A Century-Old Grotto That Might Out-Glitter Vegas

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The Midwest is known for its roadside attractions — world's largest ear of corn, heaviest ball of twine, biggest truck stop.

But it's also home to one of the largest collections of grottoes in the world. Most of these man-made caves were created by immigrant priests at the beginning of the 20th century. And the mother of them all — encrusted in $6 million worth of semiprecious stones — is in West Bend, Iowa.

This weekend, the Grotto of the Redemption turns 100.

With a population of 785 and the requisite one restaurant, one bar and one stoplight, West Bend looks like many small rural towns in Iowa, surrounded by farmland and grain bins.

But if you venture a block off the highway, you come upon a surreal sight: an entire city block filled with man-made concrete caves, every available surface plastered in glittering stones, rocks, petrified wood, even seashells.

The is the Grotto of the Redemption, and its overwhelming opulence tends to leave visitors like Shirley Raml a little tongue-tied.

"It's awesome" is all she can manage to sputter before giving up with a sigh.

Payton Smith, who works with the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures in Madison, Wis., describes it as "a visual orgy" and "almost unreal."

He says that to talk about the grotto, you need to understand Father Paul Dobberstein, the man behind it.

"You can call them self-trained artists, outsider artists, visionary, things like that," Smith says. "But individuals like Paul Dobberstein, they're different because they built huge environments."

Dobberstein was a true renaissance man: a man of faith, a trained geologist, and in the end, a prolific and influential artist. The Midwest is home to three major grottoes and as many as 100 smaller works, some of them by Dobberstein, a German immigrant who was the local parish priest.

But the Grotto of the Redemption was his life's work.

Sandy Koolhaus is a guide at the grotto.

"He had a one-track mind; he wanted his grotto done," Koolhaus says. "That was his everything. Morning, noon and night, breakfast, lunch and dinner."

When Dobberstein got pneumonia, he prayed to the Virgin Mary: If he survived, he would build her a shrine. And thus the Grotto of the Redemption was born.

Koolhaus tells about his many trips to collect the rare stones and stalagmites that glitter in the sunlight. During the Depression, when he couldn't afford to travel, he made rocks himself, out of melted glass and crayons. As a result, he was able to work on the grotto throughout the Depression — and he kept at it for more than 40 years.

Just about everyone in town is connected to the grotto. Many remember Father Dobberstein personally; some even lent him a hand. Many remember when tourists flooded in to see him work.

While there are fewer visitors these days, thousands still come each year. Some are rock hounds, who come to see one of the largest collections of semiprecious stones anywhere.

And, there are visitors like Don Webster. For him, the trip is more like a pilgrimage.

"I just got cold chills all over, and when I've studied the history and all of the theology for five years in seminary, and then to come here and see this, it takes my breath away," he says.

The grotto is turning 100. And despite all its glitter, it's showing its age — the same environment that inspired Dobberstein is slowly eroding the grotto's rocks and stones.

Copyright 2012 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.iowapublicradio.org.

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