The birthplace of Buffalo Bill and an eclectic mix of shops and eateries are just a few of the things Dan Kaercher discovered as he wandered through historic LeClaire in eastern Iowa.
Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures features Iowa travel destinations, restaurants, events, parks, recreation and more. Produced by Iowa Public Television, the series highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see and taste, right here at home. Below are excerpts from Dan's journal of his travels in the state.
Maybe you’re like me: You only know LeClaire as the first Iowa welcome center and gas stop near the Quad Cities when you return onto I-80 from Illinois. Well, today, I’m exploring the town itself. Our producer has a great idea: We rise bright and early to tape some of our video from Port Byron, Illinois, directly across the Mississippi from LeClaire. It’s a tranquil, dreamy view of both town and river, especially at this time of day. (I wish our viewers could see just how hard our IPTV videographers and producers work to get their fantastic footage, especially now that the high-definition age has arrived.)
I’m told later that the river hereabouts hasn’t always appeared so calm. At one time, there were rocky rapids, hence the name Rapids City, Illinois. The rapids required navigation by skilled river pilots, many of whom built imposing homes in LeClaire. Nowadays, those rapids are submerged by Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 14.
It’s nice to see the I-80 bridge open for two-way traffic once again after having been closed many months for repairs. I’m sure it had an impact on area businesses, especially those dependent on tourism. I chat about that situation with local shop owner and tourism director Donna Walley as she steers us to our first stop in downtown LeClaire -- the Buffalo Bill Museum, situated right along the Mississippi.
The museum contains all sorts of well-displayed and fascinating exhibits, including one spotlighting the Wild West showman who is LeClaire’s most famous native son. I feel especially connected because I’ve also visited Scout’s Rest Ranch, Cody’s restored home just outside North Platte, Nebraska.
But did you know LeClaire is also the birthplace of James Ryan II, who invented the modern automobile seatbelt and the “black box” found in airplanes. He wound up on the faculty of the University of Minnesota. The other exhibit that really grabs me here is an entire Mississippi River towboat now dry-docked and enclosed in glass beside the river that it plied for more than a century. The Lone Star remains in remarkably good condition. I get to clamber into the pilot house on top and ring the bell!
Back on Cody Road downtown, I can see why this small community is so popular with day-trippers. Inviting historic buildings now accommodate a variety of interesting boutiques, eateries and antique shops. Among the latter is American Archaeology, home of the “American Pickers” of cable TV fame. As we browse and film at her gift shop, Aunt Hattie’s Fanciful Emporium, Donna Walley shares her story: She’s originally from the Nebraska Sandhills region, then wound up in Los Angeles and New York picking contestants for TV game shows before landing here in LeClaire.
Antiques and collectibles are intriguing, but I’m ready for a snack. At Kernel Cody’s Popcorn Shoppe, I get to mix up a fresh batch of their cheese-flavored specialty. Owner and chief popper Heidi Plummer even gives me a bag of rainbow-colored popcorn to take home to my grandchildren. I’ll add it to the loaf of Italian bread in my bag from our last stop, Rastrelli’s in Clinton.
LeClaire is a truly charming river town that's worked hard to keep its historic downtown district alive. It's now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Time to say our good-byes and hit the road again, but not before our producer Paul Yeager - a former Quad Citian - has us head for a couple of his nostalgic stops in nearby Bettendorf. We lunch at Azteca No. 3 (I go for the tamales), followed by some treats at one of the area's legendary Whitey's ice-cream shops. Boy, was that black-raspberry ice-cream soda ever delicious!