Christmas in River City: A winter visit to Mason City, Iowa

Meet the home of The Music Man Square and the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel.

As I pulled into Mason City, Iowa, a trio of lyrics rotated in my head.

Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana

Seventy-six trombones led the big parade

And, my personal favorite…

Trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for POOL!

Mason City, you see, was the inspiration for River City, the fictional town featured in The Music Man

It’s one of the most beloved musicals of the 20th century. I knew the music and the story; it was part of the standard repertoire for Midwestern high schools in the mid-1980’s. As a clarinetist in my school’s pit orchestra, I was intimately familiar with “Gary, Indiana,” “76 Trombones,” and, of course, “Ya got Trouble.”

Composer and author Meredith Willson grew up in Mason City. He immortalized its charms, and some of its charming people, with his tale of a ne’er-do-well swindler who descended upon the unsuspecting community.

While Willson’s a favored son, he wasn’t the only artist to impact the Midwestern town. Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the town’s architecture, and his Historic Park Inn is the last remaining hotel designed by the architect.

It was December and I’d just spent a relaxing glamping getaway in nearby Charles City. The two towns are about five-odd hours from my home in the Chicago exurbs, so I decided to take advantage of my proximity to “River City” and explore a bit.

From loose meat to a shopping mall full of tubas, let’s visit Mason City, Iowa.

Visit Mason City hosted my visit, but all opinions are my own and not influenced at all by the sweet sweet-chili wings or the mall full of tubas.

A Winter Visit to Mason City, Iowa

Pro’s Sandwich Shop

Beef Delight, otherwise known as a loose meat sandwich, at Pro's Sandwich Shop in Mason City, Iowa
Beef Delight, otherwise known as a loose meat sandwich

My first stop was Pro’s Sandwich Shop for some loose meat. This Iowan delicacy is, essentially, a deconstructed hamburger. Instead of ground beef formed into a patty, the meat’s crumbled and browned with diced onions and salt and pepper. It’s “loose,” and the amount of meat is inversely proportionate to the size of the bun.

Alternatively, it’s known as a Tavern sandwich or a Maid-Rite, the latter being the name of a fast-casual franchise that’s been serving these since 1926.

Pro’s Sandwich Shop has been around since 1965, and they call their iteration a Beef Delight. I unwrapped the red-and-white checkered gift of Iowa goodness and the meat spilled out of the bun like an overturned bag of Halloween candy. This is a sandwich that’s not meant to be consumed while driving.

I paired it with a side of fried pickles, and while they weren’t the best I’ve ever had – that honor belongs to Homeplate Bar & Grill in Dixon, Missouri – they were a good second.

Frosty mug of root beer at Pro's Sandwich Shop in Mason City
Frosty mug of root beer

The root beer, however… I took a sip, put my frosty mug back on the counter, and exclaimed “that is the best root beer EVER.” The elderly gentleman sitting next to me didn’t even look up from his newspaper.

I have a feeling that happens often at Pro’s.

The Music Man Square

Celebrating Christmas in Mason City, Iowa

Properly fortified, I ventured up Federal Avenue. My next stop was The Music Man Square. I entered through the glass doors and stepped back in time to 1912.

The streetscape, designed to replicate the movie set, was lined with Christmas trees. I walked along the blocks made of yellow Mississippi pine past an antique popcorn wagon, the Doctor’s buggy, and the F.O. Winter Barbershop, complete with vintage barber chair.

Inside the window of the River City Bank & Trust hung a “Happenings” poster listing both Mason City and world events. At the end of the street was Mrs. Paroo’s Gift Shop, topped with a 1912 weather vane.

Streetscape in The Music Man Square
Pleez-All in The Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa
Pleez-All in The Music Man Square

I met Janice Rod outside Mrs. Paroo’s and we went outside, crossing the short sidewalk to Meredith Willson’s boyhood home. We entered through the front door because, as Janice said, “Mrs. Willson insisted that guests must enter through the front door.”

Meredith Willson’s Boyhood Home

Meredith Willson's boyhood home
Meredith Willson’s boyhood home

Stepping into that warm, dim entryway, I could imagine this well-to-do family greeting callers and inviting them into their upper-class Victorian home.

Built in 1895, the Queen Anne mansion had fallen into disrepair after being used as a boarding house and a rental property. But in 1995, after two years of work and “lots of Murphy Oil,” the restoration was complete and tours began.

The tour was filled with reverence for not only Meredith, but also for his mother. Rosalie ran the first kindergarten in Mason City in her home, and later survived a bitter divorce. John Willson quickly married a woman younger than his daughter, and Rosalie proclaimed herself a widow.

