At home in a piece of history
ELDON, Iowa — Beth Howard sits at her kitchen table on a Sunday morning and pulls back the curtain to peer at a group of rosy-cheeked youths taking pictures on her front lawn. They pair off to stand side by side in the pose familiar to millions — the dour farmer with a pitchfork, the unsmiling woman beside him in front of the white house.
No one notices the woman in flannel pajamas sitting inside.
“People seldom know that people live here, much less that there’s someone watching them from the other side of the curtain,” says Howard, who rents the house made famous in Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic.”
Living in a tourist destination means shrugging when some of the 13,000 annual visitors catch her moisturizing in the nude or sitting on the toilet. The interior of the house is off-limits to visitors, but Howard’s lease with the owner, the state historical society, includes a clause stating that she has to be nice to interlopers.
Those who peek inside see hardwood floors decorated with throw rugs, brightly colored couches and a collage depicting the Gothic house above the kitchen sink.
The house, which has appeared in countless parodies, including those featuring Klingons and Miss Piggy, has captivated Howard. She misses it when she’s away and said that when she went to see Wood’s painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, she wanted to jump into the painting and go home (a security guard had to ask her to step away from the artwork).
“You can smell the history,” she said of her adopted home. “It’s very soothing — I feel connected to my ancestors.”
Howard says the house and its place in art history moved her to sit down and write a book about her life, “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.” The dwelling had inspired Grant Wood, just returned from making art in France and Italy, to paint a tribute to his native state.
The 700-square-foot house was built in 1881 and sold to Charles and Catherine Dibble, who lost it after failing to pay taxes. It is now creaky and old. Square nails poke out of the wooden floorboards, the paint is peeling and the stairway is so small it’s a better fit for a child than an adult.
It was the big gothic window on the second story that struck Wood in 1930, when he was driving through Eldon with a friend. The intricate window, ordered from a Sears catalog, looked out of place in the modest house on the prairie. Wood immediately wanted to paint the plain house and its fancy frill.
“He saw it as humorous,” said R. Tripp Evans, author of “Grant Wood: A Life.” “It embodied everything that was both comical and endearing about Midwestern culture.”
Wood asked his sister to stand in as the aproned woman with the hair pulled tightly back, save for a loose curl. His dentist posed as the farmer in overalls and a blazer. Wood finished the painting in a few weeks and then submitted it to a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago. Lore holds that judges passed over the canvas but that Wood found it discarded in a heap and persuaded the judges to award him third place.
Although some Iowans suspected Wood was mocking them, the artist said it was just the opposite. “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa,” he famously said. He soon became a leader in Regionalism, a school of American art that spurned cities as subjects and embraced realistic rural scenes.
For Howard, 49, embracing the Midwest has been a bit more of a challenge. Living in a century-old house miles from the nearest city is a new experience for Howard, who spent her 20s and 30s in the faster-paced world of the West Coast.
Last summer, a 6-foot-long bull snake crawled into the bathroom and draped itself over the doorknob. Howard ran and got her neighbors, Don and Shirley, Bob and Iola. The men took it out of the house, bashed in its head with a rake and then threw it in a tree. Howard also ran over a snapping turtle in her Mini Cooper, another occasion to summon the neighbors.
“It’s always ‘Bob, get your boots on. I need you!’ ” Howard said.
Tourists sometimes tramp into the house, ignoring the sign that says “Private residence. Please do not disturb.” At night, they’ll train their headlights on the house and pose for pictures.
Then again, the rent is just $250 a month.
“We’ve always looked for the right renter because of the historic nature,” says Jerome Thompson of the Historical Society. “Someone who can stand a little bit of being in the public spotlight.”
Howard grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, just 20 miles from the “American Gothic” house, and couldn’t get away from the Midwest fast enough. She left home to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. After that, she worked as a publicist for TV shows, including “Beverly Hills 90210;” lived in Hawaii while working at a resort, and had enough money for exotic travel and adventure sports.
“I remember thinking she had it made,” said childhood friend Nan Schmid, who visited Howard in Malibu. “The beach was down a set of stairs. She was making a lot of money.”
When she was 39, Howard took a trip to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, where she met Marcus Iken, an executive with German automaker Daimler, which builds Mercedes-Benzes. The two hit it off, and, after riding motorcycles across Italy and dating long-distance for two years, decided to get married.
Iken died of a ruptured aorta in 2009. At the time, the couple were living apart, thinking of divorce. Howard, plagued with guilt and grief, set out two years ago from Portland, Ore., on a cross-country trip in a recreational vehicle her husband had left her.
Three weeks into her trip, driving along U.S. Route 34 in Iowa, Howard saw a sign that read: “American Gothic House. Six miles.” On a whim, she turned off the highway.
At the visitor center in Eldon, she learned that the house had been lived in over the years. The last occupant, a schoolteacher, moved out in 2008.
Howard persuaded a staff member to give her a tour. She walked on dusty floors scattered with mouse droppings. She spied the gothic window in the bedroom on the second floor. Feeling deep down that she was meant to live in this tiny space, and with nowhere else to go, she asked if she could move in.
Howard would leave behind a hip, urban life and move to Eldon, a town of 900 with no stop lights, no restaurants and no supermarket.
Family and friends thought she was crazy. But Howard has thrived. She says the house and community have given her a way of life that she thought existed only in the past.
A friend will drop by with a stringer of walleye fish. When she leaves on vacation, neighbors tend her garden without being asked. She can wander in solitude across a prairie framed by grain silos.
The low cost of living has meant that she’s able to get by on her book advance, a small inheritance and freelance writing gigs.
Howard has taken to making pies — apple, cherry, strawberry — and selling them for $20 from a stand out front.
Howard said she was in Los Angeles recently on her book tour and that the noise of leaf-blowers and garbage trucks set her on edge. Just thinking about the places she and her husband visited together on the West Coast makes her tear up. She has found solace in Eldon.
“I walk the dogs at night, and talk to my husband up in the sky out loud,” she said.
Sure, it’s strange knowing that the nearest Starbucks and Trader Joe’s are 90 miles away in Des Moines, but when Howard’s mother asks when she’ll move back to Southern California, the answer is always the same: not any time soon. Her parents, who left Ottumwa long ago for an apartment in Redondo Beach, can’t understand the appeal of a place so many others have left behind.
Howard says she loves her Eldon’s pokiness. There’s never a line at the post office, and the closest thing to traffic congestion is when she gets stuck behind an Amish buggy.
“I thought I was going to be here temporarily,” she says. “Now I’m not planning on going anywhere else.”