Downtown Winterset, Iowa. Image credit dustin77a via Shutterstock

These Historic Towns in Iowa Are Worth Exploring

The Midwest state of Iowa is celebrated for its dreamy fields, postcard-pretty farms, and a lovely quality of life. Lying just west of the Mississippi River, across from Wisconsin and Illinois, few states embody the spirit of pioneers and do-it-yourself homesteading like Iowa, which joined the Union in 1846. The state's other histories barely fit inside its borders: immigrant pioneers from Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland; movie inspiration from baseball to Madison County's bridges; and western icons like Bill Cody and John Wayne. Iowa's contributions to America's larger history are essential and unique, making the state a must-see for all history-minded travelers.

Clear Lake

Historic downtown of Clear Lake, Iowa.
Historic downtown of Clear Lake, Iowa. Image credit Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Clear Lake, with 7,500 souls, is as good as its name is meant to suggest. The town lies along the banks of the lake of the same name and hosts several marinas, waterside recreation areas, and lakeside properties. The town, first settled in 1851, also boasts ties to American popular music. A founding member of the classic rock band Little Feat hails from here. In a more somber page of music history, Clear Lake's Surf Ballroom was the last place in 1959 that rock'n'roll legend Buddy Holly and others performed before their airplane crashed, killing all on board. Today, the town has a "Buddy Holly Place," named in the singer's honor. The Surf Ballroom and Museum welcomes visitors and rock fans today.

For fresh air, head to Clear Lake itself. Campers and picnickers enjoy McIntosh Woods State Park and Clear Lake State Park, both on the water. Animal lovers might like the Ventura Marsh Wildlife Management Area at the lake's western end.


Historic home in Le Claire, Iowa
Historic home in Le Claire, Iowa. Image credit Kepper66, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

LeClaire, population 4,700, is a quaint destination on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Incorporated in 1855, its name is derived from Antoine LeClaire, a French-Canadian métis trader (of mixed European and Indigenous descent) and an early settler here. The town is also the birthplace of entertainer Buffalo Bill Cody, and today, LeClaire's Cody Road Historic District gives visitors a stirring taste of the town's frontier beginnings. The Buffalo Bill Museum celebrates Cody's legacy and the West he helped Americans romanticize and remember, then and ever since.

Today, LeClaire forms part of the Quad Cities economic district, known for its beer brewing, casinos, and river cruises. One such cruise takes place aboard the Riverboat Twilight, a 19th-century vessel re-fitted for tourist groups seeking a little history and a lot of fun.


The Allen House Dyersville, Iowa
The Allen House Dyersville, Iowa. Image credit Boscophotos, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dyersville, an east-central town with 4,600 inhabitants, is beloved as the film location for "Field of Dreams," a 1989 hit movie about baseball, which has spurred tourism to the town for the past 35 years. But Dyersville's earlier stories are no less intriguing. Immigrants from Germany came here in the 1840s, and later others, like James Dyer, an English hotelier who eventually inspired the town's name.

Today, Dyersville welcomes visitors to the National Farm Toy Museum, named after the miniature farm-themed toy industry the town began in the 1940s. For time outdoors, try Westside Park downtown; golf fans can swing at Rolling Knolls Gold Course or Dyersville Golf and Country Club.


Pleasant View Post Office, Winterset, Iowa.
Pleasant View Post Office, Winterset, Iowa.

Winterset, in southwestern Madison County, has 5,500 inhabitants and lies about 40 miles south of Des Moines. Like Dyersville, The town has inspired movies and fan visits for years. Winterset is known especially for its covered bridges, and today, the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway draws drivers, cyclists, and other visitors. "The Bridges of Madison County," a romantic movie from 1995, has brought curious visitors to town since its release. The movie is based on a 1992 book of the same name by writer Robert James Waller, which has been called one of the bestselling novels of the 20th century, with 50 million copies sold.

Winterset's connection to Hollywood stems from another, older source: the town is the birthplace of western movie icon John Wayne. The town's John Wayne Birthplace Museum remembers his many accomplishments.


Downtown McGregor, Iowa.
Downtown McGregor, Iowa. Image credit Peter Van den Bossche from Mechelen, Belgium, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The tiny town called McGregor, population just 700, wears its history on its sleeve. Incorporated in 1857 and lying on the western shore of the Mississippi, just over the river from Wisconsin, the town developed alongside a trading post and riverboat landing. Today, the town enjoys a reputation as a haven for antiquing and avid artifact-hunters, especially in the McGregor Historic Commercial District, a part of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Summer is McGregor's high season, but the town maintains a busy festival calendar, from its annual autumn fair to its winter holiday Festival of Trees. Year-round tourists visit McGregor for its historical museum and local highlights like Pikes Peak State Park and the Effigy Mounds National Monument, a  Native American site of traditional burial mounds or dirt tombs.

Elk Horn

Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa.
Danish Windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa.

Elk Horn, a quiet hamlet of just 600 inhabitants, has earned its place among Iowa's quaintest towns. Incorporated in 1910, the town, halfway between Des Moines and Omaha, Nebraska, takes its name from the nearby Elk Horn Creek. Like Dyersville, Elk Horn boasts a proud pioneer history, tracing back to its early Danish settlers. Elk Horn's Museum of Danish America honors the diaspora's contributions to Iowa's founding and development. Other signs of Scandinavian-inspired culture abound around town, from the Elk Horn Lutheran Church to the bar, Norse Horse Tavern.

Elk Horn also has a famous Danish Wind Mill, another example of its Scandinavian heritage. The town imported the entire structure from Denmark in 1976. Tourists can also seek the Viking House, which reconstructs an old Scandinavian dwelling.


Elkader Downtown Historic District
Elkader Downtown Historic District. Image credit Kevin Schuchmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If its name sounds like Elk Horn, the town of Elkader has a decidedly different history. Population a modest 1,200, the northeastern town, founded in 1846, takes its unusual name from an unusual figure: Abd el-Kader, a leader in Algeria's 19th-century fight against French colonial conquest.

Sitting along the Turkey River, Elkader makes up part of Iowa's "Little Switzerland" area, named that way for the immigrant pioneer communities that populated the region. The business, Wilke's, is the oldest continuously operating grocery store west of the Mississippi. Elkader's downtown, which features local history museums, an opera house, and several stately homes, has been listed on the NRHP since 2012. For recreation, head to Mascara Park and Turkey River Park, both along the water.

Iowa's Small Towns Beg For Exploration

Given the layers of history Iowa has given to its region and to the United States, travelers should not be surprised that so many fascinating stories live on in the Midwestern state. The descendants of immigrant pioneers have come a long way since the hardscrabble days of prairie life, and Iowans today maintain a state of rich cultural and natural attractions. Its registered historic places, from McGregor's old commercial district to Elkader's stately buildings, offer even more to attract visitors and all the history buffs.

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