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`Wonderful Life' in tourist-starved Iowa

Towns lay claim to famous souls who may be long in the tooth or long dead: John Wayne, Donna Reed, even Mamie Eisenhower.

June 03, 2007|Tim Jones | Chicago Tribune

WINTERSET, IOWA — It's not easy being a pass-through state, with no dells or dunes, no arch or Ozarks.

That's why small towns with big water towers across Iowa celebrate the long dead or the long in the tooth, in hopes that someone from elsewhere will come to join the celebration.

In the pleasant town of Winterset, locals organized a bash last weekend marking the 100th birthday of the famous American celluloid tough guy, John Wayne, who was born here on May 26, 1907, and left at age 3.

John Wayne Drive leads to the charming town square, ringed by shops with John Wayne photos, portraits, Tiffany-style lampshades, dolls, boots, saddles and a lunch box. A couple blocks away is the tiny white Wayne home, at the corner of Second and South. There's an American flag on a pole in the front lawn, which is newly mowed.

This is only the latest effort by Iowa towns to promote themselves through homegrown celebrities.

"While tourist dollars are important, I think these efforts give a community identity," said Paul Lasley, who chairs the sociology department at Iowa State University. "These celebrities give communities an identity at a time when they are asking, 'What is our future?' "

Iowa has the highest percentage of people over 65 in the Midwest, 15%. The state has struggled for years to hold onto its young people, and nearly half of the counties report death rates exceeding birth rates. Unlike neighboring Midwestern states, there are no big-time professional sports teams in Iowa to attract out-of-state tourists. For local communities, there is a clear economic incentive to self-promote.

The town of Denison clings to the memory of the late actress Donna Reed, who starred in "It's a Wonderful Life." Wall Lake promotes singer Andy Williams. In Clarinda, it's bandleader Glenn Miller. In LeClaire, it's Buffalo Bill Cody. Mason City celebrates Meredith Wilson, who wrote "The Music Man."

Time spent in Iowa is not a barrier to celebration. John Wayne -- born Marion Morrison -- was probably not long out of his diapers when he left Winterset. In glossy brochures at Iowa tourist centers, the town of Spillville promotes the Czech-born composer Antonin Dvorak, who spent the summer of 1893 there, where he "arose and proceeded to the site of Riverside Park to commune with nature and enjoy the sound of bird voices and feast his eyes on the beauties of the region," according to the brochure.

Those who can't bask in the direct glow of stardom are creative. The town of Eldon promotes the house in the background of Grant Wood's "American Gothic." Wood was born in Anamosa, about 2 1/2 hours north of Eldon.

Many states litter their highways with billboards promoting their own. Missouri practically screams the legend of bank robber Jesse James. Iowa is more discreet; billboards often appear in clusters.

Pleasing aesthetics, though, can hinder the cause of promotion. So can small size and isolation. That was the concern 21 years ago when Becky Allen and her husband, Dan, met with some neighbors in the shrinking town of Lucas, population 243. Becky Allen argued that the town needed to promote its hometown celebrity, labor titan John L. Lewis, who was president of the United Mine Workers of America for 40 years.

"We just decided we needed to do something," said Becky Allen, who is now curator of the John L. Lewis Memorial Museum of Mining and Labor. The one-story museum, completed in 1990 through the donated work of union members, offers documents, photos and a life-size bronze statue of the fiery labor leader.

There has been a payoff in this old mining town that once had 3,600 people and 26 saloons. A quilt store, steakhouse, ice cream shop and an antique shop have taken root since the museum opened.

But the nagging question in many of these towns centers on the durability of celebrity. People will continue to stop at Herbert Hoover's hometown of West Branch (although Republican presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state avoid it because Hoover's Great Depression notoriety outweighs his celebrity). But how much longer will people care or remember that Mamie Eisenhower, the former first lady, was born in Boone, just northwest of Des Moines?

Becky Allen says many students and a good number of union members don't know who Lewis was or what he did. "Fewer and fewer, I'm afraid," is how Dan Allen described those who remember Lewis, who died in 1969.

About 1,500 to 2,000 people visit the museum during the six months it's open each year, and patrons are generally older than 50, Becky Allen said.

The high price of gasoline has already taken a toll on traffic. A reporter who arrived recently half an hour before closing was the second person to visit that day.

Winterset, which is about 40 minutes southwest of Des Moines, is in lovely Madison County, of covered-bridges fame. People flock there for the covered-bridge festival in October.

Not even "The Duke" may be safe in the long term. Although John Wayne's name and image dominate Winterset 28 years after his death, the future is uncertain.

"I've got two girls, 27 and 23," said Iowa State's Lasley, "and I'm not sure they know who John Wayne is."

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