116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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Cedar Valley has several memorable museums
By Marion and Rich Patterson, correspondents
Mar. 25, 2021 2:01 pm
Interstate 380 felt like a tunnel bisecting snow banks as we drove to Cedar Falls to see, of all things in this long winter, the Ice House Museum.
Although normally closed in winter, Carrie Eilderts, executive director of the Cedar Falls Historical Society, graciously opened it for us to reveal a pandemic serendipity.
Ages ago, before we heard of coronavirus, we'd trek in all compass directions to tour out-of-state historic and natural attractions. Then the disease turned travel on its nose. Shunning drives or flights to distant places, we've spent the past year visiting Iowa sites we once drove by.
Cedar Falls Ice House Museum is one of those sports. Located west of US 218 at 121 Center Street, we'd driven by it many times without even knowing its existence.
'There are many ice harvest displays across the country, but ours is the only ice house museum located in an ice house,” Eilderts said.
The impressive circular brick structure is adjacent to a dammed-up section of the Cedar River. Iowans once labored on frigid winter days, pulling in the year's first crop - ice.
Inside we learned how ice was cut from the river, hauled into the icehouse, insulated with sawdust and stored until warm weather arrived. Then - throughout the spring, summer, and fall - an 'ice man” delivered blocks of frozen river to homes throughout the area.
Before refrigerators, people kept blocks of ice in their kitchen ice box to preserve food. Ice harvesting and ice houses were once common across the northern United States, but closed as electric refrigerators entered the market. They were in many homes by the 1930s. The Cedar Falls Ice House was built in 1921, just as refrigerators were coming on the market. It closed after only 12 years of operation.
The museum is open mid-May until October and operated by the Cedar Falls Historical Society, only a minute's walk from the 1925 era Behrens-Rapp historic filling station that serves as a visitor center today. Adjoining is the Little Red Schoolhouse, also operated by the historical society. Admission is free.
We drove to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Dan Gable Wrestling Museum next, located at 303 Jefferson Street in downtown Waterloo.
We are generally nature and travel writers and somewhat sports naive, so the visit brought us up to speed on the significance of wrestling in Iowa and beyond.
'Iowa high schools have had active wrestling programs for a century now, and colleges quickly followed,” said Jim Miller, executive director.
The museum is named for one of the best-known Iowans, Waterloo native Dan Gable, who is famous among wrestling fans worldwide for his remarkable athletic and coaching career. The museum highlights his career as an Iowa State and Olympic wrestler, and University of Iowa coach.
We also learned about many other accomplished wrestlers. Among them former US Rep. Jim Leach, who noted, 'wrestling is a little understood undertaking. All sports mold to some degree the persona of those who participate. Wrestling - the world's oldest sport - taps uniquely aspects of the human psyche. Indeed, a wrestling mat is the most egalitarian circle in the world.”
Wrestling referee Blake Spotts of Nora Springs affirmed the positive impact wrestling has on lives. Spotts comes from a wrestling family and said 'because of wrestling I truly feel that I have gained years of wisdom and life lessons that would have otherwise taken twice as long for me to understand.”
This is the centennial year of high school wrestling in Iowa. The high school state tournament was held in February, but the NCAA Division I Championships are next weekend in St. Louis.
In addition to documenting Iowa's illustrious wrestling history, the museum's several halls also feature quirky history. Greco-Roman history, wrestling from horseback and Biblical references. The Lincoln Lobby highlights Abe Lincoln's 100 freestyle wins painted by Alley-oop cartoonist Jack Bender and his wife Carole.
In the professional wrestling hall, we learned about colorful Waterloo wrestler, labor organizer and ordained minister Claude 'Thunderbolt Patterson.”
We found it's good to take breaks between museum touring. So, before our last stop, and being COVID-19 conscious, we opted for a carryout lunch from Newton's Paradise Café. We enjoyed it while basking in bright sunshine along the Cedar Falls-Waterloo waterways.
The Cedar River flows through the two cities and parks abound. George Wyth State Park and Big Woods Lake Recreation Area offer camping, fishing, kayaking, disc golf and walking and bicycle trails, such as single track and cyclocross for the adventuresome.
GROUT MUSEUM DISTRICT
After a break, we transitioned to the nearby Grout Museum District in Waterloo. It is actually several museums, including the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, Grout Museum of History and Science, Carl and Peggy Bluedorn Imaginarium, Rensselaer Russell House Museum and the Snowden House.
Some of the buildings were closed on this winter day and staff hope to open them later in the year.
We spent most of our time at the Veterans Museum, which has separate areas for each war our country has engaged in since Iowa became a state.
The museum is probably best known as a tribute to the Sullivans, five Waterloo brothers who were killed when their ship, the USS Juneau, was sunk by the Japanese off Guadalcanal in 1942. The tragedy stirred a myth the Navy adopted a policy to not allow siblings to serve on the same ship. The practice is discouraged, but not banned.
The museum includes a replica of the Juneau and a reconstructed section of its bow that overlooks the atrium and a World War II fighter plane. Nearby exhibits tell the story of veterans from the Civil War to the present day. Rich appreciated an exhibit of the massive 16-inch diameter projectile and six bags of gunpowder used to fire each round in the battleship Iowa's massive guns. We were chilled by the nearby Vietnam section with its rows of dog tags, signifying Iowans who never returned.
Other exhibits feature a display of the struggle for women's rights over the decades. Short videos of prominent Iowans capture the essence of progress. Voices of Iowa Oral History Project shows Iowans sharing both wartime, home front and farm stories full of emotion and perspectives of the day. These also are available on the website.
Admission is $12 for adults and $6 for veterans and those in active duty.
IF YOU GO
Waterloo and Cedar Falls are just over an hour's drive northwest of Cedar Rapids. There is much to see and do. The region is studded with parks and lakes. George Wyth State Park has a pleasant campground. Cedar Falls is home of the University of Northern Iowa with attractions that include its own museum and the Tallgrass Prairie Center.
Three museums are plenty for us to tour in a day. Time didn't allow us to visit other parts of the Grout Museum District, but we'll return.
For more information and other places in Cedar Falls and Waterloo to take in:
- Cedar Falls and Waterloo Visitor Centers
- John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum. Currently closed due to COVID-19.
- Grout Museum District, which includes the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veteran Museum
- Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area
- National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum
- Little Red Schoolhouse
- Ice House
- Behrens-Rapp Filling Station
- Tallgrass Prairie Center
- Cedar Valley Arboretum and Botanic Gardens
- Barn Happy. Classic 1920s restored dairy barn now an Iowa products and sweet treat stop.