Most people think of Iowa as one of those states they fly over or drive through on their way to a more interesting destination. But there’s a lot more to this Midwestern state than corn fields and hogs.
1. The state was named after the Ioway people, a Native American tribe that once inhabited the area. But what “Iowa” really means has long been a subject of debate. One account says it was coined when a tribe of Native Americans spied the land for the first time and proclaimed it “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa,” which meant “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.” Then there’s the tale that says it’s a variation on the French word “Ayuhwa,” which means “sleepy ones”—something the Dakota Sioux tribe called the Ioway Nation.
2. It's home to the house in Grant Wood's American Gothic. Wood sketched the house when he passed through Eldon, Iowa, in 1930, struck by the contradiction of the modest Midwestern house with rather fancy windows. He painted the home back at his studio, then added the dour-looking man and woman, modeled after his dentist and his sister, respectively.
Jehjoyce via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
It's also where Ozzy Osbourne's infamous bat incident happened. On January 20, 1982, a 17-year-old fan named Mark Neal threw a bat onstage at a Black Sabbath concert in Des Moines. Thinking it was a fake, Ozzy picked up the bat and chomped down—which is when he realized it was the real deal. He went to the hospital for rabies shots immediately after the show.
4. You wouldn’t expect southeast Iowa to be a hub for Transcendental Meditation, but that’s exactly what it is. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded the Maharishi School of Management in 1973 and purchased the campus of the bankrupt Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, the following year. The Golden Domes (one of them is shown below) are used for meditation en masse.
Keithbob via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Speaking of the unexpected, Iowa is a somewhat unlikely Mecca for Olympic gymnasts. But that’s what it's become, thanks to world-renowned Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in West Des Moines. Because coach Liang Chow has two Olympic gold medalists under his belt—Shawn Johnson and Gabby Douglas—other hopefuls are moving to Des Moines in droves just to train with him. He currently has three international elite gymnasts on his roster.
6. The Amana Colonies, “one of America’s longest-lived communal societies,” was founded by a group of German Pietists who left their homeland to escape religious persecution in the 18th century. They chose Iowa due to the availability of cheap farmland. Though they’ve since mostly absorbed into the surrounding community, some of the residents still speak High German, or a dialect known as Amana German.
7. Woolly mammoth bones are abundant. The prehistoric pachyderms once lived in the area, so it's not that unusual for residents to find mammoth bones. They're especially prevalent in Mahaska County, where people seem to stumble upon them by accident.
8. Iowa and Missouri almost went to war in the 1830s. Thanks to a surveying mistake, Iowa and Missouri were at each other's throats for a few years. One surveyor's boundary line was four miles further north on the east side than the west; another official was sent to resurvey, but his line was uneven to the tune of 2,600 acres. When a Missouri tax collector tried to cash in from citizens who lived in the disputed acres, an Iowan sheriff arrested him. The governors of each state threatened each other with combat, with militias and volunteers called to gather at the border. Before any shots were fired, the federal government stepped in and literally drew the line.
The conflict is often referred to as “The Honey War” because a copse of trees containing a large number of honeybees was destroyed during the dispute.
9. Actor Rob Lowe was playing in a PGA Pro-Am celebrity golf tournament in West Des Moines when a golf ball he had just hit struck and killed a goldfinch in mid-flight. Actuaries actually calculated the odds of him going to Iowa and killing the state bird with a golf ball: 1 in 747 million.
10. You've no doubt heard the phrase "the greatest thing since sliced bread"—well, we have Iowa to thank for those precut loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder was apparently fed up with trying to cram hand-sliced pieces of bread into a toaster, so in 1912, he invented a device that would cut bread into consistently-sized slices. Unfortunately, Rohwedder's fantastic invention was destroyed in a fire before it could be unleashed on the world. It took him some time to refine and rebuild, so sliced bread wasn't commercially available until 1928.
11. The land-locked state is home to an island city, Sabula (pop. 576), which is just one mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. It wasn’t actually an island until 1939, when the construction of a lock and dam system flooded the lowlands west of the town.
