NOTE: See the Quad Cities overview for regional information on tourism centers, festivals, and getting around.
Moline is another municipality that was founded on land originally owned by Antoine LeClaire. He sold several parcels to early settlers, many of whom were migrants from New England. Among them was David Sears, who built a dam between the mainland and Rock Island in order to power a mill. It opened in 1838 and worked out so well that he built two more. These early mills may have provided the inspiration for the town’s name, which the early leaders chose because they believed it was derived from a French word for “Milltown.”
John Deere moved his primary factory to Moline in 1848 because of the location’s proximity to coal, transportation, and a good supply of workers. The company grew quickly and its plows, and the John Deere name, spread throughout the Midwest. One of his early partners was John Gould. Deere bought out Gould’s interests within a few years but Gould went on to establish a furniture factory, then a sawmill, before becoming a bank president.
The railroads reached Moline in 1854. The following year, Moline re-incorporated with strict liquor laws and new powers to maintain the city’s thoroughfares. The city required able-bodied males between twenty-one and fifty years old to work on road projects up to three days per year. Moline’s early leaders, proud of their Puritan heritage, reportedly encouraged people with inferior values to settle elsewhere, like in Rock Island.
The factories that lined Moline’s riverfront included workers of many European nationalities, including Swedes, Germans, Irish, and Belgians. The Belgian community grew into the second largest in the United States; for many years Moline was home to a Belgian consulate. With the exception of the Belgians, most factory workers actually lived in Davenport or Rock Island, not Moline.
In 1900 Moline had about 22,000 residents, about one-quarter of whom (over 5,000 men) worked in factories. Fully one-third of the factory workers worked at John Deere and another 1,200 at Moline Plow. No wonder Moline was nicknamed “Plow City” and “John Deere Town.” While many of those factories have since closed, John Deere forges ahead and is still a major presence in the city.
Who says America doesn’t have any cool ruins? The atmospheric setting of Sylvan Island (1st Ave. @ 2nd St.; 309.736.5714) was the site of the mammoth Republic Steel Works that operated from 1894 to 1956; all that remains is the concrete foundations that ornament the island with post-industrial ruins. If you are lucky, you will be exploring this place on a foggy, slightly cool day around dawn or dusk.
Moline has a cluster of historic houses worth exploring. The two most impressive houses are the Deere-Wiman House (817 11th Ave.) and the Butterworth Center (1105 8th St.) and they could not be more different. The Deere-Wiman House is an exceptional example of nineteenth century Victorian stylings, with gorgeous walnut paneling on the first floor, a music room complete with a pipe organ, and one of the earliest multiple head full-body showers. And you thought the Victorian era lacked sensuality. In contrast, the Butterworth Center feels like a medieval castle when you enter the foyer, an impression that is cemented after entering the stunning library. Like the Deere-Wiman House, the Butterworth Center has a pipe organ, but, then again, whose house doesn’t? Both houses are open for guided tours Wednesday through Friday afternoons or by appointment (309.743.2701).
Across the street from the Deere-Wiman House is the Rock Island County Historical Society (822 11th Ave.; 309.764.8590), which not only hosts an impressive genealogy and local history collection but also manages a house and a carriage museum. The house itself is not nearly as impressive as the two Deere family houses (there are few original furnishings) but has interesting displays of local history, including replicas of nineteenth century dentist’s and doctor’s offices and an 1840s-era bedroom.
Nearby Velie Park (11th St. @ 11th Ave.) was named for Willard Lamb Velie, grandson of John Deere, and founder of the Velie Carriage Company. From 1908 to 1928 they produced seventy-five thousand cars, but the company came to an abrupt end in 1929 when Willard and his son died within a month of each other. The park has a nice overlook of Moline and the Mississippi River.
The Center for Belgian Culture (1608 7th St..; 309.762.0167) has a small collection of exhibits about Belgian life in the Quad Cities, with displays about homing pigeons, lace, and a game called Rolle Bolle, which you can still play at Stephens Park (15th Ave. @ 7th St.). The Center sponsors a genuine Belgian waffle breakfast on the first Saturday of the month at the Friend Circle Hall (701 18th Ave.).
At the John Deere Pavilion (1400 River Dr.; 309.765.1000), you can climb into the cockpit of a giant 9970 Cotton Picker and get a new perspective on the world. A number of different models of tractors, combines, and other giant farm trucks are on display; you are encouraged to touch and climb into the seats of most of them, so I did. Next door to the pavilion is the John Deere Store (1300 River Dr.; 888.231.1236/309.765.1007), where you can buy model tractors, T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia, all with the John Deere logo, of course. Just across the street, between the convention center and the Radisson Hotel, is the sculpture Spirit of Place that was installed to mark and honor the site of the first John Deere factory in Moline.
If you have time to tour the John Deere Factory in East Moline where they build the huge combines, please do so. The ninety-minute tour takes you through the entire manufacturing process and is totally awesome! I was so distracted by watching the production process that I missed half of what our guide said. Guess I need to go back. The tour is free but you must call in advance to make a reservation (800.765.9588).
