Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Pumpkin patches: A fall tradition

When Linus went in search of a sincere pumpkin patch in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” he probably didn’t count on the (literal) dog and pony show that goes along with the commercial pumpkin patches in Iowa.

These pumpkin patches offer lots of activities for the kids (petting zoos, pony rides, slides, hay rack rides), stuff for the grown-ups (shopping), and something for just about everyone (pumpkins! Corn mazes!)

Going to a pumpkin patch to pick out pumpkins, buy apples, eat cider donuts, and ride in a hay wagon is my idea of a fun thing to do on a fall weekend. When our kids were little, we made a big deal out of choosing pumpkins with them. After they got older, we just started buying pumpkins and gourds at the farmers’ market.

Last year, on a whim, my daughter Katie and I went to the Center Grove Pumpkin Patch near Cambridge and had such a great time we wondered why we ever stopped this fun family tradition. There are LOTS of pumpkin patches in Iowa, so we decided to try a different one this year.

Howell’s Pumpkin Patch is near Cumming, Iowa – not too far south of Des Moines. Both of the girls went with me this time. Katie was crazy for the goats and ponies; Lauren liked looking at the different kinds of pumpkins. If they had been a bit younger, I would have had to buy them a pony ride and probably a trip to the corn maze, but as we are all more or less adults now, we just walked around and enjoyed the produce and critters. You’re never too old to feed the goats – at least not in my family.

There’s a website that lists all the pumpkin patches in Iowa. It’s not a great-looking site, but the links seem to work, and you can choose which area of Iowa to visit (the list is by county). I do recommend Center Grove for its cider donuts, caramel apples, apple butter, and hay rack ride. Howell has a lot of mums, dried flowers, holiday-themed gift shop, and the aforementioned goats.


Market Day

Market Day is a monthly gathering of artists, antiques dealers, and craftspersons held in an old warehouse on SW 5th Street in Downtown Des Moines.

It’s a funky place, for sure.

This is the third time I’ve been. The first time was a special Black Friday Market Day – a nice alternative to big box stores and malls on the day after Thanksgiving. That was fun. And then I sort of forgot about Market Day, given the winter we had, and I didn’t think to go again until last month. Now I plan to go on a regular basis.

It’s such a great concept: Artists who sell their goods on websites like come together for a fun event, described on the Market Day website as “arts festival meets bohemian garage sale.” That’s a pretty accurate description. There’s jewelry, hand-knitted scarves and caps, photography, wallets made from maps, T-shirts, and journals made from old Hardy Boys books mixed with cupcakes and flea market fare.

Don’t expect the place to be huge – it’s small and fairly crowded. I felt like every time I stopped at a booth I was blocking the way of someone who wanted to walk through. But the friendly vendors and nice selection of functional and eclectic art are enough to bring me back later this fall for some serious Christmas shopping.

Market Day is held 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. the last Saturday of every month at 300 SW 5th St., Des Moines. Black Friday Market is Nov. 26.

Day trip: Chicago

I had to go to Chicago earlier this week for a magazine story I’m working on. It’s hard to go to Chicago and JUST work, because there is so much to do and see there. In my opinion, the city of Chicago is second only to New York – it has fabulous museums, great shopping, a thriving theatre district, gorgeous lakeshore, interesting neighborhoods, hopping nightlife, and restaurants for every taste.

I’ve been there many times – it’s an easy 5-6 hour drive from central Iowa. If you drive in to the city on a Sunday, you’ll avoid the horrible traffic, which is one thing I DON’T love about going to Chicago.

Booking a hotel can be a bit of a challenge, too. Chicago has a lot of huge conventions, so if you hit it at the wrong time, you might find it difficult to find a single room in the whole city. I’ve stayed at some of the big monster properties, like the Marriott on Michigan Avenue, as well as some of the boutique hotels. All tend to be very pricey. You pay for location. A few of the ones I’ve stayed in off the beaten path were in scary locations (i.e., near porn shops) and/or in noisy areas (one hotel room I stayed in was so close to the El platform that I literally could open my window and talk to the commuters). That’s why people tend to stay in the really touristy area on (or very near) Michigan Avenue.

