Iowa’s Washington County -- and the town of Kalona in particular -- are well worth exploring. The county boasts a fine collection of barn quilts, and the area is home to a large population of Amish and Mennonites, whose influence can be seen in an abundance of countryside businesses.
I started my recent visit in downtown Kalona (just south of Iowa City on Hwy. 1), with a late lunch at the Kalona Bakery. The menu is small – mostly sandwiches and pre-packaged salads – but I ate my fill for a mere $5.85, including a piece of pie. The bakery features take-out selections, noodles, baked goods, and more. Next door, the upscale Tuscan Moon Grill offered appetizers, salads, pasta, and entrees.
After lunch, I poked through two of the town’s many antiques shops: the Pink Begonia and English River Antiques – both charming, clean, and filled with affordable, good-quality antiques. I also visited the Kalona General Store, which has a little bit of everything, and the Village Shoppe – a great store for quilters.
I hesitated to spend too much time shopping downtown, because I wanted to get to the Kalona Historical Village, and it closes at 4 o’clock. For a $7 entry fee, you get a guided tour of the well-preserved historical village as well as entrance to the Quilt and Textile Museum, which is located in the Kalona Historical Village Welcome Center.
The buildings in the historical village all originated in this area of Iowa, but all have been moved their present location, starting with the relocation of the Rock Island Depot in 1969. Now, visitors can tour not just the depot but the Grout Church, built in 1867; the Victorian Wahl House, built in 1892; Richmond Post Office; Straw College, a one-room school house; a buggy barn; log house; loom house; Amish Country Store, and “grandpa house” (built in 1890 to provide retirement living for the Old Order Amish when the younger generation took over management of the farm). The tour guide takes you through the church, the house and its wash house, and through the Wahl Museum, which tells the story of life in early Kalona. The smaller buildings can be visited on your own.
Back inside the visitor center, I toured the two rooms of the quilt museum. One room features the “English” quilts – that is, quilts made by non-Amish – and the other room features the Amish quilts. A large collection of spool cabinets is displayed in each room.
By this time, the historical center was closing for the day, so I headed out of town. But first, two more stops: Stringtown Grocery and the Kalona Cheese Factory.
Stringtown Grocery is a fascinating place that offers fresh baked goods, produce, and an incredible array of bulk groceries and hard-to-find items. Some shoppers appeared to be purchasing enough large bags of flour and other grains to last through a coming apocalypse. (Perhaps they bake for a living?) It was indeed an eclectic mix of shoppers. An Amish man parked his horse-drawn carriage beside the store and loaded up on fresh vegetables and dairy items; a little girl in front of me bought penny candy. I was amazed at the variety of goods being offered in the tiny store: noodles and vegetable seeds and real vanilla extract; nuts, grains, baking supplies, and dried fruits packaged into bags and plastic containers with hand-written labels; local cheese and butter; and spices galore – all priced very reasonably. I must go back with a grocery list.
My next stop was the cheese factory on the northern edge of town. There you can watch cheese being made and buy local and other assorted cheeses in a small shop. It smells wonderful!
I saw a number of horse-drawn carriages during my visit to Kalona, and many of the local farms offer goods for sale. I saw signs for baked goods, fresh eggs, and garden supplies. You could easily spend the weekend just driving through the countryside. It’s a bit like stepping back in time — in a good way.
Carole Gieseke, Iowa Girl on the Go