McGregor is a special 21st century river town, one in which the past feels connected to the present. Don’t rush yourself here. Take time to stroll Main Street, chat with locals, eat a meal, hike at Pikes Peak State Park, and grab some z’s at one of the cozy guesthouses in town.
Get all your questions answered at the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce (146 Main St.; 800.896.0910/563.873.2186).
The future town of McGregor began in 1837 when Alexander MacGregor, born in New York to Scottish immigrants, started ferry service to Prairie du Chien. For the next 20 years, few Europeans lived here, even after Alexander’s brother, James, bought land in the same vicinity. Steamboat commerce ignited a population explosion in the mid-1850s, sending the town’s population from 280 in 1856 to 5,500 just ten years later. McGregor, incorporated in 1857 without the “a” found in the town’s namesake (but with his permission). Many early businesses grew in response to the abundant supply of wood coming downriver—a sawmill, steam planing mill, a door and sash factory—as well as many businesses catering to the transient worker population: seven hotels, six restaurants, seven taverns.
Further development in McGregor was hampered by an unfortunate feud between the MacGregor brothers. For 20 years beginning in 1853, the MacGregor brothers and their heirs fought in court over land ownership, and, in the process, obscured titles for many properties in town. At one point, Alexander’s corpse had to be removed from his grave when the property where he was buried was awarded to James; Alexander now rests in Prairie du Chien. To this day, many parcels do not have a clear title, although, if the ownership can be traced back to a MacGregor, the titles are honored.
McGregor has been home to more than its share of people who attained fame. The Ringling family lived in McGregor for a few years in the 1860s. The brothers who went on to found one of the world’s best known circuses apparently saw their first circus while living in McGregor. (Their former house still stands, but it is a private residence.) Diamond Jo Reynolds, one of the most successful river men of the 19th century, lived in McGregor in the building across from Triangle Park.
One of the more colorful residents in more contemporary times was Mildred Quimby, creator of Quimby’s Harbor Guide (now Quimby’s Cruising Guide), the bible for thousands of pleasure boaters in the Midwest. A journalist by training, Ms. Quimby lived in a trailer near the Mississippi River just north of town from 1962 until her death in 1983. She personally researched every navigable inch of the Mississippi River in producing her guide. I can respect that.
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McGregor Riverfront Park (Main & 1st Streets) is a pleasant place to sit and watch the river roll by. McGregor Triangle Park (Main Street, 1st Street & A Street) is a hub of summer activity.
The McGregor Historical Museum (254 Main St.; 563.873.2221) has an informative collection of exhibits, mostly focused on characters who inhabited the area. The most impressive pieces are the sand bottles created by Andrew Clemens; you should visit the museum for this reason alone.
It took a while to complete, but the United Methodist Church (330 Ann St.; 563.873.2409) was worth the wait. Construction began in 1852 but the building was not completed until 1873. Inspired by Centenary Church in Chicago, the building is primarily Romanesque in design, but its 151-foot tall towers are topped with Mansard roofs.
The congregation of St. Mary’s Catholic Church (311 7th St.; 563.873.2665) organized in 1855; the current church, built next to the bluff at the foot of Main Street, was completed in 1882. Just six years later, a catastrophic Christmas Day fire destroyed the interior; parishioners quickly repaired the church. The building got a top-to-bottom makeover in 1977, with an eye toward preserving important historical details: the main altar and sacristy were restored to their original appearance and the art glass windows were repaired. The interior has some beautiful wood: butternut for the main altar, cherry in the sanctuary, pews of red oak, and cedar crossbeams in the ceiling.
The Agri Aerie is a large deck that overlooks the Agri Grain Marketing elevator and the river. You can walk to it from Main Street via 2nd Street.
At the top of the hill after you leave McGregor on County Highway X56 is the entrance to Pikes Peak State Park (563.873.2341), named after explorer Zebulon Pike. The park has the standard amenities (hiking trails, picnic tables, campgrounds, mountain biking, burial mounds) but the real treat is the spectacular overlook and its expansive views 500 feet above the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers. Most visitors only visit the overlook, so if you explore the trails, you are likely to escape the crowds.
Sitting atop Swede Ridge on County Highway X56 just south of Pikes Peak State Park, First Lutheran Evangelical Church (County Highway X56) the Old Norwegian Church is a simple frame “preaching box” with a tower. Built as the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1861, this may be the oldest frame church west of the Mississippi. The interior has simple accents: wood carving on the chancel, a carved pump organ, oil lamps (the building has no electricity), white and gold trimmed altar, and mini wooden collections baskets. The congregation merged with Swedish Lutheran Church in 1936 and moved into the bigger church; this building sat empty until its restoration from 1970–1972. If you are interested in a tour, contact the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce (800.896.0910/563.873.2186).
Getting Out on the River
Maiden Voyage Tours offers cruises on the Mississippi River from McGregor (563.586.2123). Boatels House Boat Rentals & Marina (800.747.2628/563.873.3718) rents houseboats, pontoon boats, and fishing boats. McGregor Marina (Riverfront & Main Streets; 800.848.2413/563.873.9613) is another place to rent a pontoon boat or fishing boat.
Entertainment and Events
McGregor and Marquette host a Farmer’s Market on Fridays evenings.
The Hole in the Sock Gang stages Old West shootouts in Triangle Park several times during the summer, usually on the last Saturday of the month from June through October.
