Their slogan “Dodge the Ordinary” is very fitting, as Fort Dodge is not what you would expect. Fort Dodge has some unique art and history locations, along with some unexpected dining options. I was in town for three days as part of a blogging workshop done by the Midwest Travel Network. I had been through Fort Dodge before and had visited a few local sites, but this trip was well coordinated by the Visit Fort Dodge team and they gave us the opportunity to get the scoop on everything in Fort Dodge.
Grain Silo Art: The tallest mural in Iowa
Did you know that Fort Dodge has Iowa’s tallest mural? It’s located at 777 Hawkeye Avenue and encompasses the full 360 degrees of four abandoned concrete grain silos that stand 110 feet tall.
Initially, the town was worried that abandoned grain silos would become an eyesore. However, with help from the Fort Dodge Public Art Coalition they held a contest and invited artists to submit ideas for how to turn the silo into an art attraction.
They received numerous proposals and awarded the work to Guido Van Helton, an Australian artist. So why did they select Guido’s proposal? From what I’ve heard, it sounds like there are two main reasons… 1) the ability to tie the art to local citizens and 2) his proposal was to use earth tone and subdued colors. Knowing that any bright colors would start fading within a few years time, the artwork would become questioned as a possible eye sore.
Guido’s design was based on interviews and photographs that he took of several locals. You’ll also notice that the models are holding what appears to be pottery – and that’s correct. In fact, they are pottery pieces from the Fort Museum and Frontier Village. Work begin in 2018 and they recently added a parking lot and a walking path to allow you to easily enjoy the full view around the silos.
Community Orchard is a locally owned apple orchard that goes way beyond just being an orchard. Although apples are still the main star of the show, the orchard consists of 4 basic parts.
We stopped for lunch on a weekday during the month Oct – and I was not expecting the crowds that I saw. They only serve lunch from 11 am to 2:30 pm. With the crowd they had, it’s a sign that people recognize and value what they serve. There’s a daily lunch special along with a variety of sandwiches, soups, and salads. Don’t forget to leave room for the desserts, as they have everything apple that you could imagine!
The Back 40 is the ultimate playground for kids. There’s a daily admission price per person, but the list of features and things to do is extensive, including various rides, karts, and trikes. Also giant jumping pillow, corn box, and tire mountain.
During our visit, I saw a number of local school buses dropping off students for their annual orchard visit. There’s no doubt that the Back 40 is filled with countless smiles on warm autumn weekends.
Shopping at Community Orchard
Not only is there an endless supply and variety of apples, but there are also other popular products like corn salsa, maple dip, and more. They also have a variety of bundles or packages that can be used for gifts.
Pumpkin Patch & Sunflower Field
Typically during the month of August, the Sunflower field is in bloom, which invites visitors to take a wagon ride to visit the field, where you can pick a sunflower and capture some great photos. During Sept and Oct, the pumpkin patch is open for visitors to find that perfect pumpkin.
Address: 2237 160th St. Fort Dodge, IA 50501
During our trip to Community Orchard, they offered us a quick tour of the facilities and answered a lot of questions about their operations. To harvest the apples, they do not use a large group of people – in fact, it’s the opposite. They have a very limited number of trusted apple pickers that they have used for years. Once harvested the apples are sorted, first by size, then by quality. The best size and shaped apples are sold in baskets or bags as they are. The smaller apples are used for making cider or other products.
After sorting, the apples are taken to cold storage. Storing the apples at cooler temperatures keeps them crisp. If you get a chance to visit the cold storage, the aroma of the various apples blends together and makes this the most beautiful-smelling room you have ever been in (assuming you like apples, of course). After cold storage, the apples might be headed to the market floor to be sold, or to the onsite bakery, or off to the cider press.
We made a quick stop at their bakery. They demonstrated a machine that can peel a high number of apples per minute, which is the starting step for the 300+ apple pies that they produce per day. That’s a lot of pies!
During the tour, as we were watching apples being sorted, Denny noted one of the men sorting apples – Greg. It turns out that Greg Baedke and his wife Bev were the previous owners. They operated the Community Orchard for the past 40 years and just recently sold it to Denny and Emily Stucky, the current owners. Denny and Emily had never worked in agriculture, let alone apple orchards. But Greg and Bev agreed to see them through their first season, which was Aug 1st through Dec 23rd.
Blanden Art Museum
I made the mistake of thinking that this was an old Carnegie Library that was repurposed into an art museum – and that’s not the case at all. In fact, the building was built specifically as an art museum in 1932. The Blanden Art Museum is believed to be the oldest municipal fine arts museum in Iowa. Keep in mind, I’m aware that some art organizations in Davenport, Dubuque and Des Moines are older, but they all have newer facilities.
