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Travels in the Heartland: Explore the Western Iowa Entertainment Trail

Numerous 20th Century legends hail from Western Iowa
John Wayne Museum | Winterset Iowa
Posted at 3:50 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 21:13:59-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Midwestern towns take pride when one of their own becomes famous. But, when they're among the best in the entertainment industry, it seems to put an extra kick in a community's step.

In Western Iowa, you can even visit the hometowns of four notable acts within an hour of each other. From Corning to Sioux City, you can explore the hometowns of entertainers such as Johnny Carson, Glenn Miller, John Wayne and Donna Reed. Spend a day or weekend traveling your own Western Iowa Entertainment Trail

Johnny Carson Birthplace
Johnny Carson Birthplace

Johnny Carson Birthplace

Start your road trip in Southwest Iowa in the small community of Corning. While Johnny Carson considered Norfolk, Nebraska, his hometown, he was born in Corning. Carson was born in a small house on the hill at 13th and Davis, which you can tour as The Johnny Carson Birthplace.

The family lived in Corning for three years, then spent the next few years in Clarinda, Red Oak and Avoca before settling in Norfolk. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate went on to host “The Tonight Show” for 30 years. A few blocks away, you’ll want to visit the Adams County Freedom Rock, which honors three locals who sacrificed their loves for the country.

Stanton water tower
Stanton, Iowa Swedish coffee cup water tower

Mrs. Olson’s Hometown

Less than 30 minutes west of Corning, Stanton may celebrate its Swedish heritage, but it’s also the hometown of Mrs. Olson, the spokesperson for Folgers Coffee during the 1960s and ‘70s. However, Virginia Christine enjoyed a long acting career in Hollywood. The Stanton native’s career included 170 television or movie roles, spanning more than four decades, including appearances in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “A Man Called Shenandoah.”

While you may not find her childhood home, check out the town’s water towers. The current tower resembles a coffee cup and saucer, with Swedish art adorning it. The former water tower – a coffee pot – is now a public art piece near downtown. The Swedish Heritage and Cultural Center celebrates the area’s Scandinavian history.

Glenn Miller Birthplace
Glenn Miller Birthplace

Glenn Miller Birthplace and Museum

About 20 minutes south of Stanton, Clarinda celebrates the legacy of big band star Glenn Miller. Born in the house adjacent to the Glenn Miller Museum, Miller’s family lived in the city for about two years, before moving to Missouri and Nebraska before settling in Fort Morgan, Colorado. Miller’s childhood home is decorated with furniture and accessories accurate to the time the family lived there, but it doesn’t contain any of the family’s heirlooms. Miller was born in 1904 in an upstairs bedroom.

He dropped out of college to pursue a music career and eventually performed as a trombonist with the Dorsey Band. Miller would go on to record almost 270 songs in a six-year period. Possibly the most famous performer of the Swing era, or Big Band, Miller wrote his signature song – “Moonlight Serenade” – in 1939.

Glenn Miller albums on display the Miller Museum
Glenn Miller albums on display the Miller Museum

In 1942, Miller volunteered to serve in the United States military during World War II. He ended up leading an Army Air Force band during his active duty. On Dec. 15, 1944, the small plane Miller was riding in, en route from England to Paris disappeared over the English Channel. It’s been speculated that the plane’s wings iced over.

The Glenn Miller Museum celebrates his life. Beginning with a 1904 Oldsmobile that stands in the lobby near a sculpture of the musician. The 3,000 sq. ft museum includes exhibits from his childhood through his military service. One exhibit displays 96 of his album covers as well as a trombone and rotating displays covering various years of his career.

The Everly Brothers home
The Everly Brothers home

The Everly Brothers Childhood Home

Don and Phil Everly recorded early Rock ‘n’ Roll hits, such as “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do is Dream” and “Bye Bye Love.” But, before they were rock stars, the duo called Shenandoah home. The family performed during live programs on the local radio station, KMA.

About 20 miles west of Clarinda, the Everly Brothers’ childhood home completes the Southwest Iowa portion of the entertainment trail. The one-room family house along the city’s main drag is decorated with Everly Brothers memorabilia as well as era-appropriate furniture.

