Most of the roads in Iowa seem pretty flat and pretty straight. Interstate, state, and county highways mainly travel directly east-west or north-south, with the occasional 90-degree turn, creating a grid-like pattern cutting through miles of farmland that rises and falls so much like an inland ocean. The straightforward simplicity of this landscape, and of the roadways crossing the state, belie the beauty of a place that inspired Grant Wood to create some of the most important and captivating American art of the 20th century. Mason City, just two-and-a-half hours from the Twin Cities and six from Chicago, is the perfect place to experience the quintessentially American culture and art that Iowa has produced. Indeed, as they sing in “The Music Man,” by Mason City’s native son Meredith Willson, “You really ought to give Iowa a try.”
Head out of town west on US Hwy 18 Business, where you’ll pass the Mason City Motor Speedway, a half-mile semi-banked dirt track where races are run every Sunday night. Entering Clear Lake, head south on North 8th Street and stop at the Central Gardens of North Iowa. Continuing south on North 8th Street, take a right to go west on Main Avenue. Park and grab a sandwich at the Starboard Market and head across the street to the City Park for a picnic on the lake. Take North Shore Drive north and follow the curve to the west, bringing you to the Surf Ballroom. The concert hall where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” had their final show before a fatal plane crash, the venue has a small museum and you can visit the dance floor for a small donation as well. The Surf still hosts live events, including regular big band dances.
After your stop at the Surf, return north to US Hwy 18 via Buddy Holly Place, and head east a couple of blocks, until you hit North 8th Street again. Go north on North 8th Street (which turns into Grouse Avenue) for about 5 miles. When the paved road curves to the west, take the gravel road to the east (310th Street), then immediately north again on gravel (Gull Avenue). A half-mile north, at the T-intersection of Gull Avenue and 315th Street, a large set of “Buddy Holly” glasses marks the start of the crash memorial site. If you’re willing to walk, follow the south side of the fence row to the west approximately one-quarter mile, where you will find a small memorial where the plane carrying Holly, Valens, and the Bopper came to rest on the day the music died.
Once you’ve paid your respects, make your way back to the intersection of North 8th Street/Grouse Avenue and 310th Street, and continue on 310th Street to the west. This area is home to a number of wildlife management areas: you’ll pass Teal Basins to the north, then turn north at Balsam Ave at the Kuhn Wildlife Area. You’ll pass the Sandpiper Hills Wildlife Management Area on the west, and the Mallard Marsh Wildlife Area on the east.
Take 330th Street west – Pilot Knob State Park will be to your north – to US 69 North. Head north for half a mile, then take the left to go northwest on S 4th Street. Winnebago Industries, largest motorhome manufacturer in the world, is located on the west side of the street; tours are offered twice daily.
Return to US 69 North and continue north through Forest City. A large park land runs along the Winnebago River on the east side of town. Turn east onto Iowa Hwy 9/E 50th Street and continue on the highway past Fertile and Hanlontown. Just beyond the intersection with US Hwy 65 lies Manly, the railroad hub created in 1877 with the junction of the Rock Island and Chicago Great Western lines. Turn south onto US Hwy 65 and continue back into Mason City, stopping at Birdsall’s Ice Cream Company to fuel up after the drive with a peach sundae.
The Historic Park Inn in Mason City
The last remaining hotel designed by visionary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the 27 room Historic Park Inn was fully remodeled in 2011, restoring it to Wright’s original design from over a century ago. Located in the historic downtown, the Prairie Style building blends a close attention to Mr. Wright’s architectural philosophy and his controlled details, while incorporating modern comforts and amenities like the 1910 Grille and Lounge.
If you’re not staying at the hotel but would still like a chance to see this architectural beauty, the hotel’s stewardship group Wright on the Park offers docent-led tours Thursday through Sunday.
