KT Dunn is a Midwest native who takes pride in the region's history and heritage.
The day began with a road trip to a West Des Moines, Iowa, antique mall that I had found online. Our destination turned out to be an enjoyable place to visit, but afterward, we had a lot of daylight hours remaining. “Let’s go explore Winterset,” my husband suggested, and I agreed. The rains of late spring had abated, leaving us a glorious afternoon.
Although we hadn't set out to see Winterset that day, it had been on our list for many years. The picturesque old town did not disappoint. What we found was a charming bit of Americana featuring beautifully preserved buildings of red brick and limestone, quiet streets, and friendly people. On our way to the downtown square, we cruised past a corner ice cream shop where a line of parents and children waited their turn at the walk-up window.
Downtown and Courthouse
Founded in 1849, Winterset is a small town with a population of a little over 5,000. It is the county seat of Madison County in south-central Iowa, about 35 miles southwest of Des Moines, and is situated within boundaries formed by Interstates 80 and 35. The majestic Madison County courthouse is the focal point of the postcard-perfect downtown square. Both the courthouse and the downtown commercial district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the courthouse having been added in 1976 and the downtown in 2015.
John Wayne Birthplace and Museum
John Wayne himself has become a part of American history, so even if you're not old enough to remember his movies, his birthplace and museum would be a worthwhile stop. Located in the center of town at 205 South John Wayne Drive, the facility is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, with some seasonal and holiday exceptions as listed on their website.
Located a block from the square is Monumental Park, featuring a 14-foot Civil War monument of marble and limestone, as well as four Civil War-era cannons.
Other Historic Winterset Parks
Other parks notable for memorials and historic structures include:
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- George Washington Carver Memorial Park, dedicated to the renowned scientist and educator who resided in Winterset in the late 1880s. The park features a large ceramic tile mural constructed by local students.
- Winterset City Park. Besides camping and other recreational activities, the 76-acre park features the 1870 Cutler-Donahoe covered bridge, relocated to the park in 1979, and Clark Tower, a limestone pioneer memorial observation tower built in 1926.
Madison County Historical Society Complex
A short drive from the downtown area brought us to the Madison County Historical Complex at 815 South Second Avenue. Featuring a total of 14 buildings, the complex is located in an 18-acre park-like setting on Winterset’s south side. Included are the Bevington-Kaser Mansion, a restored 1856 brick Victorian home, as well as a stone barn, a small country church, a schoolhouse, a mercantile store, a train depot, and more. The museum center building, constructed in 1980, features many local historical exhibits and is also available for community events.
Bridges of Madison County
Who remembers the excitement over The Bridges of Madison County? It’s been nearly 25 years now since the book and the 1995 movie catapulted the town of Winterset into the national spotlight. Previously known to the world primarily as the birthplace of Marion Morrison (John Wayne), the peaceful little town became a destination to a larger audience for its history and its surrounding covered bridges. The bridge that served as a centerpiece of the story was the Roseman Bridge, which is several miles southwest of Winterset and is pictured below. Also pictured is the Cutler-Donahoe bridge which, as mentioned above, is located in Winterset City Park. Both of these bridges were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
The Spirit of Winterset
My first connection with Winterset was a remote one. The Bridges of Madison County had burst onto the scene in both book and movie form. The Internet was still in its early years, and I was new at it. While seeking a source for the popular Madison County Cookbook, first released in 1994, I came across a Winterset merchant site. An ad for the cookbook was displayed across the top of the page. I assumed it was available at all the locations listed, so I clicked on the first email link and requested information about ordering a copy. An hour or so later, I received a polite reply from someone at a local store, who kindly directed me to the appropriate ordering site for the cookbook. The note was signed, “Pat in Winterset.” That touched me somehow, and I never forgot it. That person had no idea who or where I was but took a minute to help me out. That’s life in small-town America the way I'll always remember it.
During our recent 2019 visit to Winterset, we stopped in at a bustling shop on the square and my husband and I wandered in different directions. Finally, I returned to the checkout counter near the entrance and placed a few items on the counter. The clerk asked if that was all I needed. I replied that it was and that now I just had to find my husband. “He stepped out to take some more pictures,” she said, calmly ringing up my purchases. Clearly, we were recognizable as tourists in town for the day, and that made me smile. The spirit of Winterset lives on.
© 2019 KT Dunn