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West Bend, Iowa

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Back on the straight and narrow – the roads of Iowa. This state has 113,000 miles of these field-to-market roads. Conceived a hundred years ago, the idea was that every square mile of farmland would have a road on every side. Driving across Iowa today is like touring a checkerboard, skirting the black and the red.

Beware of them, however, after it rains: While in the fields, big-wheeled farm equipment collects great gobs of mud that they save for deposit on the roads, and they do it well, in great quantities, and over considerable distances. We who travel in slab-sided vehicles are the targets. The stuff sticks on contact. Rain does not wash it off.

But today is beautiful and so is Iowa. Tableland shoots straight to the horizon without even a tree to get in the way.

Open-fronted buildings full of pigs are prevalent along the road. I stopped at one. They call them hog-confinement pens
– the ultimate in high-tech hog farming. These long buildings are partitioned into sections, each with an automatic feeder that’s loaded from outside with 40 bushels of feed a day.

“We just provide room and board. Companies like Smithfield, the ham people, own the pigs,” I was told. “The pigs spend their whole lives in these pens. They go from 30 pounds, when we get them, to 250 pounds in five months.”

Iowa produces more hogs than any other state – as it does the same with corn.

On Highway 15, I happened on the little town of West Bend, population about 830. It covers not quite a square mile.

Compare these numbers to any city that you know: It’s population is 98.9 percent white, about 4 percent of them are
divorced, a good house costs about $50,000, median income is less than $35,000 a year, unemployment is 2.3 percent, and 1.3 percent of these folks are foreign born.

This is America’s Heartland – not the America that the world knows.

Well into its second century, this town of German ancestry is the site of a little-known wonder of one man’s life work. He was a Catholic priest named Paul Dobberstein, who arrived here in 1898 and spent 42 years building the Grotto of the Redemption. After Father Dobberstein’s death in 1954, Father Louis Greving worked on the Grotto for eight more years. Like his predecessor, Father Greving worked winter and summer meticulously setting ornamental rocks and gems into

Valued today at $4.3 million, it is considered the most concentrated and complete collection of minerals, fossils, shells and petrifactions in the world. With them, they built an edifice that covers half-a-city-block, is two stories high, and contains nine grottos, or caves, depicting the life of Jesus and the 14 Stations of the Cross.

Iowa is not a source of colorful stones, fossils or shells. It’s igneous rock that’s homegrown – the once molten boulders that frost works to the surface during the winter, and farmers curse at in the spring as they clear them from their fields.

So Father Dobberstein roamed the country on rock-hunting expeditions, often to the Black Hills of South Dakota or to the deserts of the Southwest. Typically, a few days after his return, a freight car would arrive in West Bend loaded with what he had found.

West Bend is not a town that tourists happen on, nor is the Grotto a well-published tourist attraction. It is one of those
incredible, only-in-America creations to be discovered in the small towns of our country, which have changed little since Father Dobberstein was building his Grotto.

Welcome to America’s Outback.

Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]

Next month Bill will be in Luckenbach, Texas

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