Imagine Northeast Iowa

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Heritage: Heading Home to a Rich History in Dubuque
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Heritage: Heading Home to a Rich History in Dubuque

Heritage is an interesting word. It can have many slightly different meanings to different people: familial, cultural, or religious. It comes from the French word “heir”, and no matter what the context, it boils down to, something handed down from the past. 

Since moving back to my hometown of Dubuque Iowa after nearly three decades in California, I’ve spent much time thinking about this concept. Dubuque is where I was born and grew up, my mother’s family, Irish immigrants, had worked the land south of Dubuque near Bernard, for five or six generations, among the first farmers to follow the lead miners to the area. My father came here in 1947 from Northeast Indiana to attend Loras College. H fell in love with my mother and the area. After the Korean War and graduate school at the University of Iowa, they put down roots here and raised our family. 

Dubuque was a wonderful place to grow up, with creeks and the river to swim in, caves to explore, bluffs to climb, and long hills to sleigh ride down in the winter. But, as with many young people, I knew that there was a whole world out there to see, so after high school I joined the Marines and left to experience it. After four years and many adventures in Asia, Europe and Africa, I found myself back in Dubuque. At this point, I would have been more than content to settle down back here for the rest of my life. But, it was the early 1980's and economic realities forced me, as many others, to take my fortunes elsewhere. On a lark, I headed West on the back of a motorcycle with a friend of mine, destination unknown. We ran out of money in California, so I found a job, and there I stayed until Spring of last year. California is a place with much history, but during the time I was there, little heritage.

The majority of people I met came there from somewhere else. It’s a beautiful place, mountains, deserts, ocean, but I always found it a bit sterile, the ocean, beautiful and awe inspiring but also, vast and inhospitable. The seasons were two dimensional, hot and dry or cold and wet. I missed the four seasons and the slow flow of one season to another, spring, the first verdant blade of grass stubbornly pushing it’s way through the slushy remains of winters last snowfall, promising life and the joys of summer, the brilliant golden blaze of autumn as the trees bid farewell for the year with a kaleidoscope of yellow, red and orange before winter settles in with monochromatic majesty. In California, things were topsy-turvy as summer came on, the color slowly bled from the landscape, lush, living green being replaced by dead, dry dusty brown. In the winter, life returned to the land, but the rain that brought it was lifeless itself, cold, gray, lacking in personality. Endless gray days where it never pours rain, but it’s never not raining, and every four or five years a quick flash of lightning a distant rumble or thunder.

It was only after moving back, that I realized how much I missed the concept of warm summer rain and the grandiose display that Mother Nature puts on for us with the fury and intimacy of a gully washing summer thunder storm. The buildup of oppressive, yet comforting humidity, wrapping it’s blanket around us like a return to the womb, then the faint change in the smell and feel of the air as the ozone level rises as the electrical charge rises. Is there a feeling to match the one you get as a sudden thunder storm erupts all around? Then there is the sudden onslaught of rain, coming down in sheets, moving seemingly vertically and horizontally at the same time, crashing down with a roar that drowns out all other sound. Suddenly, the world lights up with an intensity rivaling x-rays, simultaneously thunder booms with a sound so loud you can feel it in your bones like George Lucas’ fantasy of the ultimate THX.

The trees dance to and fro, seeming to bend several directions at once, weaker branches giving up the ghost with a crack like a rifle shot and crash to the ground. As suddenly as it began, it’s over, steam and the smell of life rising from the ground as the earth returns the water to the sky, preparing for the next round. As night draws close, crickets begin to rise their voice in chorus, shaming the best lullaby ever written, sleep carries us off, the world at bay, to be awoken the next morning by dozens of species of song birds raising their voices in a jubilant song of reveille welcoming us to a glorious new day.   Okay, it may seem as though I’ve lost my train of thought, but my thoughts don’t move like a train, more like bumper cars, though those that know me might say that demolition derby would be a more apt analogy. So, now it’s back to my original thought. Dubuque in the mid 1980s had slid into decline, decay and depression. Urban renewal in the seventies had gutted the downtown of much of what made it special.

The retail sector had fled to the west end and many of industrial fixtures that had long been Dubuque’s identity had fled completely, taking their jobs with them. I like so many others at the time, left, not because I wanted to, but because there was nothing to keep me here. The Dubuque that I have returned to has a vision, Masterpiece on the Mississippi is a great slogan, but I see more of a Phoenix, a breathtaking, beautiful creature rising from the ashes of the past. There were visionaries in local government before, but the vision was incomplete. The most obvious example would be the floodwall, in the forty years of it’s existence it has already protected Dubuque from several what would have been devastating floods, it has proven to be one of the best decisions our leaders have ever made, but during the first few decades after it was built, it also cut Dubuque off from the Mississippi, one of it’s greatest natural resources. It snaked protectively along the river, a long mound of dirt and rock, covered with weeds and empty beer cans, cutting off the view and access.

When I returned, it is now a beautiful part of The Port of Dubuque; a promenade stretches much of the length of it, lined with period lighting adorned with hanging baskets of flowers. Each year there is Art on the River, a series of outdoor sculptures lining the walkway, a different display every year. There is The American Trust Rivers Edge Plaza where you can catch an excursion on The Spirit of Dubuque, Iowa’s only authentic paddle wheeler. Nearby are the Diamond Jo Casino, the nationally renowned National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the Grand Harbor Resort, a beautiful hotel and Water Park and the Grand River Center, a fantastic convention center with amazing views of the river. Farther north is the historic Shot Tower, one of the most recognizable features of Dubuque’s skyline and the restored Star Brewery with the Alliant amphitheater, an excellent outdoor music venue that last year played host to President Obama. All of these pay homage to Dubuque’s past and the important part the Mississippi played in it.  

