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IMG_3026(Photos above by Phil Roberts)

Cantril is a delightful little Iowa town much like thousands of others but with one big exception: It is the home of Dutchman’s Store, a Mennonite-operated, old-fashioned general store established in 1985. Located in downtown Cantril, Dutchman’s is the town’s number-one draw. People flock to it year round by car and even by tour bus. That’s how we got there during our most recent visit. We took a one-day tour of Van Buren County in southeast Iowa, one of our favorite places to visit, on a Burlington Trailways bus.

It’s much like stepping into the past when you visit Van Buren County. It has no stoplights and no fast food restaurants, and that’s by design. But that’s a review for another time.

This review is about Dutchman’s, a general store in the truest sense of the word. A local tour guide told us that it started small years ago and has gradually expanded, now taking up the better part of a city block. Several weeks before our arrival, a new addition featuring modern restrooms, a deli, cheeses and more had just opened. This latest expansion was out the back of the building because that was about the only place left to expand. The other three sides are pretty much blocked now by streets.

A long wooden front porch is what one sees first at Dutchman’s. It is lined with merchandise for sale, and that often includes a variety of home-baked goods prepared and sold by Mennonite ladies who certainly know their way around the kitchen.

The store itself is packed with items you might need and quite a few you probably don’t. Dutchman’s sells food, much of it packaged bulk; fresh produce; clothing; hats; shoes; fabric; spices; baking supplies; books; clocks; kitchenware; gift items; toys; collectibles; candy and snacks. I’m reminded of a commercial for another business that says, “If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.” That likely applies to Dutchman’s, too. If you are ever near Cantril, I recommend you stop and tour Dutchman’s. It is worth the time.

Copyright 2013 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. Submitted as a review to tripadvisor.com.

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Posted by on July 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Burns Gallery & Tea Emporium: Tea and art are a pleasant combination

Ken Burns. All photos by Phil Roberts.

Ken Burns. All photos by Phil Roberts.

Sue Burns waits on a customer.

Sue Burns waits on a customer.

Art's not the only thing for sale.

Art’s not the only thing for sale.

Unframed prints also are available.

Unframed prints also are available.

The gallery has a relaxing feel to it.

The gallery has a relaxing feel to it.

Artist Anita Lee stands beside one of her works.

Artist Anita Lee stands beside one of her works.

If you enjoy art or tea — or both — no visit to Van Buren County, Iowa, is complete without some time spent at Burns Gallery & Tea Emporium, 509 First St., Bonaparte, IA 52620.

Their website is http://www.burnsgalleryandtea.com, and they’re also on Facebook.

Burns Gallery & Tea Emporium is located in a beautifully restored old building in the Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District, a stone’s throw from the picturesque Des Moines River.

The district was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, so bring your camera.

The Emporium’s owners, Ken and Sue Burns, will happily pour you a cup of tea to sample as you stroll through the gallery.

During our most recent visit, my wife and I tried some pumpkin-flavored tea. It was very good, but we ended up buying some Bella Coola Herbal/Fruit Tea to take home.

The Burns will accompany you, if you wish, on your gallery tour to provide information about the artists. Or you can look on your own.

The gallery displays framed paintings by artists from as far away as Japan and Alaska to as close as southeast Iowa. The subdued LED lighting provides a relaxed atmosphere and perfect viewing.

The day we visited, artist Anita Lee of Van Buren County was on hand, greeting visitors. That was a bonus.

Every piece of art is for sale as are some unframed paintings and, of course, a variety of teas from around the world. They also do framing.

On their website, the Burns say they “hope to create a world of art and specialty teas within the walls of our gallery that allows you to escape the daily routine and dream of far off places.”

In our case, their plan worked.

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Pitchfork Pie Stand: a sweet story of success

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.

The business is open summer weekends.

Beth M. Howard autographs her memoir.

“I’ll take one of those and one of those and…”

The trip to Eldon was Sherry’s idea.

The mention of pie made Phil a willing participant.

Beth M. Howard, a survivor who bakes wonderful pies.

With very few exceptions, I love pie. And I love to travel. So when my wife Sherry recently suggested we devote part of our Saturday to a road trip to Eldon, Iowa, to visit Pitchfork Pie Stand, I was ready to go.

Eldon is a pleasant little community but, frankly, not Iowa’s most exciting city.

