RAGBRAI 2018, part 1: Loess Hills and Donna Reed


It’s July, so that means it’s time for my annual drive across the state along the RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) route.

This year’s route goes smack through the center of the state and right through the town where I live: Ames. So, this year I was able to drive the route in three day-trips: Onawa to Jefferson, Jefferson to Sigourney, Sigourney to Davenport. Much of the route was familiar to me, but, as always, I discovered some new places and explored lots of previously unknown roadways. Here’s my first day’s drive, which covers the first TWO days of the actual bike ride:


The first overnight town, Onawa (population 2,998), is known for two things: having the widest Main Street in the continental U.S. (above) and being the home of the Eskimo Pie. Yep, the Eskimo Pie was reportedly created by a local ice-cream-shop owner in 1920. Onawa is also the Monona County seat and has a stunning courthouse (below). There’s also an arboretum.


Onawa’s RAGBRAI theme is “Riders Assemble!” This is some kind of superhero theme (see the window art at top) that I don’t really understand, but when I drove through a few weeks before RAGBRAI, Main Street was already decked out, so cheers to that.



Heading out of town, cyclists will get to experience a brief but stunning taste of the Loess Hills (above) as they head toward Turin (population 68), a tiny town said to be named after Turin, Italy. Though the hills are on either side of the route, the road itself is relatively flat.



Today is hot and terribly humid, and it looks like a storm is coming. The Little Sioux River is out of its banks.

In Soldier (population 174), there’s a veterans’ memorial and a large number of motorcycles in the small downtown area. The town was named for nearby unmarked grave of a soldier.



The road out of Soldier is especially scenic, with pretty farmland and rural homes.



In Ute (population 374), I followed the signs to the city park and had a picnic lunch. I was expecting bugs – there were none – but instead I got my feet and backside damp from the wet grass and wooden swing. Ute has an excellent welcome sign for RAGBRAI-ers (below).



Charter Oak (population 502) is an adorable little town, with a strikingly pretty arboretum. A centennial mural sets off a small pocket park in the business district. (All shown below.)





It’s hard to believe that I’m now already at the first overnight town: Denison. With a population of 8,298, Denison is a much larger town than the others on the route so far. The town has a Hy-Vee and a Wal-Mart, McDonalds and Pizza Ranch, and the other usual fast food options on the outskirts of town. But the downtown area is where Denison really shines. Five buildings (including the Crawford County courthouse, below) and a bridge are on the National Register of Historic Places.



Denison is the hometown of actress Donna Reed, so downtown you’ll also find the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center. The Center is housed in a 1914 German opera house building and includes the Donna Reed Heritage Museum and Theater. Next door is a Bake Shop and Hollywood Café. All of this looked intriguing but everything was unfortunately closed.


Denison’s RAGBRAI theme is “Bacon – It’s What We Smoke Here,” and I assume this is a reference to the town’s meat-packing plants (Denison is home to Smithfield Foods and Quality Food Processors, both of which process pork.)


As I leave downtown, I note the cute kids’ artwork in downtown shop windows and snap a few photos of the majestic older homes. And then I get rather lost. Lots of highways converge here, and it takes me a few tries to get on the correct RAGBRAI road.



Riders beginning the second day’s route will almost immediately encounter rolling hills as they head toward today’s first town: Manning.


Manning (population 1,500) is a delightful little German town. I found a number of things to enjoy here. First, the town’s theme is “It’s Refreshing!” What’s not to love about that? They have an awesome “IOWA” sign …


… and a cool old railroad trestle bridge …


… and the first of many little free libraries I would come across on the route. (If you’ll look closely you’ll see that there are not one but TWO Bill Cosby books and a children’s bible story book. Oh, and the Babysitters Club.)


I like Manning’s downtown area, with its German architecture, fun bike decorations, a coffee shop, and cute stores.



Manning is probably best known for its German Hausbarn Heritage Park. Its 1660 hausbarn was constructed in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, dismantled, shipped to the U.S., and reconstructed in 1998. I wrote a blog about this in 2012.


Today I opted not to pay the entrance fee since I’d been there before, but I spoke to a woman running the place and she seemed really excited for RAGBRAI. She told me about some country music entertainment and special German food they were planning on the site.


Also in Manning are the Carroll County Freedom Rock (above), painted by ISU grad Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II , and a John Deere mural titled “Transitions,” by artist Clint Hansen, also an ISU grad, which contains 45,000 pieces of glass (detail below).


Just down the road is Templeton (population 349). It’s a tiny town but has an interesting business district with nice storefronts, a huge grain elevator, a pretty Catholic church, and nice older homes.





Templeton is best known as the home of Templeton Rye, and I was disappointed to see that their visitor center was closed for remodel.



When I arrived in Dedham, I had an observation: the smaller the town, the bigger the sign. And the smaller the town, the most signs announcing the name of the town. This holds true throughout most of Iowa.



The day remained oppressively hot when I arrived in Coon Rapids (population 1,261). There’s an interesting sculpture at the town’s entrance.


In the downtown area, I snapped some photos, including a mural by artist Chad Elliott (enamel on steel, 2013).


On my way out of town, I stopped at the Whiterock Conservancy/Garst Farmstead and wandered around a bit. This is a fascinating place to explore, with opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback trails, canoeing/kayaking, fishing, camping, and cottage rentals. You can also stay in the Garst Farm House, site of the 1959 Khrushchev visit, or in the Oak Ridge House or Woodland retreat.





Just down the road I encountered the Bur Oak Visitors’ Center and more trails. I keep saying I need to spend a whole day here, but I just haven’t taken the time to do it yet. And today was definitely not the day.

Outside of Coon Rapids I stopped to photograph a pretty farm…



…and then I was in Scranton (population 532), whose welcome sign boasts that there’s “No Place Like Home.” I didn’t find much to do there, and the thunderclouds were building up.


I had planned to spend some quality time exploring Jefferson, the next overnight town (RAGBRAI theme: Highway to Bells). But just as I stepped out of my car on the town square,  thunder boomed and some mean-looking storm clouds roll in. So I called it a day and headed home.


Next up: Jefferson to Sigourney.


2 comments so far

  1. Mary on

    I love when you do the pre-RAGBRAI tour. Great photos.

  2. JoAnn on

    Thanks for highlighting “my” neck of the woods
    (Just to be clear and to avoid fake news, it was only my neck till 1969). RAGBRAI riders may be surprised how hilly Denison is. Harold’s Club on Broadway (now closed) was where Grandpa tended bar after he retired. He was the 7am shift for the workers finishing up 3rd shift at the meat packing plant. If you veered from the route and stayed on Hwy 30, you would hit Vail in 9 miles. This is home of the famous Vail Hardware owned by my Dad. He retired and worked in Templeton. See-what power you have – reminding me of good memories. Thanks, Carole.

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