Road Trip Through History: The Things We Missed on the Great River Road, Part 2

For those of you who are coming in late, My Own True Love and I recently took a week-long road trip along the northern leg of the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. We drove north to the river’s headwaters in Lake Itasca and then worked our way south to the Minnesota-Iowa border, stopping at anything that caught our attention.*

We saw a lot of fascinating things, but there were also plenty of things we missed, including:

  • The Friday night country swing dance at Huckleberry Finn’s restaurant in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin—which occurred right across the street from the hotel we stayed in. We’re already plotting to make that dance our first night out when we drive the next stretch of the road. A dance is a terrible thing to waste.
  • A number of small historical sites related to the days when Minnesota had active iron mines, most notably the Croft Mine Historical Park. It’s built on the site of the the Croft Mine, which was an active underground ore mine from 1916 to 1934 and includes a simulated tour of an underground mine. This is the sort of thing my nerdy heart delights in.
  • The Forest History Center near Grand Rapids, run by the Minnesota Historical Society. I must admit, this is the one I most regret because, as I realized over the course of the week, I know next to nothing about logging. Exhibits include a living history replica of a nineteenth century logging camp and a fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
  • The Charles Lindbergh House and History Center at Little Falls and the Sinclair Lewis Historic Site in Sauk Center.
  • The Twin Cities: because realistically, we could have spent the entire week in Minneapolis and St. Paul. We’ll be back.

For the most part, the things we failed to see were the result of a fundamental scheduling problem. Many of Minnesota’s historical sites and tourist draws close or reduce their hours to weekends-only immediately after Labor Day. Because of the constraints of our own schedules, we were there a month too late. On the other hand, if you wait for the perfect time to make a trip, you may never go anywhere.

As the week went on, however, we became aware of one thing we weren’t seeing because it didn’t seem to be there: information on the history and culture of the Native American peoples of the region, specifically the Ojibwe and Dakota. At best the various historical sites and museums that we visited gave us hints of events, half-told stories, and broad generalities. I wanted the same level of detail that was devoted to say, the mining industry. If you know of museums or historical sites that would help us fill the gap, let me know.  In the meantime,  I’m making a reading list.

We’re not done with the Great River Road: the stretch from Iowa to Arkansas remains as yet unexplored. Next up, Indian mounds in northern Iowa!

Travel Tips:

We made several fabulous stops that were not exactly historical, but that I strongly recommend:

  • The National Eagle Center at Wabasha, Minnesota—Excellent exhibits and a close up view of rescued eagles.
  • The Red Wing Shoe Museum—Unexpectedly fascinating. The history of an iconic American company, an introduction to how boots are made, different ways to evaluate a pair of boots, and profiles of Red Wing boot wearers. Be warned: you’re apt to fall in love with an expensive pair of boots in the store downstairs from the museum. I’m saving my pennies.
  • Red Wing Pottery—A tour of a working pottery. (Soup bowls are cheaper than boots.)


* If I haven’t said it before, kudos to Minnesota for making it easy to stay on the Great River Road. Great signage, people.  We almost didn’t need a map.

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