When Americans think of the spirit of our great land, we think perhaps of the vast landscapes of the West, the surf rolling in on our coastlines, and the energy of our great cities. But we also have a collective soft spot in our hearts for the classic American small town. One of our favorite movies,"It's a Wonderful Life," stars Jimmy Stewart and takes place in Bedford Falls--a fictional small town but one that resonates in the American soul as a model for the kind of place we would like to raise our children.

I drove into Winterset, Iowa, by accident, on a day when I was in between art shows in the Midwest. It was late afternoon and I needed a place to camp; just outside of town there was a small park where I could pitch my tent. When I arrived, the baseball diamonds at the park were busy with local softball games. Uniformed teams played intently, with crowds cheering them on. The enthusiasm was contagious, and I decided to explore more of this American small town.

After setting up camp, I drove downtown to see what I could find out about Winterset. This clear summer evening was illuminated by that wonderful slanted sunlight that washes everything in a warm glow.

Downtown, people were slowly arriving at the Iowa Theater; "Matrix" and "Never Been Kissed" were the feature movies. A pair of ten-year old boys arrived on bicycles and simply laid them down, unlocked, on the sidewalk in front of the theater, then bounded inside. A teenage boy and girl arrived together, and entered the lobby holding hands. Single women and old couples arrived, parked across from the theater, and drifted inside. Just another summer evening at the movies...

The Iowa Theater is located across from the stately county courthouse. The four streets surrounding the courthouse are lined with turn-of-the-previous-century brick buildings; the storefronts still have a mid-twentieth century quality, with a Ben Franklin five & dime and a Rexall Drugs. Contemporary chain stores are rare downtown. Fords and Chevies, rather than Japanese and German cars, dominate the parking places. Winterset is very much a place that still looks like our collective idealized America of the 1950s.

A middle-aged couple strolls by, eating ice cream cones. Several teens sit chatting on a park bench. A young woman walks by, pushing a baby carriage; an elderly lady tends the courthouse tulip garden. Several thirtysomething women ride by, out for an evening's exercise on their bicycles. It is a safe place to spend an evening.

And it is an absolutely perfect June evening, with cloudless blue skies and a temperature of 70 degrees. My mood fits the idealized evening. A blue jay squawks in the courthouse trees; chimney swifts skitter and chatter above the town.

A downtown store window has a sign proclaiming they use only Red Delicious apples in their famous apple fritters. Madison County, it turns out, was the birthplace of this all-American apple. The Red Delicious apple dominated grocery store shelves across America for decades, and is only recently being challenged by other varieties.

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Impressions of Winterset, a classic American small town in Madison County, Iowa
The stately Madison Country Courthouse and its green expanse of perfect lawn dominate downtown Winterset
America's traditional favorite, the Red Delicious apple, was born in Madison County
LEE RENTZ PHOTOGRAPHY
Phone & fax: 360-427-5310 E-mail: lee@leerentz.com
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