Things to do in Corning, Iowa

Adams County, Iowa is the least populated county in the entire state of Iowa. Only 3,600 for the entire county. However, Corning is not short on surprises. There’s the birth home of the king of late-night TV. They also have a stellar farm-to-table restaurant that feels like it belongs in a big city. Oh, and they’ve got a county park that’s a true hidden gem, in fact, chances are you already know about this park or no one has invited you because they want to keep this treasure for themselves.

Earlier this year, I spent three days in Corning and Adams County, to check things out for myself. The trip was sponsored by the Adams County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC) and the Midwest Travel Network. In total, we had six travel bloggers on the trip. Our accommodations and meals were covered by ACEDC, but the reviews/opinions are my own.

Johnny Carson Birthplace

Location: 500 13th Street, Corning, Iowa
Hours:  Saturdays during the summer, from 10 am to 2 pm
Cost:  $10 per adult

There’s a king of rock and roll.  There’s a king of pop.  And many would also say there’s a king of late-night TV – and that it is and always will be Johnny Carson.  He was the host of The Tonight Show host for 30 years, hosting over 22,000 guests including numerous movie stars, television stars, musicians, athletes, and politicians.

At the corner of 13th St and Davis Ave in Corning, Iowa sits a small white house with a sign in the front yard that reads –  “Heeere’s Johnny Carson’s Birthplace”, taken of course from the well-known nightly introduction provided by Ed McMahon on NBC’s Tonight Show. He was born John William Carson at this home on Oct 23, 1925. He only lived in Corning for two years, before his family moved to Red Oak, Clarinda, then Avoca. At the age of eight, his family moved westward to the state “that isn’t for everyone”… aka Nebraska.

Did Johnny remember anything about Corning or make a visit to the house when he was older?

There are no records indicating that Johnny made any return visits to the house in Corning.  However, there is a story that Johnny and his wife made a surprise visit in 1986 to the house where his family lived in Avoca, Iowa.  Apparently, he drove right up to the house, remembering exactly where it was, knocked on the door, and asked the owner if he could tour the home.  He spent about 30 minutes reminiscing about his old bedroom and times when he would play under the porch.  He claimed that this was the oldest house he could remember when growing up.

Hereee’s Johnny!

Although he didn’t visit Corning later in life, was he ever involved in helping Corning?

In 2002, Johnny Carson responded to a request to help with a skate park in Corning.  He donated $75,000 which almost covered the entire project, which totaled $90,000.   Johnny would often contribute to various community needs, but would always ask that it not be named after him.   Instead, organizers cleverly named it “Carnac Family Skatepark”, a reference to Carnac the Magnificent, a familiar skit that Johnny included on the Tonight Show with a witting, all-knowing mind reader named Carnac.  

What’s inside the Johnny Carson birthplace home?

They are in the process of restoring the house back to 1925, the year that Johnny Carson was born.  Of course, there are no original furniture items from the family – but you do get to walk through the home which includes the bedroom where Johnny was born.  There are numerous photos and mementos in Johnny’s honor.   On the living room TV, there’s a short clip dedicated to Johnny as well as the clip of when Johnny interviewed his babysitter from Corning, Iowa. 

If you’re a die-hard Johnny Carson fan, you’ll want to ask about the special edition Time Magazine honoring Johnny Carson.  They are only available at his birthplace home – and will set you back $100.  There are also other knickknacks like shirts, coffee mugs, magnets, etc. 

When was the house saved and dedicated as the Johnny Carson Birthplace?

It was used as a rental home up until it was purchased by Edward Chappell in 2006 for $17,000.   After the Johnny Carson Birthplace Society got its non-profit status, he then signed the house over to the group.   

Rental cabins along Lake Icaria with the marina in the background.

Lake Icaria

Location: 1730 Juniper Ave, Corning, Iowa

Iowa has some exceptional county parks –  and Adams County holds one of the stellar ones in Lake Icaria.   It’s a 650-acre man-made lake that hosts a variety of amenities.

