Day trip to Kalona, Iowa
It starts out directly enough: Take I-35 to I-80 and head east. Just before you get to Iowa City, you take the 230 exit and head south onto a road called Black Hawk, then turn onto Black Diamond Ave. Then you turn on the, um, Orval Yoder Turnpike. That’s when I start to giggle. Turnpike? Really? When I think of a turnpike, I think of New Jersey. And believe me, this ain’t New Jersey.
This tiny, rural “turnpike” takes you to Frytown, at which point you connect with Hwy. 1 and head into Kalona.
Washington County in general, and Kalona in particular, are well worth exploring. The county boasts a fine collection of barn quilts, and the area is home to a large population of Amish and Mennonites. Their influence can be seen along the country roads, in the countryside businesses, and even in town.
When I arrived in Kalona early Saturday afternoon, my first order of business was to find a place to eat lunch. I found it at Kalona Bakery, a combination bakery/restaurant in downtown Kalona. The menu is small – mostly sandwiches and pre-packaged salads – but I ate my fill for a mere $5.85, including a piece of pie.
After lunch, I strolled through two of the town’s many antiques shops: the Pink Begonia and English River Antiques – both charming, clean, and filled with affordable, good-quality antiques. I also walked through the Kalona General Store, which has a little bit of everything, and the Village Shoppe – a great store for quilters.
I hesitated to spend too much time shopping downtown, because I wanted to get to the Kalona Historical Village, and it closed at 4 o’clock. For an entry fee of $7, you can tour the well-preserved historical village as well as the Quilt and Textile Museum, which is located in the Kalona Historical Village Welcome Center. The fee gets you a guided tour of the village, and I was able to join a tour already in progress.
The buildings in the historical village all originated in this area of Iowa, but all have been moved their present location, starting with the relocation of the Rock Island Depot in 1969. Now, visitors can tour not just the depot but the Grout Church, built in 1867; the Victorian Wahl House, built in 1892; Richmond Post Office; Straw College, a one-room school house; a buggy barn; log house; loom house; Amish Country Store, and “grandpa house.”
Our tour guide took us through the church, the house and its wash house, and through the Wahl Museum, which tells the story of life in early Kalona. The smaller buildings can be visited on your own. Each has a recorded description; you push a button and a mannequin “speaks.” I pushed the button in the first building, and the voice was way too creepy…so I just looked quietly around the rest of the buildings.
Back inside the visitor center (where the air conditioning felt wonderful after being outside in 90-plus-degree heat and humidity), I toured the two rooms of the quilt museum. One room features the “English” quilts – that is, quilts made by non-Amish – and the other room features the Amish quilts. Both rooms feature a large collection of spool cabinets.
By this time, the historical center was closing for the day, so I headed out of town. But first, two more stops: Stringtown Grocery and the Kalona Cheese Factory.
I had never heard of Stringtown Grocery, but when I saw a sign on the highway, I thought the name sounded intriguing. The store is run by Mennonites (or perhaps Amish — I find it hard to make the distinction when simply looking at how the individuals are dressed) and offers fresh baked goods, fresh produce, and an incredible array of bulk groceries and hard-to-find items. Some of the people shopping there appeared to be purchasing enough flour and oats to last through a coming apocalypse. (Perhaps they bake for a living?) It was indeed an eclectic mix of shoppers. One Amish man parked his horse-drawn carriage beside the store and loaded up on fresh vegetables and dairy items. A little girl in front of me was buying penny candy.
I was amazed at the variety of goods being offered in the tiny store: noodles and vegetable seeds and real vanilla extract; nuts and grains and baking supplies and dried fruits packaged into bags and plastic containers with hand-written labels; local cheese and butter; and spices galore – all priced very reasonably. I bought a cold drink, some smoked farmers cheese, and a bag of pistachios.
I saw a number of horse-drawn carriages during my visit to Kalona. Many of the local farms offer goods for sale. I saw signs for baked goods, fresh eggs, and garden supplies. You could easily spend the weekend just driving through the countryside. It’s a bit like stepping back in time — in a good way.