Eight states. Four coworkers. Three women. One dude.
And yes, I was the one dude. This was about as much of the story that I knew before jumping in a van and leaving Minneapolis to make a documentary about life in the centermost parts of America. The Heartland. Being an art director from Seattle, I’ve heard how this area housed the farmers, the hunters, the taxidermists, the cowgirls, the collectors, and the nicest people in the world. Now we just had to find them. Our team from Martin Williams set out to see what connected the people in those so-called flyover states. We were in search of stories. We were in search of common threads. We felt this was especially important after witnessing an election that has done more dividing than uniting.
We loaded everything into our big, dark van and headed to Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store, naturally our first stop. To call this a “store” is an understatement in every sense of the word. Zoo seems a tad more appropriate for this utopia full of homemade caramel, flakey stroopwafels and Moxie soda. If you somehow missed the monstrous signs, the building is painted SpongeBob yellow to heighten even more of your senses.
We went in and bounced around, literally like kids in a candy store, and found every sweet concoction imaginable—even Grandma’s homemade pies. Each of us scattered into a different candy corridor and somehow met up, and we were joined by Robert, the owner’s son, and Jerry, the soda guy. These were two characters we knew we had to interview.
Within seconds, Robert, dressed in Twizzler-colored suspenders with an out-of-this-world tie depicting a galaxy far, far away, and Jerry, unreservedly mocking Donald Trump, flocked to the camera. Minnesota’s political scene is often divided, so it was interesting to see what people an hour or so outside the city thought.
Both jokesters opened up with stories about their jobs, their families, and the beauty of living out in “God’s country,” a term we encountered multiple times during our trip. Jerry said he routinely cooks breakfast for his mom when taking a break from “making America grape again.” The interview ended and we left, but not before Jerry climbed onto the store’s stage. He sang to us surrounded by life-sized porcelain candy people. Even your imagination will not do it justice.
Interview one, done. Only 30 more to go. We poured into the van, recovering from some sort of sugar high, and made our way to our next destination. As the van drove past the mustard-colored factory, I knew we were going to meet more good people like these two.
The next seven days rolled out. The people and places only got better. A horse show. A cemetery. A buffalo ranch. A rodeo. A vintage mall. An Amish village. Small-town bars. The world’s largest ball of twine. Multiple museums. Some with miniature toy tractors. Others with uranium marbles. The best featuring art made from human hair. If you’ve ever wanted to see Mary, mother of Jesus’ locks, stop by Independence, Missouri. You won’t be sorry.
If I had not seen each of these places with my own eyes, I doubt I would believe parts of this story. But when it came down to it, these were real people with real tales to tell. A story willing to be shared, as long as the person asking the questions came to learn and not pass judgment.
Time and time again, we would stop at roadside attractions, ask for the owner, hear they weren’t around, and then within minutes see them show up, sporting a giant grin on their face. Lee hustled to his store to share his legendary marbles in York, Nebraska. Shirley changed her plans to show us her prairie filled with buffalo in Alma, Kansas. People went out of their way to help us.
We were welcomed into homes, given recommendations for additional people to interview, and offered a roadie or two for the drive to our next stop. The majority of the people we interviewed showed me a side of kindness I have never seen from a complete stranger. One of the best was Kyle, who wiped dirt off my camera lens with his own shirt after taking me on a joyride through Gleason, Wisconsin’s mud pits.
Despite being so friendly, the Midwesterners we met were direct and willing to cut straight to the point. When asked if they liked their home being referred to as a “flyover state,” most didn’t mind. Instead, many took pride in their town and told the people who gave it this name to keep on going. There’s no sense in sharing the Midwest’s best-kept secrets with those who are critical and won’t see it for themselves.
When folks were asked about their family or their community, their tone always shifted. The mood became much more serious. Interviewees described their loyalty and their willingness to help out, regardless of the situation. If a family lost their farm in a fire, other members of the community were expected to take on more responsibility to ensure the town’s survival. People pulled their own weight and stepped up during tough times. No questions asked. Life is unpredictable. This truth kept people humble.
Generally, nothing was of greater value than one’s family in the Heartland. People kept their families close because, ultimately, they were irreplaceable. Even when interviews took unexpected and more comical turns, everyone stopped joking or sobered up when speaking about their family. I felt envious during our final days on the road because I noticed most people lived pretty close to their family. They also hung out more regularly than I do with mine. Family always came first, and this bond made me appreciate mine more.
Each interview proved that people in this area held themselves to high standards as well. When interviewing Captain Steve from Hannibal, Missouri, he told us “doing the right thing is just what you do.” We saw this firsthand when he cancelled his Mark Twain Riverboat cruise for the first time in history to ensure people’s safety onboard. Refunds and dinner were provided without hesitation to make up for the bad weather.
His tour continues to be successful because of his strong work ethic, a theme we came across in nearly every interview. Captain Steve, among others, seemed to understand that nothing in life should be handed to you. Opportunities come from working hard and creating them for yourself. This value has guided his work ethic for 40 years, the time worked at his tour company with his wife, Sandy. Todd, a farmer from Dyersville, Iowa, had no problem working at any time of day. If his livestock went into labor, he’d jump and make sure it got done. There’s no overtime, vacations, or time off when there’s work to do.
As our eight-state journey ended, it was not difficult to see what values meant the most to the people interviewed. Hard work, caring for the community, a sense of humbleness, close family ties, and doing what was right were all key ingredients tossed into this Midwest melting pot. Yet despite finding similarities between them and myself, their values seemed more exaggerated here in the Heartland than you might find in the city. The people we met were helpful, loving, honest, proud yet modest, and unafraid to get their hands dirty. These values shaped their character, their communities, and their day-to-day lives in the heart of our country. And it’s a trip that I’ll never forget.