OUR JULY 2013 SOUTH CENTRAL & SOUTHEASTERN IOWA TRIP
Copyright 2013 by Bob Soetebier
One of Iowa’s main attractions is the fact that, in addition to numerous points of scenic and historic interest, there are many interesting museums to visit throughout the state. In addition to various specific-themed museums scattered around Iowa, practically every county in the state has a county seat museum, too.
After crossing the northeastern Missouri border (and numerous sightings of regretfully ‘resting’ raccoons along the rural roadsides) on U.S. Hwy. 63, my wife, Dawn, and I made our first stop 15 miles farther along the highway in the town square of Bloomfield, Iowa. This is the location of their ornate, statue-topped 1877 Davis County Courthouse.
Our next stop was only a couple blocks north along U.S. 63 (aka: Washington St.) at the Davis County Iowa Welcome Center. You can’t miss it due its prominent historic Amish horse and buggy roadside display. (And, just in case you do get lost, they have a tall telephone pole with at least a couple of dozen cross-buck destination mileage signs to boot!) If we had more time, we would have tried to visit the historic home of Dr. William Findley which is part of the Davis County Museum Complex there in Bloomfield.
We had set our sights upon the Wapello County Museum about 20 miles farther north in Ottumwa, Iowa. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the museum’s website said it was open on Saturday, that turned out not to be the case! As we pulled up to the railroad track-side museum -- which also houses an Amtrak station, the station master was just putting up a “Will be back after lunch” sign as he was about to lock the door. He told us that, since they couldn’t get anyone to run it on the weekends, the many-roomed museum was now only open Tuesday - Friday. He said he did not have a key for the museum, but did allow us to briefly enter the station to view a small display just inside the building’s entrance. It was somewhat of a consolation that we also got to see the train engine on display just outside the building, too.
From Ottumwa, we traveled another 45 miles westward on U.S. Hwy. 34 -- past the town of Albia, which is the site of the Monroe County Historical Museum (we were too early for its door to be open) -- to Chariton, Iowa. Here we toured the free Lucas County Historical Society Museum complex. In addition to the main museum’s 40,000 historic artifacts, we took the free guided tour of the National Register of Historic Places A. J. Stephens House, along with the old pioneer cabin and one-room school, too.
After traveling an additional 70 miles -- via U.S. 34, I-35 and I-235-- we stayed at the Days Inn on 8th St., just south of I-235, in West Des Moines, Iowa. We were very pleased that there was a conveniently located Mexican restaurant right next door…especially since they served some of the best guacamole, refried beans and salsa we had ever tasted!
The next day, a West Des Moines resident friend joined us as we headed eastward on Grand Avenue for a tour of the Salisbury House & Gardens, which is another National Register of Historic Places site. This amazing 42-room -- with 17 uniquely designed and furnished bathrooms! -- stone-and-brick mansion was the family home of cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks. The wooden, truss-vaulted ceiling in the entrance hallway great room was imported from England; as was much of the stone used in the house’s multi-million dollar construction back in the 1920s. The house’s library is stocked with numerous rare first-edition books. A custom-made Steinway piano, which the company says is its very best one it ever made, is in one of the huge great rooms. At the end of the tour is the family’s on-display Packard luxury motor car, too.
We rounded out our outdoor activity that day with a 3-mile hike around the sylvan wooded lake in Raccoon River Park, enjoying the occasional wildlife sighting, including that of a Great Blue Heron. That gave us just enough of an excuse to further indulge in fine fare for the famished at another area restaurant.
At 9 a.m. sharp on a Monday morning, we headed eastward on I-235 to downtown Des Moines. Expecting leftover morning rush hour traffic backup, we were pleasantly amazed that we encountered very little traffic on both the Interstate highway and the downtown streets.
We parked our car six blocks east of the Des Moines River near the Iowa State Historical Museum at 6th St. and E. Locust; within sight of, and just down the hill from, the five-domed State Capitol Building. From there we headed out on a five-mile loop walk around downtown Des Moines. After walking along the scenic parkways on the east side of the Des Moines River, we crossed westward over the river on an old railroad bridge that had been converted exclusively for pedestrian-use.
The west side of the river is where many of downtown Des Moines’ old and new architecturally interesting tall buildings are located. Intriguingly, variously scattered sculpture pieces can be found on both sides of the river around downtown Des Moines. In addition, a dozen blocks west from the downtown riverfront, on the south side of Grand Avenue, you also find the Pappajohn Sculpture Park with its numerous impressionistically modernistic art.
