When far-flung family and friends make the effort to visit my adopted home state of Iowa, Madison County is where I take them for a taste of small-town rural Iowa at its bucolic best. But during many trips to the Madison County seat of Winterset, I haven’t dwelled on the town’s claim to fame as the birthplace of John Wayne, the Hollywood actor famous for portraying rugged cowboys and brave soldiers.
Instead of visiting the humble, four-room white house where Wayne was born, I typically make a beeline for “the bridges’ ” (aka “The Bridges of Madison County,” made famous by the 1992 novel and the 1995 movie filmed on location by Clint Eastwood). I also show visitors around Winterset’s classic town square and we usually stop for lunch at my favorite small-town cafe.
That was then. Things have changed since the 2015 opening of Winterset’s John Wayne Birthplace & Museum, which soon became a popular backdrop for presidential candidates campaigning across Iowa. In early 2016, Donald Trump appeared at the museum beside Wayne’s daughter Aissa, who endorsed Trump’s candidacy, praising him as “strong like John Wayne.”
Sufficiently curious, I drove on a cold December day about 40 minutes south of Des Moines to the buckskin-colored $2.5 million museum. The museum is kitty-corner from the birthplace that has long been open to the public, but was restored with period furnishings as part of the museum project.
A large bronze statue of “Duke” in cowboy gear greets visitors outside the museum, which bills itself as having “the largest diversified exhibit of John Wayne artifacts in existence” — original movie posters, costumes, film clips, scripts, contracts, letters, family photos and artwork designed to help people learn about “the actor, private citizen and an American legend.”
Inside, as promised, the one-room exhibition space is filled with memorabilia — from a see-through eye patch Wayne wore in his 1969 Oscar-winning “True Grit” performance to his 1972 Pontiac Grand Safari metallic green station wagon (with a bumped-out roof to accommodate his 6-foot-4 frame) and a signed Andy Warhol portrait of Wayne.
Other film bits and bobs include: Wayne’s military coat from “The Green Berets” (1968); his toupee from “Chisum” (1970); a saddle from “The Cowboys” (1972); and, one of my favorites — a white shirt “with a special effects blood stain” from “The Shootist” (1976). For a handy refresher on Wayne’s career, the museum’s small theater shows an 11-minute film of greatest hits, with co-stars including Maureen O’Hara, Lauren Bacall and a boyish Ron Howard.
On the patriotic front, the exhibit includes Wayne’s 1979 Congressional Gold Medal as well as letters of appreciation from presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) and stars including Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and James Stewart.
The birthplace is where I got a feel for the humble Midwestern roots of Marion Morrison, the Iowa boy who became John Wayne. A big baby (13 pounds!) born to a pharmacist and a telephone operator, he lived in Iowa for seven years (the first three in Winterset) before moving to California. He also had a pet dog named Duke, which inspired his nickname.
All the stuff tells an interesting story — about Wayne’s journey from small-town kid to world-famous star — but visitors have to go elsewhere to find out much about Wayne’s politics (conservative Republican) and views (including disturbing racial comments). Some visitors also may be left wondering what to make of Wayne. What sticks in my mind is a letter written by actor Kirk Douglas (a Democrat), now displayed in Winterset, noting that he and Wayne “didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things but shared love of country.”
Winterset is about 279 miles south of the Twin Cities. For a scenic drive into town, take Exit 65 off Interstate 35 and drive west on two-lane County Rd. G14 through rolling countryside, past workaday farms with cornfields and cows grazing in pastures as well as fancy new housing developments.
The John Wayne Birthplace & Museum is south of the town square (205 S. John Wayne Dr.; 1-515-462-1044; johnwaynebirthplace.museum).
The Bridges, of course: The six covered bridges — five original 19th-century ones, one rebuilt after a fire — are best seen in a self-guided driving tour. (Most are in the countryside.) Maps and other information are available from the visitors center on the town square or online. The best-known are Roseman, which has a nearby gift shop open seasonally, and Hogback, which some consider the most photogenic. Guided bus tours are offered during the annual Covered Bridge Festival, held the second full weekend in October.
Explore the square: Winterset’s town square — one of Iowa’s most prosperous-looking squares — is dominated by an 1870s domed courthouse made of native limestone, and surrounded by redbrick storefronts, refreshingly occupied by local businesses. The area was designated a National Historic District in 2015. The former county jail now houses 1st Avenue Collective (1-515-505-4396; 1stavenuecollective.com) which sells crafts by Central Iowans inside old cells. Another relative newcomer is the Iowa Quilt Museum (1-515-462-5988). The Ben Franklin store, opened in 1939, seems charmingly frozen in time.
Sample local wine and brews: Several wineries, craft breweries and a new hard apple cider producer have tasting rooms and/or patios with food and live music (open seasonally), including Madison County Winery (madisoncountywinery.com/madison-county) and Winterset Cidery (wintersetcidery.com).
Summer sounds: The annual Hinterland Music Festival will be held Aug. 4-5 at the Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater in nearby St. Charles. Willie Nelson, Lake Street Dive and Grace Potter were among last year’s performers (hinterlandiowa.com).
Where to eat and drink
The Northside Cafe, on the square for 140 years, serves a great New Orleans-style muffuletta as well as Iowa comfort food including pork tenderloin, a hot beef sandwich and pie (1-515-462-1523).
Picnic in the pretty city park (on the corner of 9th and South Streets), which has an English-style maze made of high hedges, at its peak from June through September, and a relocated covered bridge.
Where to sleep
White Lions Bed and Breakfast has two main rooms and an “overflow room” inside a white Queen Anne home (1-515-462-5141; whitelionsbandb.com).
Madison County Chamber of Commerce: 1-515-462-1185; madisoncounty.com.
Betsy Rubiner is a Des Moines, Iowa-based travel writer.