The Gothic window

“It was then that I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood.


Apparently, Grant Wood also had good ideas when he drove around in small-town Iowa. Which is why, when he was in Eldon, Iowa, Wood asked his friend to stop the car in front of a small, nearly-nondescript home, which he promptly sketched on the back of an envelope.

That was in 1930.

The house Wood sketched was a typical home for Eldon. Small. Well-built. An upstairs area tucked under the roof gables. A wrap-around porch. Three windows facing the front. White on white on white.

Ah, but then the home took a sharp detour from normalcy with that upstairs window. Supposedly purchased from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The window is actually hinged so that items can be moved up to the second floor through the window because of the tight corner on the interior stairway.

But the window is more than a way to get in and out of the upstairs. It is a Gothic window. A large window, pointed at the top, dramatically out-of-place.

Of course, Grant Wood went on to paint his iconic American Gothic using this very house as the backdrop. And, as you know, he placed the Gothic window right over a very sober Iowa farm family modeled by his sister and his dour-looking Cedar Rapids dentist. Eventually, a museum sprang up in Eldon that celebrates the house and Grant Wood.

Ah, but there is a bit more to the story.

Although you’ve heard of American Gothic, you’ve probably never heard of the Dibbles. Most people haven’t. Catherine and Charles Dibble built the American Gothic house in 1891-1892. A little bit of a lark for them. Charles Dibble owned a livery in that same small town of Eldon, and decided his family needed a home. And the Dibble house was born.

Fine. But what about the Gothic window that even Grant Wood called “pretentious”? Gothic windows look good in churches, but in a small-town Iowa home? How did this happen?

No one really knows. Eldon is not a town populated with Gothic windows. No, I suspect the decision to put in Gothic windows was made like many of our decisions — distracted and a bit defensive.

Possibly . . . .

“Okay, there’s no dish washer, no garbage disposal, no upstairs bath. We are living in the smallest town in the smallest state and this is your plan for a house to raise our children?”

Catherine, of course, is right on the money.

Charles, who I’m sure just got home from work smelling of horses and hay and sweat and leaden with tiredness, doesn’t have an answer to these obvious questions. But then . . . ta-dah . . . his downcast eyes fell upon the Sears catalogue opened to church windows.

“Let’s put a church window in the upstairs. A Gothic window!”

Yes, folks, these are alternative facts, totally made up in the spirit of our times, but why not?

And so today, you too can travel to Eldon, Iowa, and see the famous Gothic window up close and personal. A happy ending for all.

Well, sort of.

It appears that Charles got in over his head at the livery. They eventually had to sell the house for overdue taxes long before Grant Wood sketched the house on the back of an envelope. The unfortunate couple was just a hundred years too early to reap the benefits of the small tourist industry kicked off by their decision to put in a Gothic window. The last evidence I can find of them is their names appearing too early for their years on tombstones in Portland, Oregon.

As for Grant Wood, he hung out around Cedar Rapids and Iowa City creating a body of work and teaching college students, although not without a bit of personal controversy.

“It is certainly true that Wood had, as we say now, ‘issues,’” according to Deborah Solomon in The New York Times.

Of course he did. Don’t we all? And then to top it off, he died way too young of cancer.

As for Grant Wood’s proverbial milking cow? I’ve tried it. Sorry. Also a bust. I’m still waiting for a good idea.


2 thoughts on “The Gothic window

  1. A bit of whimsy? An ostentatious gesture, among many, that later caught up with him? Somebody offered him a good deal on a church window that didn’t end up being used on another project? This is one of those things that asks more questions than it answers. Chances are, there is a story that ties all the loose ends together that will never occur to us. The dead keep their stories.

  2. Well done you. What a fine imagining of the story. I saw an exhibit of his paintings in Cedar Rapids one time and the upshot of my viewing — the man had issues. I’m not inspired by folk art however I love folk music. Hmmm. Again, one more question than answer. Better find a cow.

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