Iowa Public Television

 

Iowa's Simple Pleasures (#406)


Get lost in an amazing autumn maze; explore the all-you-can-eat menu at a scenic spot in Jackson county; learn the history and hardships of life as a hobo; and save room for a Green River or Banana Split at the ol' time soda fountain in Wilton.


Dan Kaercher:  Let's go! Get lost in an amazing autumn maze.  Explore the all you can eat menu at a scenic spot in Jackson County.  Learn the history and hardships of life as a hobo and save room for a Green River Banana Split at the old time soda fountain in Wilton.  Join me, Dan Kaercher as I travel the state to bring you these stories next on Iowa's Simple Pleasures. 

 Funding for this program was provided by "Friends" the Iowa Public Television Foundation.  Generations of family and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa Public Television. 

 Iowa Tourism.  Iowa's tourism industry generates six billion dollars annually and supports more than 62,000 jobs.  Information is available at traveliowa.com to learn how you can support Iowa's economy while having a wonderful vacation in your own state. 

The Gilchrist Foundation.  Founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist.  Furthering the philanthropic interest of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting, and disaster relief.   

 Iowa Community Foundations.  An initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations.  Connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about.  For good.  For Iowa.  For ever.  Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. 

 Dan Kaercher:  In Northwest Iowa I found an amazing place with a corn maze and all things pumpkin.  Up in the orthwest corner of the state O'Brien County is said to be one of Iowa's most highly tillable areas which equals abundant harvest of corn and soybeans.  But near Sanborn, I find a much more colorful and unusual pair of crops. Pumpkins and squash.  They are all part of the bounty at Solsma's Punkin Patch. 

Amy Solsma:  Well, I plant about 60 different varieties of pumpkins, gourds, and squash and the pumpkins can be anywhere from a couple ounces to 50 pounds.  My biggest jack-o-'lantern that I ever planted was 81 pounds and then in addition we have lots of kinds of squash, and not just the typical like acorn and butternut and buttercup, but also a lot of exotic and heirloom varieties that are different shapes, colors, sizes, bumpy or warty and just lots of colors too.

 Dan Kaercher:  The pumpkin patch itself is about a mile down the road from Solsma's Proper and it isn't open to the public but oh boy, the rest of this agritourism business has so much to offer. 

 Employee:  Have you ever been to the pumpkin patch before? 

 Dan Kaercher:  First time visitors will quickly realize that pumpkins and squash are a serious business here at Solma's.

 Amy Solsma:  They should all be good.  We try not to pick anything before it is ready.

 Dan Kaercher:  Whether folks are looking for a tasty autumn delicacy. 

 Amy Solsma:  Yep, right under the - in the bunk right here and the acorn are in the wheelbarrow and then we have butternut too.

 Dan Kaercher:  Or seeking that perfect Halloween decoration.

 Customer:  This one looks good for my kitchen table.

 Dan Kaercher:  This family run operation has the tradition and the not so traditional and as you would expect they also have a crop driven relatively short window to be open to the public every year. 

 Amy Solsma:  I open September 1 and all of September is very busy and into, I would say, the first half of October you know people want to decorate.  They want to get their carving pumpkins and then - usually I run out of pumpkins.  That is probably why I am not quite as busy at the end of the year. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Over the last decade or so, the customers who make a pilgrimage to Solsma's every year have seen it grow. 

 Amy Solsma:  We started it in 1999.  I was raised on a farm as well and I used to raise pumpkins when I was a kid and I had two children of my own and I thought it would be kind of fun to start a little pumpkin patch.  So, we had just a little 40 by 40 quarter of the field and I asked my father in law if I could plant a few pumpkins and he said that would be ok.  And the first year we had small golf cart trailer and that was how many pumpkins we had for the year.  So, I've grown a little bit since then.

Dan Kaercher:  Besides the obvious outdoor selections for sale here Solsma's has an indoor country store.  But it wasn't always part of the plan. 

Amy Solsma:  I started the store in 2003 because people would stop on the lot and they would see the building and they say "Oh, do you have a store in there?"  And I say, "No" and I got sick of hearing that.  So, I thought let's get some things in there for people to buy and so we have just local people.  A gal that makes candles and crochets towels.  I have a different honey lady that brings me honey and jam and just different local products that I like to showcase in the store. 

 Dan Kaercher:  As I look around I notice the abundance of pumpkins and squash.  Seems like it was a pretty good growing season around here.

