RAGBRAI 2018, part 3: Amish farmland, Star Trek, and famous ice cream

I was so looking forward to this day. Yesterday (Saturday, July 21), I drove the final leg of the 2018 RAGBRAI route (Sigourney to Davenport). There were so many highlights to look forward to! I got up really early and was on the road by 6:30 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Sigourney to pick up the route.

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The day started bright, sunny, and very cool (65 degrees and breezy) compared to the past few very hot weeks in Iowa. But by the time I got to Oskaloosa, heavy, gray clouds rolled in. And then I spent much of the morning struggling to stay on the route. I don’t know if it was me or the RAGBRAI map, but things just weren’t matching up between the route on paper and the reality of the road.

I missed the Hwy. 92 connection not once but twice (okay, the first time was my fault); I lost the route again in Harper (population 109, above). And then again in Keota (population 996, below). What the hell? I swear, road signs must not be a thing in this part of Iowa. I kept going south when I needed to go north; eventually, I cut my losses and found an alternate route out of Keota (missing G26 altogether), but eventually got on the right county road (W38). So far, this has been the worst section I’ve ever driven in terms of following the route, and I was irritated. I may have said some bad words.

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Things improved in Wellman (population 1,424), a small town with a cute business district.

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I loved the old-fashioned clock (above) and the Bidwell-Slockett mini park mural. Take a look at these details, below:

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And, finally, I hit my stride in Kalona (population 2,534). I am a big fan of this Amish community. My blog post from 2011 has consistently been one of the most popular things I’ve ever written on Iowa Girl on the Go – it literally attracts readers every day.

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Since I’d been here before, I didn’t take the time to visit the Kalona Historical Village (715 D Ave, just off Hwy. 22) or Stringtown Grocery (2208 540th St SW), although I recommend visiting both.

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Instead, I spent most of my time along Kalona’s main street, helping the local economy by buying things I don’t need in the antiques stores. Check them out: Vintage Chic, Raven’s Nest, and English River Antiques and Collectibles, all along B Avenue downtown.

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The Kalona Bakery was closed, but I visited the Amish general store, where you can buy old-fashioned Amish noodles, cheese, smoked meats, a variety of bulk foods, fudge, local honey, nuts, and Amish mustards and other sauces. They even have a small restaurant inside the store, where you can order Amish cinnamon and pecan rolls, pies, biscuits and gravy, sandwiches, etc.  I enjoyed the bricked quilt squares along the downtown sidewalks (below) and savored the yummy smells wafting from the coffee shop. This town has some great-looking restaurants and more antiques stores outside the main downtown area, too.

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The other really awesome thing about Kalona is the surrounding countryside, with Amish farms, traditional barns decorated with quilt blocks, and many horses and buggies. I saw an Amish woman and two young children in traditional clothing tending a garden very near the highway, and it was a truly delightful scene. I am guessing that cyclists will encounter Amish farm stands and baked goods all along the route.

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The next pass-through town is Riverside (population 1,039), said to be the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek. This designation may be the only thing keeping Riverside afloat, because it is a pretty sad, dilapidated little town.

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But check out the banners! There’s a whole series of them, with photos of Star Trek characters and slogans like “Live long and prosper” and “Where the TREK began.” I am not a Star Trek fan, but I still think this is fun. (Look closely at the Murphy’s Bar & Grill sign and you’ll see a tiny Spaceship Enterprise.)

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The tiny town of Hills (population 808) has a small city park and a bit of industry connected to the railroad.

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By noon I was pulling in to the next overnight town: Iowa City. I was looking forward to eating lunch here.

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With an estimated population of 75,798, Iowa City is the fifth-largest city in Iowa, and of course it’s home to our rival, the University of Iowa. I will admit, I have very mixed feelings about this city. On the one hand, it’s got an incredibly vibrant downtown area, with many more bars, shops, and restaurants than Ames, so I am sort of envious in that regard. I like the pedestrian mall with its outdoor dining, food carts, and street art.

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There’s a ton of history here, too. Iowa City was the second capital of Iowa Territory before statehood, and the first capital city for the state of Iowa. The Old Capitol is a national historic landmark. And Iowa City has tremendous historic neighborhoods filled with cool old houses and mature trees.

The downside, besides the fact that as an Iowa State employee I am contractually required to hate the Hawkeyes, is that Iowa City is a terrible place to drive and an even worse place to park. Since I was there on a Saturday in the summer, you wouldn’t think the traffic would be bad, but you’d be wrong: There’s construction, closed streets, and all sorts of nonsense. Ames may not have as many restaurants, but by god we have better streets.

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Anyway, after parking on South Linn (putting six quarters in the parking meter for one hour) and hoping to walk a couple of blocks to North Linn to eat at my favorite Iowa City restaurant, Devotay (117 N. Linn), I learned that you can’t get there from where I parked. So I walked around a bit, trying to keep a low profile as a Cyclone in Hawkeye country, and then moved my car to North Linn, where I put seven more quarters in a different parking meter and snagged an outdoor table at Devotay. I love this little restaurant. It usually features Spanish tapas and paellas and other interesting dishes. Today the menu featured brunch, with both breakfast and a few lunch items available. I ordered a café Americano, patatas bravas with sofrito and aioli, and semolina breakfast muffins with quince jam. I am drooling again, just looking at these pictures! It was wonderful and very relaxing.

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I did something next that I really try never to do on the RAGBRAI route: I google-mapped. I wanted to visit Plum Grove, a state historic site at 1030 Carroll Street. I had no idea where that was. This is the home of the first governor of Iowa, Robert Lucas, built in 1844. It turns out it was not far from Devotay and also not at all far from the RAGBRAI route.

