Picture of the Day: McGregor

McGregor (Iowa) has the nickname “Pocket City” and one look at the picture below will help you understand why. Tucked into a narrow valley that extends westward from the Mississippi River, the landscape where the town was established has helped ensure that McGregor will remain a small town.

See more Pictures of the Day here.

McGregor, Iowa, aka “Pocket City”

Destination of the Day: Trader’s Jubilee in McGregor, Iowa

If you have fantasized about what it would be like to live in the Old West, head to McGregor, Iowa this weekend to outfit yourself  at the Trader’s Jubilee. Sponsored by the River Junction Trade Company, supplier of Old West atmosphere to Hollywood and regular folk, the event brings together period enthusiasts, dealers, and fans for a weekend of shopping and social events.

For more about McGregor and its neighbors, Marquette and Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin), check out the Lansing to LeClaire guide book, available in print form or as a PDF download.

Browse through other Destinations here.

Iowa’s Skuzzy River Towns

I write about the history, culture, and people of the Mississippi Valley. I wasn’t trained as a journalist. I had to do a lot of research to get my degrees, meaning that I had to listen to a lot of professors telling me what I could and couldn’t conclude based upon the data I collected. This is why I’m still a stickler for getting my facts correct, something that is apparently not important in journalism schools.

Last week, The Atlantic published an opinion piece about life in Iowa written by New Jersey-born Stephen G. Bloom, who has been teaching journalism at the University of Iowa for 20 years. His street cred for writing this piece: living in Iowa for 20 years, visiting all 99 counties, and talking to countless Iowans (although apparently not listening).

I had a hard time getting through the whole article, because I don’t generally read fiction, especially when it is cloaked as respectable reporting. The first few paragraphs had enough factual errors and over-the-top hyperbole to turn me off, which might have been reason enough to respond, but it took his ill-informed remarks about the places along the Mississippi River to finally motivate me to write a rebuttal.

“Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Mississippi these days except rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional kayaker circumnavigating garbage, beer cans, and assorted debris. The majestic river that once defined the United States has been rendered commercially irrelevant these days.”

I’m not sure what decade he’s talking about (1910?), but the Mississippi River is a busy corridor for shipping many types of agricultural products (wheat, corn, soybeans) as well as tons of coal, salt, gravel, scrap metals, etc. Shipping is so important on the Mississippi River that farmers, barge companies, and big business have been pushing for bigger locks so they can push even bigger rusty barges through the garbage and assorted debris. In fact, there isn’t nearly as much garbage as there used to be, thanks to the Clean Water Act and the efforts of thousands of volunteers, but, even in the worst of times, I don’t recall ever hearing of anyone finding hypodermic needles or medical waste on the banks of the Mississippi.

Bloom describes Keokuk as a “depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.”

I don’t know what Keokuk’s actual crime rate is—my quick Internet search suggests it is high for Iowa, for what that’s worth—but it takes some chutzpah for a New Jersey boy to call a town of 10,000 people a crime-infested slum. I’ve been to Keokuk several times and have never been raped or assaulted or murdered. My car has been broken into three times in my hometown of St. Louis but never in Keokuk. The downtown area is desolate, something that you can see in any small town anywhere in the US and a trend that is largely due to the big box retailers replacing small main street businesses. Keokuk also has some big old beautiful houses, many of which have fine views of the rusty barges and occasional kayakers that pass by on the Mississippi.

I’ve sometimes considered the food in Iowa to be criminal. A few years ago I ate a meal in Keokuk at a (now closed) restaurant called the Chuck Wagon. My ribeye was served with instant mashed potatoes and green beans from a can, but the high school girl who was my server was so precious, I didn’t really care. My meal came with dessert, and when I asked her what the ice cream was like. She said “It’s like a lot of things we get here – in a box from Wal-Mart.” Maybe that’s the kind of crime Bloom was referring to.

About those other skuzzy river towns. Well, for one thing, river towns (and most port towns) have always had a certain amount of coarseness. That’s part of their charm. One of the skuzziest places I ever visited was the port of Tangier, Morocco. It’s nowhere near the Mississippi River. Bloom must never have been there. I’ve driven through Newark, and it looked pretty darn skuzzy, too, certainly uglier and more dangerous than Keokuk or Fort Madison. And you probably can’t find a good casserole in any of those places.

Iowa has some river towns that aren’t skuzzy at all, in fact they’re quite charming. Bloom should spend more time visiting and talking to people in places like Bellevue, Guttenberg, and McGregor. A national magazine named Guttenberg one of “American’s 20 Prettiest Places.” Even in the bigger cities of Davenport and Dubuque the riverfronts and downtown areas have been overhauled and are far from skuzzy.

I’ve driven around much of Iowa in the past two years, and while I haven’t interviewed as many meth-addicted folks on their deathbeds as Bloom, I noticed a few things about the state, too. Some towns are indeed dying. The evolution of farming from a family business to a large corporate entity has emptied the countryside of thousands of people, which has led to the failure of many businesses that relied on the cash from those folks. Some towns will never recover.

I also found a number of thriving small towns around the state, almost all connected to a college or university, places like Decorah, Fairfield, and Grinnell. These are not major population centers, yet each has a thriving main street and a stable population. There might be some lessons about why these places are doing well, but it would take the efforts of a good journalist to explore that question.

