“Nothing Runs Like a Deere” – and much more in Iowa

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Field of Dreams

This is a two-part post – first Steve’s account of our factory tours at John Deere, then back to me for our other excursions.


John DeereOur first stop in Iowa got me to thinking about what kinds of tours we might want to take while staying in this part of the country for the first time.  I use FactoryToursUSA when we get to a new state, to assist with locating available tours.  It’s kind of a crude site and not updated regularly, but I have found it to be useful on several occasions.  Anyway, I learned while looking there that John Deere is a major employer in the state of Iowa, and they have several good tours available. I think I’m excited!

I was able to make reservations for two tours on the same day at their Tractor Assembly Plant and Engine Works Plant in Waterloo.  Unfortunately, we just didn’t have time to visit the Drive Train Division, Product Engineering Center or the foundry, which are also in the area.

These plants are huge – the Tractor Assembly Plant is one of the largest buildings under a single roof in the U.S.  As usual, no cameras or cell phones were allowed at either plant, so I was unable to capture any of the fantastic things going on there.  My jaw ached at the end of the second tour from having my mouth hang open so long.  Folks, this is heavy-duty manufacturing, and anyone coming into the area should try to do some of these tours.  And they’re all FREE!

Tractor Assembly Plant

On this tour, we learned that every tractor built has been ordered and paid for before assembly begins – the same “Just in Time” concept we’ve seen at so many auto assembly plants.  None of these big companies want inventory sitting around, especially when times turn bad.  And with computer and communication technology being what it is now, they don’t have to.  Each tractor is custom ordered, and all of the 20,000 parts required to build it come into the plant from outside vendors within one or two days prior to assembly.

John Deere

One of the large tractors built at this plant

Speaking of technology, John Deere harvesters can now be ordered with state-of-the-art GPS built-in.  Accuracy?  How about within 1/4″ over 6 miles!  It’s no wonder the corn fields out here are so perfectly straight.  The tour guide told us a tractor can be programmed to go down a field, lift its accessory, turn around, put the accessory back down and continue down the next row – without the driver touching anything!

A tractor can be built in about 8 hours, and they are churning them out fast and furious for customers all over the U.S. and around the world.

Corn rows in Iowa

Perfectly straight rows of tightly-packed corn, courtesy of GPS technology!

The Engine Works Plant

The Engine Works Plant was awesome.  Hundreds of gorgeous completed engines sitting there ready to be shipped, and the tour took us through every step of machining and assembling an engine – as we watched the workers.  From engine blocks that had just come out of the foundry to final assembly and paint, they do every machining and assembly operation on the larger engines right here.  Engines are available in a myriad of colors – green for agricultural, white for marine, yellow for industrial and red for fire trucks. Absolute works of art, I was in engine heaven!  Wait, haven’t I heard someone say that about birds?

John Deere equipement at work

We spotted the finished product at work in a nearby field

I would have loved to go back to tour the foundry, but the 150-mile round trip prevented it on this stop – too many other things to see and do.  Maybe on our way back north next summer?  We’ll see!

Iowa Corn fields

Most of the corn you see growing in fields across Iowa is field corn. Very little of it is Iowa sweet corn.


I was not exactly in heaven like Steve but I did enjoy these tours.  They were a bit different than the usual airplane or automobile factory tours.  To me it was just fitting to tag along, as we are in the midst of Americas number one corn producer, Iowa.  I learned the secret of how the farmers plant their corn in a straight line and how efficient they are, using the advanced technology available to them now.

Field of Dreams

“If you build it, he will come.”  “Is this heaven?  No, it’s Iowa.”  Remember those phrases? Well, we visited the site that made them famous, the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. It’s been over 25 years since the movie was made, and we discovered that the baseball diamond carved out of a corn field to pursue a dream remain unchanged.  The place has been preserved exactly as it was in the movie, and it’s not over-commercialized – just a quiet little field next to a farm house out in the country.  I suppose the simplicity of it is what made the film so endearing.  Although I’m not a baseball fan, I thought the movie was quite inspiring.

