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Explore the 10 best things to do in LeClaire, Iowa

LeClaire, Iowa, is the perfect weekend getaway. The History Channel’s TV show “American Pickers” made LeClaire famous nationwide. The show’s stars travel the nation searching treasures to fill Antique Archaeology, their store in Downtown Le Claire. The small river town is William Frederick Cody’s boyhood home; you know him as Buffalo Bill Cody. However, LeClaire is far more than a single store or famous former resident.

The Cody Road Historic District (LeClaire’s Main Street) stands above the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The river views alone should attract you, but the quaint town has interesting stories. I loved strolling beside the Mississippi River, wandering into the shops, visiting the museum, and tasting the food. Here are 10 terrific things to do. LeClaire will captivate your soul.

LeClaire, population 4,700, is half an hour northeast of Davenport, Iowa, on the Great River Road. The captivating city is 2.5 hours east of Des Moines and 2.5 hours west of Chicago on Interstate 80.

Visit Quad Cities sponsored my visit, but all opinions are mine.

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for bald eagles along the Mississippi River in the winter and pelicans in the summer. LeClaire competes with Port Byron, Illinois, each August during TugFest.

Buffalo Bill Museum | Freedom Rock | Cody Trail | Antique Archaeology | Riverboat Twilight | Wide River Winery | Mississippi River Distilling Company | Green Tree Brewery | Cody Road Coffee | Mississippi Cottage Antiques

Red brick Buffalo Bill Museum with a buffalo sculpture, a red paddlewheel, and the white River Pilot's Pier in LeClaire, Iowa.
Buffalo Bill Museum and River Pilot’s Pier exterior.

2. Buffalo Bill Museum of Le Claire, Iowa

A surprising number of famous people lived in LeClaire and Scott County, Iowa. Learn their inspiring stories at the Buffalo Bill Museum and Lonestar Steamboat on the banks of the Mississippi River. The museum contains fascinating displays of famous LeClaire lives and the area’s local history. The LeClaire Women’s Club established the museum in 1957, and its front porch is now on the river.

Bronze Buffalo Bill Cody equestrian maquette standing on a shelf in front of artifacts and images, LeClaire, Iowa.
Buffalo Bill sculpture model

The museum includes a complete timeline of William F. Cody’s life with numerous Buffalo Bill memorabilia. Cody’s life read like a classic Western, and he was the main character in many dime novels. He was a Pony Express rider and a US Army civilian scout, earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, and ran Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Related: Cody ran the Wild West Show from Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska.

Cody invested in the Cody-Dyer Arizona Mining and Milling Co. in 1903, hoping to discover gold. The company mined the Cody Stone, quartz embedded with silver and gold. The museum has a large Cody Stone on display. The mine also produced tungsten, which Thomas Edison used in his light bulbs. Unfortunately, the mining business drained Cody’s fortune.

Buffalo Bill-themed pop cans
Buffalo Bill Sassparilla “Caffein Free” can and “Relive Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” Coke can

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for the Buffalo Bill Sassparilla can, proclaiming its “caffein-free” status. The museum also preserves the tent that another Cody used, “Iron Eyes” Cody, famous for Keep America Beautiful’s anti-littering ads.

Giant elm tree slab with a hollow center
Slab from the “Green Tree Hotel”

“Green Tree Hotel” in LeClaire, Iowa

A huge elm slab preserves the memory of the “Green Tree Hotel,” a 50-foot-high elm with a 100-foot-diameter canopy. River pilots gathered there, and children, including Cody, played beneath its branches. The LeClaire, Iowa, tree survived numerous challenges in its 225 years, but Dutch elm disease killed it in 1964. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Perhaps Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and his command camped beneath the tree on April 24, 1806. They had explored the Mississippi River to its sources and were returning to St. Louis.

