Romantic US Route 6 Iowa? Actually?
Would you consider 1800’s farm settlements, the “World’s Oldest Soda Fountain”, killer butterscotch pies, Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks, best blue cheese, presidential diners, tiny cornfield towns, and the like, romantic? Then you’ll love driving US Route 6 Iowa with your best buddy for a nostalgia trip like no other.
Route 6 Iowa begins at the Mississippi River and ends at the Missouri River – a 320-mile stretch originally called the “River to River Road.” (Identified by telephone poles painted white, it was also referred to, in parts, as the White Pole Road or Great White Way).
In the Midwest, US Route 6 played a crucial role in the shipping of farm goods to points east and west, and became a popular road for auto-tourists. But many of the small farm towns were literally left in the dust after I-80 was built.
So – rediscover these small towns and their suspended-in-time attractions with your favorite traveler. Read on.
(Check out this Getaway Mavens post for overview of Coast to Coast US Route 6).
Contemporary Art in Davenport IA
Davenport, the largest of the Quad Cities, features the campus of the world’s first (and official) Chiropractic College – the Palmer College of Chiropractic, established here in 1906.
But you’ll want to visit for the stone and glass contemporary 114,000 sq. ft. Figge Art Museum – the premier art institution in the region. Set right on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Figge stands out as an example of forward-thinking urban renewal. $10, open Tues-Sat 10-5 (Thus till 8pm), Sun. 12-5.
World’s Largest Truck Stop, Walcott
Heading west where US 6 pairs with Interstate 80, you can’t ignore the I-80 World’s Largest Truck Stop, just outside of Davenport in Walcott. This place is a beacon for weary cross-country truckers and, according to one, has “the best showers anywhere – better then most homes.” It is also a tourist attraction in its own right.
Serving as a self-contained city, this mega truck stop also has a theater, big laundry mat, several restaurants, a food court and tons of shopping areas. There’s a warehouse-size room full of truck accessories; steering wheels, lights, lenses, stacks, hood ornaments, apparel. A trucker could spend hours here picking out items to customize his/her rig.
Oldest Continuously Operating Ice Cream Parlor in the World
From Walcott, leave the interstate and follow the old Historic Route 6. Continue west for 14 miles to Wilton notable for the incomparable Wilton Candy Kitchen, which propelled this remote town of 2,800 folks to international renown.
Second generation owner, George Nopoulo and his wife, Thelma dished out soda fountain food and homemade ice cream the same way they did it for 75 years. George passed away at age 95 in 2015. Thelma died in 2020.
Now owned by Wilton native Lynn Ochiltree, fans have been known to drive hundreds of miles to this little red and white candy-striped place for the privilege of a scoop. Designated a National Historic Site, the Candy Kitchen was Founded by R.A. McIntyre in 1860 and is considered the oldest continuously operated Ice Cream Parlor/Soda Fountain in the world.
Stroll the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City – a UNESCO “City of Literature”
The two-lane drive to Iowa City is a lulling 17 miles; farmland rising and falling in soft swells. Iowa City was recognized as a UNESCO “City of Literature” joining Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia, mostly likely owing to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop – a two-year residency MFA program at the University of Iowa and Holy Grail to many aspiring novelists.
As you walk along Iowa Avenue, you’ll step on carved bronze panels embedded in the sidewalk -tributes to literary giants who have ties to Iowa. Next, tap into the vibe on the Historic Pedestrian Mall, where you’ll find scores of restaurants and boutiques.
Order Comfort Food Where Presidents Dine
Hamburg Inn #2 (#1 burned down apparently), is a perennial favorite of visitors and politicos in town for the Iowa Caucus. Every Presidential candidate shows up at one time or another.
See What Remains of the Blue Top Motor Court in Coralville
Coralville citizens of a certain age have an extremely sentimental attachment to Old Route 6. They loved the “old 6,” don’t like the new bypass, and hate I-80 even more.
From the book “Coralville; A Small Town Grows Up,” Anne Beiser Allen states, “If mills defined Coralville in the 19th century, the automobile defined her character in the 20th. By 1950, tourist camps (built on the outskirts of town) were superseded by the motel built in the town center.” Many of these hotels were built to capture those tourists crossing the country on US Route 6.
Judy and Larry Smith’s family ran the iconic Blue Top Motor Court, which sat proudly on old Route 6 from 1952 – 1996. Twelve tiny cottages were arranged in a semi-circle around a swath of lawn that encompassed a grill, picnic tables and swing sets. It was spotless, comfortable, and, according to one celebrity guest, Bob Hope, each cabin had a walk-in closet “larger than a whole room at the Jefferson Hotel.”
Now, a plaque on a stately sidewalk clock near Old Town Hall is all that remains of the Blue Top, but you can visit a replica of Cabin #1 in the low-tech Johnson County Historical Museum.
