Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Going Off The Road


Tim and I left the Great River Road temporarily for a detour to Forest City, Iowa where Winnebago RVs are manufactured.


Tim wanted to tour their factory and I had no choice but to come along.  Not that I'm complaining; it's pretty amazing to see how these homes on wheels are made.  Plus, Tim allowed me to plot our course to some interesting places along the way.


With our first stop being the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, we added another presidential library to the list of those we've already visited.

Cartoon on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

I think we Americans have denigrated Hoover as the president who failed to bring the United States out of the Great Depression, but after visiting here, I have a new respect for him.

This two-room cottage is where Hoover was born.

I never knew that he was raised by his maternal aunt and uncle after his Quaker parents died.

Herbert Hoover, Age 3
Photo on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Nor did I know that after graduating from Stanford, he made a fortune as a mining engineer working for companies in Western Australia and China and later as an independent mining consultant who traveled the world until the start of World War I.

Herbert Hoover
Photo on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

By 1914 with wealth more than $4 million, Hoover used his a portion of his fortune to organize an unprecedented relief effort for the hungry citizens of Belgium who were caught between the warring nations of Germany and France.  This earned him world-wide recognition as "The Great Humanitarian," notoriety that brought him to his first elected office, the presidency in 1928.  Yet, within a few short months, the global hero had become a scapegoat in his own land eventually losing his bid for re-election in 1932.

President Harry Truman with former President Herbert Hoover
Photo on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Still, when President Harry Truman invited Hoover to undertake a post-World War II global relief effort, Hoover did what he did best, rescue those ravaged by war.


Next stop, Cedar Rapids, Iowa!  There Tim accompanied me to see the loft studio of Grant Wood.

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930 [Oil on beaver board], The Chicago Institute of Art,.

This was where the artist painted American Gothic in 1930, a painting that reminds me of my grandparents.  The farmer above is almost a dead ringer of my paternal grandfather.


Famous for wearing farmer's bib overalls, Wood lived here with his mother and often his sister as well while he created the paintings that soon linked his name with other Regionalist artists like Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry.


After seeing Wood's studio, who could resist visiting Cedar Rapids Museum of Art where the world's largest collection of Wood's paintings may be found?  Tim, that's who!  A little dose of art is enough for him, but he graciously allowed me 30 minutes to visit the museum while he sat in the car, checking his email.

Grant Wood, Young Corn, 1931 [Oil on masonite], Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

My favorite was Wood's bird's eye view of a corn field in his Young Corn painting.  The precision of the corn plants on the rolling hills vies with the puffy trees for your attention and almost overwhelms the farm family figures below.  After traveling halfway across Iowa with its miles and miles of corn fields, I could understand why Wood would choose corn for his subject.  Such fields are everywhere!

Grant Wood, The Mourner's Bench, 1921-1922 [Oak, carved and stained] Cedar Rapids  Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

His "Mourning Bench" especially caught my eye as an example of his sense of humor.  He carved the three woeful and crying children's heads for the bench while the rest was made with the help of his art students from McKinley Junior High School.  As a former middle school teacher myself, I could imagine the warm relationships he forged with his students.

The Historic Park Inn Hotel

Passing through Mason City, Iowa, we stopped at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  His commission here was to build a bank, a hotel and law office in one unified building that would anchor a downtown corner in this small county-seat community.


The result is vintage Prairie School: a long, low look with an overhanging roof and his signature windows.



Windows, however, are what's missing from the ground floor of the bank he added to the east side of the structure.  That ploy gives the bank a vault-like appearance, a "strong box," indicative of the building's purpose.  The hotel reopened its doors to the public in 2011, following a 18.5 million-dollar renovation that added en suite baths to rooms where no two are alike.


Finally, the law office on the second floor is now a quiet spot for hotel guests to read or work.


Then on to the Winnebago factory tour, the main reason for this side jaunt.  There we were tempted to buy this new Class B recreational vehicle, a miniature model of the real van.  At least, its price fit our pocketbook!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Nothing Runs Like a Deere!


