Touring in Muscatine, the Pearl of the Mississippi!
In late March Jodi Hansen of Visit Muscatine hosted my husband Keith and I in their beautiful city. Muscatine is famous for its Pearl Button history and beauty along the Mississippi. Mark Twain remembered Muscatine fondly. In a marker at the Mark Twain Overlook there is a quote from him stating, “And I remember Muscatine still more pleasantly for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any on either side of the ocean that equaled them.”
The view from the Overlook is quite beautiful. One view shows the bridge into Illinois and the Big Muddy then the City of Muscatine spreads out below the other direction. During our two and a half day stay, we toured the Pearl of the Mississippi and learned why Twain and others kept returning to this lovely town!
The Hotel Merrill
Our first stop was the hotel where we stayed. The Hotel Merrill is a new build. It is the number two hotel in the state of Iowa. It is a AAA Four-Diamond property. The entire hotel is luxurious and is located right next to the Mississippi River. Our room was quite luxurious with both a bathtub and a walk-in shower! The hotel boasts 122 guest rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space. It is the perfect place for a wedding, girl’s getaway, romantic anniversary, or conference. Every day while there I used the fitness room and wish I would have remembered my swimsuit to try out the saltwater pool.
The Merrill Hotel also has the amazing Maxwells Restaurant. Chef Tess Crookshanks and Chef Ryan Causse create wonderful meals. The food tastes amazing and is visually beautiful as well! While staying at the Merrill we at our dinners at Maxwells and enjoyed appetizers as well as the entrees. One morning we had breakfast there and it was delicious!
One of my favorite things about the hotel is the location. Our second day in, we parked the car and just walked most of the day to shop and dine and visit historic sites.
Pine Creek Grist Mill
For ages I have wanted to visit the Pine Creek Grist Mill. The mill is in the Wildcat Den State Park near Muscatine, Iowa. The mill may be the oldest working grist mill between the Mississippi and the Rockies. Heather Shoppa is Vice President of Interpretation for the Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill. “The mill is 174 years old this year. It was built in 1848. This is the 3rd mill on the creek.”
The mill was built by Benjamin Nye who was also the first official resident of Muscatine County. The mill has the original set of millstones that grind wheat or buckwheat. The stones they are from a quarry in France. The mill has a steam engine that was used to run the mill until the boiler failed. They shut down the mill in the early 1920’s and it was purchased by State of Iowa as part of the Wildcat Den State Park!
The mill is beautiful with the Pine Creek and an 1878 steel bridge nearby. There is also a restored 1877 Melpine one room school and more. The mill is open from May to September.
The Old County Dairy Barn is a special place that was saved just two weeks before being torn down! It is part of the County Farm. Paul Carroll a member of Friends of the Old Barn said that at one time the farm consisted of a house and 200 acres. The Old County Home Dairy Barn held cows that were the farms dairy herd. When the County decided that the farm was no longer useful, they began to parcel out the land and buildings. When the buildings were no longer wanted, they were being destroyed.
During the winter of 2005, contractor Josh Haskins found out about the possible tear down when he called a friend to ask if he had any winter work for him. The gentleman said, “Yes, I am going to tear down the Old County Barn”. Right away, Haskins said he was going to oppose this. Paul Carroll said, “He went to the Board of Supervisors and was able to stop the tear down.”
It turns out that this barn is rather special. Paul shared, “The barn was built in 1926, it is William Loudon’s design, and this barn was built in 90 days.”
“William Loudon is famous because he invented a pulley and track to put loose hay in a barn,” Paul said. Loudon then went on to create barn plans to help sell his pulley and track designs. There are several Loudon inventions in this lovely old barn. The upstairs ceiling is a masterpiece of architectural beauty! The Old County Barn was saved in 2005. Today it is used for educational purposes and small events!
