Sisters’ weekend in Nebraska City

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Nebraska City is so close to the Iowa border that you’d forget you’re not in Iowa if it weren’t for the name: NEBRASKA City. Kind of a constant reminder, isn’t it?

For a city with a population of just 7,289, Nebraska City has a lot to offer. My sisters and I decided to spend a late summer weekend there primarily because of the location (I’m in Ames; they’re in the Kansas City area) and because of the Lied Lodge, which I’d heard was cool.

We learned that there’s a lot of history in Nebraska City, plus museums, shops, antiques, orchards, and parks.

What we did:

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We stayed at the LIED LODGE & CONFERENCE CENTER on the western edge of town. This was our home base for the weekend, and it’s close to nearly everything we wanted to do.

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Lied Lodge was originally built by the Arbor Day Foundation as a place to meet to discuss trees and the environment. The lobby would attest to this, with soaring natural timber beams, massive fireplace, and outdoorsy décor. Today’s use for the lodge extends to family reunions, weddings, vacations, and conferences. It’s a pretty terrific place, with 140 rooms, 14,000 square feet of event space, and 260 wooded acres to explore. There’s also a spacious restaurant (the Timber Dining Room) with awesome views, plus a spa and an Olympic-sized pool with Jacuzzi. When we were there, they were also doing wine tasting each night.

Nearby (within fairly easy walking distance, as the crow flies) is the ARBOR LODGE MANSION. This is a memorably beautiful home (I was here just one time before, for a friend’s wedding, about 25 years ago, and I remember vividly how pretty it was) that’s been turned into a museum filled with furniture and artifacts from J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. Morton was also the Morton Salt guy, we found out. He established Arbor Day in 1872; the 52-room home is surrounded by hundreds of trees and shrubs in the 72-acre ARBOR LODGE STATE HISTORICAL PARK.

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We first visited the mansion Friday night after it was closed; we just walked around outside and marveled at it, despite its desperate need for a good scraping and painting. (Not to worry; signs assured us that this project would be commencing this fall.) The next morning, we took a self-guided tour of the home ($8 admission), with its never-ending rooms filled with period furnishings, plus a carriage house and tack room.

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Also in the area is the ARBOR DAY FARM TREE ADVENTURE, which looks like a great place for kids. It has forested trails, a treehouse, and a discovery ride. We did not go in.

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We did, however, go inside the adjacent APPLE HOUSE MARKET, hoping to find peach pie in the Pie Garden Café and bags of peaches to take home with us. Unfortunately, we found neither (the café was only serving apple pie, and the place smelled of hotdogs), but I bought a jar of pumpkin butter.

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Instead, we headed DOWNTOWN. Central Ave. is lined with shops – quilt shops, a dress shop, antiques stores, and more – plus murals painted on the sides of buildings and a series of artist-designed trees (this is Tree City, after all). We killed a couple of hours poking around the shops and taking pictures.

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Our favorite place by far was The Keeping Room – truly a destination if you enjoy shopping for home décor, holiday decorations, and Polish pottery. There’s a cafe there as well, and we vowed to return in the afternoon for a bite to eat.

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Meanwhile, we toured the MAYHEW CABIN WITH JOHN BROWN’S CAVE, an Underground Railroad site with an original 1850s cabin and a 1930s reconstructed cave and tunnel. This is a fascinating place and costs just $3 for a self-guided tour (they knock off a dollar from the admission price if you’re over 60).

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The cabin is tiny (above), and the cave and tunnel are a bit claustrophobia-inducing (below), but they’re a really fascinating and sobering look into what it must have been like for slaves who traveled north seeking freedom. We also walked through a nearby historic village, which includes one of the first African American churches west of the Missouri River.

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What else did we do? Oh, we went north to KIMMEL ORCHARD, where we finally found some peaches to buy. And we drove back into Iowa a few miles to the FINDERS KEEPERS ANTIQUE MALL at the intersection of I-29 and Hwy. 2.

After all of this shopping and driving, I was ready for a WALK. Late in the afternoon, I found a trail that would take me from Lied Lodge through the woods over to Arbor Day Farm and on to the Arbor Lodge Mansion and Arbor Lodge State Park. It was a nice hour-long walk and fun to visit all of these places on foot.

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Later, after dinner, one of my sisters and I sat in the Jacuzzi with many people we did not know. (Obviously this photo was taken earlier in the day, before all the swimmer descended.)

Where we ate:

On Friday night, we went downtown in search of food. We found Prairie City Chop House and shared an enormous veggie pizza. It was so big that the three of us could only eat half. It took two take-out containers to hold the rest.

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We ate breakfast at the restaurant at our lodge, in the Timber Dining Room. They offered a breakfast buffet for $12 but we opted for the menu. I ate a short stack of pancakes topped with fresh blueberries – again, the portion was so large I only finished half. The dining room has an outdoor terrace with great views (above).

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We finally got our peach pie – sort of – at The Keeping Room Café. This downtown shop/café is the best! They have a nice menu, including a number of regular dessert selections, but we were so lucky that Saturday’s dessert special was peach cobbler. We each ordered cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream and called it lunch. So yummy! The fact that they served the food (and my coffee) in Polish pottery made it even more delicious. This may have been the highlight of the whole weekend. (I wanted to buy this bowl and take it home with me.)

Not that we needed more food, but we ate a late dinner on the patio at The Depot Kitchen & Taproom, near the railroad tracks south of downtown. They didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian options, but I didn’t care at this point. They had a nice selection of local brews, and I ordered a (huge) appetizer, of which I (again) ate just half. (What is it with Big Food in Nebraska City?)

Before we headed our separate ways on Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast at Jonny’s Café on Central Ave. downtown. I ordered eggs, hash browns and toast for just 4 bucks; it was really good, and the service was fast and friendly. Jonny’s also had a nice-looking breakfast buffet.

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Finally, I can’t post a blog about sisters’ weekend without showing you my sisters. That’s Donna Butler on the left, Judy Forth in the center (both of Independence, Mo.) and me on the right at The Keeping Room in downtown Nebraska City.

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