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Iowa's Simple Pleasures (#402)


Paddle with Dan Kaercher through a southeast Iowa wildlife complex;  dine at a third-generation steakhouse in northwest Iowa; step into a historic landmark all Iowans should be proud of; and sample a variety of handcrafted ciders produced in Lisbon.


Let's go!  Paddle through a southeast Iowa wildlife complex.  Dine at a third generation steakhouse in northwest Iowa.  Step into a historic mansion all Iowans should be proud of.  And sample a variety of handcrafted ciders produced in Lisbon.  Join me, Dan Kaercher, as I travel the state to bring you these stories next on Iowa's Simple Pleasures. 

 Funding for this program was provided by Friends -- the Iowa Public Television Foundation -- generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa Public Television.  Iowa Tourism -- Iowa's tourism industry generates $6 billion annually and supports more than 62,000 jobs.  Information is available at traveliowa.com to learn how you can support Iowa's economy while having a wonderful vacation in your own state.  The Gilchrist Foundation -- founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist -- furthering the philanthropic interests of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief.  Iowa Community Foundations -- an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations -- connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever.  Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org.

 Nothing puts our busy 21st century life into perspective better than floating down a river, observing nature and learning a little about those who inhabited Iowa before us.

 This wetland complex used to be part of the Mississippi River and its floodplain.  It was also cropland at one time.  Today it is managed for wildlife habitat and humans are welcome to visit too.

 I'm at one of the canoe access points on the southern most part of this 6,400 acre Odessa Wildlife Complex.  The Louisa County Conservation Board invited a few friends to go paddling and lined up a canoe partner for me.  She is Katie Hammond, a naturalist with the conservation board.

 Katie Hammond: We are on the Odessa Wildlife Management area and although a lot of the locals call it Lake Odessa it is actually more of a wetland area.  It is connected to the Mississippi River on both the north and south ends by some drainage tubes.  The biggest thing about coming out here when it is being managed for the wildlife and the migrating birds is that it does get shallow.  So we can navigate it easily with canoe all year long.

 Hammond: There's actually a turtle on the log to your right if you look to the right, right now. 

 Kaercher: I'm missing it.

 Hammond: Can you see it?  It blends in, it's wonderfully camouflaged with the mud on its back.

 Kaercher: Oh yeah, I do see it.  Yeah.

 Hammond: Right up to your left there is a beaver lodge right on the point.

 Kaercher: Yeah.

 Hammond: And then further in you can see the lily pads from the lotus plants.

 Kaercher: They're gigantic.

 Hammond: The kids that I bring out here on the lake like to make hats out of these. 

 It's a relaxing flatwater paddle.  With virtually no current it is easy to stop, turn around and get a closer look at some of our surroundings.

 Hammond: Oh, there's some fresh beaver chews to the left.  You see where the wood is real light?

 Kaercher: We're getting a few sprinkles but it still seems like a lot of fun.

 We had a little rain off and on during our paddle, but it certainly didn't dampen anyone's spirits.  

 Sherry Humphreys: This was my first time out here and it was absolutely wonderful.  Even in the rain it was a wonderful experience.

 Steve Blodgett: You can get back in real tight areas here and there's trails through the woods that you can just barely get a kayak through that's pretty interesting to see sometimes.

 Bob Brissey: When the water is high in the rivers you've got some place you can go, you've got a lot of different trails.  It's 6,400 acres and you can get lost anywhere you want to in this lake.

 All these wonderful comments should be music to the ears of Julie Ohde, executive director of the conservation board.  She worked for years with many other organizations and volunteers to establish a water trail system here. 

 Julie Ohde: A water trail is about giving people information on how to find the accesses, how to find their way around and what they might see when they are out there.  We saw that paddling was starting to get popular in Iowa.  Hey, we should have a water trail out here.  So, we decided to apply for some grant money through the DNR's water trail grant program and we got some money to do the brochures and the mapping and the signs.

 All the information provided did help make this voyage on the water a very simple pleasure indeed.  And if you're up for it after the paddling trip, nearby is another attraction.  In tiny Toolesboro there are burial mounds and other remnants of a culture that existed here thousands of years ago.

