Mt. Vernon antiques dealer Dale Beeks travels in style with his "grand-dog" Hayden. (photo by Barbara Lau)
It’s amazing that a town just 20 miles from Cedar Rapids continues to hold onto its unique personality, even developing into what a local booster described as “a destination location.” Mt. Vernon and neighboring Lisbon, its partner in promotion, are styling themselves as an antiques and art center, with a cider mill tossed in for fun. So, with the help of my buddy Barbara Lau (a transplant from Austin, Texas) here’s an insider’s guide to the Mt. Vernon area.
The original Lincoln Highway route (from New York to San Francisco) in 1913 followed Mt. Vernon’s First Street straight west. Cornell College (whose entire campus is on the National Register of Historic Places) sits along that route and provides a supply of both academics and students to feed the artist population.
Let’s begin the tour at the sweet park next to the Visitor’s Center on Main Street. You’ll know it from the water tower, but it’s been transformed by a new playground, landscaping, and a renovated gazebo for the community band. Tuesday nights the park fills with families on picnic blankets enjoying the music and fireflies.
Big Creek Market is the first surprise—a great little health food store with a café in back. Check out the soup in winter or gelato in summer, and the year-round cooler full of organic veggies and three mini-aisles of groceries. Despite the small square footage, I always find a gem of a tasty product to take home.
Next, the Pizza Palace offers affordable thin crust pizza with a “glad to see you” attitude to families and young people. Imagine how many first dates and after-game celebrations have occurred here and you’ll know why it’s a sentimental favorite for locals.
Across the street, discover Lincoln Café—quaint diner by day, gourmet restaurant by night, featuring organic and free-range meats. Owner Matt Steigerwald moved here from North Carolina after running serveral restaurants in Richland, Raleigh, and Durham. At Lincoln Café, you’ll pay up to $30 for a dinner entrée, but it’s so worth it. Typical specials include either fish, chicken, or red meat, sometimes featuring elk or other exotic specialties. While the café doesn’t serve liquor, people are welcome to bring bottles from the Lincoln Wine Bar down the street.
Bauman & Co. traditional men’s clothier offers everything from suits (tucked into elegant glass-front cases) to overalls. This business just celebrated 100 years and is known for carrying big and tall sizes. Boutiques include Scarlett Boutique and Accessories on Main. During a recent Chalk the Walk (held annually in May) my family dedicated themselves to helping complete the Dogs Playing Poker community project, so I had some time to poke around. I found congenial conversation at Bauman’s and some darling silver earrings at Scarlett’s. While I didn’t buy anything at Accessories, I could have filled a legal-sized letter to Santa with the things I’d love to have—both to keep and to give.
Then I wandered down to the Silver Spider gift shop, which better suited my budget with its snarky refrigerator magnets, Roman numeral birthday candles, and global warming coffee mug (when heated it shows how the continents would shrink after the polar ice caps are history). It also distracted me with the satirical “self-hurt” series “How to Get into Debt” and “How to Raise an Ill-Behaved Dog”!
On my recent day of exploration, Barbara led me to Wolfe’s Antiques with the knowing comment, “This place is like a museum.” Many items are not for sale and others I’d never expect to find (e.g., ship’s sextant in wooden case for $950.) In front of this extraordinary antique store I met one of the dealers, delivering his treasures in an olive-drab motorcycle with sidecar (and furry sidekick, Hayden).
You’ll know Liberty Iron Works by the massive metal sculptures in front. The showroom next to the barnlike shop features everything from tiny metal snowflakes to sculptures that would need to be installed in your yard.
Another quirky shop is Alice’s Wonderland, just off First Street at 2nd Avenue, which specializes in unusual beads as well as antiques and crafts. It was closed the day I stopped by, but Alice clearly trusts her neighbors, as merchandise displayed on her front porch had neither bike locks nor security cameras to keep it there.
A block off First Street in the other direction you’ll find the Bijoux Theatre. Locally owned and inexpensive, this second-run theater prides itself on offering family entertainment (with nothing rated over PG-13). I’ve got friends who’ll drive from the big city to see shows here just because they like the hometown vibe.
Plan to stop at Sutliff Cider Company for a tour and taste of both hard and soft cider just outside of Lisbon.
Mt. Vernon’s festivals stretch from May’s Chalk the Walk to the September 26 Lincoln Highway Arts Festival, with theater at the restored Heritage Hall. Barbara describes it as a “sweet old theater above the library in Lisbon.” The final production is Godspell August 21-26.
Many Mt. Vernon shops are open late on Thursdays, which has led to Take the Stores Ouside the last Thursday of every month (next one, Aug. 27). Merchants arrange for live music and other entertainment, with specials and free popcorn. Several of the lunch places also stay open for dinner on Thursdays, including Fran & Cherie’s Skillet Café and Tatayana’s.
I noticed that the newspaper’s office is there on First. Barbara praised the weekly Sun for its thoughtful and provoking coverage of the five towns in its area. She also mentioned how handy it is to also have a website to reference in between editions for breaking news.
LaDawn Edwards continues the tasty task of collecting recipes and lore about the elusive morel. Yours are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Mt. Vernon, see Visitmvl.com.
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