Decker House Bed and Breakfast in Mason City
If Wright’s design represents the “after” of Midwestern architectural movements, the Decker House Bed and Breakfast strongly displays the “before.” This five room Neoclassical homestead was built in 1890 just off the main square, and is maintained by the Mason City Foundation for historical preservation. Both public and private areas feature period-appropriate furniture and décor, making a stay in this space feel like stepping outside of time.
South Shore Inn in Clear Lake
If your weekend trip is an excuse to hitch up the boat and load your tackle box, a stay at the South Shore Inn in Clear Lake, just a 30 minute drive outside of Mason City, should be on your itinerary. The sixteen rooms in the hotel are modest and simple, but each room is on the lakefront, facing west, with incredible sunset views across the lake. A public boat launch is located adjacent to the property, and The Landing Patio and Grill boasts the only lakefront eating in Clear Lake.
Restored Old Creamery through AirBnb in Fertile
Located on the Winnebago River, approximately a 30 minute drive north of Mason City, this charming old creamery building has been restored by the owner to accommodate up to five guests in comfort and retreat. The home has an eclectic midcentury rural feel, and offers the opportunity to build your own bonfire in the yard overlooking the river – something you won’t find in any hotel.
Shellrock River and Greenbelt Preserve outside Rock Falls
You could drive the 20 minutes from Mason City to this preserve, or you could load up your horse and really ride in to camp – the park is equestrian camping friendly and a number of hitching posts are available. Free primitive camping at this county park gives you access to miles of trails and the perfect vistas for viewing the limestone bluffs of the Shellrock River. Canoeing this stretch of water is a must.
1910 Grille at the Historic Park Inn in Mason City
Elegant but decidedly unstuffy, the restaurant in the Historic Park Inn is a draw even if you’re not staying at the hotel. With a focus on local Iowan ingredients, the menu offers fresh and seasonal takes on American classics – steak, chicken, salmon, and risottos. If you are staying in the hotel, or have a designated driver, don’t miss the craft cocktails and local beers menu.
Suzie-Q Café in Mason City
One of only a handful of operating Valentine-style diners left, the Suzie-Q Café is a local favorite, known not only for its lunch counter staples, but also for the on-site entertainment: owner and cook Troy Levenhagen is known to do a bit of slight-of-hand for his customers. Don’t miss the pork tenderloin sandwich, battered with an old Mason City restaurant recipe.
Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City
Treat yourself to a Greek-style steak in this Mason City classic, established in 1920. The casual, family friendly restaurant is found in the same brick storefront as it was when it first opened. This is not a spot for those who are looking for a light meal.
Barrell Drive In in Clear Lake
Recently remodeled, this classic drive-in eatery is the perfect spot to grab a root beer float and some juicy broasted chicken. Order from your parking spot, turn up the radio, and enjoy the classic feel of being served a meal by car-hops on roller skates.
Mason City prides itself on the cultural influence of its historical citizens and its distinction as home to many “one-of-a-kind” experiences. With the largest collection of Prairie Style Architectural School homes outside of Chicago, you’ll want to take the opportunity to stretch your legs from your drive with a walking tour in the Rock Crest and Rock Glen neighborhood. Get an insider’s view of what it was like to live in one of these homes at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Stockman House and the accompanying Architectural Interpretive Center.
Music Man Square features a streetscape straight out of the Warner Brother’s film, complete with structures from the set design of the 1962 film. But is there a pool hall in town? If you’re looking for trouble with a capital T (or just a good friendly game of billiards), there are a number. The friendly librarian at the Mason City Public Library recommended Ransom’s Cigar Store and Pool Hall, which has been in operation for over 100 years. Although the location has changed since it was opened by one of Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguards in 1866, you’ll undoubtedly see the influence of this friendly watering hole on Willson’s musical.
Very unexpected and definitely not children’s toys, the puppets created by Mason City native son and master puppeteer Bil Baird appeared internationally in theater, television, and film. The collection housed at the Charles H MacNider Art Museum showcases his artistry, and includes marionettes seen in The Sound of Music alongside works meant for a more mature audience. “Burlesque” puppets? Yeah, Mason City’s full of surprises.