 Kathy Dice: We believe the mounds were built about 2,000 years ago, about the time when Christ was walking around the shores of Galilee.  And they were built probably over maybe even 100 year span.  People who were living in village site we believe down below in the river valley would carry up the baskets of dirt up the bluff to make these mounds.  And we know that because when they looked at the dirt in the mounds it was river dirt.

 Kaercher: Tell me a little bit about the Indians that built the mounds and how they got here.

 Dice: Well, we don't know a whole lot about them because most of what we know about them are from the artifacts we took out of the burial mounds.  But it's a part from what we saw in there we called them the Hopewellians and it was part of a culture that seemed to be widespread across the Midwest.

 Much more can be seen and learned about the Hopewell culture at the museum adjacent to the mounds.  Even if the museum isn't open, there are plenty of interpretive signs outside.

 They were also finding beautiful pottery --

 In fact, it was shear luck on the part of two travelers from Germany who stopped by when they did since our tour guide Kathy would not normally have been here today. 

 Alois Mumhofer: We have never heard about this place, we just happened to pass by and saw the sign which said historical marker, some mounds and we thought that would be interesting.

 These mounds, which are a designated national historic landmark, lure many passersby like the Mumhofers because they are located along the ten state, 3,000 mile long Great Mississippi River Road.  So here's hoping you get to experience southeast Iowa's unique historic treasures and sample the wonders of nature in the area's fantastic wildlife complex.

 Most restaurants don't cut and age their own beef anymore.  But at a well known northwest Iowa eatery they still do and have been for over 60 years.  At Archie's Wayside in Le Mars you hear a lot of this --

 Steaks are one of the main highlights on the delectable menu here, steaks that are as impressive looking as they are tasting.  Seeing all the tables and booths in this place jam packed is a common occurrence, a true nod of approval to the tasty food.  But experience and attention to detail have a lot to do with Archie's success too. 

 Bob Rand: We're third generation, we've been here for 62 years.  My grandfather opened the restaurant and my mother Valerie ran the restaurant for a long time.  As you can see right here there's a picture of my grandfather and I getting my first meat cutting lesson when I was a kid.  My grandfather was Archie and he came over during the Bolshevik Revolution, ended up in Chicago in the yards and then subsequently in Sioux City in the yards and then in the mid to late 40's decided he wanted to get in the restaurant business.

 Due to Archie's experiences in the packing houses it just seemed natural that when he opened a restaurant he himself would want to cut the beef served there, a family tradition that continues today.  This 1,000 square foot cooler is where beef is stored and aged before being cut daily and cooked for admiring patrons.

 Where does your beef come from here at Archie's?

 Most of our beef will come from northwest Iowa and northeast Nebraska area.  And Iowa is just the best place in the country to have beef.  Our corn is the best, the environment is the best for raising animals so it's a wonderful combination and we've just been fortunate to be doing it for 62 years.

 On average, Bob says they go through about 2,000 steaks a week.  Even though the sirloin is the most popular steak on the menu, on my visit I'm going to dine on something even more decadent.

 I think tonight you should have a tenderloin.

 Sign me up.

 This is a very well marbled, beautiful tenderloin and I think this will suit you perfect tonight.  Go ahead, just start pushing away.

 Oh boy, I can tell right now how tender it is.

 You can see that beautiful marbling in that piece of meat.

 Oh yeah, that's dinner tonight folks.  Wow.

 As I wait for my tenderloin to be expertly prepared, I chat with a few customers about why they are so exceptionally loyal to this Le Mars favorite.

 Archie's, of all the steakhouses that I've eaten around the country is by far the single best steak that I've ever had.  It is an amazing cut of meat and they cook it to perfection exactly as you like it.  And it is just second to none.

 Bruce Brock: Well, it's a two or three times a week night out for Teri and I.  We come here two or three nights a week and have for eighteen years.  My career has been auctioneering for the most part.  Teri and I have been in the cattle business.  We've raised cows and fed cattle and I was a fat cattle buyer for National Beef and so I travel a lot and I enjoy a good steak.

 Kaercher: And what do you like best about Archie's?

