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American History Echoes Across the Heartland

Firmly rooted in the Midwest are the stories of people who have left a lasting legacy. Their passions included music, politics, aviation, manufacturing and westward expansion.

Some are household names; others remain relatively unknown. But each one has had an impact on future generations. Places that bring their contributions to life make for a trip that’s rich in heritage and inspiration.

Big band and music lives on at Iowa’s Glenn Miller Birthplace, where fans can gather and enjoy his music. Missouri’s Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site, the nation’s only intact 19th-century textile mill, reminds groups of America’s entrepreneurial spirit and agrarian roots. In Illinois, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s formative political years.

Native American history and sagas of the North American fur trade converge at Minnesota’s Grand Portage National Monument. And the legacies of Wilbur and Orville Wright and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar come alive at Ohio’s Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.


Glenn Miller Birthplace

Clarinda, Iowa

Devotees of big-band icon Glenn Miller will appreciate the Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum. The 7,000-square-foot visitors center pays tribute to Miller’s time in Clarinda, his rise as a big-band leader and his military career during World War II. A one-hour PBS film titled “Glenn Miller: America’s Musical Hero” tells the story of his early beginnings and rise to stardom. It also covers his mysterious death, which happened when his plane disappeared en route to a European performance in 1944.

The museum displays one of Miller’s last trombones, which he played while in the Army Air Force. Also on exhibit is an original Art Deco silver-plated bandstand from Cafe Rouge, which was located within New York City’s Hotel Pennsylvania. The house tour takes visitors back to Miller’s birth year of 1904 and showcases personal items and Miller’s piano.

“With approximately 1,200 members worldwide, we’ve received lots of memorabilia that will interest Glenn Miller fans,” said Marvin Negley, president of the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society.

In 2015, June’s 40th Glenn Miller Festival will be bigger than ever with a kick-off picnic, concerts, panel discussion of Miller experts and a Saturday night dance. Music will feature local talent, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and, possibly, a European orchestra. Events and programs will be held throughout town, including a big-band breakfast and a free Glenn Miller Orchestra concert on the town square. Several surprises are also in store for the 40th anniversary bash.


Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site

Kearney, Missouri

Watkins Woolen Mill stands as the only 19th-century textile mill in North America that still houses its original machinery. This National Mechanical Engineering Landmark, about 40 miles north of downtown Kansas City, includes the Watkins farm, mill and state park. The site’s visitors center introduces the Watkins family’s entrepreneurial spirit and its many business ventures.

In 1860, Waltus Watkins recognized the area’s need for mass-produced textiles. The three-and-a-half-story mill was made entirely of bricks fired in the farm’s two kilns. Weaving equipment was purchased from the leading Eastern machinery manufacturers. Watkins’ large herds of sheep made wool plentiful.

The Smithsonian Museum visited in 1992 and photographed and cataloged the mill’s two ring-frame ply-twisters. On the third floor, carding machines produced strips of clean wool, or “roving,” that was wound onto spools, ready for spinning yarn. The mill produced fabric for 38 years.

“Here, they could do everything under one roof, from dying to the finished product,” said facilities manager Michael Beckett. “Through the guided tours and living-history program, we want people to see the big picture and all that went on here.”

Down the lane from the mill, Watkins built a two-story, Greek Revival house for his wife and nine children. The brick home still contains about 70 percent of its original furnishings, much of them purchased back East. Historic breeds of sheep and poultry roam the land, and a 19th-century heirloom garden grows fruits and vegetables, such as the root crop salsify and Northern Spy apples. In summer, groups can enjoy the 1870s living-history program that showcases the Watkins family’s ingenuity. 

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.