A Day Away: Gothic twist to Eldon, Iowa

ELDON — The 1880s farmhouse in America’s most famous painting lures 15,000 global visitors each

ELDON — The 1880s farmhouse in America’s most famous painting lures 15,000 global visitors each year to tiny Eldon, about 117 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids.

Pollinator gardens line the walkway leading from the Visitor Center to the American Gothic House in Eldon. The house is a favorite backdrop for duos to strike a photo pose reminiscent of the dour-face duo in Grant Wood’s most famous painting, “American Gothic.” (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

However, the 2007 Visitors Center next door is equally alluring.

That’s where you can immerse yourself in the life of Grant Wood, the history of Eldon, and the story behind the Catherine and Charles Dibble house immortalized in “American Gothic,” a painting known around the world. It’s known so far and wide that over the past 14 years, people from across the United States and 80 other countries have converged upon this pastoral setting six miles south of Highway 34, between Fairfield and Ottumwa.

Rose Trometer (left) and her cousin, Stephanie Wolski, both from Buffalo, N.Y., examine the exhibits inside the Visitor Center at the American Gothic House site July 3 in Eldon. Trometer is working at the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge near Wapello, about 90 minutes away, and her cousin came to Iowa for the weekend. “I knew the painting. I wanted to come here and check it out,” Wolski said. “I love little odd, little known places,” added Trometer, who looked online for such sites in Eastern Iowa, and said this one came up twice. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

Fewer guests came during the pandemic, but the foot traffic is picking up again. On July 3, people from California, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, Arizona, South Dakota, Nebraska and all across Iowa — including Iowa City, West Branch, North Liberty and West Liberty — were among those making their way to this Wapello County town.

Driving south from Highway 34, visitors will pass Cardinal schools, rolling hills and S-curves as they draw closer to the town lying along the Des Moines River.

Route 16 turns into the town’s main street, where colorful murals enliven building walls, and Gothic-style doors adorn McHaffey Opera House. Be sure to drive slowly, so you won’t miss the brown signs pointing toward the winding half-mile path to the American Gothic House and Center, 300 American Gothic St.

Eldon sites

What: American Gothic House & Center

Where: 300 American Gothic St., Eldon

Hours: Visitor Center: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday; house tours on hold in wake of the pandemic

Admission: Free; those who are not fully vaccinated are asked to wear a mask

Details: americangothichouse.org/

What: Rock Island Railroad Depot Museum

Where: 405 KD Ave., Eldon

Hours: 7 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday; 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 1 to Sept. 30; tours by appointment

Details: eldondepotmuseum.org/

Eldon information: cityofeldon.org/

A little history

At the end lies the small white farmhouse with the big Carpenter Gothic second-floor windows front and back that captured Wood’s fancy — and continues to fascinate visitors long after his 1930 oil painting won a $300 prize at an Art Institute of Chicago competition. “American Gothic” remains on view in Chicago, and is most worthy of another weekend getaway.

Just as this Carpenter Gothic-style window caught Grant Wood’s eye while visiting Eldon in 1930, it continues to fascinate visitors to the site, who often grab a pitchfork from the Visitor Center to pose for a photo in front of the house. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

In between Eldon and Chicago lies the Cedar Rapids Museum Art, which houses the world’s largest collection of Grant Wood creations. The artist, born near Anamosa on Feb. 13, 1891, moved to Cedar Rapids at age 10, and spent most of his life there. He was a student, teacher and artist until his death from liver cancer on Feb. 12, 1942, in Iowa City, his final teaching position being at the University of Iowa.

The Eldon house was lived in until 2014. According to the timeline in the Visitor Center, the Dibbles were the first recorded residents, dating back to 1887. E.P. Forest Howard purchased it 10 years later, and tried running a candy and novelty store in the front room, but that venture was unsuccessful.

Other owners and renters followed, with the final occupant being author and pie baker Beth Howard, who rented the house from 2011 to 2014.

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 1991, owner Carl E. Smith donated the house to the State Historical Society of Iowa, and in 2015, that organization opened the structure for tours and programs.

The site

Pre-pandemic, visitors could step inside the quaint structure during House Tours offered the second Saturday of the month, from April to October. Since the stairway to the upper level has no handrail, they could only explore the first floor.

Tours have been halted temporarily, but Kelsy Westman, the site’s administrator, said she’s hopeful they can begin again next spring.

Outside, visitors love recreating the painting’s famous duo, posing for photos in front of the house.

“That definitely is the most popular part of this place,” said Westman, 28, of Fairfield. “People want to get their picture in front of the house, which is really cool. It’s almost unique in that people kind of assume that (the couple in the painting) posed here, and that it was painted here — and that’s definitely not the case.”

