Small town. Big idea. Rural setting. Multicultural pride.
Perry, population 7,500, has long been in the middle of Iowa’s “corn-hog belt.” The drive there, one-half hour northwest of Des Moines, feels like a trip to the middle of nowhere.
Locals will remind you that small towns rule in this state. They are not overshadowed by an annoyingly huge metropolitan area, which makes for clean living, clean politics and a pretty even distribution of wealth. There are exceptions.
One is Perry. The town could have withered as transportation got speedier and work opportunities changed. That’s what happened to Angus, a once-vibrant coal-mining town with a 16-saloon “Whiskey Row,” just a few miles north. Today Angus is merely a country cemetery name.
Perry thrives because of Roberta Green Ahmanson, a quiet hometown girl who moved away, worked hard, married well. She became a philanthropist, and when she decided to save an old hotel from being demolished, the little town had its chance to be reborn (and, eventually, to be featured in a 2004 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition).
Ahmanson, whose husband founded an asset management company, spent about $12 million in the 1990s to turn the 1913 Hotel Pattee into a four-diamond hotel and restaurant that teaches local history in each of its 40 guest rooms and suites.
This is not the only old hotel in the world to escape the wrecking ball. Nor is it the only high-end lodging property in an unexpected setting.
What makes the Hotel Pattee unique is its décor and mission. Each guest room/suite is remarkable in its furnishings, the attention paid to details, the stories that are shared through photos and text framed on walls. Themes are about immigration, ethnic pride and local heritage.
I asked to stay in the 1913 Farmhouse, one of the most modest accommodations, because I grew up on a farm. What I got was a plush room adorned with modern amenities and homespun handicrafts: a crocheted afghan, quilts, needlepoint pillows, embroidered dish towels, a gingham apron hanging from the hook of a shelf filled with antique kitchen and sewing items.
“No one ever said life on a farm was easy, but it was good,” one piece of text declares. Scenes of horse teams plowing, and men working, are not anonymous. My room told the story of brothers Price and Lloyd Smith, third-generation family farmers.
The story and furnishings behind each door is remarkably different. There are Irish, Mexican, American Indian, Swedish, Chinese, Italian, Dutch, Welsh, Japanese, Russian and Southeast Asian rooms. Others are devoted to needlework, quilts, marching bands, woodworking. Native sons and daughters who have done well get to have their stories told, too.
It’s not just the hotel that keeps history alive. More than 90 volunteers collect local artifacts and oral histories for Hometown Perry Iowa, which is a museum campus that encompasses the entire community. Thousands of names and lives have been documented.
Another Ahmanson project was the restoration of the 1904 Carnegie Library, which houses evidence and stories about libraries, reading and Midwest authors. The building does not duplicate the Perry Public Library, which has a more traditional function.
The diligence of local residents to preserve the past and respect the voices of average people slowly has turned Perry into a showcase nationwide, a generic example of how small-town life is The Good Life.
The classy Thymes Remembered Tea Room is across the road from the farmers’ feedmill. Inventory at the Ray B. Smith Museum Store is as eclectic and classy as the Hotel Pattee’s interior design. Merchandise at the nearby Ben Franklin is eclectic, too, but in a more practical way.
For more about the Hotel Pattee: www.hotelpattee.com, 888-424-4268.
What else is there to do in the neighborhood, which – in this state – means no more than one hour from Perry? There is enough to fill a long weekend, easily.
Covered bridges, some used as filming sites for “The Bridges of Madison County,” can be seen on a self-guided auto tour. The annual Covered Bridge Festival is Oct. 14-15 in Winterset.
Also in Winterset is John Wayne’s birthplace, which is filled with nostalgic photos of the actor and artifacts from his life.
Fons & Porter, described as “the Martha Stewarts of the quilting world,” produce their “Love of Quilting” magazine in Winterset and operate a small quilting supply store downtown.
Garst Farm Resort, Coon Rapids, can be toured (and bedrooms can be rented). Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, who visited in 1959, made the farm famous.
The Des Moines Metro Opera is based in the small town of Indianola, near Des Moines.
For more about the charms of central Iowa: www.iowatourism.com, 800-285-5842.
My recent visit to central Iowa, including lodging at the Hotel Pattee, was a part of the Midwest Travel Writers Association fall conference.