Bronze bust of Black Hawk next to a "Prehistoric Material Culture Timeline", a striped red blanket, beaded belt, and other artifacts in the Buffalo Bill Museum, LeClaire, Iowa
Black Hawk’s bust

Black Hawk

In 1828, white settlers began to move into Saukenuk (present-day Rock Island, Illinois) and demanded the Sauk and Meskwaki’s removal. Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak) and his followers realized that the military outnumbered them and crossed the Mississippi River.

They didn’t stay. Black Hawk led 1,500 followers back to Illinois in April 1832. The frontier settlers panicked, and war ensued. It lasted 15 weeks until the August 2, 1832, Battle of Bad Axe, Wisconsin. Two-thirds of his followers had died. 

The federal government imprisoned him for a year before releasing him at Fort Armstrong, currently the Rock Island Arsenal. 

The treaty that ended the war cost the Sauk and Meskwaki more land. Black Hawk dictated his autobiography to Antoine LeClaire, a government interpreter at the fort. “The Life of Black Hawk” was published in 1833 and sold extremely well. Black Hawk died in 1838.

LeClaire, Iowa, was founded on Antoine LeClaire’s property, which indigenous people gave to him.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Black Hawk War was the last US-indigenous war west of the Mississippi River. Abraham Lincoln served as a Fourth Illinois Volunteer Infantry captain during the war. He received 40 Tama County acres in June 1855. During his 1860 presidential campaign, he received an additional 120 acres in Crawford County. His son, Robert Lincoln, sold the property (PDF) after his father’s death.

Philip Suiter and national timeline on a map of the Mississippi River's Upper Rapids at LeClaire, Iowa
Philip Suiter’s timeline compared to national events and the Upper Rapids

Captain Philip Suiter, LeClaire, Iowa, Rapids Pilot

Philip Suiter was the first licensed free-floating riverboat pilot on the Rock Island Rapids between LeClaire and Davenport, Iowa, guiding rafts and boats through the treacherous rapids. He arrived in LeClaire in 1836 and learned from French and Native voyageurs how to steer through the rapids.

A year after Suiter’s arrival, Lieutenant Robert E. Lee of the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the rapids with Suiter’s help.

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for the 3-foot-long riverboat Robert E. Lee replica. The museum also displays a 1939 Chris Craft speed boat and the City of LeClaire’s first fire truck.

Suiter gave expert testimony in the 1856 case, Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge CompanyThe steamboat Effie Afton struck a pier on the Rock Island Bridge and caught fire on April 21, 1856. It destroyed the boat and the bridge, the first to cross the Mississippi. It linked the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad and Iowa’s Mississippi and Missouri Railroad. Suiter testified that a skilled pilot could navigate beneath the bridge. His testimony won Lincoln’s case for the railroad. The case cleared the way for a national railroad network.

The Mississippi reached its lowest known level during 1864’s severe drought. Suiter marked a rock ledge near his riverside home. The government adopted his mark as the low water gauge.

Models of James Buchanan Eads' inventions in an exhibit about Eads
Models of two Eads inventions, his salvage boats (right) and his ironclads.

Engineer James Buchanan Eads

Self-taught engineer James Eads‘s parents moved from St. Louis to LeClaire, Iowa, when he was 17, but he refused to leave St. Louis. Instead, he worked as a clerk on the steamboat Knickerbocker. He realized that salvaging sunken ships (called snags) littering the river bottom would yield a fortune. Therefore, he invented a salvaging ship with a diving bell, enabling workers to walk on the river bottom. 

Roxie’s reliable report: Eads was named for future President James Buchanan, his mother’s cousin.

Eads wanted to marry Martha Dillon, but her father refused permission. Eventually, the couple married without his blessing in 1845, but his glass business required him to stay in St. Louis while she lived in LeClaire with his parents. The arrangement became permanent when the business failed.

Eads returned to the salvage field. An 1849 fire destroyed 23 steamers, and the resulting salvage job made Eads wealthy. His father-in-law finally accepted him, but Martha died in 1852.

