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State Spotlight: Iowa

From ceremonial mounds created in 500 B.C. to an 1870s Victorian tea tradition, Iowa’s varied history can pleasantly surprise visitors. The Hawkeye State’s heritage sites chart Iowa’s evolution as a Native American homeland, early frontier and agricultural epicenter.

Preserved sites and buildings such as the Effigy Mounds National Monument, Old Fort Madison and Historic General Dodge House help tell Iowa’s intriguing stories. Visitors can also experience former traditions of Iowans firsthand at a Victorian Tea at Living History Farms or by watching a demonstration at the RVP~1875 Historical Furniture Shop and Museum.

Groups will discover a whole new side of Iowa by stepping back in time at these historic attractions.


Effigy Mounds National Monument

Harpers Ferry

Mounds shaped like bears, birds and other animals stand as a testament to the Native Americans who lived in Iowa’s Upper Mississippi River Valley between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1300. The 2,500-acre Effigy Mounds National Monument preserves hundreds of those mounds, considered sacred by the monument’s 12 affiliated Native American tribes.

Known as the Effigy Moundbuilders, the tribes shaped mounds of earth into animals such as deer, bison, turtles and panthers. The conical mounds were used for burial purposes and for other ceremonies that still remain a mystery. Some speculate that they served as seasonal observances or territorial markers.

Groups can learn about the prehistoric mounds by starting at the visitors center, which features a 15-minute film on the mounds and a museum collection of ancient Native American artifacts. From there, visitors can choose between various trails leading to burial and effigy mound groups. Hikers can admire the mounds, as well as views of tallgrass prairie, wetlands and limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River.

Guided hikes and demonstrations with ancient tools and weapons offer groups further insight into the lives of those mysterious peoples.


Living History Farms


From the teatime tradition of high-class Iowan farm owners to the farming methods of pioneers trying to survive, Living History Farms illustrates the gamut of Iowa’s historical agricultural practices. A visit to the 500-acre open-air museum allows groups to see and interact with costumed interpreters who depict the daily routines of Iowans from the 1700s to the early 1900s.

Guests can first explore the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, which clarifies the differences between Native American and European farming methods with re-created mat houses, gardens and hunting tools. The 1850 Pioneer Farm and 1900 Horse-Powered Farm show how quickly agricultural methods advanced in Iowa; exhibits go from the tools of the struggling pioneer days to post-Industrial Revolution farming machinery.

For a more complete view of the period, visitors can stop at the Henry A. Wallace Exhibit Center and at the 1875 Town of Walnut Hill. The reconstructed 1875 town replicates a community in the Iowa farm belt with a blacksmith shop, a cabinetmaker, a general store and a school.

For a peek into the lifestyle of the wealthiest farm owners, the site offers Victorian Tea Programs and Dinners at the Flynn Mansion. Both take place inside the 1870 Italianate Victorian Flynn House with servers donning Victorian period dress and serving traditional fare.


Historic General Dodge House

Council Bluffs

Money from the construction of North America’s first intercontinental railroad helped purchase the Historic General Dodge House in 1869. History credits General Grenville M. Dodge with convincing Abraham Lincoln to bring the railroad through Council Bluffs, which essentially put the city on the map.

Called “the greatest railroad builder of all time,” Dodge fought in the Civil War before overseeing the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. His Victorian mansion stands on a high terrace overlooking the Missouri Valley.

Groups can explore the 14-room, three-story mansion to learn about Dodge and admire the original furnishings of the National Historic Landmark. Architectural features, such as parquet floors and cherry woodwork, reveal the lavish sums spent on a home that was essentially on the frontier.

Dodge also oversaw the addition of several modern conveniences unusual for the period, among them central heating and hot running water.

Next door, the August Beresheim House serves as the orientation center for the mansion.


RVP~1875 Historical Furniture Shop and Museum


Robby Pedersen’s passion for creating 19th century furniture can be plainly seen on a tour of the RVP~1875 Historical Furniture Shop and Museum. A master furniture-maker with more than 20 years’ experience, Pedersen creates heirloom pieces of furniture with only the tools, techniques and finishes of the 1800s.

Groups on a one-hour tour of the museum can not only observe the process, but also participate with their own hands. The longer three-hour program allows groups to roll up their sleeves and create a small take-home project using the tools and techniques of 1875.

The museum sits inside the century-old Milligan Lumber Grain and Coal building in downtown Jefferson. The Showroom displays more than 100 pieces of furniture with historical significance as well as some of the 800 pieces of historically accurate furniture Pederson has crafted over the years.

The exhibit also showcases an extensive collection of 19th century woodworking tools, including an 1860s foot-powered lathe, an 1870s hand-cranked ripsaw and more than 500 different hand planes.

Interested visitors can purchase a custom piece of historically accurate furniture by choosing the wood, size, dye and hardware.


Old Fort Madison

Fort Madison

At an isolated fort on the edge of the frontier, a post of men, women and children lived in the face of many dangers. The reconstructed Old Fort Madison illustrates the realities of life without a convenient supermarket to rely on when food supplies run low.

The first permanent U.S. military fortification on the upper Mississippi River, Old Fort Madison uses costumed interpreters to transport guests into the past. Interpreters demonstrate tasks necessary for survival, such as baking bread, military drills and musket firing. Guests can jump in and participate in the hands-on activities by, for example, tasting a fresh-baked morsel, dipping a candle or handling a Springfield musket.

The U.S. Army established Old Fort Madison in 1808 to establish control over land newly acquired with the Louisiana Purchase. The fort survived a few battles, including Black Hawk’s first battle against the United States and one of the only battles fought west of the Mississippi during the War of 1812.