Flag Barn in Silo and Smokestack country

Flag barn in Silo and Smokestack country.

We were trundling along Interstate 80 last summer. Jeff was driving. The car window was too dirty to photograph through, so I had it down, with my camera set on its fastest shutter speed. The rolling green hills, painted barns and diligent tractors were set off by the Easter-egg blue sky. We had been travelling almost three weeks, gathering Americana stories, and learning more about what it means to be an American.

I glanced above my camera viewfinder in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of a road sign which read: Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. Our lodging reservation was still several hundred miles to the west and we were ready to be on the road home, so we kept going with a note to learn more about it.

It turns out that there are 55 National Heritage Areas. They are administered through the National Park Service, but unlike National Parks, they are lived-in areas. The residents, businesses and industries each decide how to present their unique attributes to be relevant. I’ve visited most of the areas without realizing that it had the special designation of being part of American Heritage!

I suspect that though education is the natural by-product of such a designation, creative tourism is the desired result. It’s a smart way of attracting visitors to areas not geared to tourism. With increasing history and heritage related travel in the U.S., it makes good cents (pardon the pun).

Many National Heritage Areas overlap multiple states. They may include in their boundaries, State Parks, National Forests, National Parks, Indian Reservations, National Recreation areas, cities, towns, etc.

Pennsylvania has the most with seven, and several states have none at all. The theme might be a product mined in the region or a river. It could be a section settled by a certain group of people, or united by an industry. Utah has two: The Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area that covers almost everything south of Utah Lake and east of I-15, and Great Basin NHA, which is shared with Nevada in central and western Utah.

It turns out the Silos and Smokestacks NHA, which first caught my eye, is oriented mainly toward agriculture. That particular region illustrates the concept well. The website offers John Deere Tractor factory tours, Farmhouse Bed and Breakfasts, and Amana Colonies tourism to learn about the Amish. Iowa doesn’t compete well in the beach category, but to a city slicker, a visit to a working dairy might be much more exciting.

The Silos and Smokestacks NHA also promotes fairs and other attractions and events. It participates in education to help residents and visitors alike understand the monumental and critical task of feeding the world. It promotes the techniques and science of improved quality and quantities of food.

The U.S. exports more food than any other country in the world. Though other countries produce more of some products, they also consume as much or more than they produce. The U.S. is, however, both the largest producer of maize (corn) in the world and the largest exporter. After sugar cane, maize is the second largest crop worldwide. The Silos and Smokestack region does corn really well. The days we visited Iowa, the corn was 8 feet tall, lush green with the tassels crowning them with golden brown.

Even Iowa is challenged to supply maximum quantity to meet the demand. Whole corn and cornmeal is not the only corn product staple in many cultures: The grain is also made into corn syrup, corn oil, engine fuel and animal feed. Hollywood needs an ample supply for corny movies.

If you happen to be in the Silos and Smokestacks area of Iowa in the fall, you might be lucky enough to see the combine in the field. One machine pulls the cobs off the stalks, threshes the corn off the cob, spits the debris out the back and pumps the feed into a separate wagon pulled by a tractor. One set of that equipment probably cost the farmer over half a million dollars.

The Silos and Smokestack is one National Heritage Area organization that is helping teach the world of the gratitude we owe the farmers of America for filling the world’s tummies.

Only in America, God bless it.

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