What was once just a barn holding cows and hay is now a destination music venue and one of Iowa’s best kept secrets

Words and Photos by Zoe Ekonomou

The trek to Codfish Hollow might be daunting if you didn’t grow up in eastern Iowa. Like a good handful of people from the Midwest, I’d never heard of the town of Maquoketa, Iowa let alone how to pronounce it. But hidden between the rolling hills and hay bales lies a magical barn.

On April 2, Codfish Hollow had their first barn show of the 2017 season, with a lineup featuring The Driftless Sisters, Jeremy Pinnell, and Black Velvet Band performing and Lissie and The Deslondes as headliners. Although it was a cold and rainy Sunday night, I hopped in my car and drove the three hours east from Des Moines towards the Quad Cities.

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The Barn Story

After arriving, I asked around for Tiffany Biehl, the owner of the barn, with whom I was supposed to meet. She was a shorter woman with long, light hair dyed tints of blue and blonde. Without hesitation, she opened her arms and gave me a big hug. “How do you like it?” she asks. The only response I had was an obvious one: This place is dope.

Tiffany Biehl and her friend hang outside of the barn chatting with friends during the different band’s performances.

Biehl has been hosting shows in the barn since 2009, when Sean Moeller of Daytrotter contacted her looking for a barn for their Barnstormer Tour. The tour travels with the big bands  from barn to barn across the regions. Tiffany agreed, and just a week and a half later, the Codfish Hollow legacy began.

“We just loved it,” Biehl said. “After our show ended, we went to the next few shows because we just had such a good time here. We just fell in love with the bands. The bands told us, after the whole tour was done, that this was their favorite barn.”

Biehl and her husband decided they wanted to keep hosting events in their barn, so Biehl began booking bands herself.

“In the beginning, we only had one show,” Biehl said. “Then the next year, we had two or three, and so on. So last year, with our two-day festival, we had about 14 shows.”

While the barn has not always been a music venue, it has always been a part of Biehl’s family. Biehl recalls running around the barn as a kid helping bale the hay. She inherited the barn from her grandfather, Arnold Stamp, who built it in 1954. Up until 2009, the barn was regularly occupied by farmers and their cows.

“The farmers had cows that were just roaming around in this whole area. So we got the cows out of here because, obviously, we couldn’t have cows just roaming around during a concert,” Biehl said. “So we still rent to the farmers, just our other land, and we keep all the cows and everything out of this area.”

The Ambience

When you arrive at Codfish Hollow, you are stopped by a simple wooden sign stating “park here” and “no cars beyond this point” in white paint. After parking your car in the cow pasture adjacent to the gravel road, a man on a tractor named Marvin drives up the gravel road. The tractor has a big hay rack attached to it with wooden benches. He drives every concertgoer who doesn’t wish to walk to the barn.

After driving down the gravel road for a couple minutes, the tractor pulls around a hill and a barn comes into sight. There are people everywhere outside the barn crowded around food trucks, beer stands and camp fires. Codfish Hollow comes off as more of a miniature music festival than just a classic concert. Tiffany went all out.

The fans exit the barn between and mingle outside between sets to load up on beer and food.

The red barn stands tall with the doors wide open. On the left door of the barn hangs a handmade, wooden sign engraved with the names of the bands that are performing that night.In and to the left, there’s a merchandise bar and a sound booth. Beyond that are hay bales pushed up against the sides of the barn with people sitting and chatting. The middle is left empty for people to stand and wait for the bands to come on. String lights hang all around.

Hanging on the left side of the barn and down the middle are engraved wooden signs. Each one as unique as the one hanging outside, each engraved with the names of previous bands who have performed at Codfish. I knew from their website that over 150 bands had performed there including names like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Nathaniel Rateliff, Norah Jones, Dawes and the Counting Crows.

The People

The best part about concerts is the friendly people you meet. Right as I stepped onto the tractor ride, I was greeted with hellos from so many people. I asked where they were from, and most were from neighboring cities like Dubuque or Iowa City. A lot of them had camped. Others made the drive down. Some had never been before, and some had been over 20 times.

It was Bob Rebitzer’s fourth time at a Codfish Hollow concert. He said he returns because of the amazing experiences the venue brings.

“It’s always last minute and and my friends and I usually camp,” Rebitzer said. “They brought me the first time and I just kept coming. I honestly don’t remember the other bands I’ve seen. But it’s more of the experience that I have with them. Plus, it’s always a hell of a time.”

There were about 400 people at Codfish Hollow, but not all were concertgoers. The vendors on site sold food, beer, T-shirts and art.

Becca Kacanda, an Etsy vendor at Codfish Hollow, loves coming back every season to put up her shop. She has an Etsy store called Ultra Terrestrial but still likes to come out to different events.

“They hardly charge anything to put up a shop here,” Kacanda said. “Last year on the Fourth of July we made a ton! So it kind of depends on the show but it’s always a ton of fun.”

The Driftless Sisters are the first to perform for Codfish Hollow’s concert series of 2017.

Codfish Hollow offered the festival experience with the intimacy of a small, open-mic-night type  of concert.  The crowd had the perfect amount of people. Biehl said how the way barn is now is the way she wants it to remain. 

“I don’t want it getting any bigger,” Biehl said. “I honestly think it’s absolutely perfect the way it is now. I’m just happy I get to share it with so many people.”

She smiled and winked at me. “Go enjoy the show.” Be a part of the hoopla and check out Codfish Hollow’s next barn show on May 26.