The Center Street pedestrian suspension bridge -- a half-dozen blocks north of the converted railroad ped-bridge -- brings you back across to the east side of the Des Moines River. This scenic bridge is above a low waterfall and provides another wonderful view of the river, too. As we headed back eastward on E. Locust toward the State Capitol Building, we passed through the revitalized “Soho” district with its eclectic mix of upscale shops.
After climbing up the many steps on the block-and-a-half-long hill approach -- past fountain and statuary -- to the State Capitol Building, we gladly welcomed the air-conditioning while we took the free 2-hour guided tour of the building. The Capitol has much to admire: this includes the murals and paintings on its walls, along with its columned, two-tiered grand staircase and the colorfully patterned stone floors throughout.
On the second floor of the building, directly below the magnificently decorative gold-leafed central dome, a circular portion of the floor is made of opaque glass. If you stand in its exact center, when you speak out loud it sounds like you have an internal loudspeaker inside your head! This is due to some sort of unique architecturally reflective geometry; which, as the tour guide noted, was newly discovered after renovation work back in 2011.
Fortunately, since it was off-season for the legislators, we got to go into both the State House and Senate chambers. The chandeliered, ornate ceilings, and stenciled walls with their carved woodwork -- within, and without -- are a must see. In addition, we got to go into the Governor’s similarly adorned office, too.
On the tour, you also get to go into the building’s fabulous law library. If you’ve ever watched the CBS Evening News coverage of the every-four-years Iowa Presidential Caucus, you’ll probably recognize its well-lit, floridly ornate, five-story spiral staircase.
The tour ends (optionally) with a climb up the narrow, winding, 160 stairs to the central dome. It’s well worth the strenuous effort for the reverse look-see down the Rotunda; there’s also the added reward of an above-rooftop peek through the dome of two of the other ancillary Capitol domes, too.
Before heading back to the car, we spent some time in the State Historical Museum. When entering the building, the very first things you’ll notice are some old cloth-wing planes -- both monoplanes and biplanes -- suspended from the first floor ceiling near the stairs. The museum, naturally, has many items indigenous to Iowa, such as the Des Moines-manufactured 1908 Mason “fliver” motor car. You’ll also get to see President Theodore Roosevelt’s sturdy “Osage Rocker” chair which was made to commemorate his visit to Iowa, along with a fine example of what may be “The World’s First Typewriter?”
Also at the museum was an extensive display of memorabilia and coverage of RAGBRAI: The Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The annual (it’s always the last week of July) week-long bicycle ride attracts thousands of riders. The RAGBRAI route -- which is varied each year -- traverses the state from west to east: beginning at the Missouri River, and ending at the Mississippi River. (The 2013 RAGBRAI route went from Council Bluffs to Fort Madison.)
Just before we left Des Moines, we again headed for Grand Avenue and stopped to take the guided tour of Terrace Hill. It has served as the Governor’s mansion since the mid-1970s. The National Historic Landmark mansion was built in the late 1860s by Benjamin Franklin Allen who was Iowa’s first millionaire. However, it wasn’t long before Allen went bankrupt and sold the mansion to another Iowa millionaire named F. M. Hubbell.
The tour of the Terrace Hill mansion, like the Salisbury House mansion, is well worth the time. Unfortunately, unlike the Salisbury House, you cannot take photos inside; only outdoor photos of the Second Empire architecture of Terrace Hill -- and its garden -- are allowed. Therefore, you’ll have to settle for your mind’s-eye memories of the mansion’s massively carved woodwork and doors, along with its well-appointed rooms and other elaborate furnishings. In addition to the mansion’s impressive architecture, another particularly notable item of interest is a “hidden” two-story, manually-pulled elevator shaft…which is no longer in use.
As we left Des Moines we traveled east for 145 miles on I-80. Just west of Davenport, in the vicinity of Walcott, Iowa, we checked into the Comfort Inn motel within sight of the I-80 Trucking Museum. This free (donations accepted) museum is definitely worth a visit as it houses a wide range of colorfully historic workhorse trucks, some of which are in the “rare and one-of-a-kind” category. You can then assuage your appetite at any one of the nearby restaurants right there at that I-80 interchange.
