On a spring day in the Mississippi River town of LeClaire, Iowa, a few visitors explored the tourist-bait antique and gift shops in the small downtown. Nearby, in the wide river, a tug pushed huge barges past an old-fashioned cruise riverboat docked on the levee.
But on a side street off Cody Road — the main drag, named after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was born in LeClaire in 1846 — Antique Archeology buzzed with browsers. Part quirky junk shop, part hipster mercantile, the business is owned by a more recent famous local, Mike Wolfe, co-host of “American Pickers,” the History Channel reality series/antiques show.
Full of vintage finds picked from barns and garages across the country, Antique Archeology was among the highlights of an afternoon drive along a 73-mile stretch of the Great River Road in eastern Iowa, exploring small river towns between the bigger cities of Davenport and Dubuque.
As an Iowa transplant, I have long enjoyed exploring this (mostly) scenic stretch of my adopted home state, with its charming river towns and expansive Mississippi views from grassy levees and limestone bluffs. But I hadn’t driven it in years, and this time I was showing it off to my sister, who lives in Los Angeles. Here are picks from our trip.
LeClaire (pop. 3,974): A rusty Nash car is parked in the brick alley of Antique Archeology, which includes a blue-painted former fabrication shop and a newer brick building. Both display “American Pickers” finds, some for sale and most with a handwritten tag offering helpful details, ranging from what they are (or were) to the story of their discovery.
A long-buried, rust-encrusted 1918 Indian motorcycle, its tag explained, was picked from “its earthy tomb” in Springfield, Mass., and seen on “American Pickers” Season 6, Episode 21. Battered wooden stilts were “picked out of Colorado,” handmade for a worker harvesting peaches, and on sale for $125.
Also for sale is Antique Archeology merchandise, some advertising its two stores — in LeClaire and, more recently, in Nashville. I couldn’t resist a black T-shirt with rusty white letters reading “Respect the Rust.” My sister’s purchases included tea towels (for me!) and a flyswatter.
Elsewhere around town, we were too late to spot bald eagles soaring over the river (a winter highlight) and too early for a cruise (May through October) aboard the Twilight, a replica of a Victorian steamboat. But in Cody Road’s historic district, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bounty of locally made food and drink inside brick storefronts.
LeClaire Canning Co. sells pickled vegetables and fruit preserves. Mississippi River Distillery Co. offers free tours and small-batch vodka, gin and bourbon made from local grains. Green Tree Brewery is named after a giant shady elm beloved by river pilots. Felled by disease in 1964, the 225-year-old elm’s remains are among the exhibits at Buffalo Bill Museum, which also features a dry-docked 1860s sternwheel steamboat.
Clinton (pop. 25,719): As a fan of architectural terra cotta — decorative ceramic flourishes often adorning turn-of-the-20th-century buildings — I had to jump out of the car in this city’s downtown to take a photo of the Van Allen Building, a Louis Sullivan-designed former department store. Eye-popping terra cotta on the building’s four-story facade includes bunches of vivid green leaves. A National Historic Landmark, circa 1912-1914, the Van Allen was another reminder of the gems to be found if you keep your eyes and mind open while wandering through Iowa.
Sabula (pop. 551): “Island City” reads the water tower above this tiny dot (one mile long, a quarter-mile wide) in the Mississippi. Make that Iowa’s only Island City, where local lore has it the first European settler crossed the river on a log in the 1830s. We hardly saw a soul, but did spot some old limestone buildings. Standing in a small riverside park, we marveled at the quiet — until a train rumbled across the river on a rail bridge from Savanna, Ill.
Bellevue (pop. 2,177): Beautiful views, as promised by this town’s French name, greeted us from atop a stone bluff in Bellevue State Park: of a downtown with mid-19th-century stone and brick buildings, a town-long riverfront park and Lock and Dam No. 12, one of several dams on the Upper Mississippi. A few hardy hikers wandered the park’s wooded trails, past butterfly gardens and an indoor nature center.
St. Donatus (pop. 131): We landed in this hilly hamlet, settled by Luxembourgers in the early 1800s, soon after its annual big event — a Good Friday procession along one of the nation’s oldest outdoor Stations of the Cross, built in 1861. Where three days earlier about 400 faithful, some dragging a large wooden cross, had walked the historic town’s famous Way of the Cross, there was just us. Parking behind a pretty white-steepled, stone Catholic church, we hiked up a winding dirt path shaded by cedar trees and dotted with brick alcoves containing lithographs depicting the death of Jesus. Arriving at a one-room stone chapel, we gazed out across a peaceful fertile valley that was primed for spring planting of crops destined for grain barges gliding nearby along the Mississippi.
From the Twin Cities, the fastest driving route to LeClaire is 338 miles southeast on non-river highways and interstates. For a scenic return along the river, drive north from LeClaire to St. Donatus for 73 miles along Hwys. 67 and 52, part of Iowa’s section of the 10-state Great River Road National Scenic Byway.
Where to eat and sleep
In LeClaire, good dining with river views can be found at Faithful Pilot Café (1-563-289-4156; faithfulpilot.com), a foodie favorite serving creative American fare, and at Crane & Pelican Cafe (1-563-289-8774; craneandpelican.com), offering comfort food in an 1851 Italianate mansion.
In Bellevue, Flatted Fifth Blues & BBQ at Potter’s Mill (1-563-872-3838; pottersmill.net) has barbecue, Cajun fare and live music in a former 1843 grist mill. Mont Rest Inn (1-563-872-4220; montrest.com) is located in a lovely Victorian mansion on a river bluff.
LeClaire Information Center: 1-563-289-4242 ext. 61135; visitleclaire.com or traveliowa.com/trails/great-river-road-national-scenic-byway.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.