the final 3 months she still wore black but could incorporate more festive colors, like purple.

Now just imagine being a woman in a large family. It's possible you could be in various stages of mourning most of your adult life, death of parents, children, spouse(s), etc. Blech. It's so nice we've gotten away from that tradition.

Finally in the general store we met a delightful older man, originally from Kansas, who tried diligently to sell us everything from a moustach cup, a bloomer dress, cowboy hat, and penny whistle. He told us that there is actually a book available for sale that gives the history of each and every Iowa town and county name. Most towns were named after railroad big wigs in an attempt to get the train to come to town. Sometimes it worked other times it didn't. He also told us of how the town of Centerville wanted to name themselves after a local citizen with the last name Senter. The post office assumed that these folks didn't know how to spell and changed it to Centerville, which it remains today.

After 5 hours we were finally booted out due to closing time. But we could have easily spent another couple hours gleaning more information. The Living History Farm is well worth the price of admission.

We left Des Moines very early on Sunday morning by first heading right through downtown. One thing we learned through many years of riding around San Diego, the best time to ride through the downtown of any city is very early on Sunday morning. There's no one in the offices or shops at that time leaving the streets nice and quiet for riding.

On the recommendation of the manager of a bike department of a large sporting goods store, we headed southeast on Rt 5. This proved to be one of the worst route mistakes we've ever made. Rt 5 is a small 2 lane road with intermittant gravel shoulders. Traffic was quite heavy and the road traverssed a lot of hills. Between the hills, traffic, and the continual slight headwind, the ride was absolutely one of the worst we'd had up until we were able to turn off at Pleasantville. By the time we arrived at our destination just outside Pella we were beat. We gasped and coughed as our lungs tried to expell the fumes from the cars. In the future we'll probably be more skeptical of a person's route recommendation unless he/she has ridden that road personally.

Pella is a small dutch community of about 10,000 people. Founded in 1847 by the Reverend Scholte when he lead about 800 Dutch emigrants from Holland to resettle in the new world. They were looking for a place where they could freely practice their own variation of the Dutch state religion. The biggest event in the city is the annual Tulip Time festival held in late April or early May. The three day festival includes the naming of a festival queen, a parade, various entertainment, booths with all kinds of stuff for sale, and of course food. Unfortunately being September we only got to read about the festival rather than experience it. Oh and the main industry in Pella is, you guessed it, Pella windows and doors. This is their headqaurters.

The reason we had come to Pella was to visit a museum that was listed as a starred, must see attraction in our AAA book. Up to this point these "starred" attractions have been the best, but this was an exception. We had the impression this museum would be similar to the Living History Farm with lots of different buildings showing the various crafts of Pella. There were actually only about 6 in total. The primary focus of the musuem seemed to be on the founders of Pella and on the house that Wyatt Earp lived in as a boy. You were given a tape recorder to listen to, but the information on the tape seemed to be rather lacking. It would say something like "note the fine silver pieces in this room or the handmade Delft pottery in that display case." OK, what about it? Why am I noting it? No answer. Even the signs in the rooms simply repeated what the tape was saying. Oh, and get more than one tape recorder going in the same room and it was thoroughly confusing.

All in all I'd say that the museum was a very well done community project and probably worth seeing if you are in Pella. But it's not worth going way out of your way as we had done. Also, the welcome we received at Pella seemed far less open than some of the other towns we've been through. We were trying to locate a modular phone we could use to plug in the computer. We went to the Visitor's Center, Chamber of commerce, a computer shop, public library, and even the one bike shop in town. In all cases they said, well you might try here or here. Compare this response to The response we got in Plainview, NE where the folks at the Visitor's Center immediately got someone on the phone to help us out rather than leave the searching up to us. We finally were successful when we contacted the computer department at the small Central College in town. The folks there seemed quite happy to help out. In fact, Scott, the computer guru of the school, even stayed an hour late to help. If ever word gets back to the school we want to heartly thank them.

Our third morning at Pella we had planned to start heading up to the Amana Colonies, but we awoke to the sound of steady drumming rain on the rainfly. We were faced with such a tough decision, stay in the nice cozy, dry, warm tent and do some reading or head out in the rain, slogging along the miles eventuallu ending up totally soaked but a few more miles toward our destination...... The next day the sun shown with not a clowd in the sky. The winds were out of the west and blowing strong. We headed north and made the pivotal decision to push ourselves to complete a 90 mile day.

How does it feel to ride a 112 lb mountain bike up and down little hills for a full 89.9 miles. Not bad for about the first 50. My legs just turn the crank almost automatically, slowly cranking out mile after mile. I still have sufficient energy to admire the changing terrain, the small towns, the green landscape. On this particular day I was surprised to realise that the fields were starting to show the colors of fall. Rather than fields of gently swaying green corn, the fields were now turning shades of brown, yellow, and gold. The grasses along the road were turning russett and brown. Fall is coming soon.

Soon after the 50th mile my energy begins to ebb. Each mile becomes more and more of an effort to complete, each hill seems so much longer and steeper than the last. Towards the end of the day I just try to picture each and every strand of muscle fiber in my legs trying to force them to contract, release, contract, and release with each cycle of the pedals. It gets to be quite a grind after the 70th mile. As we pull into the much anticipated campsite, I slide off the bike to find my leg muscles quivering and my knees shaking. I can hardly walk much less push the bike to the picnic table. The legs, back, arms, hands, and rear all ache from exertion and sitting in one position for so long. We're hoping this will be the last long distance day we need to do for a long, long time. Otherwise too many like this could easily sap our determination.