National Pearl Button Museum
Did you know that Muscatine, Iowa is famous as the Pearl Button empire of the world? Farming the Mississippi River for the iridescent shells of clams and mussels. The buttons they made brought this industry to this River town. We toured and learned all about this history at the National Pearl Button Museum. The pearl button industry was a huge deal before plastic,” current museum director Dustin Joy said. ” It all started with John Boepple, a German immigrant that made buttons in Germany from Ocean shells bones and horns. He had trouble getting shells and he got two from Muscatine and learned they were plentiful there.”
Boepple came to Muscatine and set up a whole industry from clamming the river, to making buttons from the shells. It is a fascinating story. Upstairs in the museum you can see what other industries have risen over the years as well!
Shopping in Downtown Muscatine
Shopping in downtown Muscatine was fun. We enjoyed walking in the downtown area after our tour of the National Pearl Button Museum and Discover History & Industry Center. At the museum they had a gift shop and I had to have a bit of jewelry. That is my takeaway when I travel. Artisans make lovely jewelry and art from the pearl buttons!
Next, we headed to Meg’s Vintage Collective to check out the collectibles and fun items. From there we went on to the Halltree Boutique. Keith found a seat in the corner, and I was able to shop and try on clothes. I found an outfit and was ready for spring!
Jodi of Visit Muscatine had told us about a cool art item, a paper Mache Mark Twain puppet that had been created for a parade in 2010. It was on display at the Pearl Plaza!
The Muscatine Art Center
One of my favorite stops during the trip was the beautiful Muscatine Art Center! Virginia Cooper gave us a wonderful tour. She had just finished a new display “Incredible Minds” about Muscatine Authors. This is a house tour as well as an art gallery, then there is also the Stanley Gallery which has rotating displays.
The house that the Art Center is located in belonged to Laura Musser. Virginia Cooper explained that she was the daughter of Lumber baron Peter Musser. Laura Musser married Edwin McColm. Edwin had apprenticed with the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago and worked for the family business, McColm Dry Goods Store.
In 1908, Laura Musser-McColm and husband Edwin McColm moved into their newly built home. The house was a gift to the couple from Laura’s father. Laura had a beautiful singing voice, thus the music room that she added in 1921. “She often staged performances,” Virgina said.
“In 1933, Edwin passed away and Laura moved to Kansas City” Later she and married William T. Atkins” who had a daughter. The house remained open because Laura and her family often traveled to Muscatine.
The Muscatine Art Center was established as a museum in 1965 when Laura Musser’s heirs, Mary Catherine McWhirter and Mary Musser Gilmore, donated the Musser Mansion to the City of Muscatine. There are many collections on display like the Mississippi River Collection as well as traveling exhibits.
Many Iowa artists are profiled as well. Besides the house and Stanley gallery, there is also a sculpture garden and Japanese Garden that is undergoing renovation.
Muscatine Environmental Learning Center
There are so many things to do involving nature in Muscatine. The Environmental Learning Center is located in Discovery Park near the Old County Barn that we toured on our first day in Muscatine! Dave Bakke said that this building was built in 2004-2005. They had a previous building next to the Cedar River, but the area flooded so they needed a new building. When the old County Farm offered ground for Discovery Park and a new building, in an urban area, it was perfect.
Run by the local County Conservation Board, the building offers a permanent exhibit, “Iowa’s Changing Landscape,” describing the changing landscape and how it affects native wildlife. We also viewed two large aquariums, temporary nature exhibits, and live snake, turtle, amphibian, and raptor displays. Dave explained that he likes to work outside with the kids and showed us grasslands and explained that there is an Arboretum nearby.
Besides dining at Maxwells, we also stopped at a few other neat places. We had lunch downtown at Boonies on the Avenue for lunch. The food and service both were great. We split a salad that was perfect. For breakfast the last morning in town, we tried Waffle and Pancake House and loved it!
There is so much to love about this historic river town. During the year they have a variety of festivals. The Tractor Cade tractor Drive, Girlfriend Getaway and so much more. We want to get back soon to experience this Pearl of the Mississippi again for this city is truly a gem!