A John Deere dealer by trade, Ernie Ropp started hosting tractor pulls in the vast fields of southeastern Iowa in the 1970s.These events commanded crowds, and in 1977 Ropp built the Pull’R Inn at the intersection of Highways 1 and 22 in Kalona, the “Quilt Capital of Iowa.” With a population of approximately 2,300, Kalona boasts the largest Amish community west of the Mississippi.
Ernie Ropp passed away in the mid 1990s; Dick and Pam McGriff have managed the Pull’R Inn for the last four years.“We get a bus tour through from England every year, and two from Texas,” says Pam.Though appreciative of tourism revenue, Dick is dismayed by those visitors who seem to view the Amish “like they’re circus animals on display.” The 1996 Hallmark Hall of Fame Patty Duke–showpiece Harvest of Fire was filmed in Kalona, and visitors often request the “movie room,” where FBI agent Sally Russell (Lolita Davidovich) stayed during the arson investigation into a rash of Amish barn burnings. Pam McGriff still has a movie poster that she thinks about hanging up in the Pull’R Inn lobby, recently expanded and redecorated in hunter green and burgundy, tractor memorabilia and quilt samplers. “It’s homey,” Pam says. “People come in and say, ‘It’s so homey.’”
Perhaps homey, but certainly, inarguably clean, the Pull’R Inn is strongly redolent of floral disinfectant, possibly an attempt to eradicate traces of the last night’s visitors, to whom Dick refers as “the cowboys.” The first Monday of every month sees a horse and tack auction at the Kalona Sales Barn, and the Pull’R Inn is always full the night before. Sheep and goats are auctioned Wednesdays at 9 a.m.; feeder pigs go on the block Wednesdays at 1 p.m., followed by sow and boar sales. Cattle are Thursdays—9 a.m. for Fat Cattle and 12:30 p.m. for Stock and Feeders. Exotic animals (black-bear cubs, emus, ostriches and, once, a mountain lion) are auctioned four times a year, though Dick says pressure from animal rights groups has diminished that market. In April and October, buyers flood in for a three-day draft horse auction. “Those are beautiful horses, from all over the country,” Dick says, and expensive too, compared to rock-bottom prices at the monthly horse auctions. A standard workhorse might travel stockyard to stockyard for years, sold and resold among profit-minded dealers.
The regular Pull’R Inn clientele of livestock traders probably accounts for the laminated signs in guest bathrooms: “FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE we are providing these soiled BUT CLEAN towels for you to use to clean shoes, equipment, etc. Please do not use regular towels for cleaning. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.” Other room amenities include a soft, brown La-Z-Boy recliner (in excellent condition) and peppermints in wrappers bearing the Inn’s signature tractor silhouette.
Eastern-facing rooms at the Pull’R Inn look to huge silver silos. Southern-facing rooms look to the Hard Luck Café, the town’s no-nonsense watering hole. A converted hen-house, the bar has twice burned to the ground under questionable circumstances. Its original sawdust-strewn cement floor has been replaced by gray industrial carpeting, but the Hard Luck is still the best bar in Kalona. Just a few stumbles away, the Pull’R Inn too sees its share of local drama. It also frequently fills to its twenty-nine-room capacity, so it’s advisable to call ahead for reservations, especially around auction days and local celebrations. September begins with a Gospel Music Weekend and closes with the Historical Village “Fall Festival.” “An Old Fashioned Christmas” in early December kicks off a busy holiday month, and the annual Kalona Quilt Show is in April. Summer brings “Kalona Days and Parade,” the Windmill Ridge Bluegrass Festival, the Washington County Fair, and “Trekfest,” held in nearby Riverside, Iowa, “the future birthplace of Captain James C. Kirk.”