 You know, I like the quality of the beef.  The people are just wonderfully friendly and they have been that way forever.  It's a small hometown atmosphere with a big town appetite.  It's awesome.

 It always amazes me how many people's paths will cross Le Mars, Iowa and we meet people from all over the world but generally on a night to night basis we're drawing from three or four counties in the local area and on a typical evening we'll serve in that 200 to 300 range but that always kind of elevates during the weekend and Saturdays we'll get into that 700 plus range.

 We do see a lot of folks that on a regular basis will drive fifteen to forty miles to come here and have dinner and we really are thankful for that.

 Besides a selection of steaks, other popular dishes include seafood, chicken, burgers and salads.  And a mouthwatering throwback is brought out at the beginning of every meal, a good old fashioned relish tray.

 We chop and cut all of our own vegetables here every day so you still get a nice relish tray when you start your meal.  And we're very proud of having that yet after 62 years.

 I settled in at my booth almost drooling in anticipation of the dishes I'm sampling here tonight.  I start with a dinner salad.  Archie's salad dressings are homemade from scratch, a true house specialty.  Tonight I'm trying the bleu cheese but the Russian and thousand island also top customer's most requested lists.

 We'll give this bleu cheese dressing the old Kaercher once over.  Lots of big chunky bleu cheese crumbles.  Really tangy, tangy but it's got the smooth dressing in it too.  

 The parade of food appearing at my table is mind-boggling.  But I guess it's all part of the job.

 Can you eat these with your hands?  That thing feels like it weighs five pounds right there.  Fritters, we'll give this a try.  Oh boy, almost like a donut hole with corn in it.  I'm getting kind of full but I'm going to forge on.  That's a pretty big bite but I think I can handle it.

 Wow.  I did such a great job of cutting this tenderloin.  Oh yeah, and the cook probably had something to do with it too.  Oh my gosh.  I've had some tantalizing and memorable food tonight.  Le Mars is lucky to have such a tasty institution in Archie's Wayside. 

 But there's even more flavor to be savored in Le Mars.  I'm talking about ice cream.  Le Mars is the ice cream capital of the world and at the Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum, visitors can find out why.

 Dave Smetter: We have 6,000 square feet on each of two floors.  It's an environment of a vintage ice cream parlor with a lot of flavors, a lot of ambiance and just to relax and enjoy Blue Bunny ice cream.

 Smetter: On the second floor we have a museum that has a lot of our memorabilia of Blue Bunny and Wells Enterprises of how we started in the ice cream business and the evolution over the years.  We have a gift shop with a lot of Blue Bunny type articles and clothing that you can buy.  We have a long ice cream bar and in the ice cream cases we have 38 flavors.

 Say no more, it's ice cream time.  They really know how to build terrific frozen treats.  The portion sizes are, well, is that all?

 That's it.

 Oh, maybe I'll get another one.

 All kidding aside, this ice cream is smooth and so flavorful.  What a sweet way to end my tasting tour of Le Mars.

 It's often called Iowa's palace on the prairie.  It's home to the Governor and open to the public for tours. 

 Actually this is quite a cozy stairway for such a grand home.

 Yes, it is indeed.  These doors are I think about sixteen feet high.  Welcome.

 I've just stepped back in time and I'm in awe of the architecture, craftsmanship and sheer history of this 1869 house built by Iowa's first millionaire, B.F. Allen.  The house was later owned for many years by another Des Moines family, the Hubbells, before being donated to the state of Iowa in 1971.  The third floor is the official residence of the Governor.  The second floor includes guest bedrooms and offices.  The first floor is used for receptions and parties and can be toured by the public.  I'm getting a tour with docent John Zickefoose.

 Zickefoose: One of the highlights here at Terrace Hill is certainly the woodwork.  Not only the woodwork around the windows but also these enormous doors.  They are about fourteen feet high and they are solid walnut and they weigh about 400 pounds each. 

 Kaercher: The mirrors create quite an effect here.

 Zickefoose: They do actually.  This mirror lines up perfectly with the mirror on the west wall in the drawing room.  So when you're standing in the right position you get just mirror after mirror after mirror, like the hall of Versailles, the hall of mirrors in Versailles.

 Kaercher: Exactly. 