 Amy Solsma:  Yeah, it has been a wonderful year.  People ask me "What weather do pumpkins like?"  I say "They like hot and dry".  We had that this year and therefore we have a really good crop.

 Dan Kaercher:  There is another fun activity here for all ages.  Now Amy, I have never done a corn maze before.  What can I expect?

 Amy Solsma:  Well, lots of twists and turns and dead ends and hopefully you will come out in about an hour.

 Dan Kaercher:  An hour?  Probably not until next spring.  Tell me are there any hints of clues you can give me?

 Amy Solsma:  Well, I don't want to give it away.  We don't want to make it too easy for you. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Ok.  Well, I am heading down there.

 Amy Solsma:  Good luck.

 Dan Kaercher:  I will need it. I think I made it.  I think it took me a little longer than average but what is a couple weeks?  It was a lot of fun.  You know I have really enjoyed my time up here in Northwest Iowa.  I can see why Solsma's Pumpkin Patch is a favorite autumn destination for so many folks. 

 Amy Solsma:  I say you can buy an orange pumpkin anywhere but we try to grow everything else and the orange pumpkins too.  But we just like to have people visit us.

 Dan Kaercher:  This family run restaurant in Jackson County offers a homey atmosphere in the country and all you can eat entrees.  We were captivated by the picturesque Jackson County landscape.  So, we pulled over at the Hurstville Interpretive Center just north of Maquoketa on Highway 61.  It rests on an 18 acre wetland that offers fantastic opportunities to learn about the natural habitat and history of the area.  Once inside Anne Burns gives us a brief overview of what is available at the center and also some local history. 

 Anne Burns:  Inside the building you will see some exhibits that are devoted to wetlands, prairies and the old town of Hurstville which is just located up the road from us.  Outside you will see some hiking trails.  The trails wind through the prairie, take you out to a bird blind, and also take you through our butterfly garden.

 Dan Kaercher:  Limestone had a lot to do with Jackson County too, right?

 Anne Burns:  It does.  Limestone and the processing of limestone was a big industry in Iowa in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Dan Kaercher:  Now the Interpretive Center is named for Hurstville.  What is that all about?

 Anne Burns:  Well, Alfred Hurst and his brother William came from the Davenport area in the 1870s and found a spot where they found the right kind of limestone to make what was called unslaked lime which is the powder that was used to make the mortar which was used for building foundations back at the turn of the century. 

 Dan Kaercher:  And what happened to Hurstville?

 Anne Burns:  Hurstville declined in the mid-1930s to 1940s and what happened there was what was happening kind of all over the country.  We had the Depression going on which decreased demand for building products. 

Dan Kaercher:  What if people want to visit?  What hours and days are you open? 

 Anne Burns:  We are open seven days a week except some of the major holidays and on weeks we are open 12pm to 5pm, but the grounds out here are open all day long really.

 Dan Kaercher:  After our visit to the Hurstville Interpretive Center it was back on the road to the Bluff Lake Catfish Farm.  When we visited the area the caves at the Maquoketa Caves State Park were closed to protect local -- from something called White Nose Syndrome.  However the Iowa DNR has reopened the caves to visitors.  After making it through the state park and still more winding Jackson County roads we crested a hill.  There we spotted an unassuming building by a pond in a secluded little valley.  Linda Wells, is the daughter of the original owner Clayton Kuhlman and has been working at the restaurant since 1972.  She tells us the remarkable story about how that pond and building came to be.

 Linda Wells:  My dad had a house in town and he traded it for this farm which is approximately 100 some acres.  But my stepmother on the weekends liked to fish.  So to keep everyone in the family happy he built this pond and he put a camper on the hillside for her and stocked it with catfish.

 Dan Kaercher:  Clayton Kuhlman sold the place in 1977 but kept it in the family selling to Linda's mom and stepdad.  

 Linda Wells:  You know they did a handshake, they counted the money, and the place was my stepfather's. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Word spread throughout Jackson County about the hideaway with the fantastic catfish.  People started coming from all over and on weekends were packing the place. 

 Kory Kuhlman:  We keep things pretty normal.  We get a lot of people from cities and they just like to get away from their jobs and you can come out here and just disappear for awhile. 

 Dan Kaercher:  When you decide to make the trip to Bluff Lake be prepared to wait.  The restaurant doesn't accept reservations.  No exceptions.

 Linda Wells:  A lady called me from California asking for reservations and we don't take reservations.  So, it was a little hard for me to tell this person from California "Oh, sorry you are coming all this way but we don't take reservations".

