Iowa’s Freedom Rocks

Thousands of people visit a huge rock sitting along Highway 25 near Menlo in western Iowa, about a mile south of Interstate 80. 

For years it was covered with graffiti. But while artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen was still a teenager, this native of Greenfield had been inspired by the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” and thought of a way he could give veterans a unique recognition with that 12-foot-tall boulder.

For Memorial Day, 1999, Sorensen painted patriotic scenes all over the rock. 

Word got around. People from all over wanted to see it. The next year he repainted it with new scenes, to thank our veterans for their service and sacrifice.

As an annual donation, Ray Sorensen repaints that original Freedom Rock in time for Memorial Day. An American flag draped over the top has become a fundamental part of his compelling creations.

Only the Huey helicopter stays because, since 2006, its paint has been mixed with the ashes of Vietnam veterans.

What if he could arrange for a rock designed especially for each county? Even more local men and women could be recognized. The idea took off and, in 2013, Iowa’s Freedom Rock Tour began. 

As his art has matured, so has Sorensen’s vision for Freedom Rocks across Iowa, one for each of our 99 counties. Every one of them is unique to that country’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, TheFreedomRock.com, Ray Sorensen’s goals are to honor America’s veterans, contribute to Iowa tourism, and to provide for his family, which includes his wife and partner Maria, and children Indy (short for Independence) and Mikey. 

The shimmering outstretched wings of an American Bald Eagle seem to support five young men in uniform on a large stone at Minburn, Iowa. An American flag shields them from above.

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

CEM Donald Wilson (USS Yorktown (CV-5) Navy Commendation Medal, USS Hancock). E1/c Delbert Wilson (USS Maumee (AO-2). Lt. Dale Wilson (B-25 copilot, MIA New Guinea, Declaration of Death 1946, never found). Lt. Daniel Wilson (P-38 pilot, KIA Austria, buried at Lorraine American Cemetery in France). F/O C. Junior Wilson (P-40 pilot, killed when the engine of his plane threw a rod, Texas, the day the second atomic bomb was dropped).

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

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 even want to see where their stories had taken place.

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

What an awesome answer to prayer! People visit the Dallas County Freedom Rock, then send me photos of themselves with those young uncles. 

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.

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

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.

Ray Sorensen’s handsome work also honors first responders  and local history. Each Freedom Rock is a focal point for what’s honorable about each area, preserving what is precious and should never be forgotten.

Iowa’s Freedom Rocks have indeed inspired tourism. I know of individuals and families in cars and vans, also veterans on motorcycles, who have made it a goal to see all 99 Freedom Rocks. Some of them keep photo albums of their visits. 

Some very small Iowa towns will have more visitors than they ever imagined. With a population of just 365 souls, Minburn is one of Iowa’s smallest towns.

Located along Highway 169, just south of the restored Minburn depot, now a bar and grill, this memorial is also near a bicycle trail.

Yes, a 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.

What a perfect outing for families to take their children to see one or more of the Freedom Rocks, to explain what Iowa’s treasured tributes mean. 

Most Freedom Rocks are 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, to ponder service and sacrifice, what patriotism is all about, and why all we should pause to remember. 

During the winter months Ray Sorensen designs murals all over the country, indoors and out, depending on the climate. He has been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and is now an Iowa State Legislator.

Photo of Ray Sorensen by Larry Cornelisen, July 1919, Minburn, Iowa

His artistic talent, and his compelling vision for these iconic Freedom Rocks, has turned into a blessing, and a real legacy for the whole state of Iowa.

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

Published in Legiontown USA October 16, 2020.


Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook, also as an audiobook, narrated by Paul Berge.

It’s also the story behind the Wilson brothers featured on the Dallas County Freedom Rock at Minburn, Iowa. All five served. Only two came home.

 

12 comments

  1. These Freedom Rocks symbolize the bedrock nature of the men and women in “Flyover Country” that supports our nation. If only the coastal elites would recognize that their freedom to mock our values was bought at a great price.

    • Amen! BTW Bubba Sorensen was reelected last week at a state representative! And Shannon Latham, whose post I shared last week, was elected for the first time from north Iowa!

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