LANSING — Ground has been broken on a groundbreaking exhibition center in far northeast Iowa, for a center intended to showcase the interlocking and little understood features of the driftless area.
“Driftless area? What does that even mean? No drifting allowed?” said Craig White, executive director of Main Street Lansing, a supporter of the $3.3 million Driftless Area Visitor and Education Center under construction on the south edge of this Mississippi River town.
The center, which is designed to illustrate and explain the many unusual facets of the driftless area, is “the most important development in Allamakee County in a long time,” White said.
Its interpretive displays will cover the natural, cultural, social and economic history of the region, according to Jim Janett, director of the Allamakee County Conservation Board, which is spearheading the project.
All the features tourists commonly see — the river, bluffs, eagles, fall foliage and Native American mounds — will be tied together with many less often seen features such as algific talus slopes, commercial fishing artifacts and steamboat era relics, Janett said.
The center will provide much needed interpretation of a region rich in natural and cultural history, said Lora Friest, executive director of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development, which helped the conservation board secure a $1.3 million National Scenic Byways grant for the project.
The driftless area, also known as the Paleozoic Plateau, covers about 24,000 square miles in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Its rugged terrain survived only because the most recent glaciers steered around it, leaving the area largely devoid of drift — the sand, gravel, rocks and clay left behind by retreating glaciers.
The driftless area “is not a big secret, but a lot of people don’t know a lot about it,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry Schellhammer, a longtime supporter of the project.
Following a ceremonial groundbreaking for the exhibition center on Nov. 3, workers have completed underground work on a geothermal heating and cooling system and have begun preparing the site for construction.
With more than $2 million already committed, project leaders continue to raise money through grants and donations, Janett said.
The three-story, 10,000-square-foot building along the Great River Road will offer views of the river and bluffs from two outdoor observation decks. The main and upper floors will provide exhibition space for interpreting key driftless area features.
The center will become the permanent home of an extensive array of artifacts documenting Lansing’s commercial fishing industry, as well as local ice harvests, clamming and clamshell button manufacturing.
“We are very tickled to have a permanent place for the displays,” said Lansing resident Karen Galema, who along with other family members collected the items from the descendants of more than two dozen families, including their own, who once earned hard livelihoods from the river.
The center will boost the local tourism economy and give visitors reasons to stay longer, Supervisor Schellhammer said.
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“We want to be good stewards of the environment, and part of that is sharing it with others,” he said.