Since moving to the USA, I’ve had to rely on visiting small towns to get my travel fix. I’m 3 and a half hours away from the nearest two large cities (Chicago and Des Moines). It makes just trying to get to the airport a chore. In the UK I was spoilt living 20 minutes from one of London’s airports. I could get from my front door and to a major city IN ANOTHER COUNTRY within 3 and a half hours. I can’t even drive across a state in that time! So if I want to get away for a quick weekend break, I’ve had to train myself to view anywhere and everywhere as a tourist destination. No matter how big or how small.
Disclosure AD: My stay in Sheffield was hosted, however opinions are always my own.
Small Town USA & Tourism
Being an expat, makes it a little easier in the sense that I’m completely new to the area/country. I view most places with fresh eyes. I’m purposely researching places because I’m after things to do and actively searching for anything that’s a little unique or different. Since being here, I’ve travelled and been to places that people who have lived here ALL OF THEIR LIFE, didn’t even know existed.
But that’s the thing, when you’ve lived somewhere all your life, it’s often hard to see or appreciate what you have until it’s gone. I’m a prime example of this. I used to call my UK hometown ‘Boring Braintree’. An overseas visitor was once posing in front of one of the old buildings. I was like why would anyone come here on a holiday? I was born there and lived there for 26 years, it wasn’t until I left that I realised what I had right on my doorstep all along. The town dates back over 2000 YEARS, there are buildings still standing from the 1400’s! Considering places in the USA make the ‘historic register’ by being built in the late 1800’s, it makes what Braintree has ancient in comparison!
Related reading: A Local’s Guide To Braintree Essex
So yes, I agree, I’ve had a bit of a kick up the bum when it comes to appreciating and viewing things from a tourism perspective. But it’s kinda frustrating when others can’t see the potential of tourism in a destination. For example, I was watching the local news the other day and they were talking about the possibility of opening up some of the highways in Dubuque county to quad bikes/atvs/utvs. (There are quad bike trails all over Wisconsin which is like a 5 minute drive from Dubuque). A high up ‘figure of influence’ shall we say, point blank said “nope, I don’t agree with it, what’s the point, it’s not like it’ll bring in any tourism or anything”. It made me angry. Travel Dubuque have done a great job at promoting tourism in the area, anything extra is a ‘selling point’.
Related reading: 35 Things To Do in Dubuque Iowa in Summer
There’s a little saying that has roots in Iowa, thanks to a certain movie (Field of Dreams), that states:
“If you build it, they will come”
Now just look at the tiny town of Dyersville IA! Thanks to a farm/baseball field that was used in the Field of Dream movie, the town receives a trickle of tourists wanting to visit the movie set. They even hold special events there! The farm toy show also pulls in visitors from around the country. It just needs a bit of advertising or to be put in front of the right eyes and people will talk about it.
Things To Do In Sheffield Iowa
Sheffield, Iowa is a town of 1100 people, 30 minutes south of both Clear Lake and Mason City. It’s the location of the main manufacturing facility and the global head quarters for the Sukup Manufacturing Co. (A company which makes grain bins and dryers). Thanks to this factory, the Casey’s General Store in Sheffield is the 3rd highest preforming Casey’s in the whole of Iowa!
Reborn In A Barn
Another business in town is ‘Reborn In A Barn’. It only opens for 3 days a month between May and November. It sells 2nd hand goods and antiques, up-cycled items and products made from scratch. There’s even a private workshop on-site, hidden at the back! I was given access to the barns during my visit. I couldn’t believe how much stuff there was on display! The barn is huge and dates back to 1949. Judy purchased the barn back in 2009. It took 5 years of love to restore it and turn it into what you can see and experience today!
Enchanted Acres pumpkin patch is open during September and October. It offers various events for both adults and children as well as all the usual pumpkin patch ‘attractions’! Some of my highlights from 2018 include: the homemade jellies (which I ate with my British scone mix!) and goat yoga. The goat yoga session I attended pulled in a huge crowd of adults! I also really loved the idea of the ‘toast your own s’mores’ fire-pit/swinging bench area!
Related reading: Pumpkin Patches in Iowa (North East)
Path of Progress
The Sheffield ‘Path of Progress’ is a walking/cycling trail that’s just over 3.5 miles long. Part of it is paved and the rest is gravel. It runs along what used to be an old train line between Sheffield and Chapin. There are benches along the first part of the route and a nice bridge over the Bailey Creek river (which was built and donated by Sukup). The route goes past lots of corn fields, a couple of ponds and a brickyard.