The seven-room home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also features stunning gardens tended by Iowa State Extension master gardeners (take that, Hawkeyes!)

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I spent waaayyy too much time in Iowa City. (And I should apologize for all the Hawkeye jokes. I have absolutely nothing against the University of Iowa. I’m just kidding around.)

As I started this official last day of the RAGBRAI route, two things occurred to me. One, this day is bookended by the largest cities on the route (Iowa City and Davenport). And two, I was driving the LAST day of the route as bikers were gathering on the other side of the state in Onawa for the FIRST day of the route. That made me smile.

It also occurred to me that I’ve driven and written about much of this route before: RAGBRAI XLIII (2015) went through West Liberty, Atalissa, Moscow, and Wilton – all towns I’d visit today. The 2015 route also ended in Davenport, as does this year’s.

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The first pass-through town on this final day is West Liberty (population 3,736). West Liberty is known for its racetrack and as the home to the Muscatine County Fair, which was actually in progress when I arrived. Had I more time, I would have stopped and spent some time there. West Liberty is probably better known, however, as the producer of turkey products at an enormous meat-processing facility that dwarfs the entire town.

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Likewise, nearby Atalissa (population 306 according to Wikipedia) is mostly known as the home of several intellectually challenged men who worked in the nearby turkey processing plant. After a scandalous New York Times article reported that the men were living in horrific conditions, they were removed in 2009, paid damages by the courts, and relocated.

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On a happier note, I learned that Atalissa was founded in 1856. It was named by its founder, William Lundy, for a mining town in California, which in turn was named for an Indian queen Atalissa. Hence the picture on the welcome sign.

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I get a kick out of the next town, Moscow. It’s unincorporated, so I have no idea how many people live there, but I enjoyed it in 2015 and I enjoyed it again today. I stopped at the Birkhofer Produce stand and bought Amish-grown tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, green pepper, and zucchini. I was tempted to buy a watermelon.

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I had my fingers crossed heading into Wilton (population 2,802). I’ve twice visited this town hoping to get a taste of its famous ice cream at the Wilton Candy Kitchen and soda fountain, and twice it’s been closed. So I was super excited to find it open today.

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The Candy Kitchen was founded in 1860 (or 1856 or 1867, depending on which sign you choose to believe); it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is said to be the oldest ongoing confectionary ice cream parlor in the world (a fact too good to check), and has been run by the Nopoulos family since 1910.

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It was recently visited by none other than Mark Zuckerberg, and I am here to tell you, the young woman who served me a chocolate malt is the same person who served the Facebook CEO. I have a photo to prove it! I was pretty stoked. And the malt was delicious.

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The Candy Kitchen serves the usual cones (made with “George’s famous homemade ice cream”), sundaes, sodas, and malts in flavors like marshmallow, black raspberry, and hot fudge.

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With a happy tummy full of ice cream, I headed to the next stop: Wildcat Den State Park. This is a not a state park I’ve visited before – or, if I’m being honest, even heard of. The state park website says the park is one of the most unique in Iowa, combining natural beauty and solitude, preservation of historical structures, trails, camping, and picnic areas for recreational use.

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It also says one of the major features of Wildcat Den State Park is its trail system, which also interests me. When I got there, I immediately saw a trail head, got out, and took a short nature hike. The trail was lined with incredibly tall trees, and it was very peaceful. I wish I could have spent more time on the path, but I needed to keep moving.

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I had read about the Pine Creek Grist Mill, also located in the park, and I was hoping to find it. I’m so glad I did! Not only is this a restored operating pioneer mill originally built in 1848 (and in impeccable, working shape), but it’s set along a scenic spillway, with a swimming area and historic bridge setting the scene. The Grist Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A sign on the building says this area was also the site of the first post office in Muscatine County. Mail was addressed “Iowa Post Office, Blackhawk Purchase, Wisconsin Territory.”

As I headed to unincorporated Montpelier (named by the first settlers who were natives of Vermont and chose the name after the capital of that state) I had no idea how close to the end of the route I was. Also, I had no idea Montpelier was a Mississippi River town; I guess I hadn’t looked that closely at my map. But, indeed, it is right on the river.

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And when I got to Blue Grass, all I found was a detour that threw me off the route and confused the heck out of me. I didn’t even stop in Blue Grass (population 1,699) to take a photo. Instead, I just headed to Davenport on F65.

I was thinking all the way, Man, I really don’t want to go to Davenport. It’s such a big city (population 102,612); it doesn’t really seem like a RAGBRAI town. I was tired. And it was getting late. And I’ve been here before, including on the 2015 RAGBRAI route. So many excuses!

So, although I had a big list of things to do in Davenport (photograph the Mississippi River bridge, walk across the Davenport Skybridge, go to the Figge Art Museum, try to find the Putnam Museum and the VanderVeer Botanical Park and the Nahant Marsh and the German American Heritage Center, and discover historic neighborhoods that date back to the 1840s), the minute I saw the sign for Interstate 80, I jumped on it and drove straight home. I promise I’ll come back again one of these days and spend more time here.

And now it’s Sunday and I must get ready to host the cyclists who are camping in my backyard Tuesday night and prepare for all the RAGBRAI events in Ames. So much fun! Thanks for reading! Go, RAGBRAI!!!

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2 comments so far

  1. JoAnn on

    Fun to read, Carole. I know you are a solo traveler but if someday you wake up and think “hey, I could use a companion today” just holler 😉


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