I learned of Meredith’s oldest sibling, Dixie, and decided she was someone I would have liked. She was an accomplished writer and pictures of her surrounded a vintage typewriter in her bedroom. A maverick, she joined the circus, rode elephants, and wrote a book about her experiences. 

His brother Cedric was also creative. A fellow musician like his brother, he played bassoon with legendary bandleader John Philip Sousa. That wasn’t quite his dream, and he left the band and turned all of his energies to his love of engineering.

Dixie Willson's desk and vintage typewriter
Dixie Willson’s desk and vintage typewriter

The star of the show, however, was Meredith Willson. His accomplishments began at birth. Weighing in at 14 pounds, 6 ounces, he was the heaviest baby in Iowa and retained that record for quite some time.

At 17, he attended Julliard, followed by a stint in Sousa’s band with his brother, and then spent some time with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

By all accounts, he was a talented flautist and piccolo player, but his true talent as a composer soon became apparent. He scored Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and the score received an Academy Award nomination, as did the score for William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, which Meredith arranged.

Meredith Willson’s legacy is detailed throughout the home, and Janice brought to life the impact he had, and still has, on this community. After a successful Broadway run of The Music Man, Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in the movie, and it premiered in Mason City.

The composer frequently returned to his home town for the North Iowa Band Festival and in 1976 he even directed the Municipal band. Janice, a flautist herself, was sitting next to the famed conductor when he turned to her and said, “May I see your flute?” She handed it to him, awestruck.

I don’t think she cleaned that flute again.

We returned to the streetscape and entered the Meredith Willson Museum. It’s filled with band instruments and awards Meredith received, including the first Grammy ever issued for Best Musical Theater Album. President Ronald Reagan honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it’s also proudly displayed.

Band instruments in The Music Man Square's Meredith Willson Museum
Band instruments in The Music Man Square’s Meredith Willson Museum
Grammy Award for The Music Man presented to Meredith Willson
Grammy Award for The Music Man presented to Meredith Willson

The Music Man Square brought me back to my days in high school band and orchestra, and to my time in the pit performing the score for the musicals on stage. I left filled with memories and music, and ready to see what else Mason City had to offer.

The Quarry Restaurant & Tapas Bar

It was late afternoon, so after going next door to quickly check in to Decker House Bed & Breakfast (I’ll tell you more about this gem later), I ventured to The Quarry Restaurant & Tapas Bar for a quick bite to eat.

Well, it was supposed to be a quick bite. But, I sat at the bar and I met a couple of local ladies and before I knew it, it was pitch black outside and late enough that I’d missed the opportunity to see the Cannonball 457 train engine lit up in holiday finery.

Instead, I’d spent my time noshing on edamame wok-fried with garlic, parmesan, lemon, and jalapeno, and digging into some sweet sweet-chili wings. My neighbors gave me a bite of their portobello mushroom. We sipped wine. We gabbed. We enjoyed good food and warm conversation on a cold and blustery night.

Edamame at The Quarry Restaurant
Edamame at The Quarry Restaurant
Sweet chili wings at The Quarry Restaurant and Tapas Bar
Sweet chili wings
Portobello Mushroom appetizer at The Quarry Restaurant
Portobello Mushroom appetizer

Sharing stories with those ladies exemplified my favorite type of encounter while traveling. It’s why I always sit at the bar when I’m alone, and why my husband and I belly up even when we’re together. When it’s time to go, I’ve invariably made new friends.

Fat Hill Brewing

I bid adieu and walked half a block to Fat Hill Brewing

I took a seat at the bar (of course) in the cavernous space and ordered a flight, starting with Aronia Saison, brewed with 100 pounds of juice from the aronia berry. The berries came from a farm in Fertile, a town of 370 that’s about 20 minutes from Mason City. My next choice, the Mackinagical IPA, was another local partnership, this time with Cedar Falls Hops.

Bank Demon was a beast of a beer, with an 11.1% ABV. I’m a sucker for imperial stouts, so I added that to my list. I completed my flight with the mother of the beast, Breakfast Bank Demon. The breakfast version is made even more bestial by aging in maple syrup barrels for 16 months. Then, they mix in some coffee beans from Jitters, another local spot. That magic ends up creating a beer that’s got an ABV of 12.8%.

Yowza.

But did they taste good? Yes! The aronia was a bit too bitter for me, but those Demons were delicious. I was glad I only had a few ounces of each, because I still had one more stop to make.

Beer flight at Fat Hill Brewing in Mason City, Iowa
Beer flight at Fat Hill Brewing

Mason City Brewing

I rounded the corner and heard…music! Opening the door to Mason City Brewing released a blast of heat from the crowded room. I made my way to the bar while Dickie, a two-man band made of a guitarist with an impressive beard and a percussionist with an impressive pompadour, played soul-filled music to the rapt crowd. I ordered a beer and somehow, some way, found the last seat in the bar.

