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State Spotlight: Iowa

Courtesy Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Smack in the middle of the country’s heartland, Iowa enjoys a blend of natural beauty, rich cultural heritage and all-American flavor. Rivers, railroads and generations of interesting characters make a tour through this state a fascinating experience.

For groups, Iowa represents a wealth of travel possibilities. While some visitors will relish the Mississippi riverfront, others will enjoy the area’s human history. Fortunately for today’s group travel planner, new tourism developments around the state will pique a variety of interests.

This year brings numerous new and updated attractions for groups. The Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center in Clinton and the Mississippi Plaza and Riverfront Marina in Dubuque give visitors new ways to experience and appreciate the mighty Mississippi.

The National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids and the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs tell stories of Iowa’s human history; the Matchstick Marvel museum in Gladbrook highlights the work of a unique local artist.

And the High Trestle Trail and Des Moines River Bridge give visitors great views and outdoor activity options.

Railroad history
When the transcontinental railroad connected America’s two coasts in the mid-1800s, it made Council Bluffs a railroad boomtown. At the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, groups can see a collection of artifacts from one of the most famous names in railroads.

Items in the historic collection include one of the four golden spikes used to join the eastern and western sections of the railroad. Another section details the railroad’s connection to Abraham Lincoln with photographs, busts and a display of furniture from Lincoln’s private rail car.

The “America Travels by Rail” exhibit has detailed cutaways of several train cars, as well as artifacts like vintage dishes and china pieces used during the golden age of train travel.

This spring, the museum is re-creating its first-floor galleries with a state-of-the-art, million-dollar exhibit. New displays will use interactive technology to showcase the American frontier of the 1860s and recount the colossal task of connecting the country’s coasts.

Matchstick Marvels
In the small town of Gladbrook in Iowa’s rural center, travelers will find one of Iowa’s most surprising travel treasures at the Matchstick Marvels museum.

Since 1977, local resident Patrick Acton has made a hobby of building intricate models with ordinary matchsticks. The sculptures grew so popular that Acton opened the Matchstick Marvels museum, which now displays more than 60 of his creations.

Visitors to the museum will find incredibly detailed models of historic ships and aircraft, as well as the U.S. Capitol. The museum also has two massive models of sites from popular fiction: Hogwarts School from the Harry Potter story and Minas Tirith, the great city from “Lord of the Rings.”

This month, Acton is unveiling his newest sculpture, a scale model of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Acton has worked on the cathedral since August 2010 and has used more than 400,000 matchsticks in the process.

Iowa’s human heritage
Iowa has a heritage of settlers who came from all over the world, including many from eastern Europe. This July, the National Czech and Slovak Museum will reopen in a new location in Cedar Rapids.

The museum has been closed since a 2008 flood heavily damaged the old location. So museum directors decided to move the museum and expand it with an enlarged reference library, a spacious permanent exhibit area, two temporary exhibition galleries and other multiuse spaces.

The museum’s exhibits will focus on the ethnic heritage of the Czech and Slovak people who settled the area with artifacts and oral histories from first-generation immigrants. One exhibit area will also tell the story of the 2008 flood that did extensive damage to Cedar Rapids.

The museum will open with a special exhibition titled “Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau.” The exhibit will feature more than 230 rare works of art on loan from museums in London and Prague.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.