Artist Ray Sorensen’s Freedom Rocks: Iowa Memorial Day Treasures

Memorial Day is when our nation pauses to remember those in war. But what if you have no family member who died as a result of their military service? 

To rediscover the meaning of this solemn day, how about visiting one or two of Iowa’s iconic Freedom Rocks. 

Ray “Bubba” Sorensen was still a teenager when Iowa’s Freedom Rock phenomenon began. Inspired by the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” and wanting to give veterans a unique recognition on Memorial Day, he painted patriotic scenes on a 12-foot-boulder in 1999 for the first time.

The original Freedom Rock sits along Iowa Highway 25 near Menlo in western Iowa, about a mile south of Interstate 80.

A native of Greenfield, the artist paints this one every year in time for Memorial Day, to thank our veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. Only the Huey helicopter stays, as since 2006 its pain has been mixed with the ashes of Vietnam veterans.

As Sorensen’s art has matured, so has his vision for 99 Freedom Rocks across Iowa, every one unique to that county’s history. The goal isn’t to depict every local hero, not even all branches of the service, but each is part of the whole.

Spelled out on his website,, Ray Sorensen’s goals are to honor America’s veterans, contribute to Iowa tourism, and to provide for his family. 

His handsome work provides focal points for what’s good about each local area, provides tourism, and preservation of what is precious and should never be forgotten.

Tourism. The new Dallas County Freedom Rock is in Minburn, one of Iowa’s smallest towns, population 365.

Ray “Bubba” Sorensen, at work on the Dallas County Freedom Rock, Minburn, Iowa, July 20, 2019. Photo by Larry Cornelison, Dallas County Freedom Rock committee chairman.

The shimmering outstretched wings of an American Bald Eagle seem to support five young men in uniform on Minburn’s boulder. The American flag shields them from above.

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Photo by Travis Wuebker, May 2020.

Those young men honored on the Dallas County Freedom Rock are my mother’s brothers. 

One by one, all five left a Minburn farm to serve in World War II. Only two came home.

Artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen captured each brother’s personality, each one with such clear, compelling brown eyes.

I’ve lived with the World War II letters of those young brothers ever since their mother Leora died in 1987. I’m sure my grandmother, Leora Wilson, would be gratified to know that her family’s enormous sacrifice will never be forgotten, remembered so poignantly on this imposing monument.

Two dozen years ago, I began writing about the Wilson family. Some of my journaling included prayers. Prayers that their losses would be remembered, that maybe people would want to see where their stories had taken place.

Two dozen years ago, Ray “Bubba” Sorensen was still in junior high. He’d never even thought about painting a rock.

Sports greats, Nile Kinnick (of Adel) and Bob Feller (Van Meter), are depicted on the north side of the Dallas County Freedom Rock. Both served in World War II. Kinnick lost his life in a training mishap and was never found.

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Photo by Travis Wuebker, May 2020.

One of the Wilson brothers has also never been found. Another was killed in a training accident. The third was killed in action and is buried in an American cemetery in France.

The Dallas County memorial is located along Highway 169, just south of the restored Minburn depot, which is now the Nineteen14 bar and grill.

Yes, memorial. It reminds me that in the Old Testament, Joshua was instructed to take stones from the Jordan River as memorials to their history, so that future children would ask what those stones meant.

Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time for families to take their children to see one or more of the Freedom Rocks, to explain what Iowa’s treasured tributes mean. 

Each Freedom Rock is accompanied by a storyboard, which helps explain who the pictured local heroes are and why they should be recognized. 

What a moving way to experience an attractive dose of history and heroes, ponder service and sacrifice, what patriotism is, and why every year we pause to remember. 

Ray Sorensen’s vision for his iconic Freedom Rocks, one in each county, is a treasure for all Iowans.

Footage at the 2020 original Freedom Rock along Highway 25 between Menlo and Greenfield, about a mile south of I-80.

Drone video of the Dallas County Freedom Rock taken by Douglas Roetman September 19, 2020.

Eight-minute story on Our American Stories, first aired over WHO-Radio September 29, 2020.


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