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The Grotto of the Redemption

Iowa is ninety-five percent farmland and it looks just about like what you’d expect from the nation’s leading producer of corn and pigs – it’s sprawling, wide open, and flat. But near the tiny town of West Bend, Iowa takes on a different identity—as a geological wonder that speaks to the power and glory of God.

This site is an outcropping of gems, agates, and geodes known as The Grotto of the Redemption, and all it took to make it was a little religious inspiration and a few decades of obsessive, back-

breaking labor. It’s the world’s largest collection of minerals and petrified material—its raw materials carry an estimated value of more than four million dollars. But it’s the story behind the grotto that makes it truly priceless.

In 1893, Catholic Priest Paul Dobberstein was diagnosed with pneumonia. Before penicillin, this was more than a matter of medicine, rest, and recovery—it was a matter of life and death. Doctors told Dobberstein that his prognosis was grim. The recent German immigrant made a promise to God – should God spare his life, he would devote it to building a monument in His honor.

 

Five years later, he was still alive, and in his new home of West Bend, he saw a large opportunity to build a grotto and most importantly, a large amount of open space to build it in. With only a priest’s modest salary at his disposal, Dobberstein spent the first decade of the twentieth century criss-crossing America, enlisting help in gathering raw materials. In every town he visited, he found helpers who gathered stones and shells with him. More than a hundred railroad cars full of minerals and ore arrived in West Bend that decade, including a few geodes from the Carlsbad Caverns, before they became a protected national park. Construction began in 1912 on a foundation of Portland cement and sand.

More than 100 feet wide, over 20 feet deep and up to 40 feet high, the Grotto is actually nine different grottos, each focused on a different theme and using different building materials. Inside, hand sculpted Italian marble statues depict different scenes from Christian history and lore. Working without drawn blueprints, he built the grotto by hand over the space of several decades, opening the first grotto to the public in 1924. He was still working on his great tribute when he died thirty years later.

Over six million people have visited The Grotto of the Redemption since 1924, and tens of thousands still visit it each year. The Grotto of the Redemption is currently owned by the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, and is still maintained today by a dedicated

staff of curators. One of those curators, Rhonda Miller, spoke to Weird US when we visited.

“It was really all in his head,” she told us, “He could envision it in twenty seconds and know what he was going to do.” But impressive though this is, it makes maintenance difficult, “Is there a blueprint that we can go on today? Unfortunately not.”

The Grotto of the Redemption is not just a religious monument – it’s also a monumental expression of one man’s faith. And it’s all in the place where you’d least expect it – the cornfields of West Bend, Iowa.

Weird Iowa

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