25 things that make Mount Vernon cool

Mount Vernon, population 4,444, is situated in Iowa’s Creative Corridor near two of Iowa’s top cities. Its urban fringe location offers a refreshing blend of city culture in a small town venue with art festivals, popular local restaurants and cafés, and quirky boutiques. You can drive anywhere in town in five minutes and it packs a lot of charm.

Cornell skyline

Not too long ago the town earned a mention as one of 10 spots in “America’s Coolest Small Towns” by Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine. Here’s what we think are the things that make Mount Vernon cool.

Community mural25. Community mural
The mural spans across nearly a full city block on a concrete wall behind downtown. It was created under the supervision of Strider Patton, who grew up looking at the bare wall from his bedroom window. Patton, now an artist and educator in San Francisco, was helped by more than 500 volunteer painters, including hundreds of students ranging from second graders to Cornell seniors.

24. Little libraries Little Library
Mount Vernon is home to almost a dozen little libraries–small, whimsically decorated wooden structures along the sidewalk that contain books for loan. Take a book, leave a book. Bonus: No one will ever shush you for talking.

scale solar system plaque23. Scale solar system
Mount Vernon is the center of the solar system. Literally. There’s a scale-model that starts with the sun located at the First Street Community Center, and ends with Pluto (still included as a planet) sitting on a fencerow along the Lincoln Highway several miles west
of town.

22. Shoe Tree
 Located on an unmaintained dirt road just outside of town, the shoe tree is a large cottonwood tree into which residents fling their tied-together footwear. At any given time, there can be dozens to more than 100 shoes hanging like fruit from the branches. 

Photo by Tommie Ouverson
Photo by Tommie Ouverson

 

21. The Bijou
The locally owned, 100-seat, Bijou movie theater shows first-run movies. Save your ticket; there’s a drawing before each show for popcorn, posters, and other swag!

20. Local theatre
Theatre (and dance) are extremely popular in Mount Vernon, with opportunities for anyone to help put on a show. Children get their first taste with Odyssey Theatre and Dance Arts Iowa. The local public schools have thriving theatre programs and Mount Vernon-Lisbon community theatre offers actors of all ages a chance to tread the boards. And Cornell’s Theatre and Dance Department interacts with the community to enhance the local dance and drama scene.

19. Presidential candidates
Don’t judge Mount Vernon by its shops, restaurants, and parks. Judge it by the number of Secret Service visits every four years. Because of the out sized role the Iowa caucuses play in presidential elections, Cornell regularly hosts presidential candidates. 

place setting18. Restaurants
The number and types of places to eat is a prime indicator of a town’s inherent coolness. Mount Vernon has an amazing array, ranging from Mexican to a wine bar with a pizza oven imported from Italy to barbecue with a micro-brewery. There are also the old standbys, Pizza Palace and Sutliff Tavern (OK, not exactly in Mount Vernon but such a fun place!). Another fave with the locals: Cornell’s Hilltop Café for Sunday brunch.

17. Frisbee golf
Mount Vernon is home to not one but two frisbee golf courses: one at Nature Park and the other on the Cornell campus.

16. Nature ParkNature Park
Nature Park includes a quarry that provided stone for the foundations of many of Mount Vernon’s stately Victorian homes. It has filled with spring water and provides habitat for fish, waterfowl, and kayaks. The park has a slice of original Iowa prairie, a dog park, and a frisbee golf course (see #17). The land for Nature Park was acquired when Nick Berry (Cornell politics professor from 1970-1982) was mayor.

Memorial Park Gazebo

 

15. Memorial Park Gazebo
The gazebo at the center of town sits beneath the water tower. It is the site of everything from weddings to yoga workouts, and town band concerts to live nativity scenes. 

 

Photo by Mitch Bloomquist ‘04
Photo by Mitch Bloomquist ‘04

14. Old school turned community center
The brick building that once served as the local high school and later middle school was purchased by
Rick and Trude Elliott, honorary Cornell alumni, who turned it into the First Street Community Center. It now bursts with a variety of shops, a fitness center, a dance school, a bakery, a lending library, the Uptown Theatre, and even a local church. 

13. Bee City
In 2016 Mount Vernon became Iowa’s only designated Bee City, awarded to towns committed to sustaining habitat for pollinating insects. A Cornell English class, Food and Sustainability, was behind the application, and Cornell has also been instrumental in creating habitat for monarch butterflies that migrate through Iowa to Mexico.