The Lamp Post Inn (424 Main St.; 563.873.1849) hosts a five-course dinner/murder mystery theater one Saturday a month.
The Trader’s Jubilee (866.259.9172/563.873.2387) is an annual spectacle for folks interested in period clothing, complete with an evening ball where appropriate attire is required. The area hosts an Arts and Crafts Fest (800.896.0910/563.873.2186) twice a year: Memorial Day weekend and in early October.
Eating and Drinking
McGregor’s Top Shelf (221 Main St.; 563.873.1717) is a gourmet grocer with a good selection of fresh and prepared foods, many from local producers; think smoked pork chops and bratwurst.
Latinos Restaurant (213 Main St.; 563.873.3838) serves a wide range of delicious Latin-inspired cuisine, including seafood, corpulent burritos, and several vegetarian options.
In contrast to its neighbor across the river, Prairie du Chien, which is home to several chain motels, McGregor has a range of boutique accommodations that are moderately priced. Not all places accept credit cards; ask when booking.
Paradise Valley Campground (19745 Keystone Rd.; 563.873.9632) is a plain but clean campground tucked into a valley a few miles south of McGregor; many of the 200+ sites are occupied by seasonal campers but overnight sites should be available.
Clayton Hills Campground (County Highways X56 & C17; 563.964.2236; mid-April to last weekend in October) sits on a shady spot atop the ridge a few miles south of town; they have 42 overnight sites: 30 with water and electric and 12 primitive sites.
Pikes Peak State Park (563.873.2341) has 77 rather cramped campsites, most of which have electric hookups.
Spook Cave and Campground (13299 Spook Cave Rd.; 563.873.2144; open May 1–October 31), just west of town, has 73 spacious campsites in an attractive setting.
It’s easy to miss the Village Motel (821 Walton Ave.; 563.873.2200; open March–October) as you drive through the western end of town, but it is a solid budget option, with 14 recently renovated rooms, including a suite.
The Holiday Shores Motel (101 Front St.; 563.873.3449; WiFi) is a great deal, with 33 rooms located right next to the river; it is getting a much-needed overhaul in 2009. All rooms have refrigerator and microwave and some rooms have river views.
The Alexander Hotel (213 Main St.; 563.873.3454; WiFi) was born as the Lewis Hotel in 1899; the 12 rooms are rough around the edges, (and sometimes generate negative reviews), but I found the rooms to be clean and affordable.
Clayton Hills Campground (County Highways X56 & C17; 563.964.2236; mid-April to last weekend in October) has a camper available for overnight rentals, reservations recommended, that has water, electric, and sewer and can accommodate up to three adults.
The 416 (612.360.3576) is a roomy, tastefully rehabbed two bedroom house within walking distance of Main Street.
Spook Cave and Campground also has two deluxe cabins with bathroom and kitchen that can sleep six, plus a cabin with kitchenette but no bathroom that sleeps five.
Grumpsters Log Cabin Getaway (535 Ash St.; 563.873.3767) rents three beautiful log cabins, a large one that can sleep ten and two smaller ones that can each sleep five; all come equipped with kitchen and full bath.
The Lamp Post Inn (424 Main St.; 563.873.1849; WiFi) is a spacious, early 20th century Prairie-style home with ample porches; the three rooms are a good bargain.
Hickory Ridge Bed, Breakfast, and Bridle (17156 Great River Rd.; 563.873.1758; WiFi) is a fine country retreat located atop a ridge south of Pike’s Peak State Park, with good views of the Mississippi River; two of the four units have a private bath, and the suite is large enough to comfortably house a family.
Little Switzerland Inn (126 Main St.; 563.873.2057/608.412.0400) has four units, including a log cabin built in 1848 (but fully updated, of course), that are as spacious, well appointed, and include a full breakfast.
Stauer House Bed & Breakfast (629 Main St.; 563.873.2713; WiFi) has a period feel without being over-the-top; all rooms have a private bath but not all are en-suite.
McGregor Manor Bed & Breakfast (320 4th St.; 563.873.2600) is a gem, with rich maple and oak woodwork, restored tin ceilings, and original 19th century fixtures throughout; the four rooms are comfortably furnished with antiques.
The Gypsy Suite (226 Main St.; 563.873.1818) is a no-frills two bedroom apartment with full kitchen that offers an economic option for a group traveling together; breakfast is continental-style, but special meals can be prepared with advance notice.
American House Inn (116 Main St.; 563.873.3364) has two spacious and fully equipped suites that capture the feeling of a 19th century inn—complete with an amiable host in period attire—without being stuffy; the second floor suite has up to four bedrooms (Mark Twain slept in one of them) and good views of the Mississippi.
McGregor Lodging (563.873.3112; WiFi) has three festive, well appointed units just off Main Street.
McGregor’s Landing Bed & Bath (111 First St.; 563.873.3150) has five cozy second-floor units furnished with period touches.
The Old Jail and Firehouse Guest Suite (212 A St.; 563.873.2759) is housed in an 1874-era building that did actually have a jail at one time. You won’t feel walled in here, though; the studio apartment is open and comfortable and equipped with a full kitchen and the breakfast is a generous continental spread.
The local newspaper is the weekly North Iowa Times (608.326.2441).
Post Office: 107 Second St.; 563.873.3626.
McGregor Public Library: 334 Main St.; 563.873.3318; has a mural depicting the town’s history and a Clemens sand art bottle.
Heading upriver? Check out Marquette.
Heading downriver? Check out Clayton.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009