50 States in 50 Days: Is This Heaven? No, it’s Iowa

Posted by: Randall Hager, Agricultural Attaché 

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State Motto:  “Our Liberties We Prize, and Our Rights We Will Maintain”

As an Iowan born and raised, the quote from the movie Field of Dreams that I use for the title has always held a special place. The state’s great people, rich agricultural land and natural beauty make it a land to behold.  From bicycle rides across the state, to leadership in agriculture and industry and with a rich history of achievements, Iowa is full of possibilities and opportunities.

The Iowa State Capital building in Des Moines
The Iowa State Capital building in Des Moines

History and Symbols

Iowa was admitted to the Union on December 28, 1846 as the 29th state.  It ranks 30th in population with about three million people, and 23rd in land area.   Its agricultural base is well known; nearly 90 percent of its surface is arable land, making it a leader in corn and soybean production.  Iowa is often called the “Tall Corn State” for good reason. That leadership in agriculture helps Iowa to play a leading role in world food security, through among others Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, and events such as the World Food Prize.

State Flower: Wild Rose

Wild Rose
Wild Rose

The 26th Iowa General Assembly designated the wild rose as the official state flower in 1897. It was chosen for the honor because it was one of the decorations used on the silver service which the state presented to the battleship USS Iowa that same year. Although no particular species of the flower was designated by the General Assembly, the wild prairie rose (rosa pratincola) is most often cited as the official flower. Wild roses are found throughout the state and bloom from June through late summer. The flower, in varying shades of pink, is set off by many yellow stamens in the center.  Before significant settlement and development of agriculture, much of the state was covered by prairie grass.

Iowa quarter
Iowa quarter

Iowa Quarter: Nation’s Only Education Quarter

In 2004, when Governor Vilsack and the head of the U.S. Mint unveiled the 29th commemorative quarter at the foot of the Iowa Capitol, the focus was on education. Schoolchildren, teachers and dignitaries were on hand for the event as the Iowa quarter was introduced as “the nation’s only education quarter.” The coin features Iowa artist Grant Wood’s “Arbor Day” painting of a one-room schoolhouse and teacher with students planting a tree. The motto on the coin is “Foundation in Education.”

State Bird: Eastern Goldfinch

State Bird: Eastern Goldfinch
State Bird: Eastern Goldfinch

The Iowa General Assembly designated the eastern goldfinch, also known as the American goldfinch and the wild canary, as the official state bird in 1933. It was chosen as the state bird because it is commonly found in Iowa and often stays through the winter. Seeds from dandelions, sunflowers, ragweed and evening primrose are the main source of food for the eastern goldfinch (carduelis tristis). In late July or early August, goldfinches build their nests from plant materials and line them with thistledown. The pale blue-white eggs of the eastern goldfinch hatch after two weeks and then, following two to three more weeks, the young birds leave the nest. The top of a male’s head is topped with black and their bright yellow body also has black wings and tail. The female has a dull olive-yellow body with a brown tail and wings. The male goldfinch acquires the same dull plumage in the winter months.

State Tree: Oak
State Tree: Oak

State Tree: Oak

The oak was designated as the official state tree in 1961. The Iowa General Assembly chose the oak because it is abundant in the state and serves as shelter, food and nesting cover for many animals and birds. It is difficult to find a tract of natural woodland in Iowa that does not have in it at least one species of oak. No other group of trees is more important to people and wildlife. Acorns, the nuts of oak trees, are a dietary staple of many animals and birds. Deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, quail, wood ducks, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, bluejays, nuthatches, grackles and several kinds of woodpeckers are a few of the species that depend on acorns for a significant portion of their diet.

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Iowa’s Unique Symbols and Cultural Touchstones

What are common thoughts about Iowa?  That it is flat is one we hear on occasion. Some forty years ago, writers from the Des Moines Register and a few others rode across the state and learned differently.  Thus, the origin of RAGBRAI, the Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa with its nearly ten thousand riders traversing the state in a week.  It is now the oldest, longest, and biggest bike ride of its kind.  The rolling landscape, especially in the northeast, and rich soil come in part from glacier activity centuries ago. RABRAI tradition holds that cyclists departing the western border dip their back wheels in the Missouri, and a week later, their front wheels in the Mississippi.

The Iowa State Fair

The world-famous Butter Cow is located in the Agriculture Building. In 2006, Sarah became the Fair's fifth butter sculptor.
The world-famous Butter Cow is located in the Agriculture Building. In 2006, Sarah became the Fair’s fifth butter sculptor.

The internationally-acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment and achievement. It is the true heartbeat of the Midwest, unequaled and unduplicated.

A Young Farmer!
A Young Farmer!

The Iowa State Fair, the inspiration for the original novel “State Fair” by Iowan Phil Stong, three motion pictures and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, is without a doubt the country’s most famous state fair. National media frequently rank the Fair as one of the top events in the country. In 2004, USA Weekend named the event the #2 choice for summer fun in the United States, topping New York City’s Times Square, Cedar Point Amusement Park Resort in Ohio and Disneyland in California.

Midwest Living magazine named the Fair one of the “Top 30 Things Every Midwesterner Should Experience.” The Fair is also included in the New York Times best-selling travel book “1000 Places to See Before You Die” and the subsequent travel book, “1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before you Die.”

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Famous Iowans

  • John Wayne, Movie Star
  • Herbert Hoover, 31st President
  • Dr. Norman Borlaug, Scientist
  • John Vincent Atanasoff And Clifford Berry, Co-inventors of the digital computer
  • Vice President Henry A. Wallace, Served under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and founded Pioneer Hi-Bred International
  • Carrie Chapman Catt, Suffragist leader whose efforts resulted in women’s right to vote

World Food Prize

The World Food Prize was conceived by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1986, The World Food Prize has honored outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world. Laureates have been recognized from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Cuba, Denmark, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the United States. In 1990, Des Moines businessman and philanthropist John Ruan assumed sponsorship of The Prize and established The World Food Prize Foundation, located in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Display from the Mississippi River Museum
Display from the Mississippi River Museum

Major Rivers

The two rivers that form much of Iowa’s borders are the Mississippi on the east, and the Missouri on the west.  Early explorers, many French, traveled down the Mississippi and began settlements in rivers cities like Dubuque, named after Julian Dubuque.  Earlier travelers include the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, who travelled along the river in 1673. They were commissioned by the colony of New France to map the unexplored region. The entire area was claimed for France in 1682 by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who named it Louisiane in honor of French King Louis XIV.

These rivers have served well the economic development of the state, economically transporting agricultural products to seaports in the south.

Iowa farms
Iowa farms

Iowa Agriculture

Iowa is well know as a leading agricultural producer, primarily corn and soybeans, and livestock.  Its contribution to the state economy is about 17 percent of total value, as manufacturing, industry, and commerce have become increasingly important to the overall strength of the economy.

Iowa’s farmers take a great deal of pride in their history!

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