Photo by Sandra Dyas
Photo by Sandra Dyas

 

12. “American Gothic” barn
People coming in from the west on Highway 30 round a curve to find a barn covered with a mural of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” The mural was created by Mount Vernon Middle School art teacher Mark Benesh as a memorial to the famous artist who grew up and painted many of his best-known pictures just north of Mount Vernon.

11. Bauman’s
Cornell students have been buying clothes at Bauman’s since 1909. Entering the two-story brick store down-town, with its original oak shelving and dressing rooms, is like stepping back in time. It features an extensive big and tall section, and down in the basement is the meeting room of an informal coffee group. That group has been solving the town’s problems for decades.

10. Historic districtsHistoric District sign
Mount Vernon is home to three National Historic Districts. The downtown Commercial District, Ash Park, and the Cornell campus. Ash Park is a residential area of tree-lined streets and Victorian homes that was part of the original Ash farm. It includes the site of the Cornell athletics complex.

Cornell College Archives
Cornell College Archives

 

 

9. Pres Hill
When snow flies, the city closes off four blocks of Third Avenue for sledding on Pres Hill, named after the Presbyterian church that sits at its crest.

8. Farmer’s Market
Most Saturdays of the year neighbors meet at the Mount Vernon Farmer’s Market, where they can buy vegetables, fruits, preserves, eggs, baked goods, meat, and crafts from farmers and artisans.

7. Fourteen festivals
Mount Vernon is always in some stage of an event, either planning, holding, or cleaning up. The festivals range from the Chocolate Stroll to Magical Night, and Chili Cook-off to the Lincoln Highway Arts Festival. Collectively, they attract 50,000 visitors to town annually. The common thread through all of them is the town’s deep pool of volunteers. Last year 420 people volunteered in some capacity.

Photo by Mehrdad Zarifkar ‘09
Photo by Mehrdad Zarifkar ‘09

6. Fuel
Fuel is a coffee shop and boutique located in downtown that serves as one of the town’s favorite meeting spots. In addition to coffee and Mom’s baked goods (actually baked by the owner’s mother), Fuel also has hosted lectures, town hall meetings, and an occasional presidential candidate.

 

5. Lincoln Highway Lincoln Highway marker
The first transcontinental highway in the country was dedicated in 1913 and stretches from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. An iconic Lincoln Highway sign marks the route through Mount Vernon. 

Photo by Rich Herrmann
Photo by Rich Herrmann

 

 

4. Palisades-Kepler State Park
Generations of Cornell students have visited the park, located on the Cedar River four miles from Mount Vernon. In addition to majestic bluffs along the river, the park has trails, deep limestone crevices, and abundant wild and plant life. During the Great Depression, 200 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps lived in the park, constructing buildings like the Lodge, and adding and improving the park’s facilities.

Photo by Bob Campagna
Photo by Bob Campagna

3. 1915 train bridge
The old train bridge, which spans the twin railroad tracks in Mount Vernon, is over a century old and is
now for pedestrians only. It’s also a prime location to watch one of the nearly 75 trains that roll through Mount Vernon each day. The sounds of the trains themselves have evoked (or perhaps provoked) a variety of emotions since 1859.

Photo by Mehrdad Zarifkar ‘09
Photo by Mehrdad Zarifkar ‘09

2. Chalk the Walk
Among Mount Vernon’s many festivals, Chalk the Walk demands its own recognition. During the first weekend in May hundreds of artists and amateur artists take over the downtown streets for Iowa’s largest Madonnari chalk art festival. The event attracts more than 10,000 visitors from across the country

1. Cornell College
Cornell College’s presence in Mount Vernon raises the town’s cool factor immensely. It brings in 1,000 diverse college students—making up nearly one-fourth of Mount Vernon’s population. Then there are the 90 tenure-track faculty, ranging from philosophers to artists to organic chemists. Add to that the artists and scholars who visit campus. Would Thomas Friedman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Karl Rove, Dee Dee Meyers, David Gergen, George Stephanopoulos, Fareed Zakaria, or Bob Woodward have come to town if Cornell wasn’t here? And those are just speakers for the Delt Lecture series. How about in days of yore, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost? Or Martin Luther King Jr.? It doesn’t get any cooler than that.

Aerial of Cornell