Big Night in the Amana Colonies
The 16th night of our road trip landed us in The Amana Colonies of Iowa. It was October 5, which happened to be Don's 60th birthday. This is not the place most wish for, when dreaming up big landmark birthday celebrations.
But Don was busy trying to ignore his birthday, so we didn't really need a lavish hotel with ballrooms and champagne. Besides, who says you can't celebrate in the Amana Colonies? We aren't talking Amish... although many confuse them.
Our hotel was built in 1862, when the 4-block town of Homestead needed accommodations for travelers arriving at the nearby stagecoach stop and train depot.
At 20 years old, Homestead was then, the youngest of the 7 villages that made up The Amana's.
In 1862 the hotel opened with 15 guest rooms and one bathroom, all upstairs. The kitchen, dining room and private residence were downstairs. The hotel was probably pretty skilled at serving large groups of guests since at one time the Amana's had over 50 communal kitchens.
The German immigrants, who made up the Amana Colonies lived a communal life, sharing everything from labor to food. There were no pay checks, children went to school 6 days a week and worship services were attended 11 times a week. Sounds like a fun place for a birthday celebration to me!
The Amana's set aside communal living in 1932 and today you can find lots of beer in the German villages!
But the best part is how amazingly peaceful it still is, despite some weekend tourists. This was the view right outside the door.
We arrived at 6 on Sunday evening and headed into the little welcome area. Owners, Bonnie and Brian greeted us from behind the desk.
Brian wore overalls and sighed like he'd just come in from a hard day's work on the farm. Bonnie laughed that it had indeed been quite a day. But they weren't exhausted by farm work. The Amana's had been celebrating Octoberfest all weekend. They were happily exhausted from all the tourism.
Bonnie and Bill are not the Zubers. The hotel is named for Bill Zuber who grew up in The Amana's and had a 19-year career in pro baseball.
He and his wife bought the hotel in 1949 and operated as a restaurant until 2006. His old uniforms were on display behind glass and a tile floor near the kitchen showed an image of Zuber pitching.
Wagon Wheel Room
This room was added by the Zubers in 1961. It reminded me of my own family room in Grinnell, Iowa back in the '60's.
Something about the paneling and lots of Americana... and games and TV! It was pretty cozy and welcoming, especially since brownie treats and coffee were up for grabs.
The whole interior felt more 1962 than 1862. There have been other more recent updates, but I kind of liked the odd '60's feel.
It was easier to picture Dick, Jane and Sally roaming these halls than a little German girl with long braids and an apron.
Our corner room was on the second floor. It had a train theme going on, that would have thrilled the Birthday Boy about 50+ years ago. (I should have gotten him some railroad pjs for his birthday!)
But l love trains and I love a theme, so I took it all in, from train books, to a framed map of rail lines, to lanterns, to a beautiful model train crafted by a local.
Trains at Night
It was very quiet after we got back from a German feast at Ronnenburg's that night.
I think the hotel was actually full, but there seemed to be quite a few old-timers staying over, who turned in early. No TV noise or traffic sounds to keep us awake. Just a few soothing train whistles that fit the theme!
A breakfast buffet was served in the Wagon Wheel Room. Unlike this photo (taken the evening before) almost every table was taken. The old timers who went to bed early were up early, too. In fact I looked around and wondered where these folks came from.
In the past, Don and I have met incredibly interesting and incredibly dull people at B&Bs. This was one of those times I was sort of relieved not to be sharing a big table with fellow guests, all talking about what fall crafts were purchased at the Octoberfest.
Don is talking to the Diane, who cooked the wonderful buffet. Diane was more delightful than dull and her food was excellent!
She's looking a little serious here, because we just handed her our Ford Motor Cookbook from 1952. It had an illustration of "Bill Zuber's Restaurant" and a recipe for Obst Kuchen.
Breakfast and the Book
This dull photo does not reveal the delicious flavors of my breakfast! Egg casserole with tomato and corn, poppyseed coffee cake, orange French toast...! It was a nice change having a B&B buffet and getting to choose!
