College towns, full of culture, dot Iowa's landscape

By Tom Weber

The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

If you go

For additional information about Mount Vernon and Cornell College, visit their website .

Information about Grinnell is available at their website .

Iowa is dotted with small college towns, and these cultural oases in the heartland offer a surprising variety of performing arts, collegiate sports, museums, galleries and unexpected eateries.

Any of them would make for a pleasant weekend getaway, but we're going to head out today on a loop from southeastern Minnesota to Grinnell, home of Grinnell College, and then to Mount Vernon, home of Cornell College.

Grinnell is an easy 3 1/2-hour drive down U.S. 63 and seemingly pops up out of the prairie of central Iowa. RelocateAmerica recently named Grinnell as the No. 1 small town in which to live.


The city bills itself as "A Jewel on the Prairie," referencing the existence of a Louis Sullivan-designed historic treasure, the Merchants National Bank. This jewel box-like building is in the heart of a historic district that encompasses much of the central business district of Grinnell.

Here, you'll find a funky coffee shop, a few trendy restaurants, a tastefully renovated cinema and the extraordinary Pioneer Book Shop. The latter is affiliated with Grinnell College, which is just a couple of blocks away.

Grinnell College, founded in 1846, is one of the nation's most rigorous liberal arts colleges, attracting students from all 50 states and a few dozen foreign countries. Social activism has always been at the heart of Grinnell College, as personified by Harry Hopkins (class of 1912), one of the chief architects of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Hopkins' boyhood home is now owned by the college.

On campus is Faulconer Art Gallery, which stages rotating exhibits throughout the academic year. A walk around the campus will reveal an intriguing mix of Collegiate Gothic architecture and modern buildings such as the Noyce Science Center, named for Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel (and a Grinnell grad). The residential neighborhood surrounding the campus is full of Queen Anne and Victorian-era homes that have been lovingly preserved.

Mount Vernon, located about 70 miles east of Grinnell and just outside of Cedar Rapids, is perhaps the prototypical college town because, in many ways, the college IS the town. And what a lovely campus and town it is. Cornell and Mount Vernon occupy a hill left behind by the Ice Age. It's a spectacular setting, especially with Cornell's King Chapel (1882) crowning the hill.

The entire campus of Cornell College is on the National Register of Historic Places, including Old Sem (1853), the college's first building.

Mount Vernon's quaint downtown business district caters to students, faculty and visitors with eateries (including nationally recognized Lincoln Cafe), numerous antique shops and galleries.

Mount Vernon is, in other words, an idea place for a stroll — if you don't mind occasionally walking up hill.


There are other lively college towns in eastern Iowa, including Decorah (Luther College) and two of the biggest in the state, Iowa City (University of Iowa) and Cedar Falls (University of Northern Iowa). But for an enjoyable weekend jaunt, it's hard to beat Grinnell and Mount Vernon.

Editor's Note. This is the first of a three-part series looking at travel opportunities this year in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Next week: The tall ships are coming.

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