Going to Kalona, Iowa for me is as much fun as it is a learning experience. I’ve written three fictional books centered around Amish people. I want my story details to be right. It helps to be observant while I’m enjoying the day.
I saw a church sign in Kalona, Iowa last week that said – Spring is God’s way of saying I Love You. If that is true, God certainly loves Kalona. The town is in full bloom from redbuds and tulip trees to fruit trees. Deep purple tulips mixed with red and yellow ones lined the neatly mowed yards and sidewalks.
Kalona is the Quilt Capital of Iowa for a reason. The vast variety of handmade quilts for sale are gorgeous. Even one intersection on Main Street has a painted quilt block to remind us as we drive over it. I understand this summer portions of the sidewalks are going to be taken up and sections with quilt block patterns are being put in.
Citizens in that town are all of one variety, the kind that my dad used to phrase as they never see a stranger. Our first stop was at the Visitor’s Information Center. The woman in charge was very helpful. She knows her Kalona information and places to see very well. She gave us handouts and opened one booklet to a map. All the spots of interest she thought we might like in the country, she circled and told us which way to go to get on the right road.
Our first stop was the Quilt show at the community building only to find out the show didn’t start until late afternoon the first day. I was disappointed, but we picked Thursday for our trip after hearing that it would be cold and rainy the other two days. So next best was a stop at the Woodin Wheel shop. There is a large room of quilts and wall hangings that is just about like a quilt show plus the rest of the shop is filled with antiques. This year I took my camera so I told my husband to take a picture of me in front of the store. A woman crossed the street and asked if I’d like to have both of us in the picture. She’d be glad to take the picture for us. Good thing I let her. The one my husband took had me leaning to the side as bad as a sinking ship. In the store, I bought a book about the Amish to go with the two I picked out last year. This one is A Quiet and Peaceable Life by John L. Ruth.
Once we were back out on the sidewalk, I was trying to decide where to go next when my husband wondered off. A hardware store close by had a reel lawn mower sitting between tillers and mowers. For some reason, he has been wanting to try a reel mower like we both had to use when we were kids. My memory is not so short that I want to return to mowing our lawn with one. Anyway, he was on his way into the store by the time I caught up to him. He asked the price and did his usual "What do you think?" to me. The clerk winked at me, and I replied I thought he wanted it which was as noncommittal as I could get. Simultaneously, I was writing the check, and he was outside putting the mower in the trunk. He was happy. He’d just bought what in that area is probably called an Amish lawn mower and in fact had been used by an Amish farmer twice before he brought it back which should have been a signal that even the Amish don’t find mowing with a reel mower a pleasant experience. First thing my husband did when we got home was try the mower out. He’s happy with his buy, but for some reason I’m going to pretend is unknown to me, he keeps asking if I’d like to try the mower. I keep declining. Reminded me too much of the Tom Sawyer story when he tricked his friends into white washing a fence for him. We have a big lawn.
At noon, we went to the Mennonite owned grocery store on the edge of town to eat lunch in the deli. The young woman behind the counter took our order, the tenderloin and French fries, and told us she’d bring the meal to us. When she ran out of customers, she walked by the booths to pick up empty plates and had something cheerful or funny to say to the diners. When she asked if she could get us anything else, I told her I couldn’t eat another bite I was so full. The meal was good. She replied they aimed to please. A couple young men at the back were just finishing their meal. One of them was a sandy haired man with the beginning of a peach fuzz beard. She asked him if he needed anything else. For instance, a razor? I heard his weak chuckle. I think I found her comment funnier than he did.
We made a pass through the grocery store to buy bags of yellow cornmeal which I’ve done several times now. I store them in my freezer until I use them. In this area, no one uses cornmeal to the extent I do so all the grocery stores stock is small boxes. At the checkout, the woman pulled out a green cloth bag and put the cornmeal in it. She said the bag was free- one to a customer with a ten dollar order. I’ve seen the cloth bags in the stores, but so far have stuck with the plastic bags which I find ways to use later. "So you’re going green?" I asked. The lady said, "No, this is the 25th anniversary of our store opening. The bags just happen to be green."
