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Beyond the Amana Colonies

Barn quilts and Grant Wood in eastern Iowa

Barn quilts like this one can be found throughout eastern Iowa. Photo by Karen Flaten

Barn quilts like this one can be found throughout eastern Iowa. Photo by Karen Flaten

When my husband and I chose to visit the Amana Colonies to celebrate a recent anniversary, we expected to be steeped in history, German food and relaxation. We found a group of wonderful historic villages with a strong tradition of excellent craftsmanship, beautiful brick buildings and abundant hospitality. We enjoyed shopping at the numerous boutiques and artisans’ shops. We tried locally brewed beer and wines made from grapes grown in the colonies’ vineyards; we ate tasty country breakfasts prepared by the hostess at our bed and breakfast. But when we stumbled onto a side trip to Washington County, we knew we had found something remarkable.

A mere hour southeast of the Amana Colonies, in the city of Washington (county seat of Washington County), Café Dodici can be found on a corner of the historic downtown area. It is owned and operated by Lorraine Williams, whose many years spent in Italy culminated deliciously in her return to Iowa with her Italian husband to open a gourmet restaurant. Café Dodici also operates a store next door to the restaurant, as well as two “Night Suites,” a King Suite and a Family Suite, which can be reserved for overnight stays. It is located in the heart of Washington’s historic downtown, a huge square block with a large park in the middle and gorgeous turn-of-the-century architecture.

But we hadn’t just come to Washington County to indulge ourselves in gourmet food. We had also heard about a rural heritage project which the county was promoting, “Barn Quilts of Washington County, Iowa.” Barn quilts are quilt blocks painted on barns and outbuildings, usually about 8 feet high by 8 feet wide. The tradition of painting quilt blocks on barns seems to have been started in Ohio, but has spread in the last few years to other rural areas throughout the country. Washington County, Iowa has pushed to have the largest number of barn quilts in Iowa. They may be close by now, with over 120 documented barn quilts in the county. The locations of the barn quilts are listed on their website,, which contains a map and more information about how the idea first started in Washington County, as well as how to purchase a barn quilt kit, postcard or other memento.

Barn quilts like this one can be found throughout eastern Iowa. Photo by Karen Flaten

Barn quilts like this one can be found throughout eastern Iowa. Photo by Karen Flaten

We drove through gorgeous countryside, following the map to see more and more of these beautiful quilt blocks on barns and outbuildings throughout the county. On Highway 92, we passed the Wooden Wheel Vineyards, where we stopped and tasted some wine, and chatted with one of the owners, a former insurance agent from the Des Moines area. It was a lovely spot, and we enjoyed their award-winning Iowa wine!

After our refreshment break, we continued south, still looking for barn quilts. Soon we realized that we were not very far from the house Grant Wood used as the basis for his iconic painting, American Gothic. We headed just a little farther south to Eldon, Iowa, and the American Gothic House Center. The center was closed for the day, but the house is prominently located on the grounds. When the center is open, visitors can dress up in clothing similar to the ones worn in the painting. There are pitchforks, hats and glasses that can be used to make your own American Gothic photo. A spot marked on the sidewalk informs visitors of the best angle and location to take “selfies” from. Unfortunately, our selfies weren’t worth saving, but we did take photos of the house, even walking around to the back to see what the house looked like from the rear.

We returned to Amana the next day with Grant Wood on our minds. We knew the painter had completed Young Corn (currently on display at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art) in the Amana Colonies and had read that the exact spot was just outside of the village of High Amana on The Norway Road. The only place open in High Amana was the Amana Arts Guild, so we stopped, visited the gallery and store, and asked an elderly lady about the Norway Road. Ms. Metz told me she had lived in the Amana Colonies since before “The Great Change,” the date in 1932 when the communal system in the Amana Colonies ended, and residents began to work for wages. She assured us that the Norway Road was still the same road, and directed us to the gravel road which ran north of town past the cemetery. But, even with current directions from a bona-fide resident of High Amana, the location eluded us. Perhaps it was a little late in the year for young corn – we were there in July, which could probably be characterized as more of a mature or middle-aged corn month – or maybe the environment had changed a tiny bit since 1931 when the painting was done. Although our search for the inspiration for Grant Wood’s Young Corn was not successful, we enjoyed another wonderful drive through Iowa’s gorgeous hills, as we began our journey home to Minnesota.

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