When we stayed at Backbone State Park last week, we didn’t spend the entire day in the cabin or on the trails. Once a day, we drove to town to pick up whatever we needed for the cabin. We also used these trips to catch up on e-mail or phone messages using our iPhones. Backbone State Park, after all, is where cell phones go to die.  That meant a trip into Manchester for groceries and firewood at the local Fareway, a drive-through at Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone, and visits to the local Ben Franklin store and The Quiltmaker Shoppe, just for fun. Technically speaking, Manchester is not the nearest town, as Backbone State Park is sandwiched between the towns of Dundee and Strawberry Point. However, those towns are not exactly centers of commercial enterprise.

While Manchester is larger than either Dundee or Strawberry Point, it has small town charm of its own. Not many homes I know have a totem pole in their front yard.


Dundee (population 174 as of 2010), located at the southern end of Backbone State Park, takes about one minute (maybe less) to drive through. One year that we stayed at Backbone, the residents were lined up on lawn chairs on either side of the one-and-only main street to admire some vintage cars driving north to Strawberry Point, where a car show was being held in a farm field. At the tail end of those cars was our decidedly more up-to-date 2001 Ford Taurus. We waved  at everyone, and they waved back.

Dundee Collage

Strawberry Point, north of Backbone State Park, is a little bigger with 1,279 residents according to the 2010 census. The town does have a picturesque shopping area with some sandwich shops and a grocery store named Strawberry Foods that we would not have known about if there were not a sign announcing it just outside the road leading to our cabin. I suspect the people who own the house are being paid to have this sign posted in their front yard.


To the left of the above sign are these two characters who guarantee we won’t miss the sign.


Strawberry Point also has the world’s largest (fiberglass) strawberry. Standing in front of the city hall, it measures 12 feet wide by 15 feet tall and is a great source of local pride.

The first year we stayed at Backbone, we didn’t know where else to shop, so we visited Strawberry Foods and were recognized immediately as outsiders.

“Staying at Backbone?” we were asked as we pushed our very full shopping cart through the checkout line.

Later we learned that most local people shop in nearby Manchester, which sports both a newly-remodeled and expanded Walmart and a Fareway grocery store. Still, the folks at Strawberry Foods were friendly and helpful, and the store was stocked with the basic items you might need during a week’s stay at a cabin, if you aren’t choosey about brands or price tags.

For the most part, Strawberry Point is residential with unmistakable reminders of its rural setting.


Once a year, I make an annual pilgrimage to Manchester’s Quiltmaker Shoppe. The staff there recognizes me by now, asking me if I’m staying at the same cabin again. I’m not sure if I should be flattered that they remember me, or embarrassed because I leave with a pretty full shopping bag each time. We do have very nice quilt shops in the Des Moines area, but that never stops me from finding lovely fabrics, books and sewing notions at the quilt shop in Manchester (or anywhere else, for that matter).


I probably spent about two hours in the shop, adding bolts of fabric to the cutting counter where a nice clerk named Jean cut my fabric and added it to a growing stack of purchases. Every so often, John sent me a text message, asking if I was ready to be picked up. Eventually he parked in front of the shop and played games on his iPhone while he waited for me.


I have a fondness for sewing bags, so on this trip to the quilt shop, I picked up several patterns with matching fabric. Likely these bags will become future Christmas gifts.

Fabric Collage

On another trip to Manchester,  John and I spotted a Ben Franklin store that has sat there the entire eight years we’ve visited Backbone State Park, yet we never noticed it. You may not get very excited about a Ben Franklin store, but to the best of my knowledge there isn’t one in Des Moines, and I only occasionally run into one elsewhere. They always have a crafts department, which is where I make a beeline. John swears I have a string attached to my eyeballs that is connected at the other end to any crafts in the vicinity. The cute storefront window certainly helped.

Ben Franklin Storefront

In any event, the Ben Franklin store did indeed sells crafts and needlework. I picked up a pair of dressmaker’s shears that I really don’t need, but couldn’t resist because of the vintage look. In fact, I picked up two of them because John said he could use a pair for cutting cardboard, twine and the like. The blades announce that they are Griffin Creek scissors, while the handles have “funnersteel” and “Meerut” imprinted on them, suggesting they were made in India. All I could find out about Meerut is that it is a town in India known for its scissor-making community. The blades are likely hand-forged, and you can find them in just about any tailor’s shop in India. Whether these scissors are replicas or not, they are heavy, sharp and cut very well. And they were priced economically at $13.99 a pair.


The left side of the Ben Franklin is devoted to a colorful little gift shop that runs the full depth of the store and attracts nearly every tourist. It amused John that I never noticed it because I was fixated on the crafts department. Eventually, however, he did manage to distract me long enough to try on a pair of sunglasses in the gift shop.


I loved the garden stone below, mainly because it reflects my level of gardening expertise (black thumb).


John insisted that he needed yet one more mug for his cappuccino addiction. For some strange reason, he didn’t pack a mug for our cabin retreat and only this Irish-themed mug would do.


We both agreed that since our garden (such as it is) has no flowers (because we can’t grow them), we  need to put other items in it, such as these two frogs.


As you can see, we made good use of our time in the Backbone area and contributed to the local economy.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “Small town charm in northeastern Iowa”

  1. Sarah ~ Magnolia Surprise

    I wanna go there!! Ben Franklin is the best! I wish there were one around where I live — it’s a fun place! I love the mustache sunglasses! And the totem pole, although I might have a start every time I looked out my window and saw it looking back at me!

  2. Loved the travelogue! I love visiting quilt shops. Each one seems to have its own personality. And what a great find at Ben Franklin! We have a Ben Franklin in Lincoln–I’ll have to see if they carry those shears.
    I also have a black thumb (my brother once told me all my plants looked like candidates for last rites – sad, but true)–so the garden rock made me chuckle.


  3. What fun shops and towns. Love the mustache glasses 🙂
    The tractors parked in the yard look very familiar!

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