Iconic Iowa: John Wayne Birthplace Museum and Covered Bridges of Madison County

Iowa. At the John Wayne Museum. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
At the John Wayne Museum. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

But it’s the last vehicle John Wayne ever owned that is so unexpected. Retrofitted with a higher roof and door openings to accommodate the big man’s 6-foot, 4-inch frame, the greenish-blue 1972 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon is just not what you would expect from the man who was bigger than life. There’s a pretty good size dent in one fender that, we’re told, was there when it was delivered to the museum in Winterset. The museum director, Brian Downes, has several ideas about how it got there. He’ll be glad to chat with you about it and share with you other stories from the times he personally met John Wayne.

The museum is open year-round, but a particularly fun time to visit is Memorial Day Weekend, which is the closest weekend to his birth. For three days, the little town of fewer than 5,000 residents swells with pride as it welcomes guests for parades, a horse show, barn dance, and movie screenings. Plan ahead to get a room in town. Tickets for many of these event sell out far in advance.

Covered Bridges of Madison County

Of course, since you’ve come all of this way to the middle of Middle America, schedule enough time to enjoy the Bridges of Madison County, first made famous by the book by Robert James Waller, a native of Iowa.

Iowa Hogback Bridge in Madison County. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer
Hogback Bridge in Madison County. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

At the time the book was released, there were seven covered bridges, dating to the 1870s and 80s. Due to an unfortunate case of arson, only six of the wooden bridges remain. In addition to some serious local security, they are all protected on the National Register of Historic Places, making it a more significant crime if you damage the structures.

The bridge that draws the most attention from book, movie and musical fans is the Roseman Bridge. That’s the one that first brought Robert and Francesca together, where she left a note inviting him to dinner, where her ashes were spread near the end of the movie, leaving some wondering if cremation is even Christian.

Iowa. John Wayne's House. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer
John Wayne’s House. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Robert Kincaid

Robert Kincaid didn’t have a map to the bridges, which is why he got lost and stopped at the Johnson farmhouse in the first place. And Francesca’s directions were all but useless. However, life is a little easier for the 21st century photographer wandering aimlessly through rural Iowa.  The Madison County Chamber of Commerce now offers printed maps with GPS coordinates. Or, with advance planning, you can take a guided tour of movie sites and even have lunch at the Northside Café, where Clint Eastwood, aka Robert Kincaid, ate in the movie.

A third, more unusual way to explore two of the bridges and the rural scenery of Madison County is via the Middle River and routes established by the Central Iowa Paddlers Association. A 45-mile route goes under the Roseman and the Holliwell bridges with interesting stops and peaceful vistas in between.

A colorful, but busy time to visit Winterset is in October during the Covered Bridge Festival.

If You Go:

The John Wayne Birthplace Museum – 877-462-1044; www.johnwaynebirthplace.museum

Madison County Chamber of Commerce –  515-462-1185; www.madisoncounty.com

Bio: Photographer Bruce N. Meyer is a native of Davenport Iowa. He and his wife/author Diana Lambdin Meyer now make their home in Kansas City Missouri. Their work appears regularly in the Dallas Morning News, USA Today, numerous AAA publications and more. They are both award winning members of the Society of American Travel Writers.

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