After lunch, we drove out into the country. The gravel roads have frost balls and ruts here and there, most of which have been filled with a pile of gravel. As long as we watched and zig zagged around those areas, traveling was manageable. At night, those roads may have been all right for horse and buggy transportation but not so good for cars.
First stop was the Country Community Store that has all sorts of merchandise that Amish people prefer like stainless steel pots, black shoes in all sizes, glass dishes and lamp wicks. On the way there, we passed an Amish wedding. What a sight to see. The farmer had built a large shed to use for machinery, but while the building was new, the family used it for the wedding. A tent was set up next to the road. I’m guessing it was for the over flow crowd to eat in or the younger generation. Two wooden boxed in wagons had four shelves filled with the Amish men’s hats for the day. Those wagons were probably the bench wagons that brought the benches for the guests to sit on. Most of the Amish community plus English friends and neighbors must have turned out for this wedding. Cars, pickups and even one sporty convertible with a For Sale sign on the windshield were parked along the lawn. In the hayfield were two block long lines of buggies far enough apart to make room for the line of well behaved horses tied to a large rope that had been attached tautly to two of the farmer’s tractors. The tractors had steel wheels, but the larger one had a cab.
The Country Community Store is in a farmer’s yard. A fenced in hen house sets west of the store. On the other side of the parking lot is a large farm house and garden with growing plants under milk jugs. Two large marten houses at the end of the garden had been taken over by starlings. I’d say those birds loved their accommodations from the cheerful chattering they emitted. Why wouldn’t they? They patiently sang on their perches while they waited for the milk jugs to come off those tender plants so they could swoop down and help themselves.
From the store, we drove to the Kalona Cheese Factory. On the way we watched an Amish farmer plowing his hay field with six horses. I took a picture but the subject was too far away. When I read through my handouts, I was happy to see a picture of a farmer plowing with horses. I’ll keep that to remind me of what I saw. The cheese factory has windows in the entry hall that let sightseers watch large vats filled with cheese curds being stirred. In the store, we bought a package of cheese to eat later that had four kinds in it. The woman who helped us asked if we’d like to try a cheese curd. She pointed to a clear plastic container. I asked how we were suppose to pick the curds up. She said with our fingers then went on to say they were noted for that. I asked, "Eating with your fingers?" "No," she said. "For our cheese curds."
We went back to town to wander through two more shops- a gift store and an antique store, then we stopped by the Visitor’s Center again. The afternoon was warm, and we’d worked up a thirst so the Visitor’s Center greeter recommended we try Yotty’s Ice Cream Parlor. We got a cool drink then sat on a bench on the sidewalk and watched people walk by.
Kalona even smells like spring from the Almond soap in the Visitor’s Center rest room that lingered on my hands, to the hanging baskets of petunias in front of one shop to the flower scented shops. We didn’t get to go in all the stores or see the museum and old village, but next year weather cooperating, we’ll go on Friday or Saturday to see the Quilt show and take in the sites we missed this year.
On the way home, we took off across country and passed several Amish farms. At one farm, two women in green dresses covered with white aprons hoed their garden. They leaned on their hoes long enough to wave at us. I was struck by how clean those industrious ladies looked in mid afternoon. No way would my clothes look that clean after a day’s cooking, cleaning, doing chores and gardening. A large herd of horses were on one farm. That must be where the Amish buy new stock, because all the horses were dark red with black manes. I thought about the long line of unhitched horses at the wedding. They all look the same. I wonder how the owners knew which horse or horses were theirs. It must be because the horses were tied right in front of their buggies. It sure wouldn’t do for me to own a horse and buggy in a crowded Amish parking area. I have trouble finding my gray car in a shopping mall’s large parking lot. At that wedding, not one of those horses had a brand name on them to tell them apart.