- Category: BLOG
- By Steve Uelner
CTD President's Trip Report from Inaugural Iowa Tour
After a year of intensive planning, dry-runs and fine-tuning, the sold-out inaugural departure of Our Iowa...and Yours, Too!, a collaboration by Country Travel DISCOVERIES and Our Iowa magazine, departed from Des Moines on August 4, 2013. On the first of six sold-out departures, this week's group is being personally led by CTD President Steve Uelner, who has been sending photos and trip reports from the field back to the office for us to update on our blog.
DAYS 1 & 2: Des Moines/Bloomfield/Chariton
Had an excellent first day with a very good group of 42 travelers.
After a great Day 1 welcome reception and a good night's sleep, our group was warmly welcomed in Chariton on Day 2 at two strong stops: Piper's Candies and our demonstration by the "grave witchers" at the Chariton Cemetery.
A former grocery store, bakery and slaughterhouse, Piper's had played an important role in the life of this community since 1903, but evolved into its current role as a premier candy store in the years right after World War II. Owner Jill Kerns and her crew showed us the subtle art of making hand-dipped chocolates. We saw how their chocolates, caramels and toffee are carefully crafted, and enjoyed some tasty samples after. See the photo to the left and the photos on the Piper's online candy store...
It was hard to get people out of there!
Later, at the cemetery, Darlene Arnold and Mary Ruth Pierschbacher gave a “grave witching” demonstration. The group watched in stunned silence while they explained the practice of locating unmarked graves with wire tools similar to divining rods. Then, everyone had the opportunity to try for themselves...a lot of mouths opened in amazement as their wires moved while they walked above graves. The fine wires are shown in the photo to the right.
Then it was off to Honey Creek State Park. After lunch, we enjoyed presentation by their college-aged activity director (Josh, who's off tomorrow to begin studies to become a nuclear scientist!), and some time to walk outside along Rathbun Lake, one of Iowa's largest.
We stopped in Bloomfield to stretch our legs (ok, it was a bathroom stop, but "stretch our legs" sounds better!) at the town square. Travelers could use the restrooms in the courthouse--and were amazed to have the Assessor's personnel in the basement spontaneously invite folks in the see their offices--which used to be, in the late 1800's, the jail. The cells still exist!
Then it was off to Andy & Beverly Miller's. Andy is a buggy maker, and he and Beverly showed us how he refurbishes buggies, and makes some from scratch. Mercedes has nothing on Andy!
PS: We had a "stowaway" aboard our coach in Chariton who wanted to stick around for the ride. He wouldn't get off and finally I had to carry him off!
DAY 3: Bloomfield/Davenport
While in the Bloomfield Amish area, local resident and CTD friend Beverly Woolard rode along, describing the local countryside and pointing out sites in the area...our travelers really enjoyed the local perspective.
We started out this morning at Joe & Esther Yoder's for a tasty, homemade Amish breakfast at their house. All the fixin's...Esther and her sisters put on an outstanding meal. Before we partook, the women and daughters sang "God is good, God is Great..." as the meal prayer--very special. Then, they offered to let our travelers inside their home--the beautiful wood cabinets wowed everyone. The young boys hooked up their kid’s carriage to Trigger, their pony, and rode around to everyone's delight, and then Joe brought out his Percherons. Unfortunately, I have no photos of these hard-working horses; we wanted to respect the family's request to keep cameras on the coach.
Then it was off to the Midwest Old Thresher's Museum....Despite the good experiences in our past walkthroughs, I was a bit concerned our three hour window could be too long for some travelers. Wrong. Our group loved this place, exploring the extremely well-kept, vintage agricultural equipment, plus the steam train on display, and many other exhibits that walked us down memory lane. After lunch, we were able to take an open-air electric trolley car (pictured here) around the grounds. This is a real electric trolley on rails. We learned how the cars were built in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1911. They operated in that city until 1965 when they became part of a group of cars that came to the U.S. The cars joined the Old Threshers collection in 1970 and 1973.