Before the pie lady, Beth M. Howard, moved to town, bringing renewed publicity to the place, Eldon’s main claim to fame was the American Gothic House and its church-like, second-floor window beneath the roof peak. It served as the backdrop for artist Grant Wood’s famous painting of a man in overalls holding a pitchfork and a woman wearing an apron.

We’d seen the State Historical Society of Iowa-owned American Gothic House in the past. So the main attraction for us was Howard, who lives in the house and sells homemade pies there at her Pitchfork Pie Stand.

I’d read a newspaper review of Howard’s 2012 Harlequin-published memoir, “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.” Sherry had read a profile of Howard in the August 2012 issue of Guideposts and had bought her book and started to read it.

Howard is a survivor who has a remarkable story to tell.

Though she is a graduate of Davenport Assumption High School, she was born in Ottumwa and spent her early years there.

In 2001, while living on the West Coast, Howard quit her web-producing job to bake pies at a gourmet deli in Malibu. TV and movie stars were among her customers. She started her popular blog, theworldneedsmorepie.com, in 2007.

In 2009, Howard was living in Texas when she filed for divorce from Marcus, her 43-year-old husband of six years. But just hours before he was due to sign the divorce papers, he died suddenly and unexpectedly of a ruptured aorta.

Grief and guilt from the sudden loss gripped Howard, and she thought she’d be unable to go on.

But writing about her grief helped. So did a pie-related trip around the country in the couple’s RV, where she interviewed pie bakers, visited fruit orchards and spread the word about pie.

“I found that pie was this amazing connecting force between people,” Howard said in a Huffington Post article.

In the summer of 2010, a year after Marcus’ death, Beth Howard returned to her native Iowa to, quite appropriately, judge pies at the Iowa State Fair.

Though her parents no longer lived in Ottumwa, she drove there after the fair and looked up the house she grew up in, her old grade school and her dad’s office building.

Later, while driving east on Highway 34, Howard saw a sign for the American Gothic House in Eldon and drove there to see it. When she learned the house was for rent and had been vacant for two years, the wheels started turning. Two weeks later Howard was moving in, and Pitchfork Pie Stand was conceived.

Now, starting Thursdays, Howard bakes up to 100 pies. She sells them from noon to 5 Saturdays and Sundays from summer through Labor Day at the famous house. The large (9 inch) pies are $20, mini pies are $6 and slices go for $3.

Business was steady during our visit. One couple said they’d driven six hours to get there.

As Howard placed our purchases in individual white boxes adorned with red, yellow or blue checkerboard ribbons, I asked her if Iowa’s hot summer had caused her to regret her move here.

“I’m still very happy here,” she said.

Howard, who said she is familiar with North Scott Press, is a journalist. “But I don’t have time to write anything anymore,” she lamented.

That’s because in addition to baking and selling pies, she also does “book events” all over the country that include readings and pie-making demonstrations and classes. She also makes regular appearances on national TV shows.

“I’m seriously maxed out at the moment,” she said. “It’s been fun, but it’s been a really busy summer, there’s no doubt.”

During our visit, the pie flavors available for sale were shaker lemon, peach, peach crumble, strawberry and strawberry crumble. Some apple pies were still in the oven.

“I don’t sell chocolate pie, and I don’t have cherry pie,” she asserted. “Who’s going to pit all those cherries? Not me!”

Howard is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of person. So don’t be surprised if she utters some colorful language when you stop in.

In describing some of her pies to a customer, she said, “I have to say, if you ask me, these look (expletive) awesome.”

A few days prior to our visit to Pitchfork Pie Stand, Larry the Cable Guy and his camera crew had stopped in to shoot a future episode of his “Only in America” TV show on the History Channel.

“Did he install cable for you,” I jokingly asked Howard.

She replied: “I don’t have television here. (The camera crew) noted I don’t have a TV and remarked about it.”

But she does have pie, and it’s delicious.

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. Submitted as an “Everyday People” column to North Scott Press.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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An unwelcome change: Historic Tastee Freez closes

Iowa's oldest and only Tastee Freez has closed. Photo from urbanspoon.com.

One thing in life is constant. That’s the fact that things are always changing.

Sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it — the one thing in life that never changes is the fact that everything in life is always changing?

Depending on how it affects you, sometimes a particular change is good. Sometimes it isn’t. Often I can see both the good and the bad in a change.