I was glad I kept the cookbook handy since Bonnie and Brian stopped in to greet folks. They were both pretty thrilled to see this retro book and asked to make photo copies. Who knows, they may be serving up that odd, rhubarb filled fruit cake before long!
We stayed in a hotel, built in a communal village. That's what I'll remember. It had a completely different feel than other historic hotels or Victorian Bed & Breakfasts. It wasn't a ranch and it wasn't a lodge and it certainly wasn't a motel or motor court.
Mostly it was just plain comfortable. Bonnie, Brian and Diane all welcomed us as if we were neighbors that they cared about but weren't trying to impress. Maybe that doesn't sound like a compliment, but to me that was just what was needed on the 16th night of our trip.
As for the Colonies? I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea of our hotel being part of a German speaking community, 152 years ago. I'm already itching to go back and absorb all the history we didn't have time for!
On the 15th day of our road trip, Don and I made it to my old hometown!
Where to Stay?
Weeks earlier, I searched online for a place to stay. I hadn't been back to Iowa since I was 12, in 1969. so I had no idea about options.
My memories of Grinnell had always been ridiculously Norman Rockwell-ish, so I wanted a special place. When I saw the photo of this lovely Victorian B&B, I grew eager. The Marsh House might be as close as I could get, to staying in my old (not exactly grand) house.
Weather had turned cold and blustery by the time we arrived. We spent a few dizzy hours searching for places I remembered.
My old yellow house had turned blue, Cooper School was now a parking lot, my favorite candy store was boarded up... But, I found my old church and favorite park and the old downtown still looked pretty sweet.
Memories of Fall
So many memories came back as I spotted old sidewalks and changing leaves. But I was suddenly eager to get to the Marsh House and be cozy and warm and sulk a little about the fact I no longer knew anyone in Grinnell.
Even the locals I'd spoken with, had been too young or too new, to remember the things I asked about. Everything appeared warped. Not quite how I remembered.
We found our B&B in a quiet neighborhood. As we approached the shady porch, I allowed myself to fret for a moment that we hadn't called ahead to make sure our reservations were in place.
We rang the bell and waited a while. I could see a woman peer out, before unlocking the door. Her expression looked as if she thought we might be selling something. But our quiet host Linda, had been expecting us. She showed us around the beautiful Victorian home, built in 1892. She gave us a key and welcomed us to park in back.
The Back Door
I kind of liked having a key to the backdoor. I felt like a college kid, coming home for the holiday.
The kitchen was warm and quiet, when we entered. Linda had gone downstairs to finish some ironing, but had already invited us to help ourselves to coffee or drinks in the fridge.
Through the House
We carried our bags to the entryway and I peeked through the pocket doors to the parlor, where an antique pump organ reminded me of my old Grinnell home.
My sibs and I used to have a a good old time filling the house with haunted music on our wood organ. One would frantically work up a sweat, pumping the pedals, while another pressed the keys creating clashing chords. I didn't dare touch the Marsh House organ.
We walked by the elegant fireplace and headed up the stairs.
I paused to admire a colorful stained glass window, that refused to let in the gloomy day!
I made use of the beautifully carved banister as I dragged my weary self upward. (After 15 days of 1-night stays, I was beginning to feel my age)
The sight of our door with warm, dark wood and rounded frame was inviting.
Quite the Hall
Our door and about 4 others, opened to an airy hall, with yet another fireplace and more antiques.
Linda told us she would be heading home soon, but another couple would be staying the night. Later, when I heard the floors creak under foot, I wished we'd had the place to ourselves. I wasn't in the mood for whispering and tiptoeing or even chatting with strangers. I was feeling sorry for myself. I was frustrated that there was no one in the entire town who wanted to share Grinnell memories with me. Even our hosts were originally from another state.
Our Sweet Room
We didn't have the turret room, but we did have a cozy, corner room with an antique bed. Surprisingly, it was as comfortable as it was beautiful.
But I was a bit distracted by my homecoming melancholy. I wasn't absorbing all the incredible details. I had to remind myself to stop moping and start noticing.
There was nothing hidden about the gold painted radiator! I love the look of an old radiator and the gold sort of made me grin.