Next, we made a photo stop along the Mississippi in Muscatine at Riverside Park...a park that was flooded just about six weeks ago. As we approached, a Canadian Pacific freight engine passed us going north...a nice view along the river. The travelers got a good chuckle when I told them that I had called the railroad company to arrange that sighting for them!
Then it was up to Lyndall & Nancy Buffalo Ranch. We sampled buffalo sausage and hamburger, learned how buffalo meat is one meat that fights cancer cells, and then had a chance to feed the two resident buffaloes, Thunder and Lightning, both of which weigh around 1,600 pounds. We then took a ride through the ranch--they have around 150 head of buffalo, and the rolling hills here in the Mississippi River Valley are very picturesque.
Last night was right along the Mississippi...today we do a couple things around here, then up to the Hotel Decker in Maquoketa for lunch, the National River Museum in Dubuque, and overnight at The Hotel Julien Dubuque.
Based on what our inaugural group has experienced here, I'm feeling very excited for Group #2, which departs Des Moines this morning. They're in for a fascinating time!
Day 4: Bettendorf/Davenport/Dubuque
Had a very nice day today again. Started out with River Gulf Grain, a grain-loading facility along the Mississippi in Bettendorf. Manager Dan Jameson did a super job fielding questions from the travelers. He explained how the trucks come in, are weighed, unloaded, how the beans and corn are dried (if necessary), and how they're shipped out (by barge, train or truck). The infrastructure is amazing. We climbed up the levee to see where the barges are loaded; they had to build out because of endangered mussels.
Then it was off to Isabel Bloom for an extremely well-run factory tour. These figurines are made out of cement crafted from stone, and hand detailed. We had only few travelers that were familiar with Isabel Bloom (my wife Lori loves them, and has a collection), but MANY of these collectibles were sold and bought afterward. Even the men were commenting about how interesting this factory stop was.
Then it was off to the Hotel Decker, where we were greeted by owners Chris and Mike--brothers who took over last winter when this beautiful hotel from 1875 was set to be demolished. The stop was extremely well received--and afterward, we could see the rooms up on the second floor. Mike gave an entertaining background talk on the hotel. For instance, he explained the rumors of a ghost in the hotel: he would go up to a certain "haunted room" and move the chair in the room, and the chambermaids would later then report to him that, "you know that rumor about a ghost? Well, the chair was moved again!"
Next, it was off to the Mississippi River Museum (pictured above right) in scenic Dubuque.
Tonight we are at the historic Julien Dubuque Hotel (Al Capone had a hideout here, and Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain stayed here).
Many took a ride up the shortest/steepest funicular elevator in the world--the Fenelon Place Elevator (pictured left).
Tomorrow: We're off to Breitbach's, Guttenberg, McGregor (Pike's Peak State Park), and Decorah.
Day 5: Dubuque/Decorah
Breitbach's Country Dining was fantastic this morning. Owner Mike Breitbach is a bundle of energy, his staff's service is tremendous, and the food was downright incredible. Mike shared stories with the group (some very humorous), and including the riveting account of two devastating fires the restaurant has suffered. When he described how the community came together both times, and showed a framed photo of several men lifting a wall into place...I'm not sure there was a dry eye in the house.
And, the scenery around Balltown...WOW! I'm not sure it gets much better anywhere.
Our Lock and Dam visit went beyond expectations. Host Jason took us across the lock gates (in today's world, I was surprised we could do this), and up on top of the dam (pictured right) for incredible views. This was a rare and unbelievable experience which, regrettably, not all groups will be able to enjoy, since lower staffing prohibits weekend visitors.
We learned and saw first-hand what it takes to lock a 15 barge tow through...and Jason actually started the gears that opened up one of the dam gates.
Next, it was off to Pikes Peak State Park. We unloaded by the hummingbird feeders, and were greeted by about 15 hummingbirds buzzing around. We made our way to the scenic overlook high above the Mississippi, where the colors were so vibrant--blue sky, green forestry, and the sparkling waters of the Mississippi--with visibility for at least 25 miles. We showed travelers the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers (photo left).
After lunch along the Mississippi, owner Jim hosted us at River Junction Trading Company--an old west-themed store that sells nationwide to movie studios, attractions such as Disney, and individuals. Jim (pictured right) was dressed in period garb...and was so engaging, he made an hour fly by in what seemed like 10 minutes.