Visiting Moline, Illinois on our Great River Road excursion gave Tim and I the opportunity of a lifetime.  A tour of the John Deere Harvester Works!  At least, that’s how my brother Jon who has taken over the management of our family farm in Kansas would view it.



And it was interesting to see just how those behemoth machines with their 45-foot long headers are put together.  Only I wouldn’t want to meet one on a narrow country road.  Whoa!  Wait a second!  This past wheat harvest I did encounter three of these combines in a convoy on the country road that leads to our farm.  And I was the one who had to back up to the mile line in order to let them pass.  But I digress.


When we arrived at the John Deere facility, we were told we couldn’t take any photos during the tour. I guess posting such information on my blog would reveal secrets to raiders from competitors and even to foreign companies who’d like to steal U.S. technology.  So I put away my cellphone and climbed aboard a tram ready for a guided tour through a factory that is the size of 11 football fields.  It’s also the cleanest factory I’ve ever seen and believe me!  Tim has dragged me along on six RV factory tours so I do have some experience to back up this claim.

Laser-cutting machines from Switzerland make cuts with infinitesimal accuracy.  Fifty-thousand-pound combines move smoothly from one station to the next suspended on a pulley that propels them along with ease. Welders and riveters with years of experience joined together more than 18,500 pieces.  Finally, the finished machines were dipped in several baths of the trademark green paint before a triple-jointed robotic arm gave them the final touch-up.


All John Deere combines are sold before they are built, either to an individual farmer or to a dealer; none are made on spec.  If you want a new John Deere combine, be prepared to wait six months for your order to reach the backlogged assembly line.  However, once work is begun, it takes only ten days to build one.  That’s how fast the workers here can churn them out. 


Then, for approximately $650,000, you Tim could drive a brand spanking-new combine off the assembly line, filled with more electronics on board than the first space shuttle, and take it home.   However, if you turn the key, and despite hundreds of inspections done along the line, the combine fails to start, our tour guide joked that they’d bring it around the corner and paint it red, a jab at the machines of their competitor Case.



Personally, Tim!  I think these combine seats (circa the mid-1900s) are more your style.

Just as an aside: While we waited for the tour to begin, I had texted Jon to tell him where we were and to ask him if he’d like for me to bring one home for him.  He replied, “Bring two!  One for wheat harvest and another with an 18-row header to harvest corn!”

In your dreams, Jon!  In your dreams!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Lucky At Lock 15!


When I programmed our Jeep's GPS for a stop at the Mississippi River Visitors Center on Arsenal Island (originally called Rock Island for which the nearby Illinois city got its name), our car ended up at the wrong entrance.  There are only two ways on and off Arsenal Island, America's largest government-owned arsenal, and one of those, the one we chose, is permanently closed.


So we had to cross the Government Bridge, a 1896 twin deck structure that carries both rail (upper level) and road traffic on the lower, into Davenport; circle through Bettendorf and come back across the river to the Moline, Illinois entrance.


Luckily for us, there wasn't a barge going through Lock & Dam 15 when we took our circuitous detour.


Otherwise, we might have been stuck on the Government Bridge for two hours while the swing section of the bridge turned 360 degrees to allow the barges through.

As it was, the military policeman at the Moline entrance gate directed us to the visitors control center.  There Tim and I had to undergo background checks before gaining passes that would allow us on the base.

But all this delay was fortuitous for when we arrived at the lock, a twelve barge tow loaded with grain to the equivalent of 840 semi-trucks was approaching the gates.


First, we saw a towboat come through the lock on its way to help the approaching barge tow.






Lining up to the lock's walls, the towboat at the rear of the convoy slowly nudged the twelve barges into position.



Because twelve barges cannot fit in the lock all at the same time, the crew had to uncoupled the cables holding the first six barges to the second.




Then the captain of the rear towboat reversed out of the lock, dragging the back six barges with him beyond the upper gate.




With the top and bottom gates of the lock now closed, water was released through the values until the water level equaled the downstream river.


The lower gate was opened and the first six floated through only to be tied up below.


The process was repeated for the rear barges.


Finally, the crew roped the two sets of barges together again and off they went down the river.  From start to finish, this process could take two hours to complete.  Since we were free until noon, we stayed to watch it all.