The music was compelling, and time slipped away once again as I sipped on a local brew and listened, enthralled.

Dickie at Mason City Brewing

By the time I left the warmth and braved the cold, it was nearly midnight. I returned to Decker House and quietly made my way upstairs to the Iris Room, careful not to disturb the other guest.

Decker House Bed & Breakfast

Queen bed in the Iris Room at Decker House B&B
Queen bed in the Iris Room at Decker House B&B

The next morning, I ventured downstairs to the dining area for breakfast. I joined a lady from Minnesota and we dined on warm pumpkin muffins, fresh grapefruit, and a bacon and spinach frittata.

Grapefruit at Decker House B&B
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After, I explored the beautiful 1890’s home, named for Jacob E. Decker, an entrepreneur who owned the Decker Meat Packing Plant. He’d purchased the plant in 1901 for a whopping sum of $6,000, and sold it 34 years later to Armour for $4.972 million.

Decker House decorated for Christmas

Every room was decorated for the holidays and downstairs was a gorgeous bar. I left, reluctantly, noting the art outside the stately home. It was one of many sculptures sprinkled throughout Mason City. Because of the cold and snow I didn’t get to see too many of these “Sculptures on Parade,” but it was good to know that this community believes in and provides public art.

East Park

Since I’d missed Cannonball 457 the night before, I decided to see it in the morning. I knew the lights on the historic train engine wouldn’t be lit, but I still wanted to get a glimpse of the last remaining Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway steam locomotive. A glimpse is what I got, because the fence surrounding the engine was locked. During the summer it’s open for tours and I was there when it was decidedly not summer. I watched as a squirrel scurried in and out before I took a brief stroll through the park beyond.

It was another cold, snowy, monochromatic day, but there was a simple beauty in the starkness. Still, I could imagine the sculpted park, with its waterways and rolling hills, filled with families and friends once Spring arrives.

Heart-shaped rock at East Park
East Park in Mason City, Iowa
Flyig geese above East Park

State Street Deli

The Michigan Avenue at State Street Deli
The Michigan Avenue at State Street Deli

It was time for lunch and I stopped into State Street Deli. I wondered if it was named for “State Street, that Great Street,” and discovered that, indeed, it was. The owner is from Chicago, and he’s named his sandwiches after Windy City streets.

I opted for the Michigan Avenue, an appropriately rich combination of smoked turkey, bacon, cheddar, swiss cheese with chipotle raspberry mayo on peppered toasted sourdough bread.

Tuba Christmas

Tuba Christmas in Mason City, Iowa
Tuba Christmas in Mason City, Iowa

I pulled into the parking lot of Southgate Mall and filed in behind locals laden with lawn chairs. We were all there for one reason:

Tuba Christmas

This annual extravaganza fills the center court of the mall with euphonium, tuba, baritone, and sousaphone players, all dressed up in Santa hats. Most decorate their instruments as well. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as they blew the first notes, I should have known they would be harmonious, nuanced, and beautiful. This was Iowa, land of marching bands, and this was Mason City, birthplace of The Music Man.

Perhaps my favorite part, besides the music, was that each song was introduced with a tale of its history. It gave depth to the performance beyond the potential “schtick” of an orchestra made solely of low-pitched brass.

Historic Park Inn

No visit to Mason City would be complete, especially for any architecture fan, without a visit to the Historic Park Inn.

Hotels didn’t make up a huge part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s portfolio. In fact, out of the hundreds of buildings he designed, six were hotels. Five were built, and the only one that remains is the Historic Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank.

It opened in 1910 during the community’s heyday and was the second Frank Lloyd Wright-designed project in Iowa. The first was the Stockman House, also in Mason City and located near East Park.

Like Meredith Willson’s boyhood home, the Park Inn also needed a lot of work after years of dis- and misuse, landing a place on the list of Iowa’s Most Endangered historical landmarks.

However, the local community formed Wright on the Park, a non-profit group, and rescued the building. After extensive renovation, it reopened in 2011, nearly a century after its initial unveiling.

The building and its interior are vintage FLW and you can’t miss his Prairie School design. Tours are available, and you can even stay in one of the 27 rooms (which now, fortunately, have individual bathrooms).

Read reviews, and if you’re ready to book, get a room at the Historic Park Inn Hotel

I left the hotel and crossed the street to Central Park, spending a few final moments in Mason City. It’s an open space filled with character, from sculptures, to a Civil War statue, to a Veterans Monument that honors more than 3,300 area veterans. There were also two strings tied between a pair of trees, clipped with hats, scarves, and gloves for anyone who needed them.

It was a fitting goodbye for my winter visit. It may have been cold outside, but Mason City was nothing but warm.

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