Address: 920 3rd Ave S, Fort Dodge, IA 50501
What’s also crazy is that the building was built in 1932 – in other words, during the Great Depression. That’s just crazy. A rural community in Iowa builds a top-notch art museum on its own and they do it during the Great Depression. Part of the story is the location – it’s located in the historic Oak Hill district which houses many of the oldest and finest homes in Fort Dodge. The residents in this neighborhood were often railroad or land entrepreneurs who were known for bringing the culture from the east coast.
As surprising as the building itself is, you’ll also be surprised at the collection inside. As you would expect, you’ll see local and regional artists, but you may be surprised to find some international gems like Andy
Warhol, Chagal, and Prendergast. I’ve also heard they have a Picasso and a Mattise, although they weren’t on display the day I visited. They are known for rotating their displays and I was also surprised to hear that they have four full-time staff.
Soldier Creek Winery
Soldier Creek Winery is a complete family affair for the Secor family. The land and the vines are managed by Bill and Rob, while Anne is the official winemaker. Amanda and Megan handle all the events and advertising. The land is still owned by their parents, which is where their vines grow.
Address: 1584 Paragon Avenue, Fort Dodge, IA
The winery’s history dates back to 2007 when they cleared the location created by a barn fire. They planted 6.5 acres of vineyards. It wasn’t until 2012 that they started creating wines – and it was still two more years before they officially opened in 2014. Imagine the wait and the worry during that seven-year time span. Would the grapes survive? would it work? Seven years is a crazy amount of time to wait for the fruits of your first harvest.
The good news is they not only survived, but they are thriving. At the 2022 Iowa State Fair, their Blanc de Blancs took Best of Show in the specialty category. Today, they have about twenty hand-crafted wines that are produced and bottled in Webster County. Soldier Creek Winery is open Friday through Sunday, with live music year-round.
Fort & Museum
Take a step back in time at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The fort is a full-scale replica of the namesake of the town – as the fort was built around 1850 to protect settlers and traders in the area. It was originally called Fort Clarke, but was changed to Fort Dodge after finding out that there was already a Fort Clarke in Texas. It was named Dodge after Col. Henry Dodge, a founder of the Dragoons who were the first US soldiers to explore the area.
Address: 1 Museum Road, Fort Dodge, Ia 50501
In 1882, the fort was decommissioned and the buildings were sold to private individuals. In the early 1900s, a group of local citizens formed the Fort Dodge Historical Society, with the goal of preserving the history of the fort and the surrounding area. They began collecting artifacts and documents related to the fort’s history, and in 1936 they opened the Fort Museum to the public.
In the 1960s, the museum expanded to include the Frontier Village, which is a collection of historic buildings and structures that were moved to the museum grounds. The village includes a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a log cabin, and other buildings that provide a glimpse into what life was like in the American West during the 19th century.
Today, the Fort Museum and Frontier Village is a popular tourist attraction in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Every year in early June, they celebrate Frontier Days with a celebration at the fort and pioneer village. Frontier Days feature a parade, beauty pageant, historical reenactments, a buck skinner camp, and live entertainment.
Within the fort, there happens to be one building that is original. It’s a small cabin that is open to visitors and is dedicated to Lewis A. Armistead. Armistead served as the Quartermaster at Fort Dodge back in the 1850’s. However, he is better known for his role as a confederate general killed at Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. Inside the cabin, you’ll find some great artifacts and memorability related to General Armistead and the US Civil War.
The Cardiff Giant was one of the greatest archeological hoaxes of all time. It was a 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall) supposed “petrified man” that was discovered on October 16, 1869, by workers digging a well on the property of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York. The giant attracted widespread attention, with many people coming to see it and offering various theories about its origins. However, it was eventually revealed to be a hoax, created by a man named George Hull.
So what does this have to do with Fort Dodge, Iowa? Well, the Cardiff Giant was essentially born in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
During a business trip to Fort Dodge, George Hull purchased a block of gypsum and kept the reason for the purchase private. Prior to visiting Fort Dodge, Hull was in a discussion with a minister who was talking about a bible verse that stated something about a time when giants were on earth. So Hull was setting out to prank everyone and the idea got its start in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
The large block of gypsum was shipped to Chicago, where he hired a German stonecutter to secretly carve it into the shape of a large man. It was then shipped to Cardiff, New York, and buried on his cousin William Newell’s farm. One year later, Newell hired a crew to dig a well in that location – and they uncovered the giant, which became known as the Cardiff Giant. They covered the location with a large tent and started selling admission to see the giant at 25 cents. Hull then sold his portion of the hoax to David Hannum who moved the exhibit to nearby Syracuse, New York where they continued to sell admission to see the giant. Eventually, it was seen by PT Barnum, who offered $50,000 for it. However, they turned him down.
But Barnum didn’t give up – he carved his own replica that was comparable and opened an exhibit in New York City and proclaimed that he had the original and that the other display was a fake. It’s believed that David Hannum was credited with the famous quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, referencing those who saw Barnum’s fake replica of his own fake carving.
