As a classical music buff, I knew that Czech composer Antonin Dvorak had written some memorable music during a brief stay in tiny Spillville, Iowa, in the late 1800s.
But that’s all I knew about Spillville. I had no idea where in Iowa it was located, even generally, or how it got its name. (Did someone knock over a priceless vessel of wine?)
Then, while planning a road trip to visit friends in Iowa and Wisconsin last year, I spotted Spillville on a map — just a dozen miles from Decorah in northeast Iowa. So I plotted a course and arranged lodging to make it my first overnight stop.
Turns out that Spillville was named for one of its first settlers, Joseph Spielman, who arrived from Germany in the early 1850s. Bohemian and Swiss immigrants followed. They built functional and enduring structures: churches, a mill, and later a lovely ballroom along the Turkey River. Farmers thrived, families expanded. Somehow “Spiel” became “Spill” in the town’s name, but not a whole lot else changed.
Today as you enter the well-off-the-beaten-track town of about 400, you first notice small, humble houses from the 1920s and 1930s, some with rooftop TV antennas — remember those? You notice the vintage bandstand in the town square, built as a soldiers’ and sailors’ memorial after World War I. You can’t miss the tidy red-brick building labeled BILY CLOCKS, with what looks like a giant pocket watch mounted on a 10-foot post out front. This is the building in which Dvorak and his family lived in the summer of 1893, just after Dvorak had completed his “New World” symphony. What was their second-floor apartment today is an “all Dvorak” subset of the Bily Clocks Museum (more about it later).
While in Spillville, where some of his cousins had previously immigrated, Dvorak composed the String Quartet in F (the “American”), the String Quintet in E Flat and a sonatina for violin and piano. Word has it that he was an early riser and would walk the streets and pathways of the little town at daybreak, soaking up the sights, sounds and scents of nature to inspire his musical creations.
Before leaving for Iowa, I made sure to grab my “Dvorak’s Greatest Hits” CD — it proved an ideal soundtrack during two hours of navigating the twisty, hilly roads between the four-lane expressways of Rochester and bucolic Spillville. And about a week later, as I headed back to the Twin Cities on the last day of my trip, the Largo movement of the “New World” symphony popped up on the CD player. I suddenly recalled my boys’ choir days, and started singing the words that composer William Arms Fisher added to Dvorak’s simple, beautiful melody:
“Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a’goin’ home. Quietlike, some still day, I’m just goin’ home.”
What to do
Turn back the clock: For more than 40 years, Bohemian bachelor farmers Joseph and Frank Bily (BEE-lee) created amazingly intricate handcarved clocks in their spare time — wintertime, especially. Word of their mastery spread and in 1928, Henry Ford offered to pay $1 million for the brothers’ American Pioneer History Clock, which at 8 feet tall and more than 500 pounds had taken them four years to complete. They declined, preferring to keep the collection as one in a barn on the family farm outside Spillville. Finally in 1946, the Bilys agreed to move their treasures to Spillville proper on the condition that the clocks stay housed together and never be sold. Today, the Bily Clocks Museum attracts thousands of visitors a year. It’s closed from December through March, but opens Saturdays-only in April, and is open daily from May through October. (323 S. Main St.; 1-563-562-3569; wwwbilyclocks.org )
A religious experience: Dating from 1860, the very pretty St. Wenceslaus is the nation’s oldest Czech Catholic church and occupies a commanding hilltop presence on the north side of town. A Pfeffer pipe organ was added in 1876; Dvorak played it during the summer that he and his family spent in Spillville, and it remains in use today. (207 Church St.; 1-563-562-3637 )
Park it: On the south edge of town lies Riverside Park, with its wonderful Inwood ballroom, built in 1926, plus a stone memorial to Dvorak and trails along the scenic Turkey River (which overflowed its banks in dramatic fashion in 2008).
Where to stay
I rented one of two charming cottages at the Taylor-Made Bed & Breakfast (330 S. Main St. ), which also offers rooms in a big old main house. The homemade breakfast spread includes Clarabelle Taylor’s delicious kolaches. For rates and reservations, call 1-563-562-3958. Across the street in the historic Wenzil Taylor Building is the Speakeasy Inn, whose upper level has seven guest rooms and whose lower two levels house a full-menu restaurant and bar (311 S. Main; 1-562-563-3279; www.speakeasyinniowa.com ). For lodging in Decorah, 13 miles to the northeast, go to www.visitdecorah.com.
Where to eat
In addition to the Speakeasy mentioned above, enjoy a beer and burger at the Farr Side (102 Church St.; 1-562-563-3114) or tasty pizza and sandwiches at the Main Street Mini Mart (101 Bridge Av.; 1-562-563-3017 ). Dining options abound in Decorah; go to www.visitdecorah.com .