 Dan Kaercher:  Please don't let the long lines scare you.  There are plenty of things to keep you busy while you wait for an open table.  They can sit on the decks and sit outside and have a drink.  We serve them popcorn. 

 Kory Kuhlman:  And have a family conversation and just kind of hang out here. 

 Dan Kaercher:  I did notice you have a gift shop too.

 Linda Wells:  Yes.  We opened that up in March.  We try to get as much handmade stuff as we can from the local people and give some people something to look at while they are waiting for their supper too.

 Dan Kaercher:  But most people don't come for the gift shop and pretty trees.  They come for the food.  So, when you get your table be ready to eat.  This relaxed family restaurant backs up its reputation with dish after dish of hearty meals.  It is called the Catfish Farm but you don't actually raise catfish do you?

 Linda Wells:  No, that is how it started.  Actually dad would stock the ponds.  My brothers would sane them out or a customer would fish for their fish.  My brothers would clean it and then bring it to me.

 Dan Kaercher:  But nowadays the Bluff Lake Catfish Farm specializes in all you can eat meals.  So, it is just a real hidden treasure.

 Customer:  It is a hidden treasure.  Yes. We love it.

Dan Kaercher:  After a long day of exploring Jackson County I was ready to dive into some haddock from the Bluff Lake kitchen.  Oh boy.  Nice bit sized pieces of haddock.  Which I understand is the Cadillac of the cod family according to Linda.  Very good.  Wonderful flavor on the breading.  I got to try grandma's coleslaw.  Very fresh tasting.  It is a sweet coleslaw.  Not too tangy.  There is just some extra flavor there.  I am going to have to just pry that out of Linda.  Something special in that flavor.  Pretty good.  Bluff Lake Catfish Farm has been serving up favorites for more than 40 years and when you are here as they say "you are family".

  Kory Kuhlman:  There is a lot of customers that, you know, keep coming here and I have known for years and they are wonderful people and I think of them as family.

 Dan Kaercher:  No matter the season, Jackson County offers visitors hidden gems around every bend.  A hobo's life is transient but the life and history of the hobo are forever honored in just one place, the North Central Iowa town of Britt.  At the tail end f the 19th Century, Britt's railroad brought a new type of tourist to the community.  The town's founding father saw an opportunity to boost Britt's visibility when a struggling convention needed a new home.  A home for thousands of people without a home of their own. 

 Linda Hughes:  Our founding fathers here in Britt, Potter, Way and Bailey was their last names, saw it in the Chicago paper that they no longer wanted to hold this - it was called Tourist Union 63 Convention out there.  So these three men thought hey, maybe we could put Britt on the map by inviting the hobo to Britt.  And the first hobo to come was Onion Cotton.  They had a big party for him out at the fairgrounds.  He agreed that Britt would be the home of the National Hobo Convention and that was 112 years ago.

 Dan Kaercher:  Now hobo that is an interesting word.  I wonder why were these men called hoboes?

 Linda Hughes:  The word hobo actually comes from hoe boy.  After the Civil War he went home and he found that his home was no longer there.  So, he grabbed his hoe, his shovel, and he would go out and look for farm work.  Well, hoe boy turned into hobo. 

Dan Kaercher:  Every August, Britt welcomes back old hoboes and new tourists alike.  There is an outdoor market during the convention for those looking to snag the newest treasure.  But the real draw is the Chief Theatre.  The Britt landmark was purchased by the Hobo Foundation for one dollar in 1988.

 Linda Hughes:  It started with a just a small box of artifacts and today our building is pretty full.

 Dan Kaercher:  The exhibits at the museum illustrate the origin of the hobo and showcase a certain pride in this unconventional way of life.  Due to economic factors the hobo population peaked during the Great Depression as thousands of people rode the rails looking for opportunity.  But don't confuse a hobo with a bum. 

 Linda Hughes:  A hobo is one who travels and works.  A tramp will travel and a bum will do neither.  So, you never want to call a hobo a tramp or a bum.  Iowa Blackie was probably the most famous hobo in Iowa.  He actually started to hobo when he was 13 years old.  He hopped a freight train.  By the time he was 17 he was hoboing full time.  He had the love of the train.  He had the love of the hobo and he lived that life.  He was a hobo through and through.  Well, last February we did loose Iowa Blackie.  He caught the Westbound.  We got his leather jacket.  We got a couple of his journals.  It kept track of his travels.  His hobo way of life.  Everything about his life were in these journals. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Iowa Blackie was crowned King of the Hobo Convention in 1993.  Every year the people of Britt and its adopted citizens still gather for a special coronation. 

