A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Tami Finley (I always welcome suggestions of adventures), the leader of Clarence's efforts within the Main Street Iowa program. Main Street Iowa is administered by the Iowa Department of Economic Development and Clarence, at just under 1000 citizens, is the smallest Iowa participant community. Clarence is in Cedar County and about half way between Cedar Rapids and Clinton.
Clarence is also a semi-finalist for a national grant, "America's Main Street", which would award them $25,000 toward additional progress. This grant is open to public voting and Iowa Adventurer encourages readers to help boost Clarence's chances of winning by voting (daily until the end of May if you'd like!).
On a recent Saturday morning, I drove the nearly 3 hours to Clarence from West Des Moines to take the community up on their offer to visit. This was a great opportunity to see the town, pop into some of the businesses, and get a first-hand look at some of the exciting projects in the works along the main road through town, which also happens to be the historic Lincoln Highway.
In an earlier post published last week, I highlighted many aspects of the community - from the library and park to the murals and and veterans memorial - that are proving the point that there is some palpable momentum within the community. There is a core group of leaders who are helping to make things happen and it's the kind of effort that needs to be replicated over and over elsewhere in rural Iowa.
One of those leaders is Jen Van Oort, owner of Onion Grove Mercantile. The business is relatively new - opening in 2017 - and stemmed from Van Oort's talents as an artist and sign maker. It's another great example of someone taking a talent and turning it into a business. I love highlighting entrepreneurs, especially rural entrepreneurs, who are pursuing their dreams.
Onion Grove used to be the name of Clarence when it was founded so the name really does blend history with the, as she describes on her Facebook page, cozy mix of modern farmhouse home goods, vintage treasures, and a hand-painted sign design studio that it is. It's a nicely curated collection of small-batch handmade items and local wares.
Photographed below is Van Oort on the right and Tami Finley, the head of the Main Street Clarence effort, on the left.
There's not a lot of retail square footage - but a good chunk of her business is also online sales. I hope that you can make it to Clarence as part of your own adventure to check the place out - but if not - certainly check out her online offerings. The back of her space, which is in a recently restored and revitalized building, is her studio.
This stunningly beautiful mission style table had some great locally branded attire for sale.
As you can see from these different photos, there's a wide array of merchandise for sale. I'm sure she'd be happy to consider something custom for you, as well.
Jen sent me home with a little container of candy. It was fantastic. I think every "mercantile" store in the past had candy and I think it's great that she does too.
I'll be honest, when I started my day last Saturday - I didn't expect that I'd be visiting a rock shop. But, that's the beauty of Iowa...there's always an adventure to be found. Hound Dog Rock Shop is owned by Kirk and Janel Wenndt, a husband and wife duo, who spent a number of years building other careers before they decided to open this shop. Like Onion Grove Mercantile, it's also on the main street in town (Highway 30) but it's further west. The name of the store comes from their shared love of Basset Hounds.
Inside the store, there are shelves and cases full of all kinds of rocks, minerals, jewelry, crystals, geodes, and more!
Their business is nearly all in store or at shows - not online. They like their customers to come to their store and actually look at and feel the rocks. It's all part of the experience. In fact, last summer they hosted a Geode cracking event. Geode is the State Rock of Iowa. Expecting a few dozen to show up, they were shocked to find several hundred drove to Clarence to have Kirk crack them a Keokuk Geode. My curiosity growing by the second, Kirk offered to crack one open for me to take home.
We went out to a storage shed behind his business and he pulled out an apparatus that he built himself.
Here is my Geode before it was cracked.
It's hard to convey without a video, but Kirk is exerting some serious force on that lever.
Geodes are not the most attractive of rocks from the outside but once you get them open, they have some amazingly beautiful formations within.
My visit here was not probably more than 15 minutes, but within that time, there was a steady stream of customers coming and going. Some people drive for hours to visit. This is clearly a destination. I learned a lot and their inventory is truly beautiful.
It almost makes me wish I would have studied a little harder in Geology 101 at Iowa State!
After I thanked Tami for her generosity in showing me around, I went on my own to Victory Lane Bar and Grill. It too is on Highway 30. There are a couple of different eateries in town and from what I understand, you cannot go wrong with any of them. There were a few other patrons in Victory Lane when I sat down. It is definitely a race car themed place - but let me be clear - when it comes to their food - they didn't cut corners. I found it to be quite delicious.
They are open 7 days a week. On weekends, they open earlier. During the work week, they open for the lunch crowd.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, Clarence is a semi-finalist for a $25,000 competitive grant and this sign was in the window encourages patrons and passerbys to vote.
Inside, the race car and sports theme continues.
Ironically, the St. Louis Rams, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Boston Celtics are my dad's three favorite teams and these logos were all hung together. What are the odds?
They offer take out and limited delivery as well.
In the back of the restaurant, there is another room that could be used as a party room. There is a television, a billiards table, dart board, and more.
The menu is exactly what you might expect from a small town bar and grill.
Lots of the menu options looked good, but I decided to try out their special of the day: A brat in a bun with condiments, baked beans, and chips for $6.00.
These were definitely homemade beans and they were incredible. Not to mention, the portion was more than generous. The brat was cooked well and the meat was tasty and had a nice snap to it. This was a hellova deal for $6.00!
Of course, if you wanted more than a good meal and a cold drink, you could also get some merchandise too.
This was a great stop and it gave me the energy for my next stop which was the Chalk the Walk festival in Mount Vernon, just about 20 miles west of Clarence. Be sure to check out Victory Lane's Facebook page for more information and give them a like.
All in all, this was a memorable visit to Clarence. Not only did I get a chance to explore some of the town - I also got to check out a nice cross section of their business community. As I mentioned in my previous post, this town has some momentum and I would encourage you to stop by the next time you are in the area. I look forward to a return trip sometime in the future.
As always, I welcome your suggestions of places to visit and profile whether in Cedar County or any of our other 98 counties. If you have a suggestion or would like to host the Iowa Adventurer, please drop me a note through my website.