Accommodations at Lake Icaria

Lake Icaria has it all for accommodations –   everything from pitching a tent, pulling up your RV, primitive cabins or cabins with kitchenettes.  And if that’s not enough, there are two fully equipped cottages with three bedrooms, a full kitchen, and a private dock!

Rental cabins on Lake Icaria

Things to do at Lake Icaria

Although there’s a huge list of things to do at Lake Icaria – they are well known for two specific things:  Walleye and Water Skiing. 

Fishing, especially for Walleye

They raise their own walleye and therefore release a significantly higher amount of walleye than other locations.  They also have largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.  There are several no-wake zones for fishing, as well as a large number of fishing structures.  

Travis from Adams County Conservation took us out on a pontoon boat ride around Lake Icaria

Water skiing at Lake Icaria

Lake Icaria does not allow jet skis, and with a ski lane that’s over a mile long, this lake attracts a number of water skiers.   They also have Bobbers Down Marina, which has all your boating and fishing needs.  

Other activities at Lake Icaria

Hiking, swimming or relaxing at their beach, 18-hole disc golf, and they are adding an archery range as well!

Aerial view of the Corning Opera House with the piano-decorated pedestrian lane leading toward the entrance.

Corning Opera House

Address: 800 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

History and architectural buffs will love this stop. You’ll need to call ahead to make a reservation for a tour, as they are only available on request. Suggestion donation is $10 per person.

The Corning Opera House is a fully restored theater serving as a rental venue and performance hall. It was originally built in 1902 and was restored in 2012 using mostly grant funding. Your tour guide will be De Heaton, a former music teacher, now director of the Corning Opera House. De is a certified tour guide, who has handled loads of tours and you’ll find that the time will go quickly and it will be filled with stories and memorable sights.

Some of the stories you might hear along the way:

  • The time the downtown district burned to the ground, but gave way for the building of the Opera House
  • When a world-class ballet dancer used the Opera House for practice because of its raked floor
  • The time she received a call from Johnny Carson
  • Learn how theatrical terms like “Break a leg” got started and what they mean.

Some highlights you’ll see during the tour at the Corning Opera House include:

  • Classic tin roof
  • Horseshoe shaped balcony
  • Raked (raised) floor
  • Backstage tour
The refractory, or dining hall, is an original building from the French Icarians dating back to 1870.

French Icarian Village

Address: 2349 220th St, Corning, IA 

Did you know that the largest non-religious utopian society in the United States was in Corning, Iowa?

The followers of Frenchman Etienne Cabet traveled to Corning, Iowa ins 1852 seeking to build a utopian society. Each family had their own private home, however, they shared a communal kitchen and the society collectively held all money. At its largest, the society owned 3,000 acres. As time went on, the younger vs older generation Icarians had different beliefs. After a legal battle, the society was broken into two segments and the younger generation moved west and the original Icarians remained.

During the tour, you’ll see:

  • The original refractory or dining hall building. The dining room is on the main floor with a kitchen in the basement. On the second floor, they hold their historical items and research. They have a diorama that shows how the settlement was laid out.
  • 1860’s one-room school house that was used by the Icarians
  • Remnants of the Icarian Cemetery
  • And you’ll probably also see their rhubarb patch. The Icarians were known for bringing rhubarb to this area of the United States.

Tours are available on request by contacting them directly (information is on their website at

Aerial view of the Adams County Speedway, a half mile track that has events every Saturday, April to Sept.

Adams County Speedway

Address: 1200 John St, Corning, IA

It’s the only dirt track in Iowa that runs weekly and is NASCAR affiliated. Every Saturday night between mid-April and September, they feature five race classes on their half-mile track: compacts, hobby stock, street stock, b-modified, and modified. We’ve also heard that they serve up a great cheeseburger during the races.

House of History

Address: 1000 Benton Ave, Corning, IA

The house once served as the county jail and the sheriff’s quarters, but today serves as a local historical museum known as the House of History. There are three floors of local historical items. The House of History is only open on request by calling 641-322-4120.

The sign reads, “This chest came to America in 1630 on the Mayflower”

Perhaps the two most unique items on display are the trunk believed to have come over on the Mayflower and the jail cell in the basement.