Photos of people posing a la “American Gothic” style make up this collage inside the Visitor Center at the historic house site in Eldon. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

According to americangothichouse.org/house, Wood sketched the house in Eldon, while in town for an art exhibition by Edward Rowan, director of the Cedar Rapids Little Art Gallery. Wood then returned to Cedar Rapids and painted “American Gothic” in his studio and living quarters at 810 Second Ave. SE. That site, known as 5 Turner Alley, is open for free tours from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from April through December.

“And so people who are getting their picture (taken in front of the house), it’s almost more real than the actual painting itself, in a way,” Westman said.

Before COVID protocols were enacted, guests could borrow Gothic-style costumes and pitchforks from the Visitor Center to mimic the dour-face man and woman in Wood’s painting. The clothing remains under wraps for now, but visitors still can strike a pose with pitchforks of various heights, which are wiped down between uses.

Before the pandemic, visitors to the American Gothic House in Eldon could borrow a pitchfork stashed next to the porch replica inside the Visitor Center to take outside for a photo in front of the actual house. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

A “Gothic” duo statue provides inspiration and greets guests outside the Visitor Center door. Titled “Through the Eyes of Grant Wood,” Chris Abigt and Joshua Langgin painted the fiberglass couple for the 2016 Overalls All Over public art project that placed 24 life-size whimsically painted statues outdoors around Cedar Rapids, in honor of Wood’s 125th birthday.

This closeup shows the attention to detail on “Through the Eyes of Grant Wood,” a statue painted for the 2016 “Overalls All Over” public art project in Cedar Rapids. The fiberglass figures of the dour-face duo in Grant Wood’s famous painting welcome folks to the Visitor Center at the American Gothic House historic site in Eldon. The lenses depict two of Wood’s paintings: the 1930 “Stone City” and his 1933 work, “Near Sundown.” (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

For this particular statue, fragments from 20 other Wood artworks are hidden in plain sight on the couple’s clothing and accessories, including a painted lapel pin from “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” on the man’s jacket, and the lace from “Daughters of Revolution” on the woman’s collar. (Wood’s sister and dentist posed for the painting, but the artist kept mum as viewers tried to decide if the work depicted a farmer and daughter or farmer and wife.)

Inside, the south end of the Visitor Center is a treasure trove of timelines, memorabilia and information about Wood, his life, his artwork, the house, the town, and pop cultural references to the house and painting.

This exhibit signage inside the Visitor Center museum in Eldon says: “The American Gothic House through the years … has inspired other artists, has been discussed in the media, has been lived in by a variety of people, has spent some time vacant and abandoned, has brought people from the community together, and it will continue to do so in the years to come.” This display includes items for which Wood was known, including overalls and the tall sansevieria plant that figures prominently in his 1929 painting, “Woman with Plants.” (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

At the other end lies a gift shop chock full of everything from T-shirts and postcards to books for kids and adults, mugs, prints and other tourist souvenirs.

Outdoors, serenity surrounds the structures, with bees and butterflies darting through a pollinator garden lining the sidewalk that leads to a circular setting with signage about the artist and his impact; benches for resting and reflecting; and a couple of picnic tables tucked discreetly near a tree. A sign near the entrance to the site even points to a nearby disc golf course.

Other attractions

Back in town, the shops along the main street are an easy stroll. The internet pointed me toward Chommy’s Bar & Grill, with a mouthwatering array of appetizers and sandwiches. While the website said it was open July 3, the sign on the door said it was closed July 3 and 4. My brother and I could have purchased lunch items at Casey’s on the edge of town, but opted to drive into Ottumwa, instead.

Next door to Chommy’s lies another intriguing attraction: the Rock Island Train Depot at 405 KD Ave., open Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It’s also open for coffee weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m.

Visitors to Eldon also can tour the Rock Island Depot Museum, just off the town’s main street. It hearkens to Eldon’s railroad heydays, and is open for coffee on weekday mornings, and for touring Saturday and Sunday afternoons from May through September. A locomotive and caboose are stationed nearby to give a glimpse into the past, and kids also can climb around miniature wooden transportation replicas in an adjacent park-like setting. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

Museum visitors can see memorabilia from railroading history inside the depot, and explore a locomotive and caboose outdoors. Kids can climb around several pint-size wooden train structures.

A paved path beside the depot leads to a scenic overlook at the river’s edge, and a veterans’ memorial is stationed majestically at the park across the street from the depot.

The Wapello County Fairgrounds also are nearby, where the fair was held in June, but the Eldon Raceway keeps running on the track into early October.

The town’s annual Gothic Days celebration also was held in June, featuring food, a parade, cardboard boat races and kids games at the fairgrounds.

Looking ahead, Westman has heard that a coffee shop is coming to town.

“There’s a lot of booster spirit right now, where people are trying to get more restaurants in, more dining options, more things to do. And they’re working on it,” she said. “It’s a rural Iowa problem. We’re all dealing with … revitalizing the local economy.”

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