One change I can’t find anything good about is the recently announced closing of a landmark drive-in restaurant in Davenport that was built in 1954.

The Tastee Freez at 3950 Rockingham Road was due to reopen from its winter hibernation in April, but it won’t. The signs have been removed from the building.

Owned by a franchisee from Moline, it was one of the oldest Tastee Freez’s in the country and the last one in Iowa.

A local nostalgia website, captainerniesshowboat.com, calls the Rockingham Tastee Freez an “incredible flashback to the 1950s, time warped as if you never left the decade. It remains an original twin-window walk-up drive-in experience. This is the way that all drive-ins originated, and it is unbelievable that it is still in existence to this day.

“When the store first opened its doors in 1954, it just served soft serve ice cream. A few years later they started serving pop, chips and hot dogs. Today it serves all types of sandwiches and side orders along with Tastee Freez soft serve ice cream.”

My favorite menu item was deep-fried mushrooms and the ranch dressing dip that came with them.

The website says the Rockingham Tastee Freez has had only three owners in its long history. The current owner, Tara Kirshenmann, had operated it since 1993. The owner before her had it for an amazing 38 years.

Located not far from U.S. 61 on Davenport’s west side, the Tastee Freez was a convenient stop for our family as we were driving by, and it was the perfect place to pause for a cool ice cream treat after a youth ballgame on a warm summer night in Davenport.

Customers there ate at one of a couple of picnic tables located outside in front or in their cars.

My wife and I continued to stop in now and then even after our children were grown and gone. The food was good, and the place was a comfortable reminder of times gone by.

I’ve been known to go out of my way to dine there when I was a second-shift newsman at WOC Radio.

One night a WOC co-worker questioned why I’d bought supper at Tastee Freez.

“It was Jumbo Day. You pay for the regular size of your food item, but they give you an extra large,” I explained as he broke into laughter.

He still teases me about Jumbo Day.

“It is one of the greatest pieces of Americana that there is,” captainerniesshowboat.com says of the Rockingham Tastee Freez. Now it’s gone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”

Those of us who loved it have lost the Rockingham Tastee Freez.

Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This has been submitted as a column to North Scott Press.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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This place is much more than a truck stop

Most everything is under one roof. Phil Roberts photo.

Beautiful trucks and trailers are displayed in the store. Phil Roberts photo.

Not many stores have a wall of lights like this one. Phil Roberts photo.

Chrome is king in the Iowa 80 store. Phil Roberts photo.

The floor leaves no doubt where you've set foot. Phil Roberts photo.

Iowa 80 Truckstop (iowa80truckstop.com) bills itself as the world’s largest truck stop. Located along Interstate 80 at the mile marker 284 interchange, Iowa 80 is, indeed, huge.

It’s like a self-contained city within the city of Walcott, Iowa.
Truckers love the place for the Truckomat truck wash, CAT scale, game room, library, sleeping rooms, private showers, movie theater, washers and dryers, TV den, 24-hour service center and road service.

But you don’t have to be a truck driver to find a reason to visit Iowa 80.

The facility has fuel, restrooms, snacks, a food court, a restaurant and a 50,000-item store whose highlights are gifts and chrome items.

There are Sunday church services; a Dogomat pet wash; an embroidery, vinyl and laser engraving service; a Verizon kiosk; ATMs; UPS/ FedEx drop boxes; a fax/copy service; a mailbox; Western Union service; and pay phones. Oh, yes, there’s even a barber, dentist and chiropractor!

Since 1979, Iowa 80 has paid tribute to truckers two days each July at its free Walcott Truckers Jamboree. And you’ll find a huge collection of antique trucks year round right next door at the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum.

Perhaps the best part about Iowa 80 Truckstop is that it never closes.

Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece and the photos above were submitted as an attraction review to tripadvisor.com.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Superior 71: Proof positive that drive-in theaters are making a minor comeback

There I am by our van at Superior 71, with the big screen in the background, as dusk approaches. Sherry Roberts photo.

The combination snack bar/projection area at Superior 71. Phil Roberts photo.

We stayed in a pleasant cabin this summer at Sandbar Beach Resort on the east side of Spirit Lake. Phil Roberts photo.

This is an Iowa Great Lakes sunset. Phil Roberts photo.

