Picturesque country settings are common in Iowa, but Tiffany and Shawn Biehl have a compelling reason to drive down the long gravel road leading to theirs. A century farm framed by rolling fields, starry skies and Midwestern sunsets features a wooden barn that echoes with live music a handful of nights a year.
Since converting the barn into a live music venue 10 years ago, the Biehls have created one of Iowa’s most unique rural tourism destinations — Codfish Hollow Barnstormers just outside Maquoketa in Eastern Iowa.
Picture the end scene of the classic film “Field of Dreams” — “If you build it, they will come” — when a never-ending line of cars arrive in the middle of nowhere to catch a baseball game. It’s like that, except with live music.
The setting is simple, and that’s what makes it work.
“People have to slow down and kind of unplug,” Tiffany Biehl said. “There’s not much cellphone reception down in the hollow, so you kind of step back in time to a simpler time when you meet new people and maybe stand by the fire instead of Instagramming everything.”
The farmstead hosts the Biehls’ home, cattle, the barn, a silo, lots of hay, and a crumbling structure built by Tiffany Biehl’s great-grandparents, where her grandfather, Arnold Stamp, was born.
“Portrait and Biographical Album of Jackson County, Iowa,” originally published in 1889, recognized the Stamp homestead as “one of the most pleasing sights which strike the eye of the traveler,” according to a passage provided by Biehl.
The farm has been in her family since 1871, passed down from generation to generation, growing crops and raising cattle and chickens. Arnold Stamp built the barn in 1954. A Go Fund Me campaign is actively raising money to replace the barn’s roof.
The couple wanted to create a venue with features they’d want if they were going to see live music, Biehl said.
The long wooden barn has a tall arched roof and rafters, a small raised stage, and hay bales along the inside that serve as benches for crowds of up to 500 people. Outside, a fire pit creates a gathering space along a hillside, food trucks offer nourishment for depleted concertgoers, the barn basement features an art expo where vendors sell their crafts, and two beer stands featuring Iowa brews and others help offset the costs of the operation.
Biehl noted she and her husband are both artists — drawing, painting, boulder-stonework design, and mosaics — so they value supporting all forms of artistic expression.
“It’s such a hole-in-the-wall feel,” said Kassidy Hanson of Dubuque, an artist who specializes in watercolor, ballpoint and other painting and drawing mediums. “It’s word-of-mouth. It’s in the middle of nowhere in a barn, yet brings big names, and it brings in people who appreciate all art. People seek out Codfish.”
The Biehls were steered into the music business by Aric Keil, a friend who saw an email from Daytrotter, a Davenport recording studio and music venue that also produced shows at other locations. Daytrotter was seeking “cool” barns as a setting for live music. The Biehls contacted the owner, Sean Moeller, who came out and looked at the barn.
“(He) liked what he saw, and we had a show 12 days later,” Tiffany Biehl said. “Basically, we just took out all of the hay and farm machinery that were in there and swept it and had a show.”
On July 25, 2009, they hosted the first acts — The Local Natives, Catfish Haven and Caleb Engstrom. There was no stage or merchandise area. They didn’t think it would work, but it did.
Now they host a handful of shows a year. Sometimes multiple shows occur in a week, and other times they take a few weeks to regroup between shows. John C. Reilly, Macauley Culkin’s band The Pizza Underground, the Counting Crows and Norah Jones are among the bigger names to perform, and they started an annual multiday festival called GARP. Moeller still books 90 percent of the shows.
Audiences have come to expect strong performances regardless of whether the artist has big name recognition.
“I don’t know how they pick the lineup, but they have good taste,” said Matt Sherman, 34, of Clinton, who has seen six shows at Codfish. “They bring in up-and-coming artists.”
For the musicians, it is a memorable experience as well.
They drive in on their tour bus, park next to a cattle lot, get ready in a green room in the Biehls’ home, and play in a barn. The Biehls serve the artists and their support crews for as long as they stay — lunch, dinner, after-party and breakfast the following morning, Tiffany Biehl said.
“I really feel like Codfish is a musician’s venue,” she said. “We really try to make it special for them. Touring is hard on these people. It can be a grueling thing, and we try to be a break from that. A place where they can stop and take a breath. And if they can get that breath, then their performance on stage is that much better.”
Last August, Baltimore-based synth-pop band Future Islands stopped in Maquoketa on its North American tour.
“We’ve toured around the world and have never been to a place like this,” vocalist Samuel Herring said as an aside between songs. “It’s (expletive) awesome.”
Herring said the band arrived early and spent the day on the grounds, admiring the scenery.
“It’s a beautiful place out in the country,” said Herring, who grew up in North Carolina. “It reminds me of North Carolina. It’s idyllic.”
The sellout crowd filled the barn. A crowd surfer was hoisted up to the stage to clap hands with Herring, who seemed to be thoroughly amused. Outside, fans could hear the music as they meandered the property or sat by the fire.
“The intimacy,” Tiffany Biehl said, “is what makes it special.”
If You Go
Codfish Hollow Barnstormers
WHERE: 5013 288th Ave., Maquoketa
LINEUP AND TICKETS: codfishhollowbarnstormers.com
Also check out
WHERE: 5335 Utah Ave. SE, Lone Tree
WHEN: July 18 to 20, 2019
DETAILS: Held on a farm south of Iowa City, this annual festival hosted by the band Euforquestra includes camping on the farm and a lineup of touring and regional artists.
LINEUP AND TICKETS: campeuforia.com
WHERE: 5012 540th St. SE, Lone Tree
WHEN: August 9 and 10, 2019
DETAILS: This music festival, hosted by Iowa City recording studio Flat Black Studios, features two days of live music at another rural Lone Tree barn stage.
LINEUP AND TICKETS: flatblackstudios.com/grey-area