So I was pleased and surprised by the quality and location of the hotel I booked for this week’s trip. It was recommended by John Perkins, the alum I was going there to see, and it was only a few blocks from his high-rise apartment building. Located on Printers’ Row in the area referred to as The Loop, Downtown, and the Financial District, the Hotel Blake offered basic guest rooms for just $143 per night (AAA rate). That’s a very good rate for Chicago. The rooms were lovely (the whole hotel is very nice), with king beds and soft pillows, and the rate included breakfast. I was traveling with my good friend and VISIONS photographer Jim Heemstra…neither of us liked the free breakfast, but honestly, I didn’t expect anything at all, so donuts and granola bars were better than nothing.

The hotel is within walking distance of the big museums, but once we got checked in we hopped a cab to the Shedd Aquarium because it was getting late and we didn’t want to spend the time walking when we could be hanging out with beluga whales. (The aquarium closes at 6 p.m. on weekends.) It’s a good aquarium – I’ve been there before with my family – but the thing I noticed this time was that there are more gift shops and snack bars than exhibits. And they’ve added a lot of very child-friendly hands-on displays (actually, more like play areas than displays) but really haven’t added to their aquatic holdings.

If you’ve never been to an aquarium, this one is pretty impressive – especially the dolphins and beluga whales and the spectacular view of Lake Michigan. But after you’ve been to other ones (the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta comes to mind) this one sort of pales in comparison.

Nevertheless, it was fun, and Jim tried to help me take better photos of fish in dark tanks through reflective, finger-printy glass. He does this really well, but me – not so much. (Who knew I could change my ISO to 1600?? I should really read the manual.)

After they kicked us out of the aquarium at 6 p.m. we walked north past Buckingham Fountain (always spectacular). After a quick beer at the Congress Hotel, it was dark enough to go through Millenium Park – a truly fabulous place – to see The Crown Fountain by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. It’s so much fun to sit and watch the faces change, and the kids go crazy when water starts shooting out of it. Later we met a group of cool college-age tourists, all from different countries, who were in the park for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert (with its new music director, Riccardo Muti). They asked us to take their picture by the giant bean-shaped mirrored sculpture called Cloud Gate, which I totally love during the day but doesn’t look like much at night.

Normally, I have a “no chain restaurant” rule, but we broke it Sunday night because we wanted to hear live music. So we went to the House of Blues for food, beer, and a great band for no cover charge. (As we were leaving, the guy at the door was charging a $10 cover, so we must’ve gotten there early enough to avoid it.)

On Monday, after our work was done, John and Jim and I went to the French Market (131 N. Clinton), which I have to say was not so much French as it was Food Court. We all tried to be adventuresome by buying food from the RAW place (“100% organic raw vegan”), but we decided that the little one-taste samples tasted a whole lot better than the actual entrees. So we balanced the healthy food with a large paper cone of Belgian fries with flavored mayo. And then ate dessert. I can’t say I highly recommend this place, but it was sort of fun.

Next time I go to Chicago, I swear I will eat Ethiopian food – something I can’t find in Iowa.

Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market

Each spring, I eagerly anticipate the opening day of the Des Moines Farmers’ Market, held in the Court Avenue area downtown.

Each spring, the damn thing gets more crowded.

What started in 1976 with just 15 vendors and an average of 200 shoppers (according to the market’s website) has now grown to an average of 18,000 shoppers – and there were reportedly 30,000 people there last year on opening day.

That’s too many people. And dogs. And baby strollers.

An event I once would NOT HAVE MISSED on any Saturday from mid-May through October is now an event with which I have a love/hate relationship.

I still love the idea of the farmers’ market. I still go – although not every weekend – because there are things sold there that I can’t easily get anywhere else. I still have nice, friendly relationships with some of the vendors from whom I have bought bread and goat cheese and Dutch letters for more than 10 years. I still love the routine of going to the market and gathering whatever is in season – tomatoes, basil, sweet corn, watermelon, spinach – and the ever-present baked goods and cut flowers.

What I hate about it is, very simply, the crowd. It used to be that you could go early – say, before 9 a.m. – and find a place to park and walk easily from vendor to vendor. Now, even if you’re there at 7:30 in the morning, the streets are teeming with people and dogs, dogs, dogs. If you go much later, you might as well just forget it. It’s impossible to A) walk, B) find what you’re looking for, and C) enjoy the atmosphere…because it’s SO CROWDED.

