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Des Moines has done its homework

Courtesy Salisbury House and Gardens

Carl Weeks, an early-20th-century pioneer in women’s cosmetics, and his wife, Edith, were world travelers who amassed an eclectic collection of items and friends on their travels. They also got the idea for a house while visiting a 15th-century manor house in Salisbury, England.

In the 1920s, the Weeks had the Tudor-style house replicated on 9.5 acres of Iowa woodlands on what was then the outskirts of Des Moines.

“The family called it Salisbury House from the time it was built,” said Leo Landis, the education director and curator for the house, which is now a fascinating museum filled with the Weeks’ collections and antique furnishings.

On the new Nooks and Crannies Tour, groups get to see not only parts of the house that are not on a regular tour but also many of the Weeks’ collections that are stored on the third floor and in the basement.

“You get to see some of the things the family had,” said Landis. “For example, there is a postcard from Ernest Hemingway talking about fishing off Key West.”

There are English weapons, fans from around the world, even a 1925 Spalding rowing machine in the basement recreation room. The library, whose walls feature 15th-century woodcarving, has more than 2,000 rare books, including many first editions, more than 60 Bibles and a leaf from the original printing of the Gutenberg Bible.

“It’s a fabulous library,” said Landis. “Sometimes, we have some of the books and documents out on the behind-the-scenes tour.”

The Salisbury House is one of the stops on a Behind-the-Scenes itinerary, one of several group itineraries developed by the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Every attraction has something special and unique for groups; it’s just discovering what it is,” said Katie Stien, sales manager for the CVB who helped develop the itineraries. “They [the itineraries] have a lot of staples and off-the-beaten-path places. It’s taking those staples and making them different.

“I put myself in the shoes of a tour planner: What would I like to do with a group?”

Chocolate and wine
One thing a planner might want to do is sample some chocolate and wine.

Suzette Homemade Candies has produced delicious candies for more than 60 years and still uses some of its original equipment. One is a beltlike production line similar to the one in a hilarious scene from “I Love Lucy” in which Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, unable to keep pace with the machine, begin stuffing chocolate drops in their clothes.

“It’s actually the same machine but goes much slower,” said owner Troy Dubberke.

“It’s amazing the amount they do and the amount of business from this tiny shop here in Des Moines,” said Stien.

Groups can watch the candymaking process, including the dozen varieties of creams running through a “chocolate waterfall” and, in the fall, caramel apples being twirled.

Groups can find out about Iowa wines at Jasper Winery, which opened a modern new facility near downtown Des Moines in 2008.

“We sit the group down and go through all of our wines,” said Katie Bradshaw, tasting room manager for the winery. “We also do a wine education: how to do wine tasting, the swirl and smell and so forth.

“We talk about Iowa grapes and the wine industry and finish up with a tour. They get to see our facility, and we run through how we make wine.”

The tour ends with a tasting of some of the winery’s wines.

“We are just off a major road into Des Moines but set back with more of a country feel,” said Bradshaw. “We have a few grape vines as you pull in, but our other 10 acres are in Jasper County.”

Backstage stories
At the Des Moines Community Playhouse, groups “literally go behind the scenes,” said Lee Ann Bakros, marketing and public relations director and group sales director.

“They go backstage into the dressing rooms to get a chance to see how a show comes together. We also have dinner with the director of the show, where the director meets the group at a restaurant prior to the show and shares behind-the-scenes stories of what they are about to see.”

Bakros said groups who attend a play but don’t have time for a behind-the-scenes tour are greeted by one of the Playhouse Ambassadors, veteran playhouse actors and workers.

“They get on the coach and tell a little bit about the playhouse and the show they are going to see,” she said. “The actors will share some of their experiences being onstage. They take them into the theater, check in with them at intermission and, after the show, help get the group back on the coach.”

One of the oldest continuously operating community theaters in the country and one of the largest, the Des Moines Community Playhouse, which was started in 1919, presents 12 to 14 shows a year, with a mix of Broadway musicals, comedies and dramas.

Lunch in a barn
After breakfast the next day, groups can head to Living History Farms, which has an extensive program of hands-on activities at three period farms and a re-created 1875 farm village.

“One of the new aspects is to do lunches and dinners where people in period costume talk to groups while they are eating,” said Stien. “They have a historic barn that is a neat place to eat in.”

After lunch — the CVB itinerary recommends Stella’s Blue Sky Diner and its famous milkshakes, where waiters standing on chairs pour into a glass placed on your head — head to the Iowa Events Center.

The center, which holds many large events, is home to the Iowa Energy, a National Basketball Association development team.

“If players are around, they will have them talk to the group,” said Stien. “They will take you to the locker room, to the court and to the suites.”

Saddle up
Wrap up the day at the Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, 10 miles from Des Moines in Altoona, for a backstretch tour.

“You get to see where the jockeys get their horses ready, where they train, and you get to see the stables,” said Stien.

The tour begins in the paddock, where the horses are saddled for races, then proceeds to the jockeys’ quarters, where guides explain the various equipment, such as saddles, whips, goggles and helmets.

Prairie Meadows has more than 1,300 stalls in 25 barns, and groups see horses exercising on automatic walkers and stable hands cleaning stalls and grooming horses; they also get to talk with trainers.

Groups can conclude the day with dinner at the casino’s AJ’s Steakhouse or Triple Crown Eatery.

Local owners
The final day begins with a morning visit to Historic Valley Junction, a collection of locally owned antique stores, shops, galleries, bars, restaurants and an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor. There’s even a bakery for dogs.

A representative of the business association will greet groups on their motorcoach and give them a history of the area, which used to be the city’s downtown, and hand out discount coupons.

“Because they are local owners, they are really willing to work with groups,” said Stien.
Several of the stores and shops will help groups develop hands-on activities.

Governor’s home

The final stop is Terrace Hill, the Victorian mansion that serves as the Iowa governor’s residence.

“They can show groups rooms individuals will not necessarily see,” said Stien. “They give more of an in-depth history of the building and the governors.”

Built on a bluff overlooking the Raccoon River Valley in the late 1860s by Des Moines’ first millionaire, the mansion is in the Second Empire style with a 90-foot central tower. After the original owner ran into financial problems 15 years later, another Des Moines businessman purchased the house and put in many modern conveniences for the time, including steam heat and hot and cold running water.

Among the impressive items in the mansion are a 9-by-13-foot stained-glass window on the landing of the grand staircase and a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall crystal chandelier in the drawing room.

Tours include the first two floors. The third floor, where the governor and his family live, is off limits.

Greater Des Moines
Convention and Visitors Bureau

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