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Early development moved slowly in the area that is now Bettendorf. Once home to the villages of Lillienthal and Gilbert, the area may have stayed a sleepy rural village if not for the arrival of two brothers and their industrial ambitions.
Brothers William and Joseph Bettendorf revolutionized an industry and changed the landscape of the Quad Cities in the process. William left home at age thirteen and found a niche designing farm machinery. His first invention, the power-lift sulky plow, made life a lot easier for farmers; he added a simple gear mechanism which allowed the operator to lift the blade out of the ground while seated. William also designed an all-metal plow wheel; he was lured to Davenport in 1886 to construct a factory to build them. His younger brother, Joseph, joined him in Davenport to help run the business. For nearly twenty-five years, the Bettendorf brothers worked together in remarkable harmony—William as the inventor genius and Joseph with the business smarts.
The Bettendorfs suffered major setbacks in 1902 when fires destroyed their Davenport factory. Community leaders in Gilbert jumped on the opportunity. They collected $15,000 to purchase a large tract of land along the river and offered the land, free of cost, to the Bettendorfs. They accepted. In April 1903, grateful residents voted to incorporate under the name Bettendorf.
Initially, the Bettendorf Company built steel wagon gears and metal parts for farm machinery. Business exploded after William designed a railroad car that was cast in a single mold. Before William’s invention, railroad cars were constructed of several different parts that were bolted together and therefore had limited durability. William’s invention was more stable and proved very popular with the railroads. It also made him and his brother very wealthy.
The number of Bettendorf employees grew from 300 in 1903 to 3000 by 1920. Many of the early workers were Armenian and Greek immigrants. During World War I, however, the Bettendorfs faced serious labor shortages. They responded by actively recruiting hundreds of workers from Mexico. Most of the Mexicans who arrived in Bettendorf lived in housing that was built by the company near the river. Their neighborhood eventually became known as Holy City, perhaps because many of the workers were renamed “Jesus” by company employees who did not speak Spanish well enough to understand their real names. The neighborhood was devastated by a flood in 1926, but descendents of many of those workers still live in the region.
The Bettendorf Company peaked between 1903 and 1933. Their success gave them the capital to purchase other businesses, like the Micro Company that successfully developed and marketed a bread-slicing machine that was sold to commercial bakeries around the world. Early machines for slicing bread had been developed by a few bakeries in Davenport, but the Micro Company gets credit for spreading the technology around the world. Yes, you could say sliced bread was invented in the Quad Cities.
Even with its manufacturing prowess and diversified interests, the Bettendorf Company was hit hard by the Depression—the factory closed in 1932 and Joseph died the following year. The complex was used to manufacture tanks in World War II, then sold to the J.I. Case Company before being demolishing in the 1950s for the construction of the second of the Twin Bridges. William Bettendorf, son of Joseph, sold the last of the Bettendorf business interests in 1953, retiring the Bettendorf name from local industry. The town of Bettendorf has evolved from a gritty industrial town into a bedroom community, with a standard of living substantially higher than its neighbors.
Pigeon Creek Park (6729 Shutters Lane; 563.344.4113), hidden behind an industrial park and a small subdivision, has a short hiking trail along the river and plenty of good spots to fish. It is closed to hikers between November and March to protect the habitat of bald eagles.
Rivermont Collegiate (1821 Sunset Dr; 563.359.1366; tours by appointment) is housed in the dignified mansion built for Joseph Bettendorf. The English Manor-inspired house was completed in 1915 on a seventeen-acre estate high on a bluff overlooking the river and the Bettendorf factory. The mansion was passed on to Joseph’s son, William, where he raised his family. He sold the estate in 1959 to the Marist Society of D.C. which used it to house priests-in-training. In 1973, Rivermont Collegiate purchased the house. Rivermont was founded in 1884 as St. Katherine’s, a boarding school for girls, and is now a non-sectarian private school educating girls and boys from preschool through high school; the mansion is part administrative office and part classroom.
The first floor still looks much as it was built and will give you a good sense of the Bettendorf tastes, including beautiful wood inlays, marble floors, an intricately carved staircase, and ceilings decorated with canvas paintings that were shipped to the mansion in finished form and installed. The south side of the house has a cement staircase guarded by well-sculpted marble dogs. One curiosity about the mansion is that none of the fireplaces are functional. According to one story, Joseph suffered an eye injury during a blaze at his factory, which left him with a healthy fear of fire. When he built the mansion, he had fireplaces installed, but he insisted that they be decorative only. There is also a guest house on site that has a room decorated in an Egyptian theme. Rivermont Collegiate is happy to provide guided tours if you call in advance; summers are especially good times for tours as no classes are in session.
The Family Museum (2900 Learning Campus Dr.; 563.344.4106) lives up to its name. Home to a collection of interactive exhibits about science and nature, such as Amazing Acres, where you can touch a ten-foot tornado or Busy Bodies where you can learn about the human body. Pre-teens will not be bored.
Bettendorf is home for the Isle of Capri Casino (1777 Isle Parkway; 800.843.4753), 35,000 square feet of casino action with nearly a thousand slot machines and 20 gaming tables. The new complex, completely land-based as of late June 2016, includes a 500-room hotel, restaurants, and a marina.
Bettendorf is included in these products:
Ross’ 24-hour Family Restaurant (2297 Falcon St.; 563.355.7573) is what family diners used to be like. The namesake Ross was the type of quick-witted character you hope to chat with over your morning coffee. One of his favorite gimmicks was serving bologna sandwiches on Election Day. How can you not respect that? If you are craving waffles in the morning or a fried banana split at 3 a.m., this is your place. If you are really hungry, try to scale the Magic Mountain, two feet of ground beef and fries atop Texas toast and drippin’ with cheese sauce. Maybe it just seems like two-feet tall. Heck, they even have a bike rack. You’ll need the extra exercise after eating here.
Waterfront Deli (1813 Kimberly; 563.359.4300) serves tasty sandwiches on bread baked in-house and freshly-prepared salads.
Harris Pizza (2520 18th St.; 563.344.8727) created a style of pizza that is ubiquitous in the Quad Cities—cheesy, medium-thick crispy crust, slightly sweet and herby tomato sauce, and sometimes outlandish ingredients. Sure, you can get your basic pepperoni and mushroom, but why would you when you could have the Three Alarm Pizza (BBQ sauce, jalapeños, onions, and pepper jack cheese)? Don’t forget the antacids. Harris Pizza has several locations around the Quad Cities.
Red Crow Grille (2504 53rd Ave.; 563.332.2370) offers a fine-dining experience that emphasizes high quality, seasonal ingredients.
Whitey’s Ice Cream is a local institution that makes some of the best darn ice cream you will find, anywhere. They have several stores around town, most of which are not along the River Road. In Bettendorf, check out the store at 3515 Middle Road (563.332.4189).
The Twin Bridges Motor Inn (221 15th St.; 563.355.6451) has 68 tidy budget rooms near the Isle of Capri Casino. Patrons at the on-site bar occasionally get a bit loud.
The 500+ rooms at the nearby Isle of Capri (1777 Isle Parkway; 800.843.4753) are pricier but put you in the middle of the casino action.
• Post Office: 4439 Devils Glen Road; 563.332.6164.
• Bettendorf Public Library: 2950 Learning Campus Dr.; 563.344.4175.
Heading upriver? Check out Riverdale.
Heading downriver? Check out Davenport.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009