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Des Moines and Madison County, Iowa

Des Moines

Des Moines is the capital city of Iowa, USA. It is located near the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. Founded in 1843 as a fort, it is now an industrial and transport centre for the Corn Belt. Des Moines is protected from flooding by a system of dams and reservoirs. The city’s industries include mechanical and aerospace engineering, chemicals and food processing and the city is an important entertainment centre. The city’s name comes from French voyageurs who explored the two river valleys, calling one of them “La Rivière des Moines”, which translates as “River of the Monks”. The city today is home of the large Iowa State Fair, which lures over one million visitors each August. At the time of writing (2018), the population of Des Moines is just under 218,000 (just under 646,000 in the metropolitan area). The photographs on this webpage were taken in August, 2017.

Dominating the area east of downtown is the gold-leafed domed Iowa State Capitol building (shown above). Constructed between 1871 and 1886, it is the only five-domed capitol in the country. Near the capitol is the Iowa Historical Building which houses displays on the state’s Native American, geological, and cultural history. West of the capitol is the Des Moines Art Center. This building was designed by Finnish architect Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero Saarinen who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis - See Here). Inside the centre is exhibited an impressive collection of paintings by the likes of Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol. There is also a modern sculpture gallery here, which was designed by I.M. Pei. Perhaps from the point of view of the British author of this webpage, one of Des Moines most famous exports is probably the author Bill Bryson. Some more photographs from this visit to Des Moines can be seen in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

The state of Iowa, itself, lies between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in north-central USA. Originally prairie, the region was ploughed to create farmland and is known for its fertile soil. Maize and other cereals are produced here and Iowa stands second only to Texas in the raising of prime cattle. Industries in the state include food processing and the production of farm machinery. First discovered by Marquette and Solliet in 1673, the land was claimed for France in 1682. The region was explored by French trappers and hunters until it was sold to the USA in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. Iowa was admitted to the Union in 1846. Industrial development was encouraged after the Second World War.

Madison County

Madison County is located in south central Iowa, two hours from Omaha, Nebraska, less than three hours from Kansas City, Missouri, four hours from Minneapolis, Minnesota and less than 6 hours from Chicago, Illinois.


Located about 35 miles (56km) to the south of Des Moines is Winterset, a city and the county seat of Madison County. Madison County is included in the Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA Metropolitan Statistical Area. Winterset is famous for being the birthplace of Hollywood Western star John Wayne (born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907).

Since the John Wayne Birthplace Society was established in 1982, more than one million visitors from all 50 states and over 40 foreign countries have travelled to Winterset to celebrate this Hollywood legend. The 6,100 square foot John Wayne Birthplace and Museum offers fans a chance to see the largest collection of artefacts anywhere in the world relating to his life, including original movie posters, film wardrobe, scripts, contracts, letters, artwork and sculpture and one of his last customised automobiles. Adjacent to the museum is the modest four-roomed house where the actor spent his childhood. Each year, the museum celebrates his birthday with a festival and horse parade through the town. There is also a John Wayne Birthplace Trail around the town which, as well as the birthplace museum and childhood home, includes the site of the drugstore where Wayne’s father Clyde worked as a pharmacist and the town’s Train Depot.

Another point of interest in Winterset includes the impressive 1876 Madison County Courthouse and its surrounding Winterset Town Square which has been designated a Historic District by the National Park Service. The courthouse square is home to a number of fine shops, restaurants and local businesses. The town hosts a number of special shopping events throughout the year including the “Chocolate Walk” (in February), the “Wine Walk” (in May), and holiday shopping (During November and December).

Above: Madison County Courthouse

Other historical sites in Winterset include the 25 foot high Clark Tower (erected in 1926 as standing monument to the county’s first pioneer family by their descendants), the Madison County Historical Complex (set on 18 acres, with 14 restored buildings housing a collection of over 10,000 preserved historical items including Native American artefacts, and military items dating from the Civil War to Desert Storm) and the George Washington Carver Park (a green space dedicated to the famous scientist). Winterset has various other attractions, including the Madhaus Gallery, the Iowa Quilt Museum, Winterset Art Center, The Winterset Stage (which offers dinner and productions of well-loved plays and musicals), the Iowa Theater, a cidery and several wineries. The Madison County Fair takes place each July here, whilst camping, canoeing/kayaking and fishing are also popular activities. As well as being famous for being the county where John Wayne was born, Madison County is also famous for its covered bridges (see next section on this page). Some more photographs of Winterset can be seen in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

The Bridges of Madison County

As mentioned above, Madison County is famous for a number of covered bridges. These bridges were featured in Robert James Waller’s 1992 novella The Bridges of Madison County, as well as the 1995 film and 2014 musical based on it. The film was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood with Kathleen Kennedy as co-producer and starring alongside Clint Eastwood was Meryl Streep, who received an Academy Award for Best Actress nomination in 1996 for her performance in it.

Above: The Roseman Covered Bridge

In Winterset, the local Chamber of Commerce provides a map of the six nearby covered bridges that inspired Waller’s novella. These six of the original nineteen covered bridges in Madison County have been preserved, making the county the Covered Bridge Capital of Iowa. A covered bridge is a timber-truss bridge with a roof and siding which, in most cases, creates an almost complete enclosure. The purpose of the covering is to protect the wooden structural members from the elements. Uncovered wooden bridges have a much lower lifespan due to the effects of rain and sun. The brief moment of relative privacy whilst crossing the bridges earned them the nickname “Kissing Bridges”. The six bridges of Madison County which are preserved today are the Cedar Covered Bridge (completed in 1883 by Benton Jones and featured on the book cover of Waller’s novella), the Cutler-Donahue Covered Bridge (built by Eli Cox in 1871, situated in Winterset’s City Park since 1970, but originally sited over the North River in Bevington), the Holliwell Covered Bridge (built in 1880 by Benton Jones and located across the Middle River; at 122 feet, it is the longest bridge), the Hogback Covered Bridge (built in 1884 by Benton Jones, spanning 97 feet over the North River and named after a nearby limestone ridge), the Imes Covered Bridge (the oldest of the remaining bridges, first located over Middle River near Patterson and now located in St. Charles) and the Roseman Covered Bridge (built in 1883 and the most popular of the bridges, thanks to its feature in The Bridges of Madison County). Each October sees the Madison County Covered Bridge Festival, which features old-time craft demonstrations, a wide variety of festival food, live music, an antique car show, a parade, demonstrations which bring history alive and much more. Featured in the thumbnail gallery below are (in order) the Imes Covered Bridge, the Holliwell Covered Bridge and the Roseman Covered Bridge (click on an image to enlarge):

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