An awesome visit to the Seed Savers Exchange just about 8 miles below the Minnesota border capped off another unique day. The Exchange members have been preserving garden heritage by collecting, cultivating and distributing thousands of samples of rare garden seeds. Knowledgeable gardeners in the group were really impressed by the range of heirloom seed varieties maintained there.
Overall, our travelers keep commenting about the variety of interesting and unique stops on this discovery tour, and they're right. No two are alike.
We have an early start tomorrow so we can make the 1:00 PM John Deere Factory Tour -- sure to be another fascinating highlight!
Day 6: Spilville/Decorah
Started out in rain at Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville, but by the time we got out, sun was shining. To see those carvings, some as tall as 9 feet, and the intricacies involved...Wow! And, we provided Kolaches, a Czech pastry, that the travelers enjoyed. (Spillville is home to the oldest Czechoslovakian Catholic church in the country).
Next, it was off to the Little Brown Church in Nashua. Pastor James Mann and his wife Vickie give a stirring presentation here, including the group signing "The Church in the Wildwood" hymn. But, the highlight was one of our couples renewing their vows...oh my. Dean & Beulah Hanks (pictured right)...for the second time in the trip, I'm not sure there was a dry eye in the audience. They received a standing ovation, and were the object of multiple photos. We all joked that lunch that day was now their wedding reception...and that Dean was springing for the bill!
Off to John Deere Tractor Works. We were taken through the plant via tram powered by John Deere lawn tractors--one traveler told me (a John Deere farmer) he had waited 20 years to do this. The tour is given by retired John Deere employees who are very enthusiastic about their past employer.
The day was capped off with a visit to Mark and Jeri Mueller's grain farm outside of Waverly (pictured left). Mark's a tremendous speaker, and--as often happens--we could have stayed for a few hours, and not run out of questions. First, he showed us their machine shed (which housed several JD tractors), then he took us over to their grain bins and IH combine. Something many were intrigued with was their rock-picker.
We ended with lemonade and home-baked cookies around their porch. What a nice setting.
Off tomorrow to Hansen's Dairy, Matchstick Marvels, lunch in Marshalltown...and then back to Des Moines.
Day 7: Gladbrook/Marshalltown/Des Moines
Final day of the trip started out at Hansen's Dairy Farm (only some tours visit here, depending on the allowable scheduling of our John Deere Tractor Tour). Jeanne & Jay Hansen loaded us up on their tram, and took us over to the dairy barns where we saw where they milk, process and package their wholesome products. We also saw their calves, and met their two kangaroos...
Yes, that's right: a kangaroo even appears on their product labels. As Jay said, "a tiger sells Kellogg's, a lizard sells insurance...we decided to have a kangaroo!"
Before we left, the Hansens let us sample their ice cream...yum!
Matchstick Marvels, our final stop in Gladbrook, is amazing! Iowa artist Patrick Acton has glued over 4 million ordinary wooden matchsticks into 65 incredibly detailed scale models of life-like sculptures, complex machines, and world-renowned architectural structures. We saw these sculptures up close in all their intricate detail (the sculptures, some of which have been sold to Ripley's Believe it or Not, aren't even behind glass--so, when I say "up close," I'm not kidding!). See our group pictuire by some of his huge sculptures, below!
After a tasty lunch in Marshalltown, we returned to Des Moines with 42 very pleased travelers.
And, speaking of those travelers, I was again reminded how friendly our customers are. All 42 were a delight to travel with...and I hope to see them again soon on another great CTD tour soon!
Other Readings of Interest
Our Iowa...and Yours, Too!
New For 2013
7 Days • 6 Nights • 14 Meals
Depart/Return: Des Moines, IA
The U.S.A.’s 29th state proudly presented in conjunction with Our Iowa Magazine
Behind the Scenes: "Dry Lab" Review of Niagara & Western NY
By Steve Uelener
Steve's blog describes several highlights from his 2012 quality inspection of CTD's Niagara Falls & Western New York itinerary