That’s why I like the market so much in the fall. I was there mid-morning last Saturday, and the crowd was average – not overwhelming. This morning I got there at 7 a.m. (crazy, I know) and it was raining and still dark and hardly anyone was there yet, so it was like the farmers’ market of yore. I loved it! I got to talk to the Dutch letter guy and the bread lady and take pictures of the pumpkins. Pumpkins and apples are the best reasons to go to the market in the fall, in my opinion. But there’s still lots of produce — and everything else that I love about the market.

There’s still time to go this season! The market is open every Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon until Oct. 30. And indoor winter markets are held Nov. 19-20 and Dec. 17-18.

Sunsets at Sugar Grove

When I was working on a story about Iowa wineries for the magazine a few years ago, I traveled all over Iowa to visit vineyards that had Iowa State connections. The first person I met was Collette Hill of Sugar Grove Vineyards and Gathering Place near Newton. At that time, in 2006, Iowa was just starting to see huge growth in both growing grapes and producing wine.

One of the offshoots of the grape and wine industry has been the event business that now surrounds many of the wineries. It’s a natural, when you think about it. They have all that yummy wine and those gorgeous rolling hills and picturesque grapevines – why not have weddings there? Or brunch? Or concerts?

There are three wineries close to Ames that hold regular weekend concerts during the summer and fall. White Oak Winery (near Cambridge) offers “Wine Down” every Friday night; the aforementioned Sugar Grove hosts sunset concerts each Saturday night; and Prairie Moon (just north of Ames) is open on Sunday afternoons, offering wine and music.

At the time I was working on the magazine story, I attended a “Sunsets” concert and vowed to go back as a full-fledged wine-drinking guest. That, again, was in 2006 and I hadn’t been to one until last night. Nor have I been to either of the other wineries’ music events.

This weekend I was actually planning to complete a trifecta: White Oak on Friday, Sugar Grove on Saturday, and Prairie Moon on Sunday. But bad weather kept me away Friday night and I, um, drank quite a bit of wine last night, so now I’m thinking it’s probably best to do these one at a time.

The setting at Sugar Grove was as lovely as I remembered. Situated on top of one of the rolling hills in Jasper County, Sugar Grove features a grange building built in the 1870s, flower gardens, and a wide, mowed lawn area for events. By the time we got there last night, the sun had already dropped low in the sky and the band (Loose Neutral, a local classic rock/pop cover band) was already rocking.

I bought a bottle of dry Tassel Ridge Candleglow white and we dug into the picnic supper I’d made earlier in the day: a fresh mozzarella/basil/heirloom cherry tomato salad (made entirely from ingredients I’d bought at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market yesterday morning) and a loaf of South Union ciabatta (also from the market).

If you don’t count the mosquitoes, it was a perfect evening. I got tipsy from the wine since I drank most of the bottle myself. The sunset was fabulous. The band was fun. The crowd was cheerful – mostly middle-aged couples like us, plus quite a few young couples with children. At least half of us were wearing either Iowa State or Iowa gear since yesterday was the Big Football Game. I’d venture a guess that this crowd was better behaved and more cheerful than the one at the actual game, which suits me just fine.

A note about the wine itself: Sugar Grove used to produce its own wine but recently became a vineyard-only production, in which it grows grapes but sells them to other wineries. Sugar Grove sells most of its grapes to Jasper Winery, but it also offers wines from Tassel Ridge, Summerset, and Snus Hill in the tasting room, which is open during events and by appointment. It also serves Millstream beer made in the Amana Colonies.

There’s one more concert this summer at Sugar Grove ( “Wine Downs” at White Oak go on each Friday into the fall and winter ( Prairie Moon offers live music each Sunday through the end of September (

The Scottsboro Boys

Central Iowa is a good place to live if you like theatre. Iowa State’s Stephens Auditorium in Ames and the Civic Center in Des Moines both bring in a wide assortment of touring musicals and plays, not to mention the strong regional theatre offerings in Des Moines and student productions in Ames. In past years I’ve also traveled east to see shows in Hancher Auditorium on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.

So there really isn’t a good reason to leave the state to catch a show, unless you want to go all the way to New York. Except, sometimes there is.

Sometimes there’s a great reason to venture to Chicago or Minneapolis – because a lot of Broadway productions have an out-of-town run before they launch their show in New York. The Lion King, for example, played in Minneapolis for eight weeks before it opened on Broadway in 1997. Last fall, The Addams Family premiered in Chicago before it opened in New York. I saw that show in early December (smack dab between giant snow storms) and although I wasn’t crazy about the show, it was pretty cool to see Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in a brand new production.

