In 1999, at the end of the 20th Century, the Des Moines Register did a look back at the last 100 years and picked a group of Iowans who could be considered the 50 most influential of the century. The person they deemed to be number one? They did not select President Herbert Hoover, Ann Landers, George Washington Carver, Governor Terry Branstad, or Fred Maytag.
They selected Henry A. Wallace.
Who was Henry A. Wallace? Well, to give you just the highlights, he was Vice President of the United States, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Editor of Wallaces' Farmer, and founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company. Any number of those accomplishments by themselves would be quite impressive and yet, he managed to add them all to his biography...and then some.
Wallace got his start as a farm boy born in rural Adair County near the town of Orient in 1888.
Today, that site is home to the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center and is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys Iowa history, agriculture, and the natural beauty of our state.
I stopped by on a recent Friday evening to take part in their weekly "Pizza on the Prairie" event. They are being held weekly on Friday evenings through much of the Summer months and into the early Fall.
With COVID-19 still rearing it's ugly head, it is a great way to attend an event with so much social distancing built right into it. Even better, it's a very versatile event in that you could bring your whole family (including kids), a group of friends (I noticed a whole group of six 20-something women enjoying themselves), or bring a date or spouse. I personally had a spectacular time.
As you are getting close to the farm, you'll know you are on the right path as there are signs along the side of the road. Even though Wallace was a FDR Democrat, Adair County (a fairly Republican area now) is still pretty proud of their native son.
The Center is on a gravel road.
Once you arrive, you'll find plenty of parking. On the evening I attended, there was a number of cars from all over. Yes, I noticed some local cars but I also noticed plenty of license plates from both the Omaha and Des Moines metros. It's only about an hour from Des Moines, so it's a very manageable night out.
The staff have done a spectacular job planning these weekly events to protect both guests and employees. They have put in place safety protocols that are both important and not overly intrusive so that everyone involved can enjoy themselves and also limit the chance of COVID-19 exposure. As you walk up to check-in (you'll need to have reservations ahead of time), you'll find some signs reminding you to social distance or go home if you are feeling sick. After months of this, none of that should be at all surprising. They'll also expect that you wear a mask for the time you are checking in and ordering, etc.
You'll be greeted by staff in masks who will make sure you have the evening's menu and understand the protocols for ensuring you receive great service. They'll ask you to find a place to seat. There are a few benches scattered about but it is highly encouraged that you bring your own lawn chair or blanket to sit on. They will give you a numbered flag that will correspond with your order number.
Speaking of food and drinks, they do it up right. Many of the ingredients used to make the pizzas and other dishes are grown right there on the farm. The menus change regularly depending on what is in season.
They have a full selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks available for purchase.
All of the food is prepared in their food truck trailer. It has a brick oven inside.
I got to sample both of the pizza options available on this particular evening. Both choices were simply outstanding! The "veggie & saussage" pizza included Graziano sausage, braised leeks, kale & mustard greens, mozzarella, corn relish, and red sauce. Of course, the crust was delicious and perfectly cooked with a little char from the brick oven.
The margherita was made with fresh mozzarella, tomato jam, basil, garlic oil, and red sauce. The tomato jam added a certain sweetness that was a bit unexpected and yet made you want to keep going back for more.
They also have live entertainment each week. Nearly all of the performers are from within an hour of the farm. I enjoyed the talents of Bill Matykowski from Des Moines. He is quite good and sings a nice mixture of his own original songs as well as covering some tunes you are quite likely to know.
Many guests enjoyed their friends and family, food, beverages, and live music on their chairs and blankets. However, others also went exploring on the grounds and I would highly recommend this. The property includes numerous acres of restored prairie and a pond. They have mowed a nice path that allows you to confidently explore it all.
There is also a prairie art display and numerous local artists of all ages have painted boards that are displayed along the path as you walk. The theme this year is pollinators.
I do not consider myself to be all that talented from an artistic perspective, so I appreciate anyone who is willing to showcase their talents.
However, there are also permanent sculptures and art installations that help give added meaning to the life and work of Wallace.
This particular statue really grabs your attention.
Other signage has also been placed along the trail to give some added context and historical perspective.
The beginning and end of the trail are both near the farm buildings and I would guess that it would be about a mile in total. These are the rolling hills of Adair County and so there is some modest elevation changes but anybody who is regularly active should have little trouble making the trek. You are surrounded by abundant beautiful prairie flowers and grasses as well as pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.
The views are totally worth it. Whether it's of the farmstead, the wind turbines, the rolling hills of the area, or the restored farm pond.
This farmstead includes a couple of permanent buildings, including the original farmhouse. It is presently closed for renovations but would normally be the gift shop.
There is a plaque on the south side of the house that notes the historical significance and mentions that it was previously renovated in 1996.
There is also a small depository that includes information about touring the grounds. The prairie path and art exhibit is free to enjoy from sun-up to sun-down seven days a week if your schedule does not allow you to attend the "pizza on the prairie" event.
There is a also a "gathering barn" that includes a modern kitchen, offices, meeting space, and more.
There is some lovely landscaping around it.
Inside, you'll find a spectacular mural titled "Joyous Abundance" that was painted by State Representative Ray "Bubba" Sorensen.
Sorenson is also from Adair County and is famous for his annual painting of the nearby original Freedom Rock and the other Freedom Rocks that are located in nearly every county in Iowa.
Since the original farm house gift shop is under renovation, a nice selection of items have been moved into the barn as a temporary gift shop.
Both the upstairs and downstairs seating space include some notable artifacts. I enjoyed the vintage Pioneer Seeds sign downstairs.
Upstairs, I found a roll top desk that was used by Wallace during his time as editor of Wallaces' Farmer.
There's also a framed copy of the Des Moines Register edition that notes his significance as an influential Iowan.
This particular barn is where you can find the women's restroom.
The men's restroom is located in smaller red garden shed.
The shed is near a few other structures that are used on the farm. During this time of year, those other structures (not the red barn where the bathroom is) are surrounded by electric fence, presumably to keep out the hungry wild critters.
If you find that are you are looking for something unique to do this summer, you should plan on making the trek to rural Orient on an upcoming Friday evening. Literally, the "Pizza on the Prairie" event is perfect for just about any age or group of people. How can you go wrong with delicious food, cold beverages, live music, interesting history, and absolutely stunning surroundings?
As always, I welcome your suggestions of places to visit and profile whether in Adair County or any of the other 98 counties in Iowa. If you have a good idea or would like to host the Iowa Adventurer, please drop me note through this site.