Learn About the Mormon Handcart Expedition Trail in Coralville
Coralville is important in Mormon history as the beginning of the Mormon Handcart Expedition Trail. From 1855 – 1857, Mormons moving to Salt Lake City from New York disembarked at the railroad terminal in Iowa City expecting to find stagecoaches at the ready to transport them to their Promised Land.
What they found instead was nothing. So until the rails extended to Salt Lake City, a total of 3,500 Mormons had to fashion their own handcarts out of local trees, gather in units and move out together, military-style. The Handcart Trail goes all the way to Council Bluffs, IA, another center of Mormon history.
Eat in an Old Power Plant, Coralville
Coralville’s commercial strip overflows with fast food joints. But you can find whimsy, history, knock-out-views and a very good meal at the fun, dimly lit Iowa River Power Company Restaurant in the actual (decommissioned) utility building propped right over an old hydro-electric dam. Order a Southwestern Spiced Steak salad or any other excellent dish, and be sure to ask for a window seat.
Discover and Stay In the 1800’s Amana Colonies
West of Coralville on Route 6, under I-80 you’re met with intersecting gravel roads and more farmland for 16.5 miles. When you get to Homestead – take a quick left into another world. Homestead is one of 7 “Amana Colonies,” settled by Germans in the 1850’s.
A bit more progressive than their Amish brethren, this sect, the Ebenezer Society, established self-contained, communal towns throughout rural Iowa. Though most of the sect has moved or died out, the village maintains some museums and shops in homage to the past.
There’s plenty to explore in all seven Amana Villages; fresh-meat markets, art galleries, museums and furniture shops. Stay in the upscale Zuber’s Homestead Hotel. Iowa Prairie décor has never been so chic.
Ogle Meticulously Rendered Miniature Buildings in South Amana
If the Henry Moore’s Barn Museum in South Amana was near the Interstate, travelers would be flocking to see the almost 200 skillfully assembled mini-buildings. Those include diminutive barns, a Louisiana sugar plantation, Abraham’ Lincoln’s homestead, California logging camps of the 1890’s – among many other dioramas – that retired farmer Henry Moore meticulously created (one inch to one ft. scale) over the course of 15 years. This place should be a “Roadside America” highlight, celebrating the cleverness, tenacity and passion of one talented American.
Walk into a Louis Sullivan designed Jewel Box Bank in College Town of Grinnell
It’s another 15 rural miles to Grinnell – “The Jewel of the Prairie.” Grinnell is home to one of the top Liberal Arts Colleges in the nation and to a rare Louis Sullivan designed Jewel Box Bank. The “Father of the Modern Skyscraper,” Sullivan was the first architect to utilize steel beams in building construction and this bank was one of eight (three were in Iowa), built in 1914.
Before walking inside, look over the front door at the very ornate terra cotta medallion in the shape of a keyhole – a signature Jewel Box design. It is a remarkable building and one of Grinnell’s top attractions.
Buy Maytag Blue Cheese From the Source in Newton
It’s 18 miles to Newton IA, hometown of Maytag Appliances. Once known as “The Washing Machine Capital of the World,” and indeed before Whirlpool purchased the company in 2006, every Maytag washing machine was manufactured in this small Plains town.
The Maytag Dairy Farm is a must see for blue-cheese lovers. Beloved by Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart among many other chefs, Maytag ships a million pounds of cheese around the world every year. The dairy began making its prize winning Blue Cheese in 1941, and it’s still made the same way – each 4 lb round is dipped in wax and wrapped by hand. Although tours have been suspended due to Covid, you can still visit the on-site store Mon-Fri 8-6 (masks required).
Explore Farms Through the Ages at Living History Farms, Urbandale
It’s roughly 40 miles from Newton to Urbandale, so time your day to get to the incomparable Living History Farms (just outside of Des Moines in Urbandale IA), when it opens at 9am. There’s a lot to see. On 500 acres, the living History Farms encompasses both an East and West campus.
Walk out the visitor’s center door and you’re plunged into the 1875 prairie town of “Walnut Hill” where docents remain in character right down to period dress. Enter the home of a typical “middle class family” to a fragrant lunch cooking on the stove.
Converse with the town lawyer who might tell you, “I both represent and sue the railroad depending on the day.” Engage with the typesetter in the newspaper office (The Advocate), and interact with museum staff in the Pharmacy, General Store, Doctor’s Office and other shops.
To get to the West campus, you must ride a tractor-driven trolley that takes you through a tunnel under I-80 then drops you off at a trailhead. Amble along a nice woodsy interpretive trail through 300 years of Iowa farming history.