Such is the opportunity right now at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The Scottsboro Boys, a musical by the writing team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (most famous for Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman), is doing its out-of-town run now through Sept. 25 before it opens on Broadway Oct. 7. The cast is the real Broadway cast (with the exception of one actor), so it’s a wonderful opportunity to catch this show in its fresh, enthusiastic infancy – at a fraction of the cost of a trip to New York.

The Scottsboro Boys is based on the notorious “Scottsboro” case in the 1930s in which nine African American men and boys were unjustly accused of raping two white women in Alabama. The show is structured as a minstrel show – which is something I’ve never seen and I’m guessing most other people haven’t, either. It’s a gutsy show, telling the story of a sickening miscarriage of justice in which the young men are convicted by an all-white jury. The Scottsboro cases actually reached the U.S. Supreme Court three times and dragged on for nearly 10 years.

It’s hard to believe this could happen in America. But it’s a story that reminds us of our not-so-distant shameful past. As a theatrical experience, it’s very powerful.

Tickets are still available. Find out more at

Villisca, bloody Villisca

Call me a skeptic, but when Lisha, our tour guide at the Villisca Axe Murder House, told my daughter and me that the last visitors had just run screaming from the house, I just could not imagine why.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. The house is just an old house. Granted, 8 people were violently murdered there in 1912 and the killer was never brought to justice, but still.

The Axe Murder House – clearly the most happening thing in Villisca, a small town in southwest Iowa (not far from the intersection of Hwy. 71 and Hwy. 34, if that helps you locate it on the map) – has been featured many times on television channels that cater to viewers who like programs called “Scariest Places on Earth” and “Most Terrifying Places.” I am not one of their loyal viewers. But this quiet little house in Villisca has recently topped the list of best places to hunt for ghosts.

I have to admit that paranormal activity intrigues me. Or maybe it’s the fact that so many people take it seriously that intrigues me. Anyway, we paid our 5 dollars and followed Lisha in her car to The House and took our tour. (You can pay 5 more bucks and go to the cemetery if you want. There’s also a museum on the town square.) Lisha explained that the four Moore children and their parents, plus two overnight visitors with exceedingly poor timing, the Stillinger sisters, were brutally hacked to death by an axe–wielding maniac while they slept in their beds shortly after midnight on the evening of June 9, 1912.

Lisha showed us the interior of the home, restored in 1994 and furnished with items dating from the early 20th century. (She explained that in the interim – between the murders and the paranormal feeding frenzy – the house had been lived in like a regular house). On the small iron bed downstairs, tiny dresses had been laid out to show where the two Stillinger girls had been killed with the blunt end of an axe. She also pointed out where the bloody murder weapon had been left, propped up near the door.

Apparently the upstairs is where all the paranormal action is. Lisha said the prevailing opinion is that when the house was renovated, some of the spirits got stirred up. And with film crews tromping in and out, folks holding séances and trying to communicate with the dead through Ouija boards, and groups spending the night for $300 bucks a pop, some of the spirits are not amused. Lisha said, with a straight face, that there have been a lot of growling sounds and scratching coming from the house lately. She says she, personally, avoids the house at night.

So up the stairs we went. Lisha showed us the bedroom where the childrens’ ghosts play games with the TV crews (there’s a ball-rolling video on YouTube if you want to see it). She reported that a full-body apparition had recently been filmed by a crew in the home’s tiny attic (reportedly the location where the killer hid, waiting for the Moore family and their guests to fall asleep). Lisha herself won’t go into the attic, but I did, and I didn’t see a thing.

But as Lisha and Katie and I stood in the children’s bedroom – the one with a crib and dolls and photos of the family – a very strange thing happened. We were just standing there talking when the closet door closed by itself. I’m not attributing this to the undead, but believe me when I tell you that there was no wind, and nobody (human) touched the door. I’m just saying.

Find out more about the Villisca Axe Murder House at The website has links to pretty much everything you’d ever want to know. (Can I just say that the thing about the website that makes my skin crawl is not the gruesome crime details but rather the misuse of the word its/it’s? That said, it’s a very thorough site and I recommend it.)

And I should also mention in all seriousness that Villisca is a very pretty little town. I fell in love with some of the big old (presumably unhaunted) houses with wrap-around porches and shade trees. Sweet dreams!