Living the life of book tourists

Farm Forum

The “Dear County Agent Guy” book tour continues, which means that my wife and I have a valid excuse to behave like tourists.

Our most recent leg began in Des Moines, Iowa, where we took a room at a historic hotel in the heart of the bustling city. The problem was the bustling part. We live out in the country, where it’s so quiet that the distant mooing of a cow is noteworthy.

There was a constant stream of traffic in the street below our room during the day. At night the avenue became a drag strip for unmuffled motorcycles.

I watched the goings-on from the vantage of our hotel window. Important citizens who had ID badges clipped to their belts strode purposefully to and fro. The realization that I’m not important enough for an ID badge was vaguely disappointing.

I gave a talk at the Wonder of Words Festival, held on the hottest day of the year in a park located near our hotel. You could have steamed lobsters in the small manmade stream that meanders through the park.

I was able to get through my presentation despite shedding several pounds due to sweat. We decided that it would be best to immediately go back to our air conditioned hotel room and rehydrate with fermented barley extract.

Next on our breakneck book tour was the tidy town of Perry, Iowa. I spoke at Perry’s public library, a magnificent cathedral of reading that’s large enough to house the Goodyear blimp.

Situated at the heart of downtown Perry is the Hotel Pattee, an elegant, century-old brick structure. Hotel Pattee was built during the heyday of passenger rail service. With the railroad gone, it’s as if Hotel Pattee was left behind on the train platform, holding an expired ticket.

We popped in for lunch at hotel’s restaurant, David’s Milwaukee Diner. The theme of the diner was, shall we say, a bit train-centric. Numerous railroading frescoes adorned the walls; I could almost hear the whoosh of steam and smell the tang of coal smoke.

Our hurly-burly tour continued the next day in Decorah, Iowa. Decorah is a picturesque borough perched on a forested ridge overlooking the Upper Iowa River, which, I surmised, is much tonier than the Lower Iowa River.

Many who live in the Decorah area share my Norwegian heritage. It’s one of the few places where I can freely confess my fondness for lutefisk and not hear such things as, “That explains the stench,” or “I could tell you were sort of weird!”

The business district of Decorah is chockablock with charming little shops. Its downtown is surrounded by majestic Victorian houses, all of which my wife deemed “cute!”

Among the shops on Decorah’s main street is Dragonfly Books. My wife and I hung out at Dragonfly Books for a while and chatted with its owner, Kate Rattenborg. Some folks came in and we chatted with them and I signed books. This was much more enjoyable that a usual Tuesday evening, which often involves surfing a desolate sea of TV reruns.

When we returned to our hotel, I was astonished to see a woody in the parking lot. I’m talking about an actual 1938 Pontiac station wagon that contains major amounts of lumber-based structure.

As I admired the iconic Pontiac, I bumped into its owner, Joe Stout. I learned that Joe is from Wichita, so I asked what brought him to northeastern Iowa. He said that his local chapter of the Antique Automobile Club of America was conducting a motor tour of the area. This was a stroke of luck for Decorah and for me.

Joe pointed out some of the unique features of his car. One is that it was originally registered as the “fishing car” for H. Earl Hoover, then-chairman of the Hoover Suction Sweeper Company. It apparently does not suck to be CEO of a ginormous vacuum cleaner company.

I asked Joe what sort of speeds his ancient Pontiac could attain and he replied, “I only have to go fast enough to outrun the termites.” He then invited me to go for a spin.

Remember how your mother warned you to never accept rides from strangers? That admonishment went right out the window as I clambered into that wondrous old steed.

As we tooled down the sun-baked highway, Joe shouted over the wind noise, “This thing has 4-40 air conditioning. It only works if you have all four windows down and are going 40 MPH!”

That marvelous Pontiac woody is still solid as an oak. And I realized that Joe is participating in a very different kind of touring than we are, even though both my book and his car started out as trees.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His new book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.