LeClair, Iowa has been a vibrant, go-to town since 1834 and shows no sign of ending that trend. Even on a cold, drizzly mid-week day in March, LeClaire was bustling with locals and day-trippers out for a good time.
The Mississippi River has always been the anchor and life-blood of LeClaire. Located on a bend where the river changes course, the views of the slow-moving ‘Mighty Miss’ stretch for miles. Still a very active waterway, continual traffic of barges, tug-boats, paddle wheelers and noisy fowl will turn a visitor into a dedicated river watcher. On a bright, sunny day, the river seems to sparkle with a million diamonds; on a full-moon night, the water resembles dusty blue satin. A few hours strolling by the Mississippi will make one want to pick up that old copy and Huckleberry Finn and re-live the romance of Mark Twain.
A cruise on the Twilight is a savored and unforgettable event. The Twilight, a working riverboat, runs both two-day tours to Galena, Illinois, and one-and-a-half hour tours on a regular basis. Some tours go through Lock and Dams 12 and 13; others focus on wildlife. Every tour is designed to be educational, relaxing and a long-treasured family outing,
Historically, because of the river, some of the most respected and wealthiest early citizens of LeClaire were the river pilots. Their tough job of navigating the ever-changing shoals, rocks and currents delivering goods and passengers up and down the river highway rewarded them handsomely. Most of the most opulent 1800’s-period dwellings and buildings in town were former homes of these brave men. Stop by the LeClaire Information Center at 117 South Cody Road and pick up the self-guided walking tour brochure of these grand places. Nineteen places are listed throughout town, within a few blocks of downtown. Most of them are currently private residences or businesses, so admittance is not granted to all, but the tour is worth the walk.
LeClaire’s most famous resident is America’s treasure, William Cody, best known as Buffalo Bill. This iconic entrepreneur, who traveled and thrilled the world by showing off the rough-hewed West, Annie Oakley, and Native Americans, such as Sitting Bull, in his dazzling, action-packed shows, was born a few miles outside town. Perhaps the ever-moving river was the underlying source of his need for adventures and achievements.
The Buffalo Bill Museum, located on the Mississippi, highlights his life through films, artifacts, and childhood memorabilia. This outstanding museum, though, is much more than Buffalo Bill. It is the on-going story of LeClaire and eastern Iowa. It’s interesting and packed rooms display the history of early pioneers, both farmers and river-related occupations, women’s fashions throughout the years, the replica of a one-room country schoolhouse, local Native American’s teepees, and Iowa’s contributions to the Civil War and both World Wars. Two other successful local boys are featured, as well: James Ryan II, who invented both the seat belt and the Ryan Flight Recorder, best known as the ‘black box’ and James Eads, the well-known architect who designed and built the first rail and road bridge across the Mississippi River.
Parents will appreciate the museum for its quiet ‘time-out’ room, where children can nap or learn fun facts like how clams can be turned into buttons. Other activities for the younger set include a treasure hunt and the chance to play with a pilot wheel.
One of the most popular exhibits at the museum is the Lone Star steamboat. Not a replica, the Lone Star is the actual last remaining wooden steamboat still in existence. This brave little boat faithfully trawled up and down the Mississippi with passengers and goods for seventy-seven years, from 1890 to 1967. The visitor who climbs its deck and inspects its engine will immediately appreciate the history they are walking over. The Lone Star has a lot of memories and stories to tell; its creaking planks seem to long for another era. For many people, she is the highlight of the museum and the long-remembered detail. Be sure to watch the five-minute video of the Lone Star in operation. You will appreciate her even more.
Antique Archaeology is a huge draw to LeClaire. American Picker founders Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz base their popular shows in Nashville, TN and LeClaire, IA. Their two treasure-trove filled buildings are located a block off the main street in what was a former fabrication shop. Antique memorabilia covering any possible genre is to be found here, floor to rafters. It is an antique hunter’s paradise.
Antique Archaeology is colorful, interesting, and very humorous, in the way the artifacts are grouped and displayed. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful; long-term browsing is encouraged and necessary, if one is to see all the fun items there. Plan on several happy hours of ambling through layers of great history.
But take away the museum, the riverboats and Antique Archaeology and there is still LeClair. This vibrant little town is so full of charm, personality, and energy, one visit will not be enough. The downtown Cody Street runs several blocks and is filled with stores overflowing with one-of-a-kind items. Everything from musical instruments, fashions for anyone, great home finishing’s, chocolates, and unique java houses. Every store needs time to be explored. Half of Cody Street runs along the Mississippi; many downtown businesses have balconies which take in tremendous views. Visitors will pick a favorite balcony to relax on during their shopping time.
Loud speakers have been set up all along Cody Street. Shoppers are treated to great upbeat music as they stroll along. Tunes from many different artists, genres and eras have visitors snapping fingers and bobbing heads engaging in an old favorite. It is always fun to be part of the crowd.
A must-attend annual event in LeClair is Tugfest. In conjunction with Port Byron, directly across the river in Illinois, the main excitement of this three-day festival involves a tug-of-war across the Mississippi between these two towns. The competition is fierce, and the Coast Guard closes the river to any traffic during the tug. Less strenuous fun include a parade and carnival rides, which are set up along the river in LeClaire.
Throughout the year, LeClaire hosts many annual events including: First Fridays, Car Shows, Apple Fest, Dogtoberfest, Witches Walk and Christmas in LeClaire. There definitely is something for everyone.
Restaurants are just as interesting and run the gamut from familiar fast-food to gourmet. Any appetite whim can be satisfied; some restaurants are located in beautifully restored period buildings, along with those always-enchanting river views.
Wineries and breweries are springing up in LeClaire, as well. These popular places showcase the owners labors of love; often the wine- or beer-maker is on hand to educate the visitor about the intricacies of the drink. Look for local bands to perform on weekend evenings, adding to the unique flavor of LeClaire.
For those wanting to spend a night in LeClaire, overnight accommodations are abundant and run the gamut from chain hotels to one-of-a-kind bed-and-breakfast or guest houses.
More than thirty RV parks and campgrounds adorn the area on either side of the river, all within an easy commute to LeClaire. Do plan a visit. It will be one the family will never forget.