John Deere World Headquarters (1 John Deere Place; 800.765.9588/309.765.8000). Designed by noted architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed that Arch thing in St. Louis, the HQ campus for John Deere is the prototypical corporate suburban campus. Then-CEO William Hewitt wanted a building that fit the John Deere corporate image—modern but not flashy. How Midwestern! He got his wishes. The buildings are constructed of Cor-ten steel, a material previously developed for railroads that weathers as it ages, creating a rust-free barrier. Clever. Most buildings are private but the main building at the top of the hill has an exhibit hall that is open to the public where you can once again climb on farm equipment, watch videos, and read about the company’s history. The trip from downtown Moline will only take about ten minutes.
If you still haven’t had enough of John Deere, a side trip to the location where it all began might be just what you need. The John Deere Historic Site (8393 S. Main, Grand Detour, IL; 815.652.4551) is located in Grand Detour, near Dixon, Illinois, a ninety-minute drive from Moline. Guided tours lasting about seventy-five minutes will take you around the original homestead of John Deere where he invented the first self-cleaning plow. The tour includes a replica of John Deere’s blacksmith shop.
Niabi Zoo (13010 Niabi Zoo Rd.; 309.799.5107), located in Coal Valley, is a bit out of the way but has some fun exhibits for a small zoo. Especially entertaining is the Australian Walkabout, where you can strut alongside an emu or hold a lorikeet.
If you are looking for entertainment later in the evening, the drinking establishments in downtown Moline will help you pass the time; it sure did the trick for me.
Getting on the River
The Celebration Belle (2501 River Dr.; 800.297.0034/309.764.1952), which offers a variety of your standard tourist-oriented river cruises from Tuesday through Saturday, some with food, some without. Sightseeing cruises usually stick to the ten-mile stretch between the locks. The lunch cruise atmosphere was way too cheesy for my tastes, but the food was much better than I expected.
Eating and Drinking
For a little local flavor, check out the beer brewed at Rebellion Brew Haus (1529 3rd Ave.; 309.517.1684).
In 2008, Lagomarcinos (1422 5th Ave.; 309.764.1814; M–Sa 9–5:30) celebrated one hundred years of making life in the Quad Cities a little sweeter. The quintessential soda fountain, they still make sodas with phosphate, but ice cream is their forte. Try a hot fudge sundae and languorously pour the fudge from its own fudge boat onto your ice cream.
Get your caffeine fix at the literate Dead Poet’s Espresso (1525 3rd Ave., #A; 309.736.7606), across 15th Street from the John Deere Pavilion, where you can also eat a light breakfast or lunch or snack on a freshly baked pastry.
At Milltown Coffee (3800 River Dr.; 309.517.6444) you can enjoy a latte or sandwich while enjoying good river views through big picture windows.
At Bent River Brewing Company (1413 5th Ave.; 309.797.2722) every day is the summer of love and the food is groovy, too. Bent River has a large selection of handcrafted beer (the Uncommon Stout is my personal favorite), good food, live music on weekends that leans toward rock and folk music, and a big patio that is more enjoyable in June than January. The service can be very laid back, so don’t show up starving or dehydrated.
The first time I walked into the Bier Stube (417 15th St.; 309.797.3040), the dining room was packed full of people singing German drinking songs. I assumed that sort of thing must happen all the time here, but, alas, it is not so. I just happened to visit the restaurant at the same time as a large group of tourists from Germany. As you might guess, they have a German theme going here, with very good German food and an extensive collection of German beer and wine. Guten Apetit!
Lemongrass (1419 5th Ave.; 309.797.4100) has an impressive menu that includes food that crosses Asian cultures, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan. The food is fresh, delicious, and unlike what you’ll find anywhere else in the area.
Farm to table are the operative words at Barley & Rye (1320 Fifth Ave.; 309.757.1557), where the owners emphasize local, seasonal ingredients to keep diners happy; the menu changes regularly, and the impressively stocked bar will keep your thirst at bay.
El Mariachi (1317 15th St.; 309.797.3178) is the real deal in Mexican food. The Saturday buffet of authentic Mexican dishes is a good deal at $8.
Exotic Thai (3922 38th Ave.; 309.797.9998) serves very good Thai dishes in an attractive setting.
There are two properties along the Moline Riverfront in Moline Centre. The Stoney Creek Inn (101 18th St.; 309.743.0101), a regional chain, has cozy rooms with a lodge-inspired décor. The upscale Radisson on John Deere Commons (1415 River Dr.; 309.764.1000) has all the amenities of a fancy hotel you expect, including luxurious beds.
• Main Post Office: 514 17th St.; 309.764.5011.
• Moline Downtown Library: 504 17th St.; 309.762.6883.
Heading upriver? Check out East Moline.
Heading downriver? Check out Arsenal Island.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009,2017