His greatest achievements were ahead of him. He built the ironclad steamboats that helped conquer Forts Henry and Donelson and win the Siege of Vicksburg. After the war, he built the Eads Bridge in St. Louis. The triple-arch bridge featured the longest arches in the world at that time. Next, he built jetties to deepen the Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico, ending blockages that stopped commerce.

Eads died in 1887 after receiving numerous engineering honors and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2022.

Mannequin in blue coveralls saws button blanks from mussel shells at the Buffalo Bill Museum, LeClaire, Iowa
Turning mussel shells into button blanks. The punched-out blanks lie beneath his left hand.

Pearl button makers

J.F. Boepple received samples of American mussels while making buttons in Hamburg, Germany. He found a seemingly inexhaustible resource in the Mississippi River’s mussel beds around Muscatine, Iowa. Harvesting mussels was cheap and simple, and “clammers” dragged thousands of shells from the river bottom.

LeClaire had up to four button factories during the button boom. They mostly produced “blanks,” unfinished buttons. Skilled cutters used a revolving saw to cut the blanks from the shells. Cutters were paid by the blanks they produced, up to 4,000 a day, consuming 110 pounds of mussel shells. The meat went to waste. Production peaked at 40 million buttons in 1916, providing 20,000 jobs. 

Overharvesting, pollution, and new dams ended the boom by 1930.

Deckhand and pier for the Lonestar steamer
The deckhand is ready to unmoor the Lonestar steamer.

The Lone Star Steamer

All aboard! The 1869 Lone Star sternwheeler was the Mississippi’s last operating paddlewheel steam-powered towboat. The wood-hulled steamboat originally pushed logs down the river. Each shift required two shifts with four crew: a captain, an engineer, a fireman, and a deckhand. The cook was usually the captain’s wife. The boat ended its 99-year working life in 1967 as a sand dredge working boat. Most wood hull boats lasted about 35 years before sparks caught them on fire. 

Listen to the sounds of the steamer and the river in the boat’s enclosure, the River Pilot’s Pier.

Desk, wooden office chair, computer screen, and other furnishings
Professor James Ryan’s office

Inventor James Ryan from LeClaire, Iowa

Professor James J. “Crash” Ryan II graduated from LeClaire High School. He was his own crash-test dummy at the University of Minnesota’s Mechanical Engineering Department, but eventually built non-human test subjects. He patented the first automatic retractable seat belt in 1963. Ryan and consumer advocate Ralph Nader successfully lobbied for the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. The act required seat belts in American passenger vehicles in 1968, saving thousands of lives.

Ryan also invented another life-saving technology, the Ryan Flight Recorder, the first crash-survivable airplane flight data recorder, nicknamed the “black box.” It measures airplanes’ flight patterns to determine aircraft crash causes. General Mills’ mechanical division funded the research. He received its patents in 1960 and 1963. Like the seatbelts, the Civil Aeronautics Board ruled that all aircraft over 12,500 pounds were required to have flight recorders in 1957. 

Related: The planes at Ottumwa’s Antique Airfield are too old to have “black boxes.”

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Painting Buffalo Bill Cody (left) and Sgt. John Baker wrapped in the Congressional Medal of Honor
The Scott County Freedom Rock honors Scott County Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

3. Scott County Freedom Rock, LeClaire, Iowa

The Scott County Freedom Rock on the LeClaire Levee Riverfront honors a pair of Scott County Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, Cody and John F. Baker Jr.

Cody earned the Medal as a civilian scout for “gallantry in action” on Nebraska’s Loup River with the Third US Cavalry on April 26, 1872. Because of their civilian status, the 1916 Medal of Honor Review Board reluctantly revoked his and four other scouts’ awards in 1917, 24 days after his death. The scouts’ Medal revocation was overturned in 1989.

President Lyndon Johnson (center) towers over Sgt. John Baker during the Medal of Honor award ceremony.
President Johnson decorates Baker