This summer I checked an item off my Iowa bucket list.
I often find that the best way to see a Midwest landmark is by working it into a trip to someplace else. So much of our history involves the birth, decline, and restoration of small places that often the landmark on my list exists in a pretty isolated place. That’s true of Nicodemus, Kansas, a fascinating relic of the African American experience. It is also true of the American Gothic house in Eldon, Iowa. I recently visited Eldon on my way to Mount Pleasant for a reunion.
As you most likely know, American Gothic is the name of a 1930 painting by Grant Wood. The painting is one of the most familiar images in American culture, right up there with Whistler’s Mother and Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Grant Wood was an Iowan born and bred. His inspiration for the painting came from a small house he saw while visiting the southern Iowa town of Eldon. Built in the Carpenter Gothic style, the house inspired Wood to imagine who might live there, and the idea developed into American Gothic. The house can be seen in the background of the painting.
Today the American Gothic house is a well-maintained landmark owned by the State Historical Society of Iowa. The property includes the house (in its original location) and a small museum about Grant Wood, American Gothic, and the history of the house itself. The museum staff are friendly and helpful, and they have props on hand to help visitors set up their own parodies of the painting.
At the time of Wood’s visit, Eldon was a thriving little town with a regionally important railroad depot. Today, with the decline of the railroad, Eldon is small and struggling. It’s located six miles south of Highway 34, the road I was taking to Mount Pleasant. The house itself was a worthwhile stop, but there’s not much else to see in Eldon. That’s the story of so much of rural America, isn’t it?