During the summer season there is an outdoor pool which costs just $2(!!!) for a day pass! This is a brilliant price. The swimming pool in my small town is only open for 2 hours twice a week for public swim (it only used to be 1hr 30) and it costs $4 for that short time! If it had have been hot during my visit (and the pool had actually filled with water…) I would have definitely stopped by for a swim! They even have a time that’s reserved just for adult swim. There are a few other small parks in the town with gazebos and play equipment. One has a free public toilets which was open, clean AND had toilet roll (major kudos!).
Block 10 at City Hall
Of course, tourists have to eat! There aren’t many places to choose from in Sheffield but all the places I went served up great food! I had both lunch and breakfast at ‘Block 10 at 1921 City Hall’. It doubles up as a coffee shop and a bakery too! The french toast for breakfast was lovely and I’m craving their flavoured cappuccinos! I chose coconut syrup in mine and now regular coffee is just plain boring!
Block 10 at 1921 City Hall is open 7am – 1pm Monday to Friday and 7am – 11am on Saturday (closed Sundays). I was given a tour of the building and I was shocked, it looks small from the front but it’s massive inside with 2 large function rooms on top of the 2 smaller rooms with the cafe seating. There’s even an old fashioned jail cell in the men’s toilets! The function rooms are also rented out for events such as weddings.
West Fork Wharf
The West Fork Wharf serves up great dinners. I asked the owner what he’d recommend off the menu, he suggested the steaks or burgers. Even the locals were ‘bigging up’ the burgers! I have to admit, they made a good choice!
Ridge Stone Golf Club
On the edge of town is the Ridge Stone Golf Club. This 9 hole course welcomes all types of golfers, including children! What makes this course cool, is that it was ‘built’ on the site of the old Sheffield Brick and Tile Company (est. 1908). Ruins of the old brick kilns are still visible on hole 4 and acts as a playable hazard. The course also features lots of cute little bridges, my favourite being the mini iron style ‘James Bridge’!
The Brickyard Bistro in the clubhouse serves lunch and dinner. (Wednesday until Sunday). I stopped by for lunch and had a grilled chicken salad which was lovely! I was talking to the clubhouse owner, as I was intrigued to find out what happens to golf courses in Iowa when the snow moves in for months at a time. They are hoping to keep the clubhouse open, in some sort of capacity, throughout the winter. I think it’s brilliant as the restaurant has amazing views that would look great in the snow or no snow! The clubhouse can also be rented as a meeting/wedding venue which can hold up to 325 people.
Even something as small as a wedding can bring a small town tourism, especially if guests are travelling from out of town. They may need somewhere to stay, places to eat the following day etc! For example, the Ridge Stone Golf Club recommend a nearby hotel 10 minutes away where guests could stay!
Country Heritage B&B – Hampton Iowa
I didn’t actually stay in Sheffield, I stayed at the Country Heritage B&B in the nearby town of Hampton. It operates more as a whole house rental property now (available on Airbnb) rather than a traditional B&B…and it’s awesome! It has 7 bedrooms and 5.5 bathrooms and can sleep up to 15 people. The room I stayed in had a private balcony, a bath and shower and the toilet had a cushioned toilet seat (AMAZING!!!). There’s an outdoor grill and gazebo, 2 friendly goats and a silo! The B&B is surrounded by fields and I was treated to a great sunset on the night of my stay!
I was talking to the owner of the Country Heritage B&B who is lovely! She was telling me about how the property is popular with families that rent the whole house for annual gatherings etc. It just so happens to be central for people travelling from various places. My extended family once hired a whole hotel for a wedding. We had SO much fun all being together so I can see why this is a popular option!
If you’re having a weekend break/staycation, I believe that almost anywhere could be considered a tourist destination. All you need is somewhere to stay, places to eat and a couple of things to see while you’re there. The last point isn’t even a necessity! Grab a book or something and just spend some time relaxing and ‘getting away from it all’. (On some trips I’ve literally sat my bum in a hammock/deck chair and not moved for hours and was perfectly happy).
Some trips, like Route 66, rely massively on small town tourism. People aren’t even necessarily travelling TO the town, it just happens to be on the Route! Back in the day, the towns along Route 66 tried their hardest to get people off the interstate and through their town. They stuck up billboards and put something unique in the town that would grab people’s attention. (Giant muffler men, the world’s largest rocking chair (former largest) etc. My goodness Meramec Caverns I’m looking at you with your love of billboards).
At the end of the day, everyone needs to sleep, everyone needs to eat and cars need to be filled up with juice. If you can provide people with these things, that’s a step in the right direction.