Then, there was a hefty, antique wardrobe, that was hiding a Murphy bed! And there was a TV hidden in the closet. Don and I chuckled over Linda's offer to pull it out and set it up. TV was the last thing we were interested in, but it was nice that she asked.
Room With a View
I wish it had been warm enough to open the corner windows for a breeze. But at least I got to peek through the lace curtains, which offered a nice neighborhood view... along with some curious activity!
Two police cars had stopped to question a woman. That was an entertaining distraction. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, waiting for the story to unfold.
I adored the pink chaise lounge chair and the Victorian lamp, that had to be turned off for this photo... because the "beaded light" made me look like I had chicken pox.
The bathroom was attached, which was a treat. You have to love a marble sink and wooden toilet with a funny push button flusher!
Morning at Marsh House
Don and I slept well despite a few train whistles. The sound was a little more nostalgia for me! I remember putting pennies on the Grinnell railroad tracks. I also remember lying in bed as a child at night, listening to the trains.
We rose early and tiptoed over the creaky floors past the Murphy bed, trying not to wake our neighbors on our way down to breakfast.
Linda and her husband Jim were busy in the kitchen. We greeted and headed to the formal dining room.
I generally don't stay moody this long, but the gray morning didn't help. After 45 years away, I'm not sure what would have made this return more positive. I promised Don I'd enjoy breakfast and cheer up.
Easing into the Morning
We started with coffee, then Linda brought out our "fruit soup" and raspberry waffles.
We had planned on a quick eat and run, but Jim ended up sitting down to join us. Suddenly we found out we had lots in common with this quiet couple. We shared some Ann Arbor and University of Michigan memories!
Guillermo and Carol
We expected to be gone by 9, but by the time our fellow guests came to the table, I was no longer in a rush. At last I found my connection! Guillermo and his wife had flown in from California, to attend his 50th Grinnell High School Reunion!
For the next hour, we eagerly swapped stories of Cooper School and its eerie basement and curious playground equipment. Both our fathers and been teachers at Grinnell College and we had ridden our bikes on the same quiet streets and had root beer in heavy mugs at the same A&W. It turns out Jim and Linda had lived in Grinnell long enough that they were actually able to chime in and add to the fun. I ended up with my computer at the table, sharing old scanned photos from my Grinnell Days, in the '60's.
Time to Go
Before we headed off, Carol offered to take our photo, standing on those great striped floors. My grumpy mood had been completely lifted by this quirky breakfast gathering and I regretted that we couldn't linger longer. If we had dashed earlier without eating, I would have had a totally different memory of our stay at Marsh House. The breakfast interaction ended up being the medicine I needed!
Even though Don had offered up as much support and enthusiasm as a non-Grinnellian could, I had needed just 1 connection to the Old Grinnell. And I found it just before we left!
I will obviously remember the friendly breakfast encounter, that made my stay. But aside from that, I'll always appreciate how beautifully this Victorian home was preserved and renovated.
I'm so glad the TV was hidden and the antiques were authentic. It was a treat to see portraits and art, that fit the age of the house. I totally loved the absence of unnecessary knickknacks! What a wonderful stay, after all!
An Old Flour Mill in Iowa
When we were planning our 3-week road trip, I found this mill on the internet.
A Lucky Find
I was actually looking up info on northeast Iowa, when I learned about the old mill in Bellevue. The mill was built in 1843, and was powered by a giant waterwheel.
For many years the mil produced flour and eventually closed in 1969. When I learned about the mill, it was getting ready to open as a bed & breakfast and restaurant. I was able to reserve a room before they even opened.
A Cold October Day
We arrived on Friday afternoon. The cold winds blew us right from the car to the Potter's Mill sign, swinging on an old piece of machinary. At a glance, the red and white wooden structure looked like a large house.
If it hadn't been so dang freezing out, I would have stood there and studied the odd doors and windows. This was clearly no house. There were doors where houses have no doors.
We walked through a hefty door, that you would never see on a house. We found no lobby inside. It's a mill, after all.
The lower floor of the mill had been turned into the "Flatted Fifth Blues & BBQ Restaurant". It smelled good.