R&S Collectibles

Address: 510 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

At the corner of 6th and Davis is a large showroom filled with classic cars ranging from the 1930s to the 2000s. All of the cars are for sale and the inventory is always changing. The showroom is only available on request, by calling 641-322-5111. They also have a large collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia as well.

Adams County Freedom Rock

Address: 406 6th St, Corning, IA

Every one of Iowa’s 99 counties has a Freedom Rock, painted by Bubba Sorenson – and the Adams County Freedom Rock is located in Corning. It’s a tribute to the past, current, and future members who have served our country. One side of the rock specifically highlights three local veterans.

Places to eat/drink in Corning, Iowa

Chef Joel Mahr putting the finishing touches on the dishes that would become our group’s meal.

Primrose Restaurant

Address: 619 Davis Ave, Corning, IA,

Primrose should be at the top of your list, a can’t-miss destination when you are anywhere close to Corning. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me that they have customers who drive an hour or more just to dine at Primrose. The front door states “City Dining in a Small Town” and after your first trip to Primrose, you’ll completely understand. Joel Mahr was once the chef at Omaha’s Lot 2 and then he made the move to Corning to open Primrose and he definitely brought the city dining experience with him.

Why is Primrose so special? I think there are several reasons why dining at Primrose is a must.

The owners are the wife-husband team of Jill Fulton and Joel Mahr. Jill runs front of the house and Joel runs back of the house/kitchen.

Fantastic food. As you would expect, the food is stellar. I was dining with a group of around 10 people and everything ordered was getting rave reviews. I ordered the steak and it was incredible – but I was drooling over what everyone else had, including the bacon-wrapped meatloaf. I’m looking back on the experience and having a hard time explaining to others that I ordered an incredible steak, and was also envious of the folks who ordered the meatloaf.

Farm to Table. The produce is harvested from their parent’s farm near Corning. They also locally source as much of the meat as possible. During an interview with Midwest Food Stories, Joel was quoted, “The garden writes the menu. I’m just the technician who puts it together.”

Changing Menu. If you’re truly farm-to-table, that means your menu changes with what the garden provides, and that is the case at Primrose. There are only two staples on the menu: the 10oz NY strip and the hamburger. The rest of the menu changes weekly, including the desserts. And on a daily basis, they also feature a unique lunch entree. I even heard from the locals that they watch the Primrose Facebook Page every weekday to see what the daily special is (it’s posted about 10:45 am every weekday morning) and then they call in to reserve one. Otherwise, if you’re too late, they might sell out.

Everything from scratch. Lots of restaurants say they make their meals from scratch. However, I have two stories that demonstrate just how far Primrose goes to make everything from scratch. I wanted to order the skillet cookie for dessert, but they explained that they were out of ingredients to make the ice cream. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting the ice cream to be homemade – and that made me want to order it even more. But I was presently surprised when the response was that if they can’t make it on their own, they aren’t going to serve it. The second story, I stopped in on another trip and ordered the hamburger and fries. As I’m working my way through the meal, I noticed that the ketchup has a twist to it – something added to jazz it up. Something that caused me to be out of ketchup long before I was out of fries. After inquiring, it turns out that they make their own ketchup! So when a place says they make everything from scratch – my new standard is to ask if they make their own ketchup.

Los Catrines is inviting to your eyes and your stomach. You won’t be disappointed.

Los Catrines Mexican Kitchen

Address: 606 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

Not only were our meals and drinks superb, the interior was well-dressed. We were told that the interior was hand painted by one individual. Be sure to take time to walk around the restaurant to check out all the murals and displays.

3 C’s Diner

Address: 300 9th St, Corning, IA

In 2018, 3 C’s had the number one rated tenderloin in Iowa.

An aerial view of the Floating Vine, which serves up drinks on a building that floats in this pond.

Floating Vine

Address: 2271 IA-148, Corning, IA 

The Floating Vine is a unique place to stop for a drink. They have a variety of wines and beers, all in a fun location. As you pull in, you’ll see rows of vines and then a building floating out on a pond. Yes, it really is a floating bar. In fact, they have a section of the floor that has a glass bottom where you see fish swimming underneath.