The view from our cabin. Phil Roberts photo.

 

Last June, for the first time in years, my wife Sherry and I went to a drive-in movie. It was while we were on vacation at Iowa’s Great Lakes region. We had honeymooned in that area in 1969 and hadn’t been back since about 1978, when the third of our four children was a baby.

It was while we were exploring our surroundings on the east side of Spirit Lake on this trip that we happened upon Superior 71 Drive-in Theater at the junction of Highways 9 and 71. We immediately put it on our list of things to do.

My interest in drive-in theaters goes back to my childhood. From my third through 10th years, 1952-1959, my family lived on Dugan Court, off North Lincoln in Davenport. The Bel-Air Drive-In (1948-1986) sat to the west, with only a small, wooded ravine separating it from our small subdivision.

Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I could watch the Bel-Air’s movies — albeit without sound — from my bedroom window at night. During the day, when no one was around, my friends and I would sneak through the ravine onto the Bel-Air property, where we played in the cab of an old junk truck in the weeds at the back of the lot.

I also remember going to the Bel-Air with my parents and brother to see movies now and then in the early ’60s. The only flick I can remember, though, is “Hatari!,” a 1962 adventure starring John Wayne, Red Buttons and Elsa Martinelli.

Fast forward to rural Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Superior 71. According to an Estherville Daily News story I found online, Gaylord Kemp of Alpha, Minn., opened the theater in the summer of 2008, using a 90-foot-wide screen that he took apart and moved from the site of the former Chief Drive-in Theater near Estherville, Iowa.

Kemp’s theater, which shows double features – we saw “Date Night” with Steve Carell and Tina Fey and “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett –accommodates several hundred cars. But we were there on a Tuesday, not a prime movie-going night, and there were less than a dozen vehicles in the place.

We chatted a bit with Kemp, the lone ticket seller. We later watched as he shut down the box office at dusk and headed to the combination snack bar/projection house in the middle of the lot, where I suspect he then became the projectionist.

Kemp’s is one of only a handful of drive-in theaters in Iowa. But drive-ins are making a minor comeback from their heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there were 4,000 of them across the United States. One reason for the resurgence is empty nesters, who have more expendable income than they used to and long for nostalgic entertainment.

If you have a yearning to step back in time and see a movie under the stars, eastern Iowa is home to two drive-ins with a third proposed for west of Davenport in Scott County.

The venerable 61 Drive-In, located south of Maquoketa, opened in August of 1950 and is still going great guns. Grandview Drive-In Theater, which opened in 2007, is located just north of that community along Highway 61 south of Muscatine.

But if you haven’t been to a drive-in theater for a while, you will notice one big change: The post-mounted, wired speaker you used to hang on your car window is a relic of the past. Motion picture audio at drive-ins now comes from low-power radio transmitters whose signals are picked up by car radios.

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article has been submitted as a column to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Like a phoenix, Breitbach’s arises again from the ashes

Breitbach's Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa, bigger and better than ever. All photos by Phil Roberts.

One of the beautiful dining rooms.

Mike Breitbach.

Dennis Hoppenworth shows off the pump for the sprinkler system.

Cooks are at work in the modern kitchen.

A beautiful beer garden sits behind Breitbach's.

An interior shot of the Wine Shed. A prophetic sign says "rebuild it, and they will come."

You can't help but feel relaxed at this place.

Mike Breitbach, a short, thin guy in his early 60s with a shaved head, flits around the restaurant, doing whatever needs to be done.

He’s a bundle of energy. Replenishing food items on the buffet. Seating people who just walked in. Taking money at the register.

He’s dressed casually in a black T-shirt and tan shorts. When there’s time, he goes from table to table, asking, “Is everything OK?” or “Do you need anything?”

It’s 6:30 on a Thursday night and Breitbach’s Country Dining, the restaurant that put tiny Balltown (population about 60) in northeast Iowa on the map, is hopping. Two of its three dining rooms are busy. So is the bar room.

There’s hardly time for Mike to utter his familiar old line to newcomers: “First time to Balltown? Welcome to Breitbach’s. My name is Mike. My wife Cindy runs the place. I just work here.”

But we’re certainly not newcomers. My wife and I have dined here many times, and we’ve taken a detour home from a trip to Minnesota just to drive the Great River Road and eat at Breitbach’s once again.

