Friends on both coasts have described the Midwest as “flyover country.” They say it with a smile, but for others the phrase carries a pejorative edge in characterizing a large portion of land that they see only from 30,000 feet.
More narrowly it means the land between Manhattan and California, and more narrowly still, between the Appalachian and Rocky mountain ranges. In “flyover states” from Ohio to Nebraska, the expanse appears to them as the Jason Aldean song depicts it: “Just a bunch of square cornfields and wheat farms. Man, it all looks the same … Who’d want to live down there in the middle of nowhere?”
In July my wife Alice and I drove from Ohio to Nebraska to visit relatives who live several miles outside rural Henderson. An 816-mile trip. After accessing Interstate 80, it’s a straight shot west all the way to the small town of 991 residents.
On or along the interstate are silos and windmills, livestock and other animals, museums and historic sites, parks and living history farms. Of the five states on our trip it was the long state of Iowa that most captured our attention. At West Branch, travelers come upon the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. On its grounds is the simple, two-room cottage in which the Hoover family lived. Fourteen by twenty feet, it’s the size of my small garden, not uncommon in 1874 for a town of 350 people. In walking distance are the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, and the one-room schoolhouse and Friends (Quaker) meetinghouse where the Hoovers worshipped.
Thirty miles west of West Branch are the Amana Colonies, seven of them, with a population of 2,000. They were established on more than 20,000 acres of rich Iowa farmland in the mid-19th century by German Pietists who left Germany in search of greater freedom. Until the economic hard times of the 1930s they lived a communal life, sharing not only the land but woolen mills, flour mills, lumber and brick yards. Today, the Amanas are a welcoming place for conventions and family reunions.
Further west on the interstate is Des Moines, the state capital, with its excellent state historical museum and botanical garden. Its art center, which includes some of the finest paintings and sculptures of the last century and a half, is a stunning interconnected building designed by three of the 20th-century’s greatest architects, working in succession — first, the original building by Eliel Saarinen, with later additions by I.M. Pei and Richard Meier.
Those whose tastes follow popular culture may exit south to Winterset, noted for the best-selling book and film titled “The Bridges of Madison County.” In that town also is the birthplace home of actor John Wayne, a modest four-room house with an adjacent museum housing the actor’s artifacts.
To a considerable extent the expansion and growth of America is a story about rivers. Familiar are the Rappahannock, Potomac and Delaware; the Ohio, Maumee and Tennessee; the Colorado and Yellowstone; and the Snake, the Gunnison and Rio Grande.
Driving through Iowa on I-80 one passes over the Des Moines and Missouri, and smaller ones such as DuPage, Skunk and Raccoon, Cedar and North, and three Creeks — Indian, Silver and Pigeon. And the big one, North America’s longest, the Mississippi, carrying all the water from two-thirds of the continent down to the Gulf of Mexico.
A pleasant surprise is Iowa’s replacement of older rest stops on I-80 in favor of themed areas that reflect aspects of the state’s history. Utilizing original art work and artistic design, the Iowa Department of Transportation has created small centers of learning that attract visitors for reasons other than tourist information and toilet facilities.
At the Cedar Rapids exit, the Gothic Arches rest area highlights artist Grant Wood’s most famous painting, “American Gothic.” Seventeen miles north is the boyhood home of the Regionalist painter who during the 1930s depicted Midwestern people and their landscape, generally with an appreciative eye.
The Adair rest area theme is wind and energy. A 148-foot tall wind turbine blade, visible for miles around, is mounted vertically, looking very much like a sculpture. Up close it appears to be taller than operating towers a mile away. Plaques discuss wind turbine operation, one of which explains the theory of lift; blades are designed much like the wings that enable planes to fly. By percentage of power generated by wind, Iowa leads all other states at approximately 32 percent.
It was not possible to visit all rest stops, but we stopped at several and noted the themes of others; for example, those devoted to Pioneers, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Civil War, Mississippi River, Literature and the Underground Railroad. We think of the latter as operating in eastern states, but an Iowa route also existed; part of its story is told at the Wilton rest area. The rest areas at times may appear as promotional stops; nevertheless, they are creative ways of publicizing a region often overlooked. Ohio should do likewise.
Given what Iowa — and the Midwest — has to offer, advocates of “flyover” may want to reconsider. Quite aside from significant cultural centers such as Chicago, Des Moines and Omaha, “flyover country” is too dismissive a term. At one time America was divided into North and South.
What a misunderstanding if a new divide is thought to be “Coastal” and “Flyover.”
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. Contact him at [email protected]