There was a lot of "mill stuff" decorating the limestone walls of the restaurant. There were sheets and chains and grinding things. The only thing I recognized were some bags of flour.
I should actually know a lot more about mills, because my Dad's family owned the Meyer Milling Company in Missouri, years ago. But that was long before I was born.
The Inn Area
We took a few minutes exploring, until our host Mark arrived.
Mark took us up in the elevator, which was a surprising luxury. The doors opened on the third floor to a cozy common area, with a couch, rockers, table with checkers and more curious mill equipment.
The Mill Suite
There were only 4 guest rooms, so it wasn't difficult to find our room which was named, "The Mill Suite". Ours seemed to be the only room that had a deer head there to greet us!
I loved the old floors!
Something about the wind whistling outside made the smooth, dark, 171-year old floors seem extra cozy!
The first thing I saw when we entered, was this funny thing handing down from the ceiling.
It looked like some giant mousetrap, getting ready to catch me! And I loved it. This is what we were paying for. The experience of sleeping in Iowas' older mill! I'm so glad they kept this stuff.
Mark almost seemed sheepish, as we entered the room. "We don't do lace." he reminded with a laugh. Di we look like people who expected room service?
The curtains were about as sheer as lace, though. The north window was in view of the parking area, so we had to think twice before parading around nude.
Coffee and Chairs
There was heat in the room, but the very sound of the wind made us excited about making a little coffee with the Kuerig.
We settled with our mugs into the blue chairs, to relax for a while. I had to chuckle as I took in some of the odd decorating details. I pretty much loved the lamp/table between the two cozy seats!
Not only was there a mill picture on the lampshade, but there was a hinged lid, that lifted to expose a little barrel shaped container of games. Tiddly Winks! Haven't seen that game in a while!
A Curious Bathroom
We had a rod and curtains, in place of a door to the bathroom. Once again, we were chuckling at yet another hotel bathroom with privacy issues. We've had our share.
We did have a mighty nice tub, but no shower. And there was a step up into the bathroom, so we had to be cautious about that!
I love a view and we had a great one, looking down on Potter's Mill Creek. It faced the east, which might have offered a good sunrise, except the bluffs across the creek were pretty high and close. No sun in the morning, anyway.
Our north window had a view of the railroad bridge. We enjoyed the rumbling trains (with no whistle) at night.
It was the perfect evening to stay in. We followed the smell of BBQ to the first floor. We chose to eat and drink at the bar instead of the tables, since everyone seemed chatty and welcoming.
Our room stay came with a complimentary appetizer and we picked the fried green tomatoes with crabmeat. Dessert-like delicious! We also shared some shredded pork served on fries. Both perfect for a cold night!
The best part of the evening, was visiting around at the bar. We spoke with a local mom, who had been at the homecoming game and raced over to Potter's Mill for warmth.
We spoke with Ron and Linda (pictured) and a couple others who gave us great tips for places to see in the next few days. And we chatted with Inn owners, Mark and Rachel who shared about their adventures of opening this place a month earlier.
We rose early and tiptoed out to the common area to grab some breakfast nibbles. No other room guests came out to join us. Mark said he and Rachel don't like to push the let's all gather around for breakfast thing.
I'm actually fine with that. Mostly I was glad we weren't being served a big sit-down breakfast. My clothes were beginning to get tight from eating on the road.
We did manage to take in a few sights near PM Inn, before leaving town. It was well worth a stop at Bellevue State Park, just across the creek from The Inn. We found a great view of the town and the Mississippi, but a rather disturbing view of a few boys. I cringed as I watched them racing to get off the railroad bridge as a train approached, blasting its horn!
They managed to scramble off just before the train crossed. Then they were back on, as if they do this daily. So in other words, there is excitement in Bellevue and the Mill area.
We stayed in a mill! And we got to support the preservation of a piece of history... and support a new business!
But in truth I may remember our cozy gathering at the bar as much as anything. We always learn from the people we meet, as we travel. We gained more info in that 2 hours, than any other stop on our trip. We took notes from our new friends and followed through with suggestions.
Good people encounters can be a real bonus!
My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!