 Zickefoose: Let's go into the drawing room.  This would have been the most formal room in the house and it is the biggest room in the house.  And, of course, certainly one of the highlights of this room in addition to its size is this wonderful rock crystal chandelier.  This is something that the Hubbells added.  It is laid out in a style called the room at rest because the room isn't being used.  So all the furniture was pushed out to the walls so it could be then moved as they needed to for whatever event they were planning.

 Kaercher: Now, the architect of Terrace Hill used a number of visual tricks.  And you pointed out one of them in this room when it comes to the windows.

 Zickefoose: Yes, indeed.  On the outside of the house right here on the north facade there is a window.  But when we get in the room there is just a wall here.  And the story is that Mrs. Allen, the builder's wife, said to the architect, there's enough windows in the drawing room, I want a wall.  So they compromised and she got her wall here on this side and he got his window on the other.

 There's also an exterior window behind this large mirror.  Speaking of architecture, John points out the repetition of circles in the woodwork trim and doors, which mimic the architectural embellishments on the outside of the house.  This 18,000 square foot house has sixteen rooms so I don't get to all of them.  But I just had to see the dining room --

 -- where I was lucky enough to meet the Governor's chef.

 Kaercher: Sharon, what are you setting up for here today?

 Sharon VanVerth: This is set up for a state dinner.  This is Pickard china.  Most Governors’ mansions in the United States have a state seal china made by Pickard.  It is the same china that is used in the White House and Air Force One.  This is a domed silver service that we use for Victorian dinners because it is reminiscent of what they would use when they did table side service.

 Kaercher: Now, Sharon, tell me, how many dinners do you do here and for how many people?

 VanVerth: Usually about fifteen a month and we serve from 16 to 22 when we're in the dining room.

 Zickefoose: Certainly another highlight here at Terrace Hill is this wonderful stairway which leads up to this beautiful stained glass window.  There was a window here originally but it was just clear glass and looked out into the garden.  The window is nine feet wide and thirteen feet high.

 Kaercher: Oh my gosh, that's bigger than a typical room.  And what kind of wood is the staircase here?

 Zickefoose: Well, this is rosewood from Columbia.  You can tell that by the dark grain of the wood in the banister.

 Kaercher: Just beautiful.  What a grand staircase for making an entrance if you're entertaining.

 Zickefoose: It's terrific.  You can see something like 21 arches from this point.

 Kaercher: In such a historic home how do you integrate modern technology, John?

 Zickefoose: Well, one of the ways that it has been done here is you'll notice the ceiling rosettes have been slightly lowered.  Originally they would have been attached directly to the ceiling but they have been lowered to allow for the heating and air conditioning ventilation.

 As long as we're looking up, we asked to keep going upwards to a place not open to the public but one you may be curious about.  It's a climb up to the 90 foot tower which is part staircase and part ladder.

 Zickefoose: It was designed to go up this ladder and then up to the next level and then there are window seats up there at the windows and you were designed to stay there and look at the view and be there for a while and experience being this high in the air.

 And we learned that everyone who makes the climb to the top is invited to sign their name on the tower walls -- from politicians and their families, to an occasional TV crew.  There's so much to see here, from the Spanish pink marble fireplaces to a 1927 Grant Wood painting done before he settled on his more well known regionalism style. 

 On the quirky side, there's even a political skeleton in the Governor's closet.  This closet used to house a one person elevator.  The round windows in the door indicated the first floor.  The next floor up had rectangular windows in the door.  The grounds outside had a pool that has since been filled in.  A carriage house, a formal garden and a comfy porch atop a terraced landscape leading to a historic home on a hill.  Terrace Hill.

 In Linn County, an orchard and cider company made the cut as one of the 30 best hard ciders in the world.  Let's have a taste.

 On any weekend, just south of Lisbon on Sutliff Road, you encounter a steady stream of traffic stopping at a small farmstead.  Bicyclists and motorists alike are finding the way to Sutliff Orchard, a family run brewery that can boast it is the only hard apple cider distiller in the state.  During the week, the brewers are busy with apple inventory, fine tuning their cider recipe, bottling and distribution to local grocery stores and retailers.  But from April to November, when the weekend rolls around, the orchard is buzzing with activity.