So did the unwitting carloads of people stuck on the Government Bridge for the duration of the maneuver.


As I said, we were the lucky ones!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

From the Tri-States to the Quad Cities

Back on The Great River Road, Tim and I jumped across the Mississippi River several times

All aboard the George M. Verity Towboat

in one day as
the two of us drove from Hannibal through
the Tri-State area (Missouri, Iowa and Illinois) to
the Quad Cities (Davenport and Battendorf, Iowa / Rock Island and Moline, Illinois),
stopping at attractions in five river towns (Keokuk, IA; Nauvoo, IL; Burlington, IA; Fort Madison, IA and Muscatine, IA).

All of that added up to another fun and very informative day on The Great River Road.

The George M. Verity Riverboat Museum in Keokuk, IA

The George M. Verity Riverboat Museum in Keokuk, Iowa was our first stop.  I was expecting a history museum, but this was the real deal, a 1927 towboat.  A very knowledgeable young docent took us through the boat all the way from stem to the stern.


Before we left, Tim climbed into the pilot's chair to try his luck at navigating the Mississippi.

Upper right, clockwise: The Homestead of Joseph Smith, Jr.; Nauvoo House; The Mansion; The Nauvoo Temple
Center: The gravestone of Joseph Smith, Jr.

Next stop, Nauvoo!  This was a sanctuary city for Mormons who were forced to leave Missouri by order of the governor in 1838-1839.  It was also the departure point for those who followed Brigham Young west to Utah's Great Salt Lake Valley.  This small Illinois town where prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. is buried near the banks of the Mississippi has over 30 historic buildings.  We only took time to look at a few.


Fort Madison was the first established trading post cum frontier fort in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.  Built in 1808, the fort was burned with the encouragement of British agents during the War of 1812 by a band of Indians led by Fox warrior Black Hawk.  What we saw was a replica of the original fort at our stop in Fort Madison, Iowa.

If you've ever been stopped by a passing train at a railroad crossing, chances are you've seen a locomotive of the BNSF Railway, one of the largest freight train networks in America.  BNSF stands for Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, but it's roots lie in Burlington, Iowa where the first all-metal railroad bridge across the Mississippi was built in 1868.  My dad who loves all things trains would have been so disappointed if I didn't stop here to learn more about the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, the beginnings of the BNSF.

The Des Moines County Heritage Center
Notice the exceptionally beautiful "Hypatia" stained glass window in the lower left.  

The best place to do that was the Des Moines County Heritage Center housed in the beautiful former Burlington Public Library.


Historian Richard Overton wrote, "From the time that Charles Elliott Perkins became vice president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy [in 1876]...until he resigned as president in 1901, he was the Burlington.  This was the railroad that carried immigrants to settle the western territories listed in the poster above.  Because Tim and I met while living in Colorado Springs, I found it interesting to learn that Perkins purchased 240 acres for a summer home in an area called Garden of the Gods.  His summer home he never built and after his death in 1907, his children deeded the land to the city in 1909, stipulating that it should be used as a public park and called "Garden of the Gods."


Before leaving Burlington, the lady in charge of the museum recommended we drive down Snake Alley once recognized by Ripley's Believe It or Not as the "Crookedest Street in the World."  The alley pre-dates San Francisco's Lombard Street and tops its slant of 1000 degrees.  Never one to turn down a challenge, Tim pointed our Jeep 1100 degrees downward as he turned from end to end while I grabbed the door handle and gritted my teeth.  And somehow we made it to the bottom all in one piece.


Our final stop before we reached our hotel in Moline, Illinois was the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa.  I never knew that nearly 37% of the world's buttons were once manufactured here in the "Pearl Button Capitol of the World" using mussel shells from the Mississippi River.  However, by the 1950s and 1960s with the depletion of mussels and the advent of Bakelite and plastic buttons, the halcyon days of Muscatine's button factories were over.

By that time, our day was over, too.  We found our hotel and luckily, it had a coin-op washer and dryer.  Time to wash clothes before hitting the hay!