Some diners on this night are enjoying the buffet. Other folks have ordered off the menu. But everyone who has ever eaten at this place in the past knows to save room for a piece of delicious homemade pie — I vote for coconut cream as the best — crafted by Cindy.

An elderly couple is headed to the door. Breitbach gives the wife his trademark bear hug and shakes her husband’s hand. “Come back again,” he says. You know they will.

Breitbach’s is a popular restaurant and bar. But it’s more than that. Breitbach tells us about the visit of a seasoned West Virginia newspaper reporter who made an observation.

“He said this is more than a restaurant,” Breitbach relates, the pride obvious is his bright blue eyes. “It’s a community institution.”

It’s evident on this night that the community is glad Breitbach’s Country Dining is still around after not one, but two devastating fires threatened its long life.

Iowa’s oldest bar and restaurant opened in 1852. Jacob Breitbach, Mike’s great-great grandfather, worked for the original owner and purchased the stagecoach stop in 1862. Since that time, the Breitbach family has been in continuous ownership of the place.

But it all nearly came to an end when a fire destroyed the family business on Christmas Eve morning in 2007.

The place was closed at the time, but Mike and some relatives were eating breakfast there in preparation for a funeral dinner later in the day. Mike smelled gas, and minutes later an explosion in the basement blew him through a kitchen door. The place burned to the ground.

The community and people from all over the country soon rallied around the Breitbach family with words of encouragement and donations of food, money, labor and materials, and rebuilding of the restaurant began. The new facility opened Father’s Day weekend of 2008.

“Busloads of people came from all over Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and other parts of the country to see the work and enjoy the same home-style cooking they had previously enjoyed,” says Breitbach’s website, breitbachscountrydining.com.
But tragedy struck a second time.

On Oct. 24, 2008, 10 months to the day after the first fire, the Breitbachs, who live in a farmhouse a couple of miles from town, received a 3:30 a.m. phone call that their new building was burning. It was destroyed by a fire of undetermined origin.

After the shock subsided, people wondered if the Breitbach family would rebuild a second time.

The answer – yes! — came just before Christmas of 2008 following a meeting of Mike and Cindy Breitbach and their five sons and two daughters, all now grown and all of whom grew up working at the family business.

The community soon rallied around the family once again, and the rebuilding started.

The second new facility — bigger and better than the first new building, five times larger than the original building and protected this time by a sprinkler system — opened Aug. 1, 2009.

Customers longing for the Breitbach experience have returned.
“Business is just crazy,” Breitbach says. The place served 1,800 people on Father’s Day.

After our meal, Breitbach, still busy with customers, tosses his keys to his friend, Dennis Hoppenworth, and asks him to take us on a tour.

Hoppenworth, a Balltown councilman, is one of the locals who gather daily at Breitbach’s for breakfast and Thursday evenings for dinner. He and his wife are Waterloo transplants who have lived in Balltown since 2002, he tells us.

They were looking for a place along the Mississippi for retirement, he says, when they discovered Balltown and its beautiful panoramic view of the countryside. As luck would have it, a house down the street from Breitbach’s was for sale, and they bought it.

Hoppenworth shows us through the dining rooms, with their dark tile floors; gold-painted, wainscoated walls; white ceilings with stained wooden beams. They’re all decorated with antiques and country crafts.

A central hallway where hungry customers wait for a table is lined with framed newspaper and magazine articles about Breitbach’s.
A brightly lit modern kitchen with stainless steel food preparation tables is home to two full-time cooks and some parttimers.

Down the basement there’s a fourth dining room for meetings and private parties. There’s also a $50,000 pump for the sprinkler system’s water, which is in an exterior storage tank.

“It’s tested weekly,” says Hoppenworth says of the pump.

Out back, in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped, gravel parking lot that wraps around the building, is a beautifully landscaped, shaded beer garden.

Gardener Russ Pfeler, who lives down the road in Sherrill, Iowa, is on hand, watering his plants.

Nearby, Hoppenworth points out, is the wine shed. That’s where locals commisserated after the fires and where volunteers brought in food to feed the workers who twice rebuilt the restaurant.

Just outside the curved portion of the horseshoe parking lot is Breitbach’s ballpark.

“It’s been in the family since 1915,” says Hoppenworth.

One wonders how this hard-working family ever finds time to use it.

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article has been submitted for publication to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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