We got a good night sleep and rode the last 11 miles into the town of Amana where we planned to spend several days exploring. The Amana colonies are actually 7 separate small towns located just west of Iowa City: East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, Amana, and Homestead???. Back in 1715 a group of about 800 Germans moved to Ebanezer, N.Y. just outside of Buffalo to escape religious persecution. When pressures of population became too large they purchased 26,000 acres of land in Iowa and moved their entire settlement to the 7 Amana towns. The towns operated as a commune in the early years. In fact the first houses did not include kitchens since everyone ate in common dining halls. They created several shops to service 7 towns; furniture, meat, cheese, woolen mills, etc. In 1932, however, the community underwent what they call "The Great Change". They gave up their communal pratices and established a corporation called the Amana Society. We were told that the change happened overnight on June 1st. One day everyone worked for their food, clothing, and shelter. The next they worked for 10 cents an hour. Quite a change.

At that time they consolidated all of the furniture, cabinet, and othr wood working crafts into a single furniture shop. Originally the furniture shop building was a calico cloth factory untill loss of their only dye source in WWI forced closure. Evidentally the dye came from Germany. At one point a German sub managed to evade the allied blockade and almost made it to the U.S. before being captured. Among its its cargo, was the blue dye for the Amana calico fabric shop.

After consolidating all wood working to Amana, the old woodshop in Middle Amana then became the Amana Electric Co. which lead to the Amana Refrigerator Co. we know today. Even in the downtown Amana amongst the quaint gift shops and 1800s style buildings they sell these ultra modern Amana appliances. Just for a little bragging, my mom was one of first Amana Radarange demonstrators in the country back in the early 1970s.

Our first stop was in the woolen mill where the docent, Nadine, gave us an explanation of how the two different weaving machines work. Their older machine uses the old Shuttle system and could weave 120 rows per minute. The newer, 1981, Sulzer machines uses a small metal "shuttle" that is pulled along a conveyor belt rather than thrown from side to side as the older system. This allows for over 300 rows per minute to be woven. She also told us that back in 1985 some folks from a cotton mill came in to run the woolen mills. They made a bid to the government to make about 380,000 blankets. Well, they way underbid the project and the company lost a ton of money. As a result they had to significantly downsize and all that remains today is a one room mill that makes only enough goods to supply their own mill store. Chalk up another disaster to business types not knowing what their doing.

We then rode the bikes around to all of the Amana villages looking at the shops, trying various cheeses, meats, and wines. They make some of the strangest wines; blackberry, elderberry, blueberry, apricot, red clover, rubarb, and dandilion to name a few. We also looked at a furniture workshop, broom and basket workshop, the old communal kitchen of the colony, the meat smoke house, and many other craft and gift shops. Amana is clearly a craft shop lover's heaven on earth. Personnaly, I love to look at all the fun Christmas crafts and decorations even though Xmas is still months away.

We also met some wonderful folks in the Amana RV park. First there was Andy from Millwakee. Andy probably is the one person in my life who most closely reflects the nerdy scientist type of appearance and personality. He was tall and rather lanky in stature, quite skinny, dirty blond hair that appeared as though it would always look sort of greesy no matter how often he washed, a rather large nose accentuated by large black rimmed glasses, and he tended to squint quite a bit. Put him in a white lab coat with a plethora of pens and pencils hanging out of his pocket and you have a lovable absent minded professor. Yet he seemed to find delight in everything around him making even the most mundane things come alive with freshness. He reveled in anything scientific and was addicted to the game Yatzee. We thoroughly enjoyed his company and a few real good games.

Then there were Ray and Donna, a sort of retired couple from from Janesville, Wisc. What an incredible couple. Ray, a stockey man in his 60s with a good sized beer belly, a great laugh, and a favorite expression of "no kidding". Donna, a petite woman (shorter than me) with short curly brown hair and an incredible ability to find four leaf clovers. They pulled in with just a truck and a pop-up trailer having no more than a center table and some electric lights. None of those fancy schmancy humongous RVs for them. Yet they were just as happy as could be. They said they had a camper with the full kitchen for about 12 years and found they used the stove only a few times. So why have it. Wonderful generous people with stories to tell and excited to hear about our journey as well.

By semi retired, I mean that they both still work part time. Evidentally they just can't quite afford, or don't want to take, full retirement just yet. Their careers were blue collar jobs all the way through, Ray having been a trucker and Donna working in a packaging plant. They managed to raise six kids. Donna says, "From day one we took those kids camping. Yet now none of em will camp anymore." We had a great evening with them, sitting around the campfire, toasting marshmallow, talking about everything from raising kids, to the attractions of Amana, and (heaven forbid) even politics. They left us the nexy day with corn, tomatoes, a four leaf clover for luck on the road, and fond memories. The people you meet in campgrounds can truly be amazing.

Appendix A - Route
 Rt 5, G40, 14, G28 to Pella
 T14, F62, 225, 146, F57 to Montezuma
 85, F52, 149, F52, W38 to Oxford.
 Rt 6 to Amana
Appendix B - Camp sites
 Budget Hotel in Des Moines ($), North Overlook Campground at Red Rock Lake
outside Pella 3 nights ($),  Sleepy Hollow RV park ($), Amana RV Park 2
nights ($)

($) indicates fee camping


Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.



We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.


Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site,

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