Transatlantic harmony in a tiny Iowa town
December 20, 2003
Editor’s note: Vail resident Polly Letofsky has been on the road since she left town Aug. 1, 1999, on her mission to become the first woman to walk around the world and promote awareness of breast cancer. From Vail she first walked to the West Coast, then crossed to the two islands of New Zealand, up the eastern coast of Australia and on to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Greece, Great Britain and Ireland. She’s now back in the U.S., having arrived in New York City and crossed New York State to the Canadian border at Niagara Falls and made her way to her home state of Minnesota. She’s headed south from there and is expected to reach Vail in August. This is a recent installment from her journal. You can follow along with Polly’s journey on her Web site, http://www.globalwalk.org.
BALLTOWN, Iowa – The Balltown Lions Club invited me to dinner. Naturally I thought it would entail the usual rural fare: chicken-fried steak with fried-cheese curd or fried salad.
To be fair, though, restaurants along the way have been pretty accommodating. They usually have something I can eat, or at least modify to eat, like the grilled-chicken sandwich, but just the slab of chicken.
They say, “Just the chicken?-No bun or mayonnaise or pickle?”-
I say that’s right, just a slab of grilled chicken with a side of cottage cheese. Then I hear them go back and tell the cook that the strange lady at table 6 wants a grilled chicken sandwich, hold the sandwich.
But the rural cafe in little Balltown gave me a surprise like most of Iowa has been. Wafts of fresh baked bread and a kettle of homemade chicken noodle soup greet you at the door. It’s called Breitbach’s Country Dining and when you walk in it’s like you’ve stepped back in time.
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The walls are a history of the western frontier: old quilts, country crafts, rural farm signs, turn-of-the-century furniture and antiques.
There’s even a horse blanket left behind by Jesse James when he presumably popped in for some fried cheese curd.
A lost art
Great-great-granddaddy Breitbach emigrated from Germany back in 1852 and built his bar. To this day the Breitbach family, now in its sixth generation, is tending to its every detail. The sign out front says it’s the oldest bar and restaurant in the state of Iowa, and they’ve got the documents to prove it.–
Along the main wall of the bar there’s a mural of the view outside that overlooks the Mississippi. Mike, the owner, tells me that back in the 1930s, during the Depression, a group of gypsies straggled in needing food and lodging. They didn’t have any money but said they had with them a mural painter with them named Alberto. They said he’d paint a picture on the wall of that scene out back and they promised it would be very valuable someday. Promise.
The gypsies stayed for two weeks, long enough for Alberto to paint the mural before they moved on.
Years went by and the mural was forgotten underneath some paneling when the room had been remodeled. Cut to present-day Balltown, two years ago, when Cindy and Mike were remodeling and the workers pulled off the old paneling. Shrieking ensued. A “wow!’ A “shazam!’
I don’t know squat about art but I found myself ogling and touching the mural for several minutes. We’re sitting high up on a bluff here in Balltown, overlooking the river and farmland below. The landscape dotted with red barns and big Victorian houses with sprawling porches.
Even now in late November, with the corn fields harvested and the trees naked, it’s the kind of far-reaching vista that makes you feel insignificant standing up here at Breitbachs in the face of the mighty Mississippi River.
That’s my cue that it really is a magnificent piece of work. And it’s now displayed in this historic bar with gypsy Albert’s signature in the lower left.
I yelped when I spotted the big yellow road sign hanging over the bar that says Saarburg. I’ve been there! In fact I had been so taken by the little village of Saarburg that I ended up staying three nights. Mike says that’s the village that Great-great-granddaddy Breitbach came from. Holy small world, Batman!
The odds that I would walk through teensy-weensy Saarburg, Germany, population 350, then 13 months later walk through teensier-weensier Balltown, Iowa, population 60, are so remote that I think I should walk over to the Kwikky Mart right now and buy myself a lottery ticket.
The locals tell me that busloads of tourists come during the summer for the views and fall for the autumn colors. They say that people from a 150-mile radius regularly drive up just for the night for the food, the ambiance, a step back in time –and they fill up all 240 seats.
I wonder what will happen when I advise my friends overseas that on their trip across America they really ought to make a stop in Balltown, Iowa. They would kindly smile, I’m sure, then roll their eyes.
I wouldn’t be able to back up my claim either because we wouldn’t be able to find it on the map.
When I become a cartographer, maybe I’ll implement a revolutionary system where the size of print indicates charm and views and good restaurants. Balltown would be a really big dot.