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The Elbert Files: More Iowa distractions


Are you ready for more Iowa roadside distractions, like the “world’s small church” built south of Decorah in 1886 by a Frenchman who fought alongside Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo, or  the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway? 

The latter would be Dubuque’s Fenelon Place Elevator, which rises 189 feet above the city’s historic downtown in a distance of just 296 feet. 

A few weeks ago, I shared stories from Mike Whye’s book “Detour Iowa: Historic Destinations.” I offered to share more if readers were interested, which apparently you are. 

“Detour Iowa,” published by the History Press, is available online and at Beaverdale Books for $22. It’s a fun way to learn interesting things about Iowa, although many of the sites mentioned are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Iowa has many small churches, the most famous being Nashua’s “Little Brown Church in the Vale” between Waverly and Charles City. The church, or rather the site where it was built, inspired William S. Pitt to write the popular hymn “The Church in the Wildwood” in 1857, seven years before the church was actually built. 

The hymn was an immediate success and helped pay Pitt’s tuition to medical school. The Little Brown Church has been a tourist attraction since the development of the U.S. highway system in the 1920s.

While there are many stories about the Little Brown Church, there is only one about Iowa’s smallest church, St. Anthony of Padua, a Roman Catholic church that seats 10 people beneath a 40-foot steeple along the banks of the Turkey River in Winneshiek County. 

St. Anthony’s was built in 1886 by Johann Gaertner. As a lad, he fought alongside Napoleon in Moscow in 1812 and at Waterloo in 1815.

Whye wrote that “his mother promised to build a chapel” if he came home safe. He did, but “she never completed her promise. Ultimately, he moved to northeast Iowa and built the chapel himself. When he died in 1893 at the age of ninety-three, Gaertner was laid to rest there, … the only member of Napoleon’s army to be buried in Iowa.”

To find St. Anthony’s, take 123rd Street west from the town of Festina for a little more than a mile. Turn south on Little Church Road and go another mile or so until you cross the Turkey River, where you’ll find the church on the left. 

The opposite of a small church with a tall steeple is the 150-foot-long, single-story, flat-roofed house that famed designer Frank Lloyd Wright built for Des Moines businessman Lowell Walter in 1950.

Walter, who “made his fortune by inventing a way to surface county roads with asphalt, wanted a summer home” on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River west of Quasqueton in Buchanan County, according to Whye.

The house “has two major components,” he wrote. “One holds three bedrooms, the other contains the living and dining rooms.” All furnishings were designed by Wright. A two-level guest/boat house on the river is a miniature of the main house. 

The Walter family donated the retreat to the state, and it is now part of Cedar Rock State Park.

According to Whye there are 10 Wright-designed buildings in Iowa, including a bank-hotel-office complex in Mason City that was built in 1910, which is the only surviving example of a Wright hotel.

The Mason City property fell on hard times during the Great Depression and was abandoned for many years until decades of preservation efforts succeeded in restoring the property in 2011 as the Historic Park Inn with 27 guest rooms that provide limited service during the pandemic.

Another roadside distraction that’s currently open every night but Monday is the 61 Drive Inn Theater on U.S. Highway 61 south of Maquoketa.

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