Iowa Valley Scenic Byway highlights Iowa's culture and history

This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.

From the strong German roots of Amana to the ever-present Native American culture and history of the Meskwaki settlement and all the cultures found on the path between, the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway can be classified as one of Iowa’s most “culturally diverse” drives.

“People have held onto their heritage in a very real way,” said Jessica Rilling, executive director of Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development. “It’s fun to see how that has shaped each community.”

The byway, which stretches across 77 miles of rural highways between the Amana Colonies and Montour, was officially designated in 1998. The byway’s official logo, an American lotus, brings attention to its cultural diversity, Rilling said; the Amana Lily Lake is home to an abundance of American lotuses, which were historically harvested by the Meskwaki as a food source.

In 1855, German Pietists came to Iowa and established the Amana Colonies. They brought with them their culture, food and festivities. To this day, out-of-state tourists and Iowans alike travel to the colonies in the fall when the small community hosts its biggest event of the year, Oktoberfest.

Featuring live German music, Amana brats and plenty of beer, this three-day festival, Oct. 5 to 7 this year, allows visitors to experience the German heritage that runs so deep in Amana.

In the winter, the Prelude to Christmas event and Winterfest make Iowa weather just a bit more bearable and once again showcase the colonies’ rich culture.

If you find yourself in Amana outside the holiday season but still want to enjoy yuletide cheer, the International Christmas Market, located within the Amana General Store at 4423 220th Trail, is open year-round. A redesign of the market’s displays happens each January through March.

Modeled after European Christmas markets, this small store hosts countless twinkling lights and unique ornaments. Stepping inside is like stepping on the set of a classic Christmas movie.

“We try to provide a magical shopping experience,” said Carol Zuber, a merchandiser at the store. “We’ve become a destination for travelers. Amana has always been a religious community. And we have history from all over the world.”

The Amana Heritage Museum down the street is a great way to learn more about the community’s history, and it’s on your way to the next stop along the byway.

Marengo, the county seat of Iowa County, is home to its own history museum featuring stories of Iowa’s past, the Pioneer Heritage Museum.

Operated and maintained by the Iowa County Historical Society, the museum’s campus features an 1856 log cabin, 1861 log house and an 1890s rural farmhouse, among other attractions.

 

Some of the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway’s western half overlaps with the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway. In Belle Plaine, Beautiful Plaines prairie park is a great opportunity to see what Iowa’s natural landscape would have looked like before the state was settled. It also is a great spot to stop and stretch your legs, as this is near the middle of the byway.

Belle Plaine is at the forefront of a “rolle bolle revival,” according to Rilling. Rolle bolle, a Belgian game described as a cross between boccie ball and horseshoes, was brought to Iowa and other parts of the Midwest in the 1900s. Teams and leagues from communities along the byway, like Victor, Ladora and Marengo, host rolle bolle tournaments and games throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Belle Plaine just installed a new court in Franklin Park on 11th Avenue, so if you’d like to catch a bit of rolle bolle fever, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/rollebollenews for a schedule of games and other details.

After a long day of rolling and bolling, you’ll be looking for a place to stay. If you don’t mind a little mystery and murder with your dinner, the Periwinkle Place Manor in Chelsea is the place to be. Read more about it on page 18.

 

A few miles past Chelsea, you’ll drive through Tama and Toledo, where you’ll find a permanent “butter cow” sculpture, which is actually made of bronze. The statue, located off the byway and Highway 63, was installed in honor of Norma “Duffy” Lyon, a farmer and artist who created the iconic butter cow sculptures for the Iowa State Fair from 1960 until 2006.

The Meskwaki Settlement is next on the byway, where you can learn more about Iowa’s history from before it was called “Iowa.”

The Meskwaki formally purchased its first 80 acres in Tama County in 1857, which gave formal federal identity to the Meskwaki people as the “Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.” According to the tribe’s website, it has nearly 1,400 enrolled tribal members and is the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Iowa.

At the Meskwaki Cultural Center and Museum, guests can view traditional Meskwaki clothing and artifacts as well as read up on the tribe’s culture, history and language, which modern-day tribe members are working hard to maintain.

Finishing your trip with a good steak at Rube’s Steakhouse in Montour is the way to go. This “cook your own meal” style restaurant offers high quality meats and sides that you grill yourself. No matter the weather, it’s always a good time for grilling at Rube’s.

“I’m normally a vegan,” joked Steve Robinson, 66, as he grilled a steak and some potatoes on one of the steakhouse’s massive grills.

Robinson had traveled to Cedar Rapids on business from Texas, and he and his co-workers made the hourlong drive to Rube’s just for the steak.

“Good steak is key,” he said. “It’s worth the drive.”

 
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