When thinking about history lessons, one doesn’t often associate education about the past with delicious meals, culinary classes, acres of gorgeous walking trails and… pizza. But those are some of the ways the rich history of Iowa and the famous Wallace family are taught at The Wallace Centers of Iowa (WCI).
For Debra Houghtaling, WCI president and CEO, the nonprofit she leads represents the best of her native state. “The Wallace Centers are places where history and civility, agriculture and innovation meet,” said Houghtaling. “The Wallaces have a long track record of innovation, and we are driven to interpret their history in a modern way.”
Since being named head of the WCI in May 2018, Houghtaling has been focused on education initiatives and promoting their two historic locations – the Wallace House in Des Moines and Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center near Orient, Iowa – as travel destinations. Regardless of location, Houghtaling and her staff develop programs that build awareness of local food, sustainable agriculture and civility that Houghtaling says are “the building blocks of Iowa.”
One example of an innovative offering aimed to build awareness of Iowa food is the Pizza on the Prairie night that WCI will launch in the fall at the County Life Center. “We recently purchased a new brick pizza oven and will have pizza nights once a week,” said Houghtaling. “In addition to being held on our breathtaking property, the thing that will make this unique is that the pizza will be topped with vegetables grown right on the very farm where our visitors will be eating and with other local Iowa products.”
The brick oven is just the latest piece visitors will find at the Country Life Center, also the birthplace of former U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace. The 40-acre original homestead includes a farmhouse, replica barn, orchard, production gardens, gift shop and Houghtaling’s favorite – the family-friendly restored nine-acre prairie. “One of the showstoppers for me is the prairie," says Houghtaling. It includes about 20 grasses and more than 120 forbes. It also has a walking path with five outdoor sculptures that tell stories about agriculture and the work of Henry A. Wallace."
Those who visit the Des Moines location, The Wallace House, can expect a different experience but the same farm-to-table quality food. Originally constructed in 1883, the Italianate Victorian-style house was the residence of “Uncle Henry” and Nancy Wallace, first editors of Wallaces’ Farmer agricultural magazine. The home is filled with Wallace family and historic artifacts and offers cooking classes and historic teas as well as guided and self-guided tours.
For those more interested in eating than cooking, Farm to Table Thursdays’ at the Wallace House takes produce from the Country Life Center, adds protein from local Iowa farms and businesses, and serves gourmet meals each week. Outside, the house features a beautiful garden with walking path, perennials, benches and a variety of plants where visitors can sit and relax.
With their impact having reached every corner of the world, the Wallace family was known as one of Iowa’s most famous and respected farm families of the 19th and 20th centuries. “I’m just really excited to be able to tell their story,” said Houghtaling. “Like the Wallaces, our organization is truly special, from our rural and urban locations, to our programs and dedication to the community.”
No matter the location, the thing Houghtaling enjoys most about her job as WCI president and CEO is meeting and visiting with new people who come for a program or a meal. She fondly recalled meeting a couple from Missouri. “They were visiting the Iowa State Fair and during their drive back decided to stop in the Wallace House and see what we were all about,” said Houghtaling. “They ended up staying for hours. Being part of that experience and seeing the Wallace legacy live on – that is so rewarding.”