Guilt complicated Howard's grief: on the day he died, Iken was slated to sign divorce papers in Portland, Oregon, to end the couple's six-year marriage. Howard had instigated the divorce. After her husband's work relocated him to Stuttgart, Germany, she decided to stay in the States. Howard hoped the trip to Iowa would help her get through the memory of that difficult time.
After taking the turnoff to Eldon -- a tiny cluster of buildings with a population of 927 -- Howard spotted the small white house in the distance, between the public works office and the visitors' center. "I just started laughing when I saw it," Howard said. "I thought, 'That is it, of course, but it's so cute. It's just so cute.'"
Peering through crooks and crannies past closed window blinds, Howard determined that the tiny house was unoccupied. She saw the Gothic windows that had inspired Wood to immortalize the house, but she also loved its screened-in porch, clapboard exterior, and steep pitched roof. This was her dream home.
From a plaque in the visitors' center, she learned the house was owned by the State Historical Society, which had rented it out as recently as 2008. Howard peppered a center staffer with questions and was permitted to enter the house during its monthly inspection, serendipitously scheduled for that very day.
Inside, Howard ignored cobwebs, dead flies, mouse droppings, and mildew to admire wide wood floors, wainscoting, and angled walls. "In Venice Beach, California, you'd pay $5,000 bucks a month for something that cute," Howard said.
Through the Gothic window in back of the house, she saw a bike trail, maple and pine trees, prairie grasses, and a soybean field. "This little cottage had all this land around it, breathing space, almost a park-like setting," she said. "The city had made it attractive to tourism."
She called the Historical Society on the spot and learned the house could be rented for just $250 a month. Soon afterward, she signed a lease requiring her to "treat the public in a friendly manner." A recommendation from a high school friend living in Des Moines sped along the acceptance process.
Unlike Howard, the stern-faced couple in the American Gothic painting never lived in the house. In fact, they never even posed outside it. The 63-year-old male model, Wood's dentist, Dr. Byron H. McKeeby, posed in his dental office. The female model, Wood's 30-year-old sister, Nan Wood Graham, posed in the artist's Cedar Rapids studio. (Wood assured both his reluctant models that they wouldn't be recognized, but many people recognized the dentist, and his friendship with Wood diminished.)
When she learned of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Howard quickly raised $2,000 and loaded up her RV with Granny Smith apples.
Howard concedes that her early experiences in the house were a bit gothic. When she first moved in, she spent many hours with a hired helper scouring the place with a leftover flood kit -- mop, bucket, bleach, and plastic gloves -- that the city provided. People ask her if the house is haunted. "It isn't," she said.