On the last leg of my trip from New York City to Minneapolis, I drove through the northeast corner of Iowa, my first trip through the state. In fact, one of the reasons I like taking road trips is that I get to see places that I have never seen before, and visit states that I have visited.
By Scan by NYPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin
My day started in Prairie du Chien. This town, which sits where the Wisconsin River flows into the Mississippi River, was founded as a French trading post in 1685, and is the second oldest city in Wisconsin. It was the site of the westernmost battle of The War of 1812 – the Siege of Prairie du Chien, where the British captured Fort Shelby in 1814 and held it until the end of the war in 1815.
I spent about an hour walking around St. Feriole Island Park, which sits on the Mississippi River just next to the downtown area. St. Feriole Island was the center of Prairie du Chien, but after a series of floods in the 1960’s and 70’s, the neighborhood was moved off of the island, and it was converted to a park. There are still several original buildings left on the island, including the Dousman House, which built by the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, along the old railroad tracks.
The Effigy Mounds National Monument
Cross the river from Prairie du Chien into Iowa and head about 4 miles north on Route 76, and you will get to The Effigy Mounds National Monument. This park keeps safe a collection of 200 pre-historic mounds built by “The Mound Builders,” a culture that inhabited the center of America from around 3500 BCE to about 1500 CE. These mounds vary in shape and size, and include several that in the shape of bear and bird fetishes. The Monument was formed in 1949, by order of President Truman. Today it offers miles of hiking trails to see the mounds.
Vesterheim Museum, Decorah Iowa
The Vesterheim Museum, the national Norwegian-American Heritage museum, is located in the town of Decorah Iowa. This museum is a collection of over 24,000 artifacts and 12 historic buildings that celebrate the history of Norwegians in the United States. This collection includes artwork, crafts and even boats. I really enjoy visiting museums that give an insight into the history of different ethnic groups in the United States. I find that it really helps me understand how the country developed and why there are such differences between parts of the country.
One exhibit I enjoyed was “From Tradition to Protest: Lila Nelson’s weaving life.” Lila Nelson was a fiber artist, and also played a key role in the growth and development of the Vesterheim Museum. Her work is beautiful and runs the gamut from traditional Norwegian patterns to her own take on Norwegian traditions from an American viewpoint. Most interesting were some of the weavings she finished recently which protested the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Afghanistan.
Abu Ghraib by Lila Nelson
The Vesterheim also has a collection of handmade furniture both from Norway and made here in the Norwegian style of Rosemaling, a style of paint the furniture in colorful patterns of flowers. These are beautiful pieces. The museum also sponsored a competition and exhibit of contemporary artists and artisans in these crafts.
Small towns and small museums offer a lot to see. But you only find them by getting off of the interstates and slowing down your travels. One of the reasons I am happy to be retired and in the second half of my life is that I finally have the time to do this.