 Linda Hughes:  Well, on Saturday afternoon of Hobo Day everybody gathers at the city gazebo and the candidates get up and give a two minute speech and whoever gets the longest and loudest applause is the new king and queen of the hoboes.  The king wears red.  The queen wears blue.  They each wear a Folgers coffee can crown. 

Dan Kaercher:  And when can people visit this museum?

 Linda Hughes:  The Hobo Museum is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  Our hours are from 10 in the morning until five in the afternoon.  We also will take tours by appointment or if someone wants to call through the year, I will bring them through.

Dan Kaercher:  After you tour the museum you can explore the rest of Britt's hobo heritage.  View the queen's flower garden and meet up with some past hobo royalty, Connecticut Shortie and New York Maggie, the pair are the only sisters to be crowned hobo queens of the convention. 

 Connecticut Shorty:  The queen's gardens were built and maintained by Mary Jo and Linda Hughes.  And there is several different queens here that have gardens.  A lot of the queens pick their own flowers.  If you look at them close you can usually find the name of who they have been dedicated too.

 Dan Kaercher:  Outlining the gardens is a beautiful walkway comprised of engraved bricks.  The names on the bricks include Britt townspeople, hoboes, and friends of the hobo.  The path leads to more memorials placed throughout the small park. 

Connecticut Shorty:  This brick walk is a combination of local Britt people and hoboes.  And since their history has been entwined for 111 years, it is only fitting that they have bricks together in this walk.

 Dan Kaercher:  From there head off to the Hobo Jungle and see some interesting symbols as New York Maggie explains. 

 New York Maggie:  Well it could be folklore.  It could be true that hoboes marked houses if there is a cat marked on your house it means kind lady lives here.  Safe camp an "X" with a little campfire. 

 Dan Kaercher:  The Hobo Jungle is on the north side of Britt appropriately near the railroad tracks.  During the Hobo Convention it is "the" center of activity. 

 Connecticut Shorty:  This Hobo Jungle fills up with hundreds of people really. 

 New York Maggie:  Any hobo that wants to get up and entertain, sing, do poetry; the hoboes are the main entertainment for the evening.  We also set up a kitchen and feed the hoboes all weekend long as well as the town folks.

 Dan Kaercher:  End your day in Britt as the Hobo Cemetery.  It is a small section in the Evergreen Cemetery reserved for hoboes who have caught the Westbound Train. 

 Connecticut Shortie:  When a hobo dies, he catches a train heading west which is where the sun sets, in the west.  All good hoboes go to Heaven.  God knows that hoboes have to ride.  So he allows them to ride the tails of the comets and the shooting stars.  So whenever you see a streak of light across the sky, it might just be a hobo riding by. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Britt keeps the spirit of the wanderer alive today.  A home for everyone who is always looking for the next adventure waiting around the bend.  I don't know about you but some days I long for an old fashioned treat from an old fashioned soda fountain.  And I know right where to go, to Wilton in East Central Iowa.  Can you imagine walking into this very building to order homemade confections just before the Civil War?  That is more than 150 years ago.  Which is way before my time by the way. 

 Customer:  Do not get between me and my vanilla --.  That's all. 

 Thelma Nopoulos:  Green River coming up.

 Dan Kaercher:  The Wilton Candy Kitchen has been serving up sweet treats since it opened in 1860.  Today you can get confections, ice cream -.

 Thelma Nopoulos:  Green River is lemon-lime and Red River is strawberry and cherry --.

 Dan Kaercher:  A variety of fountain drinks and a sandwich all in a setting that hasn't really changed much over the last century. 

 Thelma Nopoulos:  The back bar, the big ice and the big mirror and the marble, that Italian marble, they said they brought it over on the covered wagons.  It is very, very old.   

 Dan Kaercher:  Thelma and her husband George Nopoulos are part of the family that has owned the Wilton Candy Kitchen since 1910.  Four generations of the family have worked here.  Now I understand you started here when you six years old. 

 George Nopoulos:  That was a few days ago. 

 Dan Kaercher:  A few days ago.  Yeah.  And what was your job when you were six years old?

 George Nopoulos:  Something very simple.  Just crank a victrola machine.

 Dan Kaercher:  Crank a victrola.  So, that was the music of the day.

 George Nopoulos:  That's right. 

