Exploring Forest City and Mason City, Iowa, right in Winnebago’s backyard
On June 2, 2018, my husband, Jim, and I drove to La Mesa RV in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take possession of our brand-new 2019 Winnebago Vista LX 30T. I got teary eyed as I watched it being driven onto the lot for our walk through. It was love at first sight.
As we got to know our new motorhome better, we found a few things that needed repair, which we fully expected. The first destination on our upcoming three-month-long motorhome trip was to be Forest City, Iowa, home of Winnebago. On YouTube, I watched people talking about the dreaded factory visit, but we were excited about it. This was a chance to see where our baby was born, and to check out a new area of our country. Cool!
When we arrived in Forest City, we thought our list was long enough to keep a customer-service representative busy for a day or two. We had a hydraulic jack with a faulty seal, various squeaks and rattles, and a few cosmetic items. On the afternoon before our scheduled appointment, we checked in at the Customer Service Center. It has a nice lobby, perfect for reading, watching TV, knitting, or making new friends.
At the Winnebago Visitors Center, we reserved spots for the factory tour the next morning, and then settled in at the Winnebago Service Campground at the nearby fairgrounds. The RV sites have electric hookups only, but there is an on-site dump station.
Our afternoon was free to check out local sites. We started at Pilot Knob State Park. Dedicated in 1923, the 700-acre park is one of the oldest state parks in Iowa. Pilot Knob, the second-highest point in Iowa, got its name from pioneers traveling west in covered wagons who used this isolated hill as a guide. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built an observation tower on the park’s high point, which is accessible via a short hike on a trail through lush, green forest. From the top of the observation tower, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding farmland. Pilot Knob Lake, a man-made, 15-acre lake, is stocked with bass and bluegill, and is popular for fishing and boating (electric motors only).
Early the next morning we joined the exodus of Winnebagos returning to the Service Center. There were close to 20 people standing outside when the doors opened at 7 a.m. Since most of us had checked in the day before, we simply waited for our names to be called. Our customer service rep, Beto, went through our list with us. He assured us he could probably get it done in one day.
At 9 a.m., we started the factory tour, where we found at least a dozen new reasons to love our motorhome. In the 20-minute film, we learned about Winnebago’s commitment to safety and quality. The company builds a steel cab superstructure for durability, strength and safety. Vertical integration is key to Winnebago’s ability to make quality products that are long lasting. According to Sam Jefson, Winnebago public relations specialist, nearly 80 percent of components are manufactured in-house. Water and dump tanks are custom built to take advantage of every square inch. We were also impressed by the testing each prototype undergoes before mass production: a “shaker machine” that simulates the equivalent of 40,000 road miles in one week, and a proprietary test track that subjects models to a 30 percent grade, 2-inch cobblestones, 4-inch chuckholes and 6-inch bumps. All finished motorhomes undergo a high-pressure water test, with 250 spray holes simulating 50 inches of rain per hour.
A bus shuttled us to the factory that spreads across 60 acres. On the two-hour tour, we were able to watch the coach assembly line from catwalks in “Big Bertha,” the largest production facility. In the Stitchcraft building, we got a closer view of the machines that make upholstered furniture, bedspreads and pillows.
Since we needed to be nearby to pick up our motorhome by 3 p.m., we figured we had time for at least nine holes of golf. Bear Creek Golf Course is just five minutes away. It’s a nice course, with manicured fairways and greens. Just as we were finishing up, wondering if we could squeeze in nine more, we got a call from Beto saying our motorhome would be ready for a test drive at 2 p.m.
Jim drove our motorhome on the rural roads near the factory, while I listened for the squeaks and rattles that had plagued us in the past few months. Nothing. Nada. Just normal road noise we’d expect to hear while driving a car. Not only had Beto quieted all the racket, he’d fixed all our other complaints, too, in less than five hours.
That left us three full days to discover what else the area had to offer. The next morning we had a tour of Heritage Park of North Iowa, a 91-acre site within walking distance of the fairgrounds where our motorhome was parked. In 1999, the Winnebago Historical Society created the park, dedicated to the preservation of America’s rural heritage. Ron Holland gave us a tour through the Antique Transportation Museum. Many of the old cars, trucks and bicycles are owned by Ron. We were enchanted by the 1936 Ford that employees gave to John K. Hanson, founder of Winnebago, on his 50th wedding anniversary. It was a replica of the car that John K. and his wife, Luise, drove after their wedding. The fact that employees took up a collection to buy this car for their boss is a testament to how beloved this man was.
Heritage Park hosts several events throughout the year. We attended the Horse and Mule Event, which is an opportunity to see farm animals at work in the fields or while moving a house. This event also includes a Civil War re-enactment. The Annual Heritage Festival is held in conjunction with the Winnebago International Travelers (WIT) Club’s National Rally in July.
The Mansion Museum, in the heart of Forest City, is another place to learn about the area’s history. Built for Charley Thompson, a banker, in 1899, the building was restored by the Winnebago Historical Society in 1977. I had a greater appreciation of life in the 19th century when I saw a dress made by a woman in 1873. A sign on the dress said, “She raised the sheep, sheared, carded and spun the wool, dyed the yarn, wove the cloth and made the dress.”