In 1972, an additional replica was created – which is what is on display in Fort Dodge. The Cardiff Giant remains one of the most famous hoaxes in American history, and it continues to be well-known today.
What’s the status of each of the Cardiff Giants?
Original fake – built by Hull and sent to Cardiff, NY: It resides at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY
Fake Fake – built by PT Barnum and on display in NYC: No one knows where the Barnum fake is, it appears to be lost
Replica Fake – built in 1972 and on display in Fort Dodge
One of the largest and most popular parks in the area is the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. It’s a 400-acre multiple use recreation area including 53-acre Badger Lake providing a central point for fishing and boating (no motors). The man-made lake is stocked with largemouth bass, crappie, channel catfish, bluegill, and northern pike.
Terry Moehnke Veterans Memorial Park
Located in the corner of Kennedy Park, the pathway leading to Badger Lake is lined with flowering trees. Next to the lake is an amphitheater with nearby pavers and engraved markers dedicated to various local veterans.
The Children’s Forest is located in the same area as the Veterans Park. It includes a story walk trail where a children’s storybook is deconstructed and posted along the park trail. While you’re on the StoryWalk trail, also watch for the six carved tree stumps done by Des Moines artist, Gary Keenan.
Studio Fusion is a do-it-yourself art studio with spaces and tools for fused glass, pottery, ceramics, and canvas art. It’s owned by Heather Applegate who bought the studio in 2015.
Our group stopped in a quick session in fused glass. We started with a small rectangular piece of glass and then had smaller shards of glass and frit that we used to create a small fused glass ornament. When my creation was done, it was doused in hair spray, which holds the elements together temporarily, so that it makes the trip to the kiln. Studio Fusion also holds classes as well as private parties.
Address: 21 S 12th St, Fort Dodge, IA 50501
Webster County Courthouse
We made a quick stop to check out the Webster County Courthouse, which is a four-story stone structure. Inside, the stone columns rise up through the top three floors. On the exterior, the courthouse is known for its iconic green-colored clock tower.
Fort Frenzy is the region’s family entertainment center. It has a variety of indoor and outdoor entertainment including: a full arcade, go-karts (outdoor only), valo-jump which is an interactive trampoline game, spin zone (bumper cars, indoors), and laser tag. There’s also an outdoor mini golf course.
Address: 3232 1st Ave S, Fort Dodge, IA 50501
Outdoor Adventures in Fort Dodge
Fort Dodge is also recognized as an outdoor adventure location with several options. Gypsum City OHV park is the largest off-road vehicle park in the state of Iowa. There are over 60 miles of trails that are appropriately rated for both novice and expert riders. A motocross track for adults and another track for kids are also available.
Another popular outdoor activity is kayaking or canoeing on the Des Moines River. For mountain bike enthusiasts, Lizard Creek Mountain Bike Park offers 10 miles of singletrack trails that are level for riders of all skills.
During this specific trip to Fort Dodge, I wasn’t able to experience these options – but I’m looking forward to returning to Fort Dodge next summer to take in their outdoor adventures.
Places to eat and drink in Fort Dodge, Iowa
Fort Dodge has a variety of dining options. Here are some of the places we visited during our recent trip.
Gaga & Hoo
Fort Dodge is blessed to have a true, authentic Korean restaurant – and it should definitely be on your list. In fact, it sounds like Gaga & Hoo often has visitors from greater than 50 miles away and they have traveled to Fort Dodge specifically to dine here.
From what I understood, a local company had identified that its employees really wanted an authentic Korean restaurant, so they recruited Chef Byeong-Whan Won to Fort Dodge. Not only does he prepare your order, but when he has time, he comes to sing and play guitar for his customers! The dining experience was wonderful and the food was superb, so be sure to add Gaga & Hoo to your list when visiting Fort Dodge.
River Hops Brewing
We stopped in during a Yahtzee tournament and enjoyed some homebrews created by Ron and Diane Grebner. River Hops Brewing was described as their “retirement hobby” and created a retirement hobby in River Hops Brewing. They’ve got a great indoor and outdoor space that frequently features live music.
A delightful lunch with some of the most amazing deserts! Tea Thyme is open for retail shopping for most of the day, but only serves lunch from 11 to 2pm.
Address: 2021 6th Ave S, Fort Dodge, IA 50501
Mineral City Mill & Grill
Mineral City Mill & Grill is a family restaurant that serves lunch and supper and is filled with memorabilia and artifacts that highlights Fort Dodge’s history in mining and minerals.
Address: 2621 5th Ave S, Fort Dodge, IA 50501
We also visited a few local breakfast/diner locations, including Zakeer’s and Ja-Mar Drive in. Both served a hearty breakfast with lots of options. We certainly didn’t go hungry during our visit to Fort Dodge.