 Dan Kaercher:  George's duties have expanded a bit since age six.  Among his jobs is to make eight flavors of ice cream.  He does this at the front window of the shop so he can talk to customers and watch the action on Main Street.  Now tell me about your ice cream making machine. 

 George Nopoulos:  Well, this is a Taylor machine and we started using this about 55 years ago.  That's when we bought the fountain at the same time was 1955 and it has been running ever since and makes a batch every 15 minutes. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Now it is the real deal?  You don't make any light ice cream or diet ice cream. 

 George Nopoulos:  No, none of that. We have - butter fat.

Dan Kaercher:  Plenty of butter fat.

 George Nopoulos:  Well, it is good for you.  Heck it hasn't killed me yet. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Obviously and how old are you?

 George Nopoulos:  91, I guess.

 Thelma Nopoulos:  I started washing dishes here when I was ten years old and I am 80.  So, I guess it is 70 years. 

Dan Kaercher:  You must like being together 24 hours/7 days a week. 

 Thelma Nopoulos:  Yes, we have never thought anything differently.  We love each other and we work together and share the load.

Dan Kaercher:  Thelma and George's romance blossomed here at the candy kitchen.  But theirs wasn't the only courtship in this iconic local setting.

 Carla Thurston:  We came in here almost every day when we were teenagers and we carved these in here in about 1957 and we have been married 53 years.  That's the only place we sit. 

 Lisa Werner:  I can remember coming here for ice cream when I was their age. 

Dollie Ayres:  I first cam in here in 1938. 

 Ed Williams:  Can't say enough of what he and his wife have done for the town Wilton.  Just phenomenal what all they have helped.  So many different - well the churches and the Boy Scouts and everybody. 

 Ted Marolf:  I was born here.  So, there has never not been a candy kitchen as far as I know.  It is an institution. 

 Dan Kaercher:  There is a lot of local loyalty to the Wilton Candy Kitchen but many tourists stop by too.  Including some of the thousands of bicyclists on the 2011 Ragbrai ride across Iowa.  A couple nationally known actors have dropped in including Brooke Shields who was filming a movie nearby in 1991.  In 1995, actor Gregory Peck was in the area and stopped by. 

 Thelma Nopoulos:  They came down here.  Then they set at table three, we have it marked, and Gregory Peck, his wife, and producer.  And the seat is still warm.  Everybody likes to sit in that seat where Gregory Peck sat.  And then he came behind the soda fountain when I found out that his father Peck's Drug Store in La Jolla, California and that is why he came here to renew his roots with a soda fountain. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Well, I am no Gregory Peck but I wanted to help out behind the counter too.  Do you mind if I try to scoop some up sometime?  How does that look?

 Thelma Nopoulos:  Well, that is pretty good.  Can I help you just a little bit?

 Dan Kaercher:  Yes.  I bowed out after scooping up one cone so I could let the professional show me how to make a banana split.  Which by the way is said to have been created by George's father, Gus, after he obtained access to an oversupply of ripe bananas.  Oh, look at that.  George and Thelma say they have no plans to retire any time soon.  Both being children of Greek Immigrants, Thelma says, makes them hard working and besides running the Wilton Candy Kitchen is just plain fun. 

 Thelma Nopoulos:  We enjoy the people.  We enjoy the work we do.  We serve happiness to the customers. 

 Dan Kaercher:  Want to learn more about what you just saw on Iowa's Simple Pleasures?  Visit our website at iptv.org/simplepleasures.  Here you will discover more about the locations I visited and details on how you can create your own adventure.  

 Funding for this program was provided by "Friends" the Iowa Public Television Foundation.  Generations of family and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa Public Television.

 Iowa Tourism. You don't have to travel far to grow closer to family and friends.  From exploring the great outdoors to discovering a new cultural attraction your Iowa adventure is just around the corner.  Information on planning your trip is available at traveliowa.com. 

 The Gilchrist Foundation.  Founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist.  Furthering the philanthropic interest of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, medical care and social services, the arts and public broadcasting, and disaster relief.  

 Iowa Community Foundations.  An initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations.  Connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about.  For good.  For Iowa.  For ever.  Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org.


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Tags: Bluff Lake Catfish Farm Bluff Lake Catfish Farm Restaurant Britt candy makers food Hobo Museum & Festival hobos Iowa IowasSimplePleasures mazes pumpkins Raccoon River relaxation restaurants Solsma’s Punkin Patch tourism travel Wilton Wilton Candy Kitchen

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