Three settlements – a small Indian Village, an 1850 Farm, and a 1900 farm – are also staffed with knowledgeable costumed interpreters. Open May- Sept. Tues-Sat 9-4, Sept-Oct. Thurs-Sat. 9-4, $16, adults, $9.50 kids.
Drive 26 Miles on the White Pole Road: Dexter, Stuart, Menlo, Casey, Adair
Stay on Route 6 until it joins I- 80 five miles from Adel. Get off at the Dexter/Redfield F60 Exit 100 to the beginning of a 26-mile preserved portion of the White Pole Road. Iowa’s first certified State Route and foundation for old Route 6, The White Pole Road was part of the River To River Road. Still flanked by whitewashed telephone poles, the White Pole Road is now a 26-mile trip through the smallest of Iowa towns.
Like most, they usually encompass only one downtown street that ends in a series of grain elevators. Begin in Dexter IA (“The Original One Horse Town”), home to the fantastic hand-dipped Drew’s Chocolates.
In 4.5 miles hail Stuart, IA “Home to 1,700 Good Eggs and A Few Stinkers,” or at least that’s what it says on its billboard. The First National Bank of Stuart was the victim of a Bonnie and Clyde robbery on April 16, 1934, and ironically the building is now occupied by the Stuart Police Department.
Five miles west, the smiling and waving White Rose Service Station Attendant sign greets you as you enter population 365 Menlo (“A town of few & friend of all”). Hook a right into “town” – for a bite or coffee at the Menlo Café, owned by Denise Miller, famous for her Butterscotch Pie, and other baked goods.
Menlo Detour: Freedom Rock
Before getting to the next town, there’s one more thing you’ve got to see. Travel west from Menlo on the White Pole Rd. until you come to a Greenfield arrow pointing left. Take the left onto Iowa 25, cross I-80 and in a couple of miles you’ll come to a painted stone on the left-hand side of the road: Freedom Rock.
This 60-ton boulder is a literal touchstone for military veterans and families of the fallen who come to pay their respects. The artist, Ray “Bubba” Sorrenson, has used the ashes of fallen vets mixed with paint in his poignantly rendered war scenes. He repaints the 6 ft. boulder every Memorial Day.
Casey and Adair
Back on the White Pole Rd. head west several miles to the next town of Casey (“Antique Country”). It’s just over 7 miles from Casey to Adair (“Home of the Bombers!”). A few miles west of Casey, look out for a large steam engine wheel, which marks the spot of the First Moving Train Robbery in the West in 1873 by the outlaw Jessie James.
It’s the perfect place to turn on your car radio and listen to the Commodity Report. You may be surprised to learn that when a local “stock” is discussed, the topic is most likely soy, corn, or hogs.
Mormon and Railroad History in Council Bluffs IA
It’s about 70 miles from Adair to Council Bluffs and the Kanesville Tabernacle, a re-creation of the Mormon house of worship where Brigham Young was “sustained” as prophet after Latter Day Saints founder, Joseph Smith was “martyred.” For now, only the Visitor’s Center is open. Learn about The Mormon Battalion – 500 Mormon men drafted by the US Army to fight in the Mexican-American War, and much more Mormon history as Council Bluffs was the terminus of the Mormon Handcart Trail. It’s where this persecuted group waited out harsh winters before proceeding to Salt Lake City.
Union Pacific Railroad Founded By Abe Lincoln
To understand the importance of the railroad to our country’s growth, visit the free to enter Union Pacific Railroad Museum. The city ofCouncil Bluffs was integral to the story of the Union Pacific Railroad, one of the oldest publicly traded companies still operating under its original name.
Abraham Lincoln founded Union Pacific in 1862, when he signed the Pacific Railway Act. Its story is one with the building of America. Designed to run from Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA, railway workers began at each end, laying track towards the middle: an endeavor nicknamed The Race to Promontory (the two sides met in Promontory Summit).
The museum illustrates this history through clever and fascinating multi-media presentations. The second floor is more interactive; you can sit in a conductor’s chair to get a feel for his view out the windshield, and “purchase” a 30’s Luxury Liner ticket from an old timer. The Union Pacific Railroad still employs 31,000 people and owns over 3,500 miles of track. Open Fridays and Saturdays 12-6, free. (Preregistration necessary).
Visit the Spooky Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs
Council Bluffs is also home to a unique “Squirrel Cage Jail,” a rotating tube of pie-shaped cells stacked three tall, with ten wedges per level- thirty tiny cells in all. It operated as the local jail from 1885-1969 and looks like a contraption straight out of Wild Wild West.
Everything was left as it was, including the graffiti on cell ceilings created from the smoke of burnt newspapers. The jail building itself is nondescript brick, designed to blend in with the surrounding community. $7, Open April through Oct. Thurs-Sat 11am-4pm,Sun. 1pm-4pm. Nov. – March, Sat 11am-4pm, Sun. 1pm-4pm.