Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Quad Cities of Iowa and Ilinois

For the last seven years we have been on an adventure to see America and what is more iconic American than that distinctive green and yellow tractor working the corn fields in the heartland?  So off we went to tour a John Deere factory in Davenport, Iowa and see what else was in the area.
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Davenport would serve as our home base while we explored the “Quad Cities” which are the river towns straddling the upper Mississippi River comprised of Davenport and Bettendorf (Iowa) and Moline and Rock Island (Illinois).  We were shocked at all there was to do in the area.  Our days were jammed packed and our planned four-night stay quickly doubled.  We saw John Deere machines being made, visited a farm where cows are milked by robots, learned about the areas’ rich German-American history, admired the art museum, stepped foot in the World’s Largest Truck Stop, learned about the nation’s oldest Arsenal, and crossed another Presidential Library off the list.  Let’s face it, Iowa was never high on our list of states to visit but RVing has led us to places we never would have considered going before. And that, is why we love this RV life!

Farmers markets are always of interest to us so we headed downtown Davenport to the Freight House Farmers Market which is open year-round and is quite popular in the summer operating three days a week.  The first booth that attracted us was the Cinnamon Ridge Farm which had samples of their delicious cheese and a poster with an adorable face of a Jersey cow.  We met the owners of the farm who encouraged us to come out to the farm for a tour and learn about their unique operation. 

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Cinnamon Ridge is a robotic dairy where four, quarter of a million-dollar each robot milk the cows up to six times a day.  Cows wear identifying collars that are read by the robots and keep track of various data like milk production/volume/pounds, percent butter fat, body weight, diseases, and their movements.  Cows voluntarily enter a chute where they are fed a very palatable feed (a.k.a. cow candy) while the milking robot goes to work.  The robot cleans the utter before attaching the milkers to prevent contaminates from getting into the milk.  Next, a laser identifies the location of the teats and attaches the milkers.  There is a predetermined amount of feed that keeps the cow in the chute based on how long it takes the robot to attach and milk the individual cow.  Farm tours cost $10/person but that includes a $4 gift card to use in their farm store which sells a variety of items from meat, eggs, homemade baked goods and the cheese they make on the property.  A small percentage of the milk is used on the farm for cheese but the majority of it is sold to a company that uses it to produce Swiss cheese.  We highly recommend the tour … and the cheese!

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Downtown Davenport had a couple of arts and cultural attractions that intrigued us.  The German-American Cultural Center provided an interesting background about the German people that make up the Quad Cities.  The center is housed in an old hotel built in 1861 which housed thousands of immigrants. More Germans immigrated to the United States between 1820 -1996 than from any other country and they settled in the Midwest due to their farming backgrounds.  Germans settled comfortably into a new life and were accepted well by Americans because of their work ethic and education level.  But as WWI gained hold in Europe, and the United States was drawn into the war, more Americans became suspicious of German-Americans and thought they might be loyalists to the German government.  The museum also featured a traveling exhibit on Harry Houdini (a famous German-immigrant) highlighting his magical antics that captivated awestruck onlookers.

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One of Davenport’s most recognizable buildings is the Figge Art Museum.  Every Sunday the museum is free so we decided to give it a look. Just so happens we were there when the family-friendly event going on celebrated Day of the Dead.  Let’s just say the museum was quite crazy with lots of people and kids running around with painted faces, working on themed crafts, and nachos and salsa being handed out.  We did manage to wander into some areas of the museum and take in some of the interesting artwork.

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Back up to the real reason why we came to Iowa which was to tour the John Deere Factory.  The Quad Cities is the hub of Deere activities with the World Headquarters and the John Deere Pavilion being located in Moline and many factories scattered about.  Free, guided tours are offered to many of the factories (providing they are in production and you make a reservation).  We toured the seeding machines plant which was fascinating since we knew nothing about large-scale farm planting.  The technology that is in the equipment is mind boggling and is remarkably advantageous for the farmer to increase yield.  A “brush” system is used to evenly and accurately distribute seeds to the specifications of the farmer.  Seed spacing can even be changed mid-planting and some planters are GPS controlled so the farmer doesn’t even have to drive the machine.  The cost of the new computer-guided farming equipment was staggering to us with one eight-row combine costing over $500K which made us wonder how a farmer ever makes money.  At the John Deere Pavilion and World Headquarters are interpretive exhibits about the company history, evolution of their equipment, and current technology (like a robot lawn mower and autonomous tractor).  Plus, you can climb on all the equipment and get a sense of what it is like to drive through a corn or soybean field during harvest time. 

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The Quad Cities has been doing some serious beer brewing which is reflected by the six popular breweries in the area.  We chose Front Street Brewery to sample some frosty mugs and vittles which garners the titles of “Oldest Brew Pub” and “Second Oldest Brewery” in Iowa.  Betsy tried their famous breaded pork tenderloin sandwich and I opted for a black bean burger and we loved the 100+ year old building it is housed in.  Two Vietnamese restaurants of note were Pho 9999 and California Pho (where we ate five times).  Davenport was a resettlement area for Vietnamese after the Fall of Saigon so the restaurants serve authentic food and there are plenty of Asian markets around.  Moline is home to Lagomarcino’s which has been making fine chocolates since 1908.  This turn-of-the-Century ice cream parlor and confectionery is also a winner of the James Beard “America’s Classic” Award which meant we had to go and try their legendary hot fudge.  So how was it, you ask?  Delicious and worth the calories!

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One day I told Betsy we were going to the little town of Le Claire about 25 minutes away and the response I got was, “what is there to see there?”  I mumbled a few things that I didn’t want her to clearly understand and cleverly finished with “… a distillery …” which had her putting on her coat and grabbing the keys.  Le Claire is a cute little river town with a main street lined with boutiques, galleries, and restaurants that is a big draw for summer tourists. The most famous attraction in Le Claire is Antique Archaeology which is home to the American Pickers (a popular show on the History Channel). The two stores are filled with antiques and vintage items that have been featured on their television shows mixed in with t-shirts, hats and other Antique Archaeology souvenirs.

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On a cold and rainy day there was only so much strolling down main street we were going to do so into the Mississippi River Distillery we went.  The distillery was started in 2010 by two brothers who were living in other parts of the country and decided to quit their jobs and come home to start making spirits. The distillery makes bourbon, vodka, gin, rye, an artisan spirit, and a variety of seasonal spirits.  One hundred percent of the ingredients are sourced from within 25 miles of the distillery.  Our tour guide, Jan, was very knowledgeable about the distilling processes and her enthusiasm for the company shined and you could tell she loved her job.  The distillery tours and tastings are free but if you want to linger longer there is a cocktail bar overlooking the river with an extensive drink menu and a great mixologist ready to help with whatever you fancy.

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Some neighbors in our campground recommended visiting the Rock Island Arsenal which piqued my interest (especially since I have a nephew who just completed Army basic training). The Arsenal is an active U.S. Army facility and has been a fixture of the area since 1809 and is still a busy place today, employing over 7,000 people, thus making it the nation’s largest government owned and operated arsenal.  Almost every military-related item has been made there at some point.  The museum (which is the second oldest U.S. Army Museum and a National Historical Landmark) features exhibits that highlight the history of the island, items manufactured there, and a firearms display.  The Arsenal manufactured everything from rifles to canteens to cavalry equipment with a lot more in between. When in war time this place shifts into overdrive.  During WWII, some 18,500 people (32% of which were women) were employed to support the war effort.  Also on the base are a National and Confederate cemetery and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Visitor Center.

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One of my favorite websites for trip ideas is Atlas Obscura that comes up with quirky and fun stuff to do in an area. With the World’s Largest Truck Stop just ten minutes away, you can bet that was on that list to see.  The truck stop has multiple eateries, a dentist, barber, chiropractor and plenty of chrome and accessories to trick out your truck.  There is even a semi in the truck stop.
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Also at the truck stop is the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum which has an amazing display of 100 antique trucks ranging from milk wagons to wreckers to moving vans.  This free museum was the dream of the truck stop founder, Bill Moon.  Moon was passionate about antique trucks and memorabilia and built a museum housing almost 100 rare and one-of-a-kind trucks.  The trucks are beautifully restored and show off the industry's unique and functional vehicles.  There are old milk wagons, moving trucks, snowmobiles, wreckers, and many more.

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About 45 minutes to the west of Davenport is the little rural farming town of West Branch.  The quiet little town is home to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library and the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site (which is home to the final resting place for Hoover and his wife; as well as, a visitor center, birthplace, and a variety of other buildings).  The Presidential Museum features interesting exhibits, video footage, historical artifacts, and a short film about Hoover’s life and his private and public achievements.  Before becoming the 31st President of the United States, he was a successful geologist and engineer and amassed a sizeable financial fortune while traveling the world in search of potential mines.  But Hoover felt the need to enter public service instead of growing his wealth.  He became admirably recognized as “The Great Humanitarian” for his tireless successful efforts to relieve famine in Europe during and after WWI.  His premise was to organize volunteers to help those less fortunate and convinced Americans to do with less to help those overseas thus giving rise to “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.”  After the United States sent flour to Europe hundreds of the sacks, beautifully embroidered were returned to Hoover in thanks.

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Our time in the Quad Cities was busy and we thoroughly everything and being there.  Thanks for putting up with a super long blog post and coming along with us virtually.  Next time you are driving across the country consider swinging through this area for a visit.

And if you are wondering if Spirit liked the Quad Cities as much as we did?  Yes, we stayed at a great county park that had miles of hiking trails, four lakes, and lots of sticks. 

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2 comments:

  1. Iowa, the state I hardly knew. I grew up there but it wasn't until we were back there and fulltiming that we treated the state like a tourist would.

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  2. Iowa is an underrated gem. I’ve ridden my bike across the state a couple of times during RAGBRAI. I found the rural towns to be charming, the people are happy and friendly, and the bustle of the quad cities exciting.

    I enjoyed recalling many of the same places you visited. Good times.

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