We the People Welcome You

Michael Morain

A few years ago when I worked for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, I was part of a team that was assigned to redesign the welcome signs that greet drivers along all the highways that lead into Iowa. Staffers at the Department of Transportation told us that the old signs promising “Fields of Opportunities” had surpassed their expiration date, like eggs in the fridge, and were overdue for replacement.

During one meeting (of many) the team diligently reviewed examples from all 49 other states. “Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama.” “Welcome to Pure Michigan.” “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island.” And so on.

Until then, I’d never realized that the phrase on our own signs was unique: “The People of Iowa Welcome You.” Our greeting was the only one that mentioned the people, which seems fitting. Most of the Iowans I know tend to be friendly — at times even aggressively friendly — and really do want to make folks feel welcome. (When my cousin’s wife from Connecticut rode RAGBRAI one year, she had to take occasional timeouts because everyone was Just. So. Cheerful.)

Maybe it’s that welcoming instinct that makes the task of redesigning the road signs so difficult. Because no matter what new tagline you paint on it — “A Place to Grow,” “You Make Me Smile” and now “Freedom to Flourish” — Iowans will have strong opinions about it. No single phrase can sum up all the reasons this state is such a mighty fine place to visit or call home.

In the 1800s, when different groups of Europeans settled across the state — the Danes in Elk Horn, the Dutch in Pella, the Norwegians in Decorah — many of them published pamphlets to send back to the Old Country to encourage their old friends and neighbors to hop on a ship and come over, too. They touted Iowa’s charming communities, low cost of living and fertile farmland, all the proverbial fields of opportunities.

The brochures were designed for outsiders but were useful for locals, too, to remind them about the good stuff right in their own backyards. In the following pages, I have a hunch you’ll discover something new about Iowa, whether you just showed up or have lived here your whole life. Check out where the locals like to eat in Cedar Rapids. Try your hand at weaving or blacksmithing at a folk school in Keosauqua, or poke around the new Art Farm up by Northwood. Oh — and be sure to see what good old Dan Gable looks like in a saintly stained-glass portrait in Sioux City.

So put up your feet and settle in for a few stories from our top-notch team of writers, photographers and designers. The people of ia welcome you.

– Michael Morain

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