 The tasting room, located in the lower level of a century old barn, is a small pub that serves up a light menu, live music and, of course, its hard cider.  The place is fast becoming a favorite destination for day-trippers enjoying a drive or ride in the countryside of Linn County.  Once inside the tasting room, you feel right at home in this friendly atmosphere.

 So, the retail area is fairly new for us.  We're open Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6 down here.  The hot summer days and the fall days are really fun.

 It's a friendly atmosphere, it's local, it's -- if you look around and see everybody is happy and it's just a really close knit, fun place to come.

 Saturdays it's a sleepy little place that we have a couple of carloads regularly throughout the day.  Sunday, with the live music, it's been really popular and we started serving some food.  So our theme is sliders and ciders on Sunday afternoon.

Although this is primarily a restaurant and bar, Scott is quick to give impromptu tours of his brewery to unveil some of the hard work that goes into each bottle of hard cider.

 Scott Ervin: We'll bring them in on the forklift, we'll bring them in here and so we keep, we store them in these bins.  A cider apple is usually not the big number ones, it's the number two so it's a smaller apple and maybe not uniform color and this is also the processing area.  So these are tanks that we do our final mixing in.  These tanks are grundy tanks where they can be pressurized.  So we're bottling soft cider today.  And when we first started back in 2002 it took us an hour to fill a case of hard cider.  So we bought this machine, it's a tabletop counter pressure bottler that does two bottles at a time. 

 Ervin: So we start out by rinsing and washing the inside of the bottles.  It goes through a double evac cycle and then it will pressurize the bottle and then the cider will gravity fill into the bottle.

 Ervin: And then it will release the pressure to atmosphere right there. 

 When Scott Ervin and his family relocated to a small farm outside of Lisbon becoming a hard cider distiller wasn't at the top of the list for this California transplant.  The farm already had a small grove of 20 apple trees and, as Scott puts it, there are only so many apple pies and apple crisps one can make.

 Ervin: And so we started fermenting the apple juice.  We bought a small little hand cranked press with fresh juice in the fall but then also fermenting the small five gallon batches and we fell in love with this drink.

 A drink that was once the toast of the Colonial town.

 Ervin: Back in the 1700s it used to be really popular in the United States.  Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin have all been big cider guys.  And as I understand it the United States used to make some of the best ciders.

 With the spread of apple orchards west of the Mississippi, hard cider enjoyed continued popularity through the 1800s.  However, the country's movement towards more arid climates and the rise of large beer breweries contributed to hard cider falling out of favor.  Creating hard apple cider takes patience, persistence and a lot of apples.  Sutliff Orchard has added 600 more dwarf trees to the farm's original 20.  But Scott still gets many of his apples from neighboring orchards in eastern Iowa to keep up with demand.  However, the unique Sutliff taste comes from the apple variety grown on the property, the English cider.  Today's abundance of wineries and microbreweries has led to many new products and the rediscovery of old favorites.  Hard apple cider is making a comeback thanks to the new crop of brewers.  Roll into Sutliff Orchard any weekend from spring to fall to experience the only exclusive hard apple cider brewery in Iowa.  Grab a cider, stay for the food and enjoy the music.

 Want to learn more about what you just saw on Iowa's Simple Pleasures?  Visit our website at iptv.org/simplepleasures.  Here you'll discover more about the locations I visited and details on how you can create your own adventure.

 Funding for this program was provided by Friends -- the Iowa Public Television Foundation -- generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa Public Television.  Iowa Tourism -- you don't have to travel far to grow closer to family and friends.  From exploring the great outdoors to discovering a new cultural attraction, your Iowa adventure is just around the corner.  Information on planning your trip is available at traveliowa.com.  The Gilchrist Foundation -- founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist -- furthering the philanthropic interests of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief.  Iowa Community Foundations -- an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations -- connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever.  Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org.


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Tags: Archie's Wayside Restaurant canoeing cider Des Moines food Iowa IowasSimplePleasures kayaking Linn County Lisbon orchards relaxation restaurants Sutliff Cider Terrace Hill Toolesboro Indian Mounds tourism travel

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