Road Trip Through History: The Sawmill Museum at Clinton, Iowa

The Sawmill Museum at Clinton, Iowa, was our last stop on this year’s Great River Road adventure—and a fitting stop it was. Logging was a recurring theme this year and last year. Beginning in Lake Itasca in Minnesota almost every local historical museum or GRR interpretive center has had at least one panel on logging.* The Sawmill Museum tells the story from the perspective of the people who milled the logs rather than the people who cut them. Or at least from the perspective of the people who hired the people who actually milled the logs.

The museum looks at the broader history of America’s lumber industry through Clinton’s local history, which is a classic example of an American town’s boom and bust, lumber baron-style. ** Located at a conjunction of the railroads and the Mississippi, Clinton was a powerhouse in the logging industry in the second half of the nineteen century. Between 1865 and 1900, one-third of the lumber produced in the United States was processed in Clinton. And because it was a lumber center, it was a center of other industry as well. The twin cities of Clinton and Lyons bustled with sawmills, flour mills, finishing mills, distilleries, carriage and wagon shops, and foundries.

Here are the things that caught my imagination:

  • The story of how a group of mill owners in Iowa and Illinois created a lumber empire by controlling both supply and production along the Mississippi—told in part by the lumber barons themselves in the form of a set of animatronic talking heads in conversation with each other. Effective story telling, though a little creepy.
  • An in-house small scale milling operation, with seven volunteer sawyers who process trees into lumber, then turn it into wooden items for the museum’s gift shop.  Nothing beats seeing the equipment in action
  • Anne Paulina Crepin, a French woman who patented the first modern band saw blade in 1846. The band saw itself was invented by an Englishman, William Newberry, in 1809 but it didn’t work because existing blades couldn’t hold up to sawing. (A fundamental flaw by any standard.)  Crepin’s design used a new technique for welding a blade that overcame the problem, making the band saw a viable tool.
  • Crepin’s band saw was powered by a goat on a treadmill. Apparently animals on treadmills were used to power a number of small machines in mid-19th century America. Who knew?

Hopefully we’ll hit the Great River Road again in 2020.

* I still regret missing the Forestry History Center at Grand Rapids Minnesota. It was already closed for the season by the time we got there last year.  One of the hazards of traveling in the fall.

**If you want to get a deeper understanding of lumber barons and other nineteenth century monopolists, the museum’s director, Matt Parbs recommended a book that’s been on my mental to-read list for a long time now: Richard C. White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Obviously it’s about railroads, not the lumber industry. But he suggests that the mind set is the same.


Pro tip: If you walk around a small museum obviously taking notes, sooner or later at lease one member of the staff will come talk to you. This is almost always a good thing because they tend to be passionate and knowledgeable. They also can tell you the best place to eat lunch nearby.  Always a hot topic as far as we’re concerned.

Road Trip Through History: The National Brewery Museum

Some museums are the road trip equivalent of a destination wedding: you plan the trip for the purpose of visiting that museum. Some museums are must-sees. (Though I must admit that we’ve missed a few of those on previous Great River Road adventures because of scheduling difficulties. *Sigh*) And others are a fun stop when they fall in your path. The National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin, was in the last category.*

Here were some of my takeaways:

The museum used the history of thePotosi Brewing Company, which originally operated between 1852 and 1972, to tell two related stories: the effect of Prohibition on small breweries and the transformation of the American brewing industry from hundreds of local breweries to big national companies. The Potosi Brewing Company survived Prohibition, and the Great Depression, thanks to some smart choices about how to diversify. They were not so lucky when it came to the move away from local breweries.

Transportation was as much a part of the story as the beer itself, from horse-drawn carts to the interstate (As an aside, the Potosi Brewing Company was the only brewery in the country that owned its own steamboat, which they used to deliver beer to Dubuque. They also had room for 100 passengers and would take people on river outings, presumably with beer.)

An hysterical video about the use of cowboys in beer commercials, including one with John Wayne. As far as I was concerned, it was almost worth the stop all by itself. I watched it twice and was tempted to watch it a third time. (I tried to find an on-line clip to share, with no luck Instead I offer you this one, which is also pretty funny:

(REMINDER: If you’re reading this via email you may have to move to your browser to see the clip.)

Some unexpected history of brewers and WWII:

  • Beer can production for public consumption in the United States ceased in 1942, because tin and steel was critical to the war effort. It took a couple of years, but the government finally realized that the ability to get American beer would be a morale booster to the troops. In 1944, the military contracted with 35 major breweries to produce bee in non-reflective olive-drab-colored cans.
  • Advocates of prohibition, who obviously did not share the image of beer as a morale booster, saw the war as a second chance. Brewers fought back by printing and distributing informational materials such as civil defense manuals and booklets on how to handle air raids, blackout procedures etc. They also added special neck labels to beer bottles urging their customers to buy war bonds. In the face of such relentless helpfulness, prohibition advocates didn’t stand a chance.


Definitely worth the stop.

* If you’re seriously interested in the ephemera of brewery advertising, you should move the museum higher up on your personal list.


Travelers’ tip: The National Brewing Museum is sponsored in part by the revived Potosi Brewing Company, which has a brew pup at the museum. Your museum ticket includes a pint of beer. The food is good, the beer is better. And the root beer is amazing.

Has It Really Been Thirty Years? The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thirty years ago, on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell, or more accurately was torn down.* In memory of that event, I offer a [lightly edited] version of a post I ran in 2016.

Berlin Wall

By Edward Valachovic, thanks to a Creative Commons license

Last week while we all blew noisemakers and wore party hats to celebrate the the 100th anniversary of America’s National Park Service, we let another anniversary slip by with less fanfare. On August 26, 1961, the Berlin Wall became more than just a barbed wire and cinder block barricade.

If you want a vivid and detailed description of the construction and impact of the wall, I recommend reading Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake. Here’s the short version:

Construction of the wall began on August 12–a Soviet response to the thousands of East Germans who fled to the western sectors of Berlin. It was now illegal to cross the wall and border guards were instructed to shoot anyone who tried. On August 24, twenty-four-year-old Günter Litfin became the first East German to be shot as he tried to escape to the West. Two days later, West Berliners were forbidden from crossing into the East.

The wall stood as an international symbol of oppression until November, 1989. Many (most?) of us watched with tears of joy when East Berliners destroyed the wall with their own hands.*


The reunification of the two German states into a single Germany is in many ways incomplete. But the destruction of that wall remains a symbol of hope.  To quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”





*I’ve reached the point where I always question anything historical event that is described as a fall. The term always seems to be shorthand for something more complicated. In this case it erases agency.
**I still tear up just typing these words.