12. When it comes to civil rights, Iowa has always been ahead of the curve. Married women received property rights in 1851, and in 1869, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that women should be allowed to practice law, making Iowan Arabella Mansfield the first female lawyer in the U.S. The state was also way ahead on school desegregation: The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unlawful back in 1868, 85 years before Brown v. Board of Education decided the same thing on a federal level in 1954.
13. Though many may think of the Midwestern state as conservative, the Iowa Supreme Court was a leader in gay marriage in 2009 when it declared that forbidding same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. It was only the third state to do so, behind Massachusetts and Connecticut.
14. More than 25 percent of the state’s electricity comes from wind power. That’s the result of more than 3200 wind turbines, the highest concentration in the country. The state hopes to up that to 40 percent by 2020.
16. The Red Delicious apple originated at an orchard in Peru, Iowa. But if you, like most people, find that Red Delicious apples are nowhere near as tasty as the name implies, don’t blame Iowa. Today’s variety bears little resemblance to the 1872 original, which was a "round, blushed yellow fruit of surpassing sweetness."
17. The ghost town of Preparation, Iowa, was once home to a clan of Mormons. In 1853, a man named Charles B. Thompson declared that the "Spirit" told him to break away from the group of Mormons he was headed to Utah with. Up to 60 families decided to stay with him, and together they founded the town of Preparation, which they said was their "School of Preparation for the Life Beyond." It was all well and good until Thompson received another "message" from a spirit that told all of the families in town to give all of their deeds and possessions to him. Many did—and then realized they had been scammed. Citizens set out after their former leader, who narrowly escaped by hiding in a friend's attic. He eventually fled the state, and much of his disillusioned camp went on to Utah.The 344 acres the town once occupied is now Preparation Canyon State Park.
18. Iowa had only been a state for 15 years when the Civil War started, and had a population of just 600,000. Though the 76,534 Iowan men who served in the Union may seem like small potatoes compared to contributions from other states, no other state had a higher percentage of its male population serve. Iowa even had a regiment called the “Greybeards” because the men were all considered elderly, including one octogenarian.
19. Contrary to popular belief, not all of Iowa is flat. In fact, some of Iowa's most distinctive geological landmarks are hills: The Loess Hills in the western part of the state were created by windblown soil during the Ice Age.
20. The United States' version of the Nazca Lines are in Iowa. Effigy Mounds, large scale Native American sculptures of animals, humans, and religious figures made out of piles of earth, date as far back as 350 CE. Sculptures of birds and bears are the most popular in Northeast Iowa, where Effigy Mounds National Park covers 2,526 acres—and there are no cars allowed.
vkil via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
21. Clear Lake, Iowa, is where "the music died." Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson all died when their plane crashed into a field there in 1959. Waylon Jennings, who was part of Holly's band at the time, was supposed to be on the flight, but gave his seat to an ailing Richardson. Jennings took a bus instead, and Holly jokingly told him he hoped he would freeze on the bus. "I hope your ol' plane crashes," Jennings joked back—and it haunted him ever since. "God almighty, for years I thought I caused it," he later told CMT.
22. Two of the biggest classic film stars were native Iowans. Marion Morrison—that’s John Wayne to most of us— was born in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907. His family moved to California when he was just six. Donna Mullenger was born fourteen years later and 120 miles to the northwest in Denison, Iowa. She changed her name to Donna Reed when she signed with MGM in 1941.
23. The University of Iowa has hosted the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a graduate-level creative writing program, for close to 80 years. Alumni and/or faculty include John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost, and Kurt Vonnegut.
24. Though the 1995 movie was based on a book of fiction by Robert James Waller, the setting for The Bridges of Madison County is real. There were originally 19 covered bridges from the 1800s in the county, but only six remain today. The one pictured is the Holliwell Bridge that was prominently featured in the movie.
25. RAGBRAI, which takes place in Iowa, is the largest bike touring event in the world. Since 1973, the Des Moines Register has sponsored the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. The week-long event takes cyclists from the Missouri River on the west side of Iowa to the Mississippi River on the east border. Routes change every year—since its inception, routes have covered 780 Iowa towns in all 99 counties. Though there was a time when more than 23,000 people participated in certain legs of the ride, it’s now limited to 8,500 for the whole week-long ride. Lance Armstrong has participated in several RAGBRAIs.