In the mid-1990s, Robert James Waller’s novel, The Bridges of Madison County, was a national phenomenon. The University of Northern Iowa professor’s romantic tome about an Iowa farm wife’s affair with a National Geographic’s photographer from the state of Washington, written in just 11 days, sold over 60 million copies.
It spawned a myriad of tchotchke, made Madison County in central Iowa a tourist destination, and even inspired a Tony-winning musical. Perhaps, most famously, it was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie by Steven Spielberg’s Ambien Entertainment, which bought the film rights for a mere $25,000 and quickly lined up one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Clint Eastwood, to play the lead. After considering a host of heavyweight actresses, including Jessica Lange, Isabella Rossellini, and Susan Sarandon, the actress Eastwood had wanted from the beginning, Meryl Streep, was finally given the role of his love interest.
With their Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson lined up, the studio sent scouts to the birthplace of John Wayne, Winterset, Iowa, to line up filming locations. Biplanes and helicopters were soon crisscrossing the county to find the perfect locations for their upcoming 42-day shoot.
For those of you that don’t remember the plot of the movie, the film opens with the two adult children of recently deceased farmwife Francesca Johnson discovering that their mother wished to be cremated and her remains scattered off the nearby Roseman Covered Bridge instead of being buried next to their father in the local cemetery.
Divided over the issue, while going through their mother’s personal effects they discover a diary, a series of letters, and a few photographs that tell the story of their mother’s four-day affair back in 1965 with a gentleman who had come to take photos of the covered bridges for a national magazine while they, as children, had gone to the state fair with their father. Their love affair was so powerful that this former Italian war bride and Iowa farmwife had almost run off with the photographer.
It was so over the top romantically that it was cinematic diabetes. America not only loved the hastily written story, but the movie was a huge hit, grossing $71,516,617 domestically and $110,500,000 overseas.
(Side note: Not everyone was a fan of the film. The young woman I was dating at the time forced me to see it several times. There is a scene in the movie where Francesca and her husband pull up behind her lover’s GMC pickup at a stop light in the pouring rain. As they wait for the light to turn green, the married housewife’s hand starts to reach for the door handle as she notices Robert’s hand caress her necklace, which is dangling from his rearview mirror, through his rear window. I looked at my date, the movie reflecting on the tears running down her face. Her lips part as she quietly uttered, “Open it. Open it.” I turned to her and said, probably a little too loudly, “I know you are way out of my league, but I just cannot go out with you anymore.”)
Madison County became a tourist hub, with people from across the world coming to see the famous bridges and relive the cinematic moments of Francesca and Robert’s tryst. Even the Johnson farmhouse, located ten miles north of Winterset, which had been abandoned for almost half a century before the film company fully restored it, became a tourist trap until it fell victim to an arsonist in 2003, eight years after the film’s release.
Yet, most people don’t know that the film company had originally chosen another rural location to be the Johnson residence for the film. It was the farmhouse just off the Earlham Highway owned by Aaron and Lola Howell, an elderly farm couple in their 80s, who had been married for over 64 years. They had resided in that farmhouse since the place had been built back in 1930. Their home looked just like the one pictured in the Robert Waller book, right down to the small rustic kitchen. There was even an apple tree out back. It was the perfect location.
Within those four walls, the Howells raised four children, and been the grandpa and grandma to 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. For decades until his retirement, he had made a living on that ground planting and harvesting corn, wheat, soybeans, and hay. He even had a hundred dairy cows at one point.
Roughly the same age as Waller’s fictional heroine, Aaron’s wife, Lola, could have served as a physical model for Francesca. Had Waller bumped into her while photographing the covered bridges before conceiving of the narrative, Lola might have been.
Who would not want to rent out their home to a major Hollywood production? With the kind of money Ambien offered to use their home, not only could a person stay in an extremely nice hotel in Des Moines for a couple of months, but it was probably more money than that elderly couple had seen in their entire lives. If it proved to be a big enough hit, with future tourists descending on the community like a swarm of locusts, their place would be a cash cow, not only for their children and grandchildren but possibly their great-grandchildren.
Who in their right mind would not want to meet Clint Eastwood, a man who had been a cinematic icon for well over a quarter century, and Meryl Streep, perhaps the greatest actress of her generation? The elderly couple overheard the locals talking about how Hollywood was coming to town and heard the buzzing of the planes and helicopters circling their property long before studio representatives knocked on their door. The elderly couple had never read the best selling novel. So, Hollywood executives recounted the basic story to them. After the visitors finished their pitch, Mr. Howell replied that he was not interested. Thinking it was merely a matter of money the newcomers offered the elderly Iowa couple an even larger sum of money. Neither was interested.
Finally, the old farmer explained why he felt the need to turn down the well-dressed representatives’ generosity. Motioning at his wife, he said, “This is her house. I’ve never been in favor of adultery. There’s never been any in this house, and there never will.” They could not conceive of having their grandchildren and great-grandchildren spend the night in a room where such a thing took place, even if it was just fiction. “The children would have seen the movie and said that that’s where we sleep when we come to Grandma’s. We can’t have that.” It would tarnish everything that mattered to them.
It cost the couple and their offspring thousands, if not millions, of dollars. The Howells were not even willing to fork over the $30 to see the movie’s big screen premiere in Winterset. Ideals are meaningless and love is cheap if they don’t cost anything. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I think of the Howells a lot lately when I look at our society. Sometimes it feels like we have traded them away for a pair of sandals or an elective office.
All men are created equal… Love your neighbor as yourself… Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… These are our ideals, the ideals that make America great. And sometimes they cost an awful lot to maintain.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.