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Histories And Legends About This Year's RAGBRAI Towns

Cyclists pass a grain elevator while riding in The Des Moines Register's annual bike ride across Iowa, also know as RAGBRAI, Tuesday, July 26, 2011, in Lidderdale, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Cyclists pass a grain elevator while riding in The Des Moines Register's annual bike ride across Iowa, also know as RAGBRAI, Tuesday, July 26, 2011, in Lidderdale, Iowa.

The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa begins this Sunday in Le Mars and will finishes in Clinton. Cyclists will ride more than 450 miles across Iowa and stop in dozens of small towns between Le Mars and Clinton.

Since 1973, some 800 Iowa towns have welcomed cyclists along the RAGBRAI route to offer food, beverages, shelter and fun. Eugene Schlaman is the author of the new book "Iowa Bike Towns," a collection of stories and legends about towns on the RAGBRAI route. Stories included in the book range from historical, — how Iowa towns got their names, the relationship between settlers and Indigenous populations, how railroads and coal mining helped develop different communities — to fabled, — the man who grew the longest beard and the world's largest popcorn ball — and everything in between.

Schlaman is originally from Hampton, and this year will be his 15th year riding RAGBRAI. He joined Talk of Iowa to discuss his book and love for the race.

This year's overnight towns include: Le Mars, Sac City, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Anamosa, Dewitt and Clinton. Below are excerpts from Schlaman's book about each of this year's overnight towns, which will help cyclists gain a deeper appreciation for their surroundings and connection with Iowa's bike towns.

Excerpts have been edited for style and usage.

Courtesy of Eugene Schlaman
Eugene Schlaman is the author of the new book "Iowa Bike Towns." This year will be Gene's 15th RAGBRAI.

Le Mars

“Dominating the skyline of present-day Le Mars is Wells’ Blue Bunny Dairy, a 900,000 square-foot plant with a 12-story refrigeration tower called the South Ice Cream Plant, named because it is on the south side of town. The plant is a major employer in the area, and each year the plant produces 150 million gallons of ice cream. The plant can also produce 1 million ice cream sandwiches a day. The milk comes mainly from three large dairy farms. Each hour, on average, 365 days a year, the factory unloads one tanker truck of milk. The size of this plant has led to speculation that the company is the world’s largest family-owned and managed dairy processor and the world’s largest manufacturer of ice cream at one location, resulting in Le Mars claiming to be the “Ice Cream Capital of the World.””

Sac City

“Sac City is home to the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball, a title the town lost for a time. The town got the title back when they built a new, super-sticky popcorn boulder. The previous world’s largest popcorn ball weighs 3,100 pounds. The new popcorn ball created in 2009, weighs 5,060 pounds. It took 253 volunteers, 12 hours and 40 minutes to make this ball. It took 900 pounds of popcorn, 2,700 pounds of sugar, and 1,400 pounds of syrup to form the new World’s Largest Popcorn Ball.”

Fort Dodge

“Fort Dodge was founded in 1869. Fort Dodge traces its beginning to 1850 when soldiers from the United States Army erected a fort at the junction of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek. It was originally named Fort Clarke, but because there was another fort with the same name in Texas, it was renamed Fort Dodge after Henry Dodge, governor of the Wisconsin territory, which included Iowa at the time. The fort was abandoned in 1853. The next year a civilian storekeeper in Fort Dodge purchased the land and buildings of the old fort.”

Iowa Falls

“Iowa Falls was platted in 1856 and named for the falls on the Iowa River. Iowa Falls is home to Ellsworth Community College, which was founded in 1890 by Eugene S. Ellsworth. Originally a private business academy, it later became a four-year college, a music conservatory, and a public junior college before being absorbed into the Iowa Valley Community College system.”

Courtesy of Eugene Schlaman
Eugene Schlaman sits with a cardboard cut out of Johnny Carson in Corning, Carson's birthplace.


“Waterloo is home of the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum. John Deere entered into the engine and tractor business in 1918 with the purchase of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company for $2.5 million. At the museum, visitors can witness the evolution of farming from horse-drawn to horsepower and discover how innovations of the past help to shape our future. The museum has tractors dating from the Waterloo Boy, the company’s first tractor, to the current steel plow to today’s modern working machines. They can grip the handles of a steel plow and test their strength against real horsepower and explore the history of John Deere in their interactive exhibits.

“In 1910, a significant number of Black railroad workers were brought into Waterloo as strikebreakers. Again in 1940, Black strikebreakers were brought in this time to work in the Rath meat plant. In 1948, a Black strikebreaker accidentally killed a white union member as he tried to escape the striker’s ire. Instead of a race riot, a strike broke out against the Rath Company. The National Guard was called in to end the 73-day strike.”


“Anamosa was founded as the settlement of Buffalo Forks in 1838 and incorporated as Lexington in 1856. At the time, Lexington was a very popular name for towns, so when Lexington chose to become incorporated in 1877, the name was changed to Anamosa to avoid mail delivery confusion. There are many different stories of how the name of Anamosa was chosen, but all center around a local Native American girl named Anamosa, which means “white fawn” or “you walk with me.”


“Dewitt was platted in 1841 under the name Vanderburg, but was later named DeWitt for DeWhitt Clinton, an early American politician who served as a United States Senator and the seventh Governor of New York.”


“Between the 1850s and 1900, Clinton and neighboring Lyons became a center for the lumber industry and were regarded as the Lumber Capital of the World. Huge log rafts were floated down the Mississippi River from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Clinton where they were cut into lumber and then shipped out on the river or railroad.”

RAGBRAI 2021 begins July 25.

Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio