Perry, Iowa, Celebrates Small-Town America in a Big Way

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Perry, Iowa, Celebrates Small-Town America in a Big Way


Byline: Mike Michaelson

In an era of "bigger is better," when prefixes such as "mega" and "super" are considered vital to attracting large crowds and big business, it is refreshing to find a celebration of small-town America. It also is comforting to find that its simple values have remarkable drawing power.

Last week, the small town (population 7,633) of Perry, Iowa, managed to attract some extremely big names. They included Pat Sajak, host of TV's "Wheel of Fortune," best-selling author Jan Karon, Latin diva Jaci Velasquez, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, opera star Jubilant Sykes and the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra.

They were among those who traveled to Perry, about 40 miles northwest of Des Moines, to soak up an authentic piece of Americana. The occasion was the gala grand opening of the town's restored Carnegie Library Museum and its parent, Hometown Perry, a one-of-a-kind museum campus with a poignant message. It tells the story of the contribution small Midwestern towns have made to the nation and the world by focusing on the experiences of the immigrants who settled them.

Perry is a rare small town that hasn't been left high and dry by the lure of outlying discounters. Even before the advent of Hometown Perry, it was alive and vibrant, dedicated to preserving its character. Its small but thriving downtown has a Ben Franklin five-and-dime variety store complete with heavy oak door, a sprinkling of antique shops and the popular Thymes Remembered Tearoom, where standards include chicken salad, broccoli-bacon quiche and crepes. Perry has even managed to keep open a main- street movie house that still screens first-run films.

Perry also is one of the least likely places you'd expect to find a top-of-the-line boutique hotel. It is, nonetheless, home to the restored historic Hotel Pattee, one of only three hotels in Iowa to carry the coveted AAA Four-Diamond rating.

It opened in 1913, when Perry was a bustling railroad town and a major hub for the Milwaukee Road (a restored caboose is one of the town's landmarks). The hotel is an exquisite example of the English Arts and Crafts style. Ahead of its time, it was hailed for fireproof construction and such trend-setting amenities as a telephone in every room. The lobby was patterned after Chicago's well-known LaSalle Hotel and the dining room measured up to big- city standards.

Centerpiece of Hometown Perry is the Carnegie Library, built in 1904 in beaux-arts style and now restored to the way it appeared in 1910. Both a working library and a museum, its exhibits focus on great American authors whose writings reflect their small-town roots. These include Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather and Frank Baum of "Wizard of Oz" fame.

An art exhibition in this library/museum features the work of distinguished photographer Pok Chi Lau and of Perry High School students. Lau uses social documentary photography to approach issues such as immigration. He worked with students to capture images of Perry's diversity in ethnicity and religion, home and family.

In the lower level, the re-created 1930s "Women's Room" tells the story of a warm gathering place for local women during the Great Depression as well as the role of the library in women's lives. It has a collection of books related to women's issues. …

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