For the next two days, we explored sites in nearby Mason City and learned about the influence Frank Lloyd Wright, “America’s greatest architect,” had on the area. In 1907, a banker, James Markley, asked Wright to build a bank. Wright convinced him it should include a hotel and law offices, too. A local physician, Dr. George Stockman, also asked him to build a house. Several other families wanted Prairie School homes. In the middle of all this, Wright ran off to Europe with his mistress. Three of Wright’s associates stepped in to finish the bank, hotel and eight homes. We heard these basic facts on three different tours, each with a different emphasis depending on which sites we were admiring.
At the Historic Park Inn, we learned that after Wright’s associate, William Drummond, completed the hotel, it opened on September 10, 1910. After that, the multi-use building with a bank, hotel and law office went though some tough times. The farm crisis forced the bank into bankruptcy in 1921. The bank was remodeled into retail and office space in 1926.
The law firm moved to a new location. The hotel’s 43 rooms, each 10-by-10 feet with shared bathrooms, lost their commercial appeal in 1922 when another hotel with larger rooms and private baths opened nearby. The historic building continued to deteriorate until a group of concerned citizens formed Wright on the Park Inc. in 2005. The nonprofit group’s mission is “to own, preserve and maintain The Historic Park Inn Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and to provide continuing education to the public about its place in the context of architectural history.” Construction started in 2010 and the grand reopening was in 2011, 101 years after its original completion. It is the “last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built hotel in the world,” according to the inn’s website (www.stoneycreek
hotels.com/hotel/travel/masoncity-parkinn/home.do). You might well ask, what about the Arizona Biltmore Hotel? Wright was a consultant for that project, but not the architect of record.
One of the founding members of Wright on the Park was our tour guide, Robert “Chip” Kinsey. He showed us photos of a few of the 27 spacious remodeled rooms, including the “honeymoon suite” with a view of the park, art glass on three sides and a whirlpool tub. As we toured the property, Kinsey pointed out some of the original items that were returned to the hotel after at least 85 years of absence. The 25 art-glass panels in the Skylight Room were recovered from one of the Prairie School homes in the city. After serving as part of a fence and surviving many Iowa winters, 14 of the grilles over the clerestory windows were donated to the restoration effort.
On the Historic Architectural Walking Tour, we learned that Mason City has the largest cluster of Prairie School homes. Tour guide Edith Blanchard told our group the history behind the homes on the tour. The first house belonged to James Markley, the man who brought Wright to Mason City. His house is a Neoclassical Revival home, a far cry from the Prairie School homes on the tour. From there, we walked across the Music Man Footbridge to see a house designed by Wrights’ associate, Drummond. The Yelland House has an open floorplan similar to a house Wright introduced in a Ladies’ Home Journal article in 1907 entitled “A Fireproof Home for $5,000.” In an odd twist of fate, the house burned in 2008. It sat vacant for two years and was slated for demolition, but then a local developer restored it to look like a classic 1909 Prairie School house with modern conveniences. There were 10 houses on our tour, all with interesting stories.
On a separate tour, we saw the Stockman House, designed by Wright. This house was also an iteration of the Fireproof Home. In 1989 the home was moved several blocks to its new location just north of the Rock Glen Historic District.
The Historic Architectural Walking Tour (now known as the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District Walking Tour) started and ended at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum. It features a permanent collection of American art, which includes 18 Grant Wood lithographs, blown glass by Dale Chihuly and the largest collection of Bil Baird marionettes.
Baird was raised in Mason City. For more than 60 years, he was a master puppeteer who entertained millions around the world. Remember that scene in the 1965 classic,“The Sound of Music,” where Maria and the von Trapp children entertained the Captain with “The Lonely Goatherd” puppet show? Bil Baird and his wife, Cora, were pulling the strings. Outside the museum, big blue blocks are available for kids to build forts, castles or whatever sparks their imagination.
We got another dose of musical nostalgia at Music Man Square. The 1962 film, “The Music Man,” was set in River City, Iowa. The movie was based on Mason City, the hometown of playwright Meredith Willson. The characters in the story are based on people he knew. While the movie was filmed at Warner Brothers studio in California, Music Man Square contains a 1912 replica streetscape. One glance at the ceiling in the Madison Park room will have you singing the lyrics to the most recognizable song from the movie, “76 Trombones.” Meredith Willson’s Boyhood Home is located next to the museum.
Winnebago motorhomes. Architectural wonders. Classic musicals. These are a few of my favorite things.
For More Information
Bear Creek Golf Course | 641-323-8822
Charles H. MacNider Art Museum | 641-421-3666
Heritage Park of North Iowa | 641-596-0527
Historic Architectural Walking Tour | 641-423-0689
Mansion Museum | 866-585-2092
Music Man Square | 641-424-2852
Stockman House | 641-423-1923
Visit Mason City | 800-423-5724
Winnebago Industries Inc. | 641-585-3535
Wright on the Park | 641-423-0689