Bloom also wrote: “Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce.” I suppose this is another case where “truthiness” matters more than actual facts, because this statement is clearly false. Throughout the rural south and in the Bootheel of my home state, Missouri, there are many areas that are not “as white as the milk of the millions of Holstein cows,” because the populations are largely African American. That one doesn’t even take much research to figure out, just a moment of thought.

It’s true that Rep. Steve King is out there. But Iowa isn’t the exclusive domain of wacky politicians: progressive Minnesota gave us Michelle Bachman, blue-collar Pennsylvania has Rick Santorum, New Jersey has Jon Corzine, and Texas has, well, most politicians from Texas are pretty far out there. The thing is, almost every state has produced some kind of crazy or corrupt politician. A politician like King doesn’t make Iowa exceptional, it makes it normal.

As Bloom notes, Iowa’s Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. All seven justices, most appointed by Republican governors, ruled that banning same-sex marriage violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Many outsiders were puzzled by this (as was I, at first) and have since been counting the days until thousands of pitchfork-armed Christians form militias and take back their state from the radical homosexuals. It hasn’t happened. Sure, some folks were very upset, and three of those justices were booted out of office in a low turnout, off-year election.

But, efforts to get repeal on the ballot have not yet been successful. In fact, in his original post of this story, Bloom indicated that a referendum to repeal had already been approved. This is not true, and it is not a small error. You would think that a national magazine would fact-check its articles, but Bloom’s error was exposed by a reader’s comment. Media outlets have been crowd-sourcing more and more of their content, now it appears they are crowd-sourcing their fact-checking, too.

Bloom also asserts with great confidence that, if a referendum ever made it to the ballot, Iowa voters would certainly throw out same-sex marriage. Of course, if they did, they would simply be voting like citizens in nearly every other state. Recent polls, though, show about an even split between supporters and foes (see here and here), with a substantial proportion of the population saying they really don’t care either way. This is a more nuanced argument, though, and it takes time to research this stuff, something that a full professor of journalism probably lacks.

Bloom also argues that suicide is a bigger problem in Iowa than other places. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Iowa’s suicide rate in 2010 was 10.8/100,000; 37 states had higher rates. Even if you use Bloom’s data for the rural counties as a proxy for the state, a rate of 13.55/100,000 would place Iowa in the middle of the pack. New York and New Jersey had the lowest rates, but folks in those states spend so much of their time feeling superior to everyone else, they’re more likely to feel the urge to kill others than themselves.

And, for the record, the 15 cities with the highest suicide rates—a list that includes Phoenix, Miami, Denver, and Portland, Oregon—all have higher suicide rates than rural Iowa.To say, as Bloom did “the most popular place for suicide in America isn’t New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle…” is just plain false.

Ultimately I got tired of fact checking the professor’s article, especially since I’m not getting paid by The Atlantic to do so. I’ve already spent three hours on this blog, three hours I’ll never get back. I’m just a guy who travels a lot and writes about what he sees.

The Iowans I’ve met in my travels were generally thoughtful folks, well-educated, genuinely friendly, and lacking in the kind of brashness that drives so much of our media culture today, hardly a meth addict in the bunch. It’s obvious that in Bloom’s twenty years, he’s learned nothing from Iowa.

Bloom wrote a poorly reasoned article plagued by factual errors and loaded with big-city stereotypes of country folk. His essay was, ultimately, a lazy piece of incendiary rubbish, which I guess is what passes for journalism today.

Just look around. The media landscape is dominated by blowhard talking heads who are paid to make outrageous statements—regardless of how truthful they are—that generate controversy and attention. This is today’s journalism, and Bloom is today’s journalist. His comments aren’t meant to inform only to incite.

One of the more telling comments from Bloom was this one: “I’ve lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa.” Iowans really aren’t that hard to understand, but you have to start by getting off your high horse.

Anyway, Bloom’s piece has given me an idea for a new article, one about East Coast misanthropes who move to the Midwest, drive like they’re late for the apocalypse, and can’t make a good jello salad. Do you suppose The Atlantic will publish that one, too?

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011

A Few Words About McGregor, Iowa

I meant to post this earlier, but, you know how it goes.

On Saturday, June 5, I will be signing books at The Paper Moon in McGregor, Iowa. McGregor is one of my favorite places along the river. Below is an excerpt from my Lansing to LeClaire travel guide that explains part of the reason.

Impressions
McGregor is a rare 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.

History
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. The village of McGregor incorporated in 1857 without the “a” in the name found in the town’s namesake (but with Alexander’s approval for the spelling change). 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.

You can read more about McGregor here.

Bad Decision of the Day: Buying a digital picture frame for booking signings without checking if it had a battery. So I bought this very cool digital picture frame that was marked down 60%, thinking it would be a great prop for book signings. Then I got to my first event with it and realized that I was a long way from an electrical outlet and the darn thing doesn’t have the option of running on batteries. Doh! Lucky for me, I have more events coming up soon, so I’ll get to try this thing out, yet.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2010

McGregor

Population (2010)
871

Introduction
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.

Visitor Information
Get all your questions answered at the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce (146 Main St.; 800.896.0910/563.873.2186).

History
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.

McGregor: "Pocket City"
McGregor: “Pocket City”

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.

McGregor is included in these products: 

  

Attractions
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.

McGregor downtown
McGregor downtown

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.

First Lutheran Evangelical Church
First Lutheran Evangelical Church

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.

Festivals
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.

Sleeping
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.

Camping
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.

Budget
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.

Cabins/Houses
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.

Bed-and-Breakfasts
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.

Moderate
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.

Resources
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