Carrie Chapman Catt, Suffragist
Carrie Chapman Catt, Suffragist

Sheridan Avenue is also home to the Iowa Walk of Fame, which includes about 125 Iowa-shaped plaques recognizing notable Iowans ranging from artists to a cartographer. Among the names honored on the Walk of Fame are Grant Wood, Meredith Willson, George Washington Carver and suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt.

John Wayne Birthplace and Museum

Born Marion Morrison in Winterset, the Iowa native became John Wayne and starred in movies such as “True Grit,” “The Green Berets” and “Rio Lobo.” He won an Academy Award for his role in “True Grit.”

John Wayne Birthplace
John Wayne Birthplace

A visit to the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Downtown Winterset will take you through a tour of his life in Hollywood, with costumes and props from movies, as well as the custom-made station wagon he and his family drove on vacations. A guided tour of his childhood home showcases the small house.

While in Winterset, explore the world-famous Bridges of Madison County. With six covered bridges available for viewing, you can walk across most of them as you enjoy the beautiful scenery of rural Iowa.

Donna Reed Museum
Donna Reed Museum in Denison, Iowa

Donna Reed Center and Museum

Donna Reed grew up as Donna Belle Mullenger on a farm near Denison. Adopting a stage name, Reed appeared in 54 movies and television series. Among her best performances were 1945’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart a year later. She went on to star in her television series – “The Donna Reed Show” – and later as Miss Ellie on “Dallas.” She passed away at the age of 64.

Today, her memory is celebrated at the Donna Reed Center and Museum, with the center hosting live stage performances. The city, situated along US Highway 30, used to host the Donna Reed Festival and you’ll find handprints of entertainment industry notables in concrete along the main street.

Andy Williams | Wall Lake
Andy Williams Birthplace

Andy Williams Birthplace

About 30 minutes northeast of Dennison, Wall Lake is the birthplace of singer Andy Williams. The Williams family moved to Des Moines when he was six. As the youngest of the four-member Williams Brothers act, he would go on to a solo music career.

Best-known for “Moon River,” Williams recorded 43 albums with 15 certified gold and three became platinum-selling discs. He hosted his own variety show from 1962-71, as well as several TV specials. His specials were holiday traditions.

Sioux City Public Museum
Sioux City Public Museum

Dear Abby and Ann Landers

Esther and Pauline “Eppie” Friedman were twins, born minutes apart in Sioux City. The sisters attended Morningside College together and even left school days before graduation to each get married. They would stay simpatico as advice columnists – Esther as Dear Abby and Eppie as Ann Landers.

“Dear Abby” columns were read by more than 100 million people, “Ann Landers” reached about 90 million readers. The sisters’ advice writing created issues between them, but they apparently resolved them during the mid-1960s. Esther wrote “Dear Abby” from 1956 until 1987, when her daughter took over. Eppie handled “Ann Landers” columns for 47 years, until cancer drove her away from the keyboard in 2002. She died in June 2002. Esther passed away in 2013.

Morningside University
It's a tradition at the school to annually paint the 'Spoonholder.'

While you can’t visit their childhood home from 1918, you can follow their footsteps around Morningside University. You may find yourself standing in similar spots as the sisters when the school was Morningside College.

While in Sioux City, learn about the city’s industrial history, including the stockyards and local businesses, at the Public Museum. You can also learn about the area’s Native American history. The Sioux City Art Center is a great spot to view contemporary art, as well as special exhibits. Of course, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Sgt. Floyd Monument are must-see attractions.

Tommy Bolin

Tommy Bolin seemed destined to be a rock star. The Sioux City native played with the James Gang for two years in the mid-1970s before becoming the lead guitarist for Deep Purple 1975-76.

Sioux City Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
Sioux City Hard Rock Hotel and Casino

Deep Purple may best be known for the 1973 hit “Smoke on the Water.” Following his leaving the James Gang, Bolin recorded a solo album. He then helped Deep Purple on four songs after their lead guitarist left the band. He was persuaded to join Deep Purple full-time.

After the group disbanded in 1976, Bolin recorded his second solo album. Before becoming nationally known, Bolin played with Iowa bands starting at the age of 13. His band – A Patch of Blue – was inducted into the Iowa Music Hall of Fame in 1969. Bolin died from a drug overdose in late 1976 at the age of 25. You can find his music memorabilia on display at the Sioux City Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

READ MORE TRAVELS IN THE HEARTLAND: Nebraska Passport program is underway

For more information about Tim and Lisa Trudell, visit The Walking Tourists.

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