Sweet Desires

Address: 711 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

Corning is blessed with an award-winning bakery. We stopped in each morning of the trip to pick up some sugary treats. One of the items you’ll likely see in the display case is a Dutch Letter. Why? Because the owner was trained and worked at Jarasma Bakery in Pella, Iowa.

Our group of writers from the Midwest Travel Network enjoying breakfast and coffee on the back patio at Backgrounds Coffee Bar & Boutique.

Backgrounds Coffee

Address: 708 Davis Ave Ste 2, Corning, IA

This is your go-to local coffee shop in Corning. Wide variety of drinks including coffee, lattes, teas, Italian sodas and smoothies. Also breakfast and lunch items. It’s located in the back of Hair Designers Salon & Spa.

Places to shop in Corning, Iowa.  

Fire & Salt Co. is the newest addition to Cornings downtown – and its a can’t miss destination. You’ll see that there’s a tremendous amount of planning that went into this location.

Fire & Salt Co.

Address: 620 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

It’s located right across the street from Primrose Restaurant – and if at all possible, make sure to stop in to see this store, it will be memorable. It’s a restored bank that now serves as a unique shop offering local meat products. They also carry a variety of olive oils. Be sure to walk to the back of the store to see the restored vault, which has been turned into a humidor to store cigars! They even took the vault door apart, allowing you to see into the details of the vault door which is now outlined in LED lighting.

Real Deals

Address: 718 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

Real Deals features home decor and clothing. It’s locally owned by sisters Anne and Cindy. You’ll find a great variety at reasonable prices.

Aerial view of local shops along Davis Ave in Corning, Iowa.

Lone Arranger

Address: 627 Davis Ave, Corning, IA

What started as a floral shop has expanded to a gift and boutique shop. You’ll find a wide variety of gifts, all nicely organized into themes at Lone Arranger. The owner, Jessica Wilson, has quite a list of accomplishments in the floral business, including making floral arrangements for the governor’s inauguration, decorating the governor’s mansion, and helping to decorate a float at the Tournament of Roses Parade. On the second floor, they host Operation Dream Closet, which houses hundreds of donated dresses and formal wear. They are available for rent at a reasonable price.

Places to stay in Corning, Iowa

The Corning Hotel was built and now run by the community.

The Corning Hotel

Address: 2260 Juniper Ave, Corning, IA

This is Corning’s one and only hotel – and it’s not part of a hotel chain. When the community determined that they needed a hotel, they set out to do it on their own! Using a group of local investors, they raised their own funds to build and maintain the hotel. They even have pet rooms that are designed for your furbabies!

The standard two queen bedroom at The Corning Hotel.

Lake Icaria County Park

Location: 1730 Juniper Ave, Corning, Iowa

Besides the Corning Hotel, your other option is Lake Icaria which features everything from pitching a tent, up to rustic cabins, or cabins with kitchens, or even the full 3 bedroom cottage on the lake.

The interior of a sleeping cabin at Lake Icaria. Multiple bunks, fridge, microwave. Bathrooms and showers are in a separate building right next door. They also have cabins with water/bathroom – or fully equipped houses with 3 bedrooms and a full kitchen.

Odd roadside attraction: Tree in the Combine

Address: Near the intersection of 183rd St and Highway 148

While traveling across Iowa, I’ve seen a hula hoop tree, a tree in the middle of the road, even a tree growing through a grain bin – and now, thanks to Adams County, we now have a tree growing through a combine. It’s located on private property, but you can easily see it from Highway 148, on the west side of the road, just north of the intersection with 183rd Street, which is north of Corning, Iowa.

Based on the size of the tree, it looks like it has probably been growing through the combine for at least the last 5 years or so. However, locals have confirmed that the combine has been sitting in this location for over 20 years.

I’ve seen lots of trees growing through and around things in Iowa – but Adams County is the first place I’ve seen a tree growing through a combine.

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