( A virtual Journey through the Hawkeye State)
It takes us just twenty minutes to drive to Council Bluffs , just across the Missouri River from Omaha . A medium-sized town of 63,000, Council Bluffs is named for a meeting that took place between the explorers Lewis & Clark and the Otoe Indians . It is a pleasant town , we feel , as we drive around . We pass Bayliss Park with its attractive fountain and the outsize sculptures of black squirrels. We pause to admire the Dodge House , the home of Grenville Dodge , an Army General and an adviser to Presidents Lincoln and Ulysses Grant but someone chiefly famous as a railroad builder. Railroads loom large in the history of Council Bluffs and at the corner of South 21st Street and 9th Avenue is the Golden Spike Monument , a gold-colored concrete obelisk that commemorates the linking of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads. The joining actually took place at Promontory Summit, Utah but Council Bluffs marks the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific.
There are no less than three railroad museums in Council Bluffs and we opt to visit to the Union Pacific RR Museum located in the former Carnegie Library. It is a good choice ; the videos , photographs and interactive exhibits underscore the importance of railroads in opening up the American West. Among the exhibits are fully restored dining cars and railroad cars , locomotives ( where young visitors can imagine they are engine drivers) and artifacts from President Lincoln’s funeral train. We spend more time at the museum than we had intended but it is worth it.
Next door to the Museum is strange attraction : the ” Squirrel Cage ” Jail. It is a revolving three-story structure which allows a single jailer to keep track of many prisoners . The jailer can revolve the jail by turning a hand crank and it takes 5 minutes to effect a single revolution. When the jail was in use , prisoners were crammed into pie slice shaped cells , six of them in a space the size of a small closet. Since they could only exit the cell one at a time, when the cell door was opened ,one shudders to think what might have happened if a fire broke out. It must have been hell and prisoners were known break their arms, by pushing them through the bars and twisting, just so that they could get taken to the infirmary. The squirrel cage jail was operated as late as 1969( imagine!) and this is one of only three still in existence anywhere in the world. Creepy and shocking.
Sobered by our visit , we repair to Mo Fish for lunch . It is a homey, family style restaurant and the wall behind the front counter is papered with dollar bills. My wife has the Boneless Alaskan Walleye with French Fries and coleslaw and I have Fried Clams, also with FF and coleslaw .Pretty good and afterwards its back to the hotel room as we feel the need for a little nap.
Council Bluffs has three casinos , and we go to the Horseshoe or rather the Bluffs Run Greyhound Racing Track that it operates. We have never seen greyhound racing and it is a sight watching the lean, elegantly built animals race around the track after the ” rabbit”. We bet on each of the 15 races but have no more luck than we usually do with horses. Luckily , my wife hits one Exacta and we wind up almost breaking even . Rather than eat at the race track , we head back to town for some Mexican food . La Mesa Mexican Restaurant is our destination and we have a difficult time navigating the huge menu. Finally we decide to split the pozole soup and a chipotle salad. She has the Mango Fish ( Tilapia with Mango Salsa and steamed veggies ) and I go for the Chili Verde ( Pork Carnitas with green sauce). Very good , better than we have had in N.J.
It is still light and we get to the Bob Kerry Bridge over the Missouri River . It is a 3000 foot long cable stayed bridge with a 15 foot pedestrian walkway . The weather is nice ( temperature 68 degrees F) and we join the throng of walkers like ourselves . Midway , sixty feet above the river, we pause and take in the view upriver and to the city skyline on either side. The views are lovely and , on the Omaha side , I can see the Omaha Plaza with its interactive water jet fountains . As dusk falls the lights on the bridge come on and , in the company of new-found friends , we enjoy the sights from our vantage point above the Missouri. And then it’s back to the hotel.
Next morning , after a light breakfast at our hotel, we set out for Des Moines , the state capital . We cover the 135 miles in just under two and a half hours ; traffic is light on I-80 . Along the way , we pass signs for John Wayne’s Home in Winterset . The Duke was born there in 1907 and next week his frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara will be on hand for his birthday celebrations . I used to like his Westerns , though not his politics , and I’ve already seen a video of his boyhood home . We decide to press on and arrive in Des Moines around 11 o’clock.
Prior to this journey , I’d thought of Iowa as a primarily agricultural state. I’ve since found that , while agriculture is important ( Iowa produces 10% of the food in the U.S) , it is eclipsed by its manufacturing and financial services sectors. Des Moines ( named for the Des Moines River = River of the Monks) is a hub of the insurance and financial services industries. Instead of the grain storage elevators we saw near Council Bluffs , there are several sleek skyscrapers , the tallest of them the 45 story tower at 801 Grand. Many of them are connected by skyways or pedways and we crane our heads upwards to look at them.They are to be seen everywhere downtown ; there are 4 miles of them . We drive around looking at prominent buildings like the State Capitol but , on the whole , we find Des Moines less interesting than Council Bluffs.
On our drive around Des Moines we’ve noticed a large number of Italian restaurants and pizza joints but we are in a mood for some BBQ. We repair to the Flying Mango ( we had luck at the Mango Fish in Council Bluffs ; maybe we’ll be lucky again ). We settle for Sandwiches ; I have the Jerk Pulled Pork and she has the Grilled Chicken ( w/ goat cheese and bacon). For sides we have the Fire Roasted Spiced Apples and the Sweet Potato Pancake w/ Mango sour cream . Everything is as good as it sounded on the menu ; we’ve lucked out again.
It’s still early afternoon but there is no point in prolonging our stay in Des Moines. With no clear idea in mind , we take I-80 E and head off towards Iowa City. Near Newton we see a sign for Maytag Dairy Farms and decide to check it out . Maytag washing machines & dryers were originally manufactured here but the company was sold off and production shifted to Mexico in 2007. However , Maytag Dairy Farms ,started in 1941 by Frederick Maytag, the son of the original Maytag founder, is still a thriving family business. Maytag makes a million pounds of cheese a year in small hand-made batches and Maytag Blue is considered the best blue cheese in America. The quaint looking farm buildings and the Holstein cows grazing nearby are pleasing to the eye and take us back to another time.We are too late for the tour but we do see a very informative video about the cheese-making process and the history of the farm. People are very , very friendly and at the store we are offered a cracker with a piece of Maytag Blue and a drizzle of honey . Delicious . On the spot , we buy not only some Maytag Blue but some White Cheddar and arrange to have it shipped back home to New Jersey.
Back on I-80 E, we pass Grinell , home of Grinell College , one of the best small colleges in the nation. We keep going and around seven o’clock find ourself in Iowa City , home to the University of Iowa . On the morrow , we will visit the Herbert Hoover Museum.