Throughout the rest of town are further signs of Dubuque’s revival. The Historic Millwork District, formerly a rundown area of massive brick buildings, once forgotten relics of Dubuque’s industrial past is undergoing an amazing transformation. The Voices Building plays host to Voices from the Warehouse District a month long cultural event and art exhibit. The upper floors of the buildings are being filled with apartments, the old Caradco Building already is full of tenants, the lower floors will be filled with businesses, boutiques, galleries and the Dubuque Food Co-op, an organic food store. Walking through the area now, the feeling of vitality is palpable, impressive old brick buildings that might have been torn down forty years ago are seeing new life in what is fast becoming one of the most exciting areas in town. Signs of rebirth abound everywhere throughout town, old brick buildings such as Firehouse Number 1 on Central Avenue and the old Walsh Store have been restored to their former glory.

The Roshek building, for forty years home to the largest department store in Iowa and now home to IBM, has had it’s lower floor restored with display cases chronicling the days as a department store. Main Street has been reopened; the failed idea of an outdoor pedestrian mall in the snowy Midwest a thing of the past, during the summer there is a festival almost every weekend under the Town Clock, food, beer and live music bringing young and old together to enjoy the soothing, warm summer weather. These are all some of the multitude of reasons that Dubuque has earned the designation of All American City three of the past six years. Tourist destination, All American City, Masterpiece on the Mississippi, these are descriptors that it would have been unfathomable to hear applied to the city I left thirty years ago, now they sum it up perfectly.   Growing up, our favorite stomping grounds was the area south of town. Northeast Iowa has many areas of deep ravines hemmed in by steep, rocky bluffs; these areas were unsuitable for farming and as a consequence remained untouched and look much the same as they have for the past several hundred years.

The area along the lower reaches of Catfish Creek stretching south along the river to Massey was one such place. Every day during the summer the area would be crawling with kids, armed with fishing poles and BB guns, we would climb the rock formations and swim in the pools of the creek, accompanied by our imaginations and the spirits of the Native Americans who used to inhabit the area and the miners that displaced them. I knew every narrow path, rock and tree as well as I knew my own backyard, for it was my backyard, it was the communal backyard of every child that lived south of highway 20. Tom Sawyer would have envied us, we were carefree and the world was ours. My heart aches for everyone whose childhood is devoid of memories like these. If I ever recapture that feeling, I will have found paradise. Today, much of that area is the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, a living memorial to the miners that were the first white settlers of Iowa. On weekends we would spend the day scaling the walls of what was then still an active limestone quarry, we would triumphantly reach the rim, spending the rest of the day in contemplation, enjoying the spectacular view of Old Man River stretching to the horizon both north and south of us.

We would gaze north across the valley and mouth of Catfish Creek to Julien Dubuque’s grave and monument and in our mind’s eye we would see the world as he saw it. The monument is simple, crafted from the limestone that is the foundation of the whole area. What can you say about limestone? Granite and marble are cold, hard and lifeless, the colors forced out by the pressures that created them. Limestone is warm, soft, inviting, when lit up on a warm summer day it glows with all the golden hues of the sun itself, radiating with the life of all the ancient sea creatures that compose it. I have seen the pyramids and graves of kings and popes; none are as fitting, in a location so sublime as that of the namesake of our city. Thank you Julien Dubuque, we owe you!   Upon my return, I have ended up living on the north side. A few blocks away is the most impressive brick building in town, originally the home of The Dubuque Brewing and Malting Company, it’s an imposing structure of Romanesque architecture topped by tall towers. The area is a quiet one with narrow streets and many neighborhood bars in old brick buildings dotting the corners. But my favorite feature is the fact that it is where the Heritage Trail enters the city. It has quickly become my favorite way to hop on my bicycle and swiftly leave the cares of the city behind.   The Heritage Trail follows and old railroad grade from the north end of Dubuque, swinging west over twenty-five miles to connect to the city of Dyersville with it’s basilica and the Field of Dreams. It is paved until you get to the Heritage Pond near Sageville, then it changes to a crushed limestone track.

It is a magical trek, whether on foot or bicycle. The trail is outstanding, wide and smooth, with a maximum 1% grade, as you leave the pavement the trees form an arch overhead, Mother Nature’s cathedral, on the brightest day you’re traveling in sun-dappled shade, crisscrossing the river on old train bridges decked over for easy traveling. I have so far, only made it about two thirds of the way to Dyersville, but that part of the ride is stunning, once you pass through Durango the trail swings away from Highway 52, following the Little Maquoketa River, leaving traffic sounds and accompanying civilization behind. On the one side, massive limestone bluffs keep watch, on the other; a pastoral valley carved by the river stretches out. Green fields, dotted with cattle grazing, slashed by silver flashes as the river does a series of languid S-loops as it makes it’s way to join with the Mississippi. The only sounds are birds and crickets, the rustle of the wind in the trees and grass, and the occasional babble as the river finds stretches of rock. All of the ingredients are there for the ultimate communing with nature; sunlit blue skies, flowing water, growing forests and fields; the song of crickets and birds, the voice of the biosphere itself; and the limestone jutting from the ground, the bones of the earth itself, our planet, our home. Eventually the trail will continue through the historic part of downtown Dubuque to connect to the mines of Spain, heritage in name and function, a living thread, tying the present to the past.

It’s good to be home!

  1. kellierae64
    Your Awesome Jim! :-)

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