The next day we headed farther east on I-80 toward Le Claire, Iowa, and the Mississippi River. Before further checking out Le Claire, we drove about 8 miles or so north on U.S. Hwy. 67 through Princeton, Iowa, and then west on Bluff Rd. for another 5 miles directly to the Buffalo Bill Homestead. This was the boyhood home of William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody. The two-story 1847 limestone house is worth the relatively short side trip.
That is especially true if, after visiting the Cody homestead, you also follow the signs for an additional 7 miles farther along to the Walnut Grove Pioneer Village. You can walk through the (donations requested) Pioneer Village at your leisure and see a variety of historic buildings and their antique furnishings. These include a blacksmith, cabin, railroad depot, the Walnut Grove Bank, general store, and more.
Back in Le Claire, as we walked the streets both east-west and north-south, we saw a number of historic buildings…some of which were the homes of famous riverboat captains. Right along the Mississippi riverfront in town sits the Buffalo Bill Museum and the adjacent Lone Star sternwheeler steamboat. For a two-for-one admission price you get to see both.
Even though the museum has the Buffalo Bill moniker, it is mostly dedicated to the area’s history. This includes historic displays on famous Le Claire natives such as James B. Eads, designer and builder of the famous Eads Bridge on the Mississippi in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and Professor James J. Ryan II who invented the flight-recorder “black box.”
The Lone Star steamboat was built in 1868. It navigated the Mississippi River until it was decommissioned in 1967…when it was the last of its kind. It appropriately holds a National Historic Landmark designation. As you walk aboard and around the paddle wheeler and its various nooks and crannies, you get to see exactly how it worked. If you linger there at the riverfront as we did, you might even see a flock of pelicans (they are much larger birds than you might imagine!) fly right overhead.
The next day we headed southwest from the Davenport area for 20 miles along a scenic portion of the Mississippi River via Hwy. 22. In Muscatine we joined U.S. Hwy. 61 for the additional 45-mile drive farther south to Burlington, Iowa. Just north of the town we stopped to do some hiking at Starr’s Cave Park and Nature Preserve. It’s appropriately located as Burlington is where the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold was born.
As we were about to enter the park’s Nature Center building, we noticed a rather large, few-feet-long live garter snake which was stuck halfway under the entrance door! Luckily, it was a simple matter of carefully opening the door slowly and gently to release the temporarily captive creature back to the outdoors. As it turned out, the park’s naturalist told us the snake was a well-known regular resident of the adjacent greenery. But, fortunately that was its first (and, hopefully, last) near-fatal foyer foray.
If you don’t have the time to hike the entire two miles of trails in the park, be sure to at least walk the short distance out-and-back along the nature trail along Flint Creek. Along this trail you will encounter a variety of informative signs about the naturally indigenous vegetation. The trail’s major highlight is the high-elevation footbridge creek crossing to the mouth of Starr’s Cave. However, since the cave is the home of native Brown Bats -- which are in danger of being fatally threatened by the spread of white-nose (fungus) syndrome -- the cave is barred from human encroachment.
While in Burlington, a drive down the National Register of Historic Places Snake Alley -- known as “The Crookedest Street in the World!” -- in the historic Heritage Hill neighborhood is must! And that’s exactly what we did on a previous eastern Iowa trip.
An additional 20 miles farther south along U.S. 61 took us to our next stop in Riverview Park for a tour of Old Fort Madison (1808 - 1813) right along the Mississippi River. This frontier outpost is now administered by the city of Fort Madison and staffed by knowledgeable, costumed guides…one of whom demonstrated the (blank) loading and (loud) firing of a musket rifle.
On the tour of the fort’s trading post, blockhouses, and quarters, you are easily able to imagine the hardships faced by the frequently under Indian-siege frontier fort defenders. Due to that constant threat, and the outpost’s perennial shoddily poor provisioning -- as a result of private contractor corruption (similar to what occurs in our modern era today; when lessons go unlearned, history always repeats itself!), the fort ended up being abandoned.
Another Fort Madison must-see attraction is the picturesque Old Santa Fe Depot Historic Center Museum (North Lee County Historical Society) which is located along the railroad tracks just outside of Riverview Park a short distance from the fort. (We also visited this museum on a rainy day on our previous eastern Iowa trip.) It’s well worth spending some time inside to absorb the various displays on both local history and railroad memorabilia.
Happily satisfied with what we had accomplished on this year’s full-of-fun trip, we set our sights southward for the final miles on U.S. 61. As we again crossed the Des Moines River just south of Keokuk, Iowa, we returned to Missouri on our homeward-bound trek back to the St. Louis area.