Literary Tourism: Iowa

Literary Tourism: Iowa

Out of all the places on my road trip, Iowa was the most pleasant surprise. Somehow I'd been led to believe the state was 99% corn fields and little else was to be seen. Boy, was I wrong! While there were an abundance of corn fields, I also found some literary treasures. 

First, the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in Burr Oak, Iowa. 


Just after crossing from Wisconsin to Iowa, we saw signs for one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder homes. Laura and her family moved around pretty often while she was growing up, so there are several such houses spread out across the Midwest. Between failed farms, illnesses, and money woes, the Ingalls had to pack up on a moment's notice, even if they'd only lived in a spot for a few months. 

That's what happened with the house in Burr Oak. One of Pa's friends bought the house to turn it into, essentially, what we'd know today as an extended stay hotel. Boarders weren't permanent residents, like a boarding house, but none were travelers just passing through. They may have come for seasonal work or with the intention to relocate to Burr Oak after a successful courtship and marriage.  

The owner of the hotel needed help, so he offered to house the Ingalls in exchange for them working in the hotel. Pa kept the grounds and livestock, Ma cooked in the basement kitchen, which also doubled as a restaurant. So when you couldn't the hotel guests, her own family, plus the restaurant patrons, she had a lot of mouths to feed three times a day.  

Laura and her sisters weren't exempt from work. In addition to going to school, they were expected to make the beds, empty the chamber pots, keep the fire going, and more.  


The Ingalls only worked at the hotel for three months because Pa figured out that his friend was ripping him off and not paying him and his family fairly for their labor. The dispute couldn't be reconciled, so the family moved.  

At first I was disappointed that they'd only lived in the house three months, rather than it being the place where Laura grew up, but that was the reality of their lives. Life was too hard to stay in one place for long, so they couldn't. Although there are more Laura Ingalls Wilder homes where, perhaps, were more of a permanent home to her, the house in Burr Oak is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. 

A few hours later, we stopped at an adorable (and perhaps haunted) bed and breakfast in Dubuque, Iowa. 


That majestic mansion is the Redstone Inn. Although we didn't have any ghostly encounters (drat!) we did find an adorable little free library just down the street.


Gotta love the Peanuts theme.

The neighborhood was too cute not to take a stroll and few things make me happier than seeing little free libraries and a community with a thriving bookstore. 

Speaking of bookstores, there's a gem of a bookstore in Dubuque. Meet River Lights. 


There were several things I liked about River Lights that I don't often see in other independent bookstores. For one, there was a sign on a table with YA books that said it's totally okay to read YA even if you're not a young adult. This should go without saying, but I appreciate that they recognize some people feel a little insecure and need to be given permission. By reassuring their customers that it's okay to read YA regardless of age, they're giving them permission to indulge their reading preferences, they're giving them the confidence to buy, and they're establishing their bookstore as a no judgment zone. It's thoughtful and helpful. 

Another thing I liked was that where there were books in a series together on the shelf, they posted a small printout inside the shelf that listed all the books in the series. This is super helpful because then you don't have to worry if you've gotten all of them or if you're reading them in the right order or if there's one missing in your collection. It's such a simple thing, but––again––it's thoughtful and helpful. 

Something else I liked is that the bookish swag was mixed in with the appropriate genre. For example, puzzles and other brain games were in the nonfiction shelf for psychology, mixed in right alongside the books. The notebooks were, understandably, placed near the books on writing. I've seen plenty of bookstores put all the kids stuff, including toys and games, in the kids section, but they seem to forget that you can apply that same logic to areas throughout the store.

Not only does it inspire people to buy more stuff because they don't have to go looking in a separate area for related items, it also makes the bookstore even more visually appealing. I know I'm not the only one who sometimes feels overwhelmed looking at rows upon endless rows of books, so mixing related items into the shelves makes things more visually interesting. 

I'd go back to Iowa in a heartbeat, so if you know any other literary places I should check out, let me know in the comments! 

P.S. If you like these literary tourism pieces, check out more here and here

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