Fields of Dreams, Iowa

My lame re-enactment of the ghost players in the movie

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams, Iowa

Field of Dreams from a distance

 Basilica of St. Francis Xavier

On our way back home from the Field of Dreams, we observed two steeples standing out in the distance.  We made a turn toward town to investigate and found that they belonged to the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, one of only a few Basilicas in the United States.  It is unique, in as much as it’s the only one in a rural area; all the others are in metropolitan cities.  This is considered one of the finest examples of true medieval gothic architecture.  The Catholic church confers the title of Basilica on churches of unusual architectural or spiritual significance.  This church was raised to the rank of Minor Basilica by a proclamation of His Holiness, Pope Pius XII on May 11, 1956.

As some of you have commented on my previous posts, there are many hidden treasures out there in small town America.  We are always on the lookout for them, but many times we’re just pleasantly surprised to stumble on something unusual and delightful.  We are so thrilled to be traveling this way and taking in the scenery and simplicity of life that can’t be experienced in the big cities.

Let me leave you with this amusing sign we saw along the road 🙂


Well, this one made me laugh!


Next up:  Pelicans – in Iowa?


Tri-states means triple the fun!

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The Big M, Platteville, WI

wpid30207-2014-09-10-WI-1410232-.jpgOur slow southern migration continued to our next stop at Kieler, Wisconsin, which just happens to lie at the junction of three states – Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.  We established our one-week home base at Rustic Barn Campground and RV Park (Steve’s review here).  The unsettled weather while here added some spice to our “activities planning”, but I used my “Daytripper Book of 101 Things To Do”, to choose the ones that piqued our curiosity and were within a reasonable driving distance.

Upon settling in, we wondered what the small building just across from Betsy was.  I went over to check it out and discovered it’s a very small chapel that seats 25 people, complete with stained glass windows and wooden pews.  Not something we see in campgrounds very often!  I learned that it’s not only a chapel available to campers, but is also used occasionally for weddings.

Rustic Barn Campground

An antiquated chapel right in front of Betsy

Each morning, with coffee in hand, we looked out over this dairy farm to watch the farmers and cows doing their thing:

Rolling Hills Dairy Farm Cooperative

Rolling Hills Dairy Farm Cooperative

When the cows were out grazing, Steve would walk down and have a chat with them.  He decided not to join them in eating grass though – it doesn’t go well with coffee.

Rolling Hills Dairy Farm Cooperative

Honey, can we have steak for dinner?

While passing through Platteville, Wisconsin, a big “M” on a hill caught my attention for an obvious reason – it’s my first initial!  It was visible from many miles away, probably because it’s supposedly the world’s largest “M”, a claim made by the city’s Chamber of Commerce that remains unchallenged.  The letter is etched into a one-mile long by half-mile wide mound that rises 450 ft. above its surroundings.  At 241 ft. high, 214 ft. wide and with 25 ft. wide legs, it definitely stands out.  In 1937, some engineering students built this letter to represent the miners of Platteville.  It continues to be maintained today, as folks occasionally whitewash the stones and light it on homecoming days.

Just 5 miles from our campground was a series of grottos and shrine structures covered in shells, stones, tile pieces, wood, glass, gems and geodes collected from all over the world. Father Mathius Wernerus, who created it between 1925 and 1930, dedicated it to the unity of God and country.


From afar this looked like an ordinary grotto, but upon closer inspection we realized the enormity of the project, as we saw the thousands of pieces that had been imbedded into the cement.  The creativity and tediousness of it is quite amazing, and we actually stopped by twice to take in the detail and workmanship.  You never know where you’ll find something so cool and unusual – worth a stop if you’re in the area.


Galena, Illinois

We crossed the state border into Illinois about 20 miles from our campground to visit Galena, Illinois.  The word galena is the technical term for sulphide of lead, which existed in considerable quantities in northwestern Illinois.  The city of Galena was born in 1826 and became very prosperous.  In fact, there was a time during the mid-1800’s when it was larger than Chicago.  It provided a core transportation hub (steamship, railroad and highways) and was a rich base for lead mining.  When the mining ceased, Galena’s glory days were over and the city was almost forgotten.  But the buildings left behind represent a large variety of architectural styles, and 85% of them are listed on the National Historical Registry.

Galena River

Galena River

Galena, IL

A levee was constructed after a flash flood in 2011

Main Street in downtown Galena has a large number of specialty shops and restaurants, plus a winery and brewery.  It was a great place to shop and have lunch – we went back twice.

Galena, IL

Main street, Galena, IL

Galena, IL

After the first day of looking around at the buildings and window shopping, all I ended up with was a bag of delicious sweet caramel popcorn.  Steve was happy to find his hard-to-get Wingtime Garlic Wing Sauce.  If you like to make your own buffalo wings, try to find this sauce!  Or if you meet us for a “happy hour” down the road, ask Steve to bring some wings – he’ll be happy to oblige!

History buffs may know that the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, lived in Galena after the Civil War.  He was so esteemed by the residents of Galena that he was given a mansion in which to live.  While in town on a rainy day, we took a guided tour of the mansion.  Ninety percent of the furnishings are original, left by the Grant family.  Several other buildings on the property displayed interesting exhibits, including one consisting of painted stones with all of the Presidents and First Ladies represented.  We also saw White House china from 14 administrations, and displays of the pets of every U.S. President.

We came back on a rare clear and sunny day to get the only real exercise we would enjoy during our stay.  We followed the Galena River Trail, clocking 7 miles on the flat terrain.

Galena River Trail

Galena River Trail, looking east

I stopped at the Buehler Preserve, a wet prairie that is preferred by some of the area’s colorful flowers:

Galena is located on the banks of the Galena River, which flows out to the Mississippi.  It’s a very picturesque place, due to all of its rolling hills and exposed rock.  Our short time there gave us only a glimpse of what it has to offer.


Dubuque, Iowa

wpid30262-2014-09-10-WI-1410239-.jpgAcross another border was Iowa, and Dubuque was only seven miles from our campground. The city is the “birthplace of Iowa”, and its oldest city.  It rests upon scenic bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.  The Riverwalk along the Mississippi was our initial destination, and while strolling along we were able to admire the various river art sculptures on display for the summer. Downtown,  I was taken once again by the unique architecture of the historic buildings in the downtown area.

Town clock, Dubuque Iowa

Town clock in the middle of Main Street

This was the first time we had seen a water fountain just for doggies.   Cool!

Port of Dubuque, IA

Man’s best friend gets his own water fountain in this town!

We rode up the shortest, steepest cable car in the world, the Fenelon Place Elevator.  The original cable car was built in 1882 by banker J.K. Graves, who lived on top of the bluff and worked at the bottom.  Since the ride in his carriage took 30 minutes, he decided to decrease his commute time by laying tracks and having his gardener let the cable car down in the morning and pull it back up at noon for lunch.  After his meal and a nap, the gardener let him down again, then back up once more after work.  That gardener must have been in very good shape!  I’m sure he was thrilled when a motor was finally installed and he was able to go back to just gardening.

Fenelon Place Elebator

Fenelon Place Elevator on the bluff

Today’s cable cars are pretty nice, having replaced the previous ones destroyed by fire.

Fenelon Place Elevator Company

Elevator up!

The railway is 296 ft. long and elevates passengers 189 ft. from Fourth Street to Fenelon Place.  At the top we enjoyed great views of the business district, Mississippi River and all three states.

Fenelon Place Elevator

Panoramic view from the top; straight across is Wisconsin, and over to the right is Illinois

Summer may be over, but this city keeps their Farmer’s Market going until October. We had fun walking through and buying some fresh veggies.

I realize this post is long, even though I tried to cram in just the highlights of our activities in the three states – not easy to do!


Next up:  Field of Dreams