Day 5 of a virtual journey through Iowa
Thirty-five miles from Fort Dodge is the town of West Bend , notable for only one thing : The Grotto of the Redemption, the creation of a Catholic priest, Paul Dobberstein . As a young seminarian in Germany, Paul Dobberstein fell gravely ill with pneumonia, and promised to build a shrine of precious stones honoring the Virgin Mary if she interceded for him. He did recover and become a priest, but in 1898 he was sent to the tiny town of West Bend, Iowa — one of the worst places in the world to build a shrine, since West Bend has no precious stones.
Undeterred, for 14 years he stockpiled building material, mostly rocks that the local farmers pulled from their fields. Then he got to work. Foundations were dug, concrete was poured, rocks set into slabs that were then bolted into place. When Father Dobberstein needed help, he would walk to a local pool hall and hire laborers for cash and beer. He worked every imaginable mineral and crystal into his design, washing the stones in his bathtub before cementing them in place. He traveled hundreds of miles to rock havens such as Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Black Hills of South Dakota to collect materials. Glued into the grotto walls are semi-precious gems and logs of petrified wood and in the Christmas chapel is a remarkable 300 pound amethyst.
Laboring for 42 years , Father Dobberstein built the largest grotto in the world. He did it mostly with muscle power, working until the moment of his death in 1954 .Viewed from a distance, the Grotto today looks brown and spongy. Many of the rocks have dulled after decades in the weather. But the grounds are spotless, and the grotto itself is in excellent repair.Visitors are dwarfed by encrusted towers, cracked-coral tapestries, and irregular spires of petrified wood. Narrow walkways squeeze under arches, up staircases, around pediments, past alcoves. The entire mass tops out at 40 feet, surmounted by an empty cross with a marble Jesus slumped at its base.
We are not Catholics ,or even Christians, but the Grotto transcends religion .We are awed by Father Dobberstein’ s creation , a testament to his faith and devotion. We are glad to have seen it .
After a quick , light lunch we drive back to Dodge City and thence to Sioux City, our final stop in Iowa. I’m driving and my wife who , as navigator, is busy looking at the map ,remarks on the number of Iowa counties that have Indian names. Cherokee , Pocahontas,Osceola,Pottawattamie,Chickasaw, Allamakie. And then , of course , there are towns like the one we are heading for , Sioux City.
In Sioux City , we head for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center ( 900 Larsen Park Blvd), a must for history buffs. It provides visitors a comprehensive picture of the historic expedition that opened up the West. It describes who was on the expedition , the roles they played and gives a feel for what it was like to be there . This is done by means of animatronic mannequins , computers , flip books , murals and other devices that bring the expedition to life . The Center also has an exhibit on Traditional Native Games , a Keelboat Theater and an exhibit of WW II Veterans stories . The photographs and histories of these vets make powerful reading . Here for instance is an excerpt from the story of Wesley Goodwin , a Sergeant in the U.S Air Corps and his return home : “He made it to Iowa in September 1945 and got off the train at Cherokee. He walked three miles before a former soldier driving a gas truck pulled over and gave him a lift home.”This fellow asked me if I was surprised people were driving by. I told him I was. He said the same thing happened to him when he came home. He’d lost a leg in the war.”
Things haven’t changed . We don’t honor our veterans sufficiently even today. You can read more of these stories yourself at www.siouxcitylcic.com/ .
The only man casualty of the Lewis and Clark expedition was 22-year-old Sgt. Floyd who was probably laid low by a burst appendix.There is a Sergeant Floyd Monument on the banks of the Missouri nearby , a 100 foot tall obelisk of white sandstone . We had intended to go there but having seen a model and read his story at the Center we decide to give it a pass.
Instead visit the Palmer Candy Co . ( 2600 Highway 75 N) . It is a family owned company that has been in business since 1900 and is well-known for its manufacture of Bing Candy bars, Gummi Worms etc. We get there pretty late in the afternoon ( it closes at 4.30 ) and have only time for a hurried dash through the museum area with its displays of antique equipment and packaging . We linger in the Candy and Gift Shop where we purchase Twin Bings and Chocolate Covered Raisins . Bings must be a regional specialty because I’ve never come across them back east . They have a cherry cream center covered with a nutty chocolaty coating and they are delicious … as I realize after I’ve left the Center. I wish I’d bought more.
Sioux City is our last stop on our virtual tour of Iowa. I think we’ve seen almost all that we intended to see. If we have any regrets , it is that we did not go to Keokuk whose Mississippi River Museum and Lock 19 are worth seeing .
Next : South Dakota