Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Native American mounds to Norwegian art and history - Driving through Northeastern Iowa

Once again crossing the Mississippi River

On the last leg of my trip from New York City to Minneapolis, I drove through the northeast corner of Iowa, my first trip through the state. In fact, one of the reasons I like taking road trips is that I get to see places that I have never seen before, and visit states that I have visited.

File:Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in 1830 (NYPL Hades-119354-54391).tif
By Scan by NYPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin

My day started in Prairie du Chien. This town, which sits where the Wisconsin River flows into the Mississippi River, was founded as a French trading post in 1685, and is the second oldest city in Wisconsin. It was the site of the westernmost battle of The War of 1812 – the Siege of Prairie du Chien, where the British captured Fort Shelby in 1814 and held it until the end of the war in 1815.
I spent about an hour walking around St. Feriole Island Park, which sits on the Mississippi River just next to the downtown area. St. Feriole Island was the center of Prairie du Chien, but after a series of floods in the 1960’s and 70’s, the neighborhood was moved off of the island, and it was converted to a park. There are still several original buildings left on the island, including the Dousman House, which built by the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, along the old railroad tracks.

The Mississippi River

Dousman House

The Effigy Mounds National Monument

via www.visitiowa.org

Cross the river from Prairie du Chien into Iowa and head about 4 miles north on Route 76, and you will get to The Effigy Mounds National Monument. This park keeps safe a collection of 200 pre-historic mounds built by “The Mound Builders,” a culture that inhabited the center of America from around 3500 BCE to about 1500 CE. These mounds vary in shape and size, and include several that in the shape of bear and bird fetishes. The Monument was formed in 1949, by order of President Truman. Today it offers miles of hiking trails to see the mounds.

Vesterheim Museum, Decorah Iowa

The Vesterheim Museum, the national Norwegian-American Heritage museum, is located in the town of Decorah Iowa. This museum is a collection of over 24,000 artifacts and 12 historic buildings that celebrate the history of Norwegians in the United States. This collection includes artwork, crafts and even boats. I really enjoy visiting museums that give an insight into the history of different ethnic groups in the United States. I find that it really helps me understand how the country developed and why there are such differences between parts of the country.

One exhibit I enjoyed was “From Tradition to Protest: Lila Nelson’s weaving life.”  Lila Nelson was a fiber artist, and also played a key role in the growth and development of the Vesterheim Museum. Her work is beautiful and runs the gamut from traditional Norwegian patterns to her own take on Norwegian traditions from an American viewpoint. Most interesting were some of the weavings she finished recently which protested the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Afghanistan.

Three Holy Kings - Lila Nelson

Yggdrasil by Lila Nelson

Abu Ghraib by Lila Nelson

The Vesterheim also has a collection of handmade furniture both from Norway and made here in the Norwegian style of Rosemaling, a style of paint the furniture in colorful patterns of flowers. These are beautiful pieces. The museum also sponsored a competition and exhibit of contemporary artists and artisans in these crafts.

Cap by Mrs. Halvorson

Trunk by Thomas or Olav Luraas


Small towns and small museums offer a lot to see. But you only find them by getting off of the interstates and slowing down your travels. One of the reasons I am happy to be retired and in the second half of my life is that I finally have the time to do this.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Driving through Northern Illinois - Random acts and planned stops

Main Branch of the Joliet Library - Joliet Limestone

Driving through the northern stretch of Illinois was an experience of planning and randomness. I planned to visit the Joliet and a small museum in the town of Freeport. In between these stops, I allowed my GPS to plan my route, with its only command being “Avoid Highways”

Joliet Illinois

Joliet is a city of almost 150,000 people that sits along the Des Plains River. All I knew about it was that there was a state prison there. When I arrived on a Saturday morning, the downtown area was fairly deserted. This gave me a chance to walk around the historic district and take photos without crowds. Apparently I was not the only person looking to take advantage of this fact as there was a photography class or club out taking pictures. 

Joliet’s earliest industry was providing limestone to the construction industry in Chicago. Limestone was shipped down the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which ran from Chicago, along the Des Planes River to the Fox River, which allowed access to the Mississippi River. Limestone from the Joliet area was used in the construction of public and private buildings throughout the Chicago area.

The M&I Canal also allowed the development of the steel industry in Joliet. The canal allowed for the easy shipping of iron ore to Joliet and of steel products out to the rest of the country. Today this industry is mostly gone. The largest employers in Joliet are the healthcare industry and education.

There are reasons to stop and see this city. In Downtown Joliet there are wonderful buildings that are covered in Joliet Limestone. One great example is the Main Branch of the Joliet Public Library. Opened in December of 1903, this is a beautiful place dedicated to books and education. 

Another historic building is the Rialto Square Theater. Built in 1926, the Rialto was billed as “A Palace for the People.” And it is. Its inner lobby was designed after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. It was built as a vaudeville movie house with an organ, whose console could be raised and lowered and an orchestra pit for live music. Unlike many of the movie palaces in other cities, the Rialto was never split into small theaters, and it operates today as a venue for live music.

Joliet also has a very good historic society museum - The Joliet Area Historical Museum, which also includes a Route 66 museum. The museum includes a series of excellent movies about the history of the area, many artifacts and a special exhibit hall that was presenting a history of Science Fiction in art when I visited.

Joliet Area Historical Museum

Joliet Jake

Lounge at the Route 66 Museum

Freeport IL

Freeport is probably best known as place where the second Lincoln-Douglas debate took place. But what drew me here was a small art museum. If you have been reading my blog for a while, it might be obvious that I have a thing for small museums, and the Freeport Art Museum is that. It really typifies what a small local art museum can be. Housed in a former elementary school, the museum has galleries dedicated to European, American, Native American, Asian and African art. These collection offer a good introduction to these areas. It also offers a space to local artists who may not have made a name for themselves yet. When I visited in July there were two special exhibits. One was an exhibit of masks created by the Momentum Art Group, a local artist’s collective. Each member created a mask, using the media of their choice, to represent their vision. The other exhibit was a photography exhibit around the theme of “The Nature of Masculinity”. One piece in this exhibition that really moved me was Modern David by Mariah Karson. Starting with the idea that Michelangelo’s David represents the ideal male body, Ms. Karson put out a call for men named David, and has created a gallery of David’s, representing the real male body, in all of its diversity.

Freeport Art Museum

Transformation by Ellen R Bartels

Historic Route 66 by Donna Burton Klapp

Modern David by Mariah Karson

On Random Travel

In an earlier piece I mentioned the fact that on this trip is basically set a destination and gave my GPS the instruction “Avoid Highways.” This instruction, along with the GPS programming to find the fastest route kept me off of the Interstate, and also off of many major roads, like U.S. 20. My navigator took me down many a county and country road, back roads through corn and soy fields and very small towns, like West Brooklyn IL, home to 192 people.

  “Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.”

I drove across a highway, and in the distance I saw some windmills. As I continued on the number of windmills grew, until there were several dozen. My path took me around the edge of the wind farm, but it did pass through part of it, and I got to see some the windmills up close. These giants of the prairie are beautiful and awe inspiring. I have always had an interest in large engineering projects, and modern windmills dwarf their surroundings.

These were fortuitous encounters. I did not plan them, I didn’t know either one was there until I happened upon them. These discoveries are an insight into the day to day life of the places I travel through. I always feel that I learn something when I drive through areas that I didn’t know before. They put a smile on face.  It is these types of discoveries that keep me off of the interstate whenever possible.