Jan 5, 2017

Grinding through Grinnell

There are quite a few people who make a living out of travel blogging and spend their summers exploring far-off and fantastic places around the globe.  But when you’re a commoner whose job involves travel you have no control over, you may wind up spending part of your summer headquartered someplace you never imagined visiting – someplace you might least expect to find blog-worthy adventures.  Last summer, that place was Grinnell, Iowa.

Grinnell at first glance is a microcosm of small town life in the Midwest.  But once I started exploring Grinnell a little more every weekday for almost two months, I realized the town is pretty blessed with an abundance of history, charm and character.  Its nickname is “Jewel of the Prairie” and frankly, you can see why.

Sure, there are some things about Grinnell that are nothing to write home about.  Unless you’re going there for Grinnell College, you’d probably see the town as a convenient stopover point for services along Interstate 80 between Des Moines and Iowa City.  The welcome sign as you enter town from the south is an obvious indication of civic pride. 

Further north toward town – as if you really needed a reminder that you’re in the heart of Iowa farm country – you’ll find the John Deere dealership, which must be considerably larger in space than any car dealership in the area.

And like many other small Iowa towns, Grinnell has a couple of those awkwardly (if not outright inappropriately) named gas station/convenience stores.

But delve a little further into Grinnell and you’ll start to see signs for many historical markers and landmarks.  After all, the town might not have existed if journalist Horace Greeley hadn’t told an abolitionist named Josiah Bushnell Grinnell to “go west, young man.”  In addition to the town’s historical significance related to western expansion, the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, Grinnell boasts nine parks for a variety of recreational activities.  

Then there’s Grinnell College, which is among the leading private liberal arts schools in the Midwest and clearly the town’s major draw.  Grinnell College also counts Gary Cooper, Herbie Hancock and Walter “Checkov” Koenig among its more famous former students. 

Goodnow Hall, the oldest building on campus.
The campus and outlying historic homes are very picturesque. 

The streets are generally wide and tree-lined. 

A few from the east dormitories across campus.

The spaces between the buildings are large and tranquil. 

Of course, that’s just my perspective as a summer tourist walking around aimlessly. 

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the campus’ layout to me was how each of the campus dormitories have buildings connected by a loggia on the backside.

Yes, that’s a loggia. Who knew!?

Another way Grinnell sets itself apart from other small towns is how its downtown has been amazingly revitalized.  Even in the summer when the students are largely away, downtown is truly the center of where the action is.  And, it’s easy walking distance from the campus (but definitely not walking distance from any motel).

To me, the beauty of downtown Grinnell is in the details.  Flower boxes and brick walkways are found at every corner. 

And many historic buildings have been restored to perhaps even better condition than their original state.

Downtown Grinnell has just about one of everything a thriving community needs, from a movie theater …    

… to your standard homestyle café … 

… and even your local radio station.  I like the call letters.

Even after a couple of months, although I started running out of new places to check out after a couple of months, I never got tired of Grinnell’s downtown scene.  I will be devoting separate blog entries to some of my favorite Grinnell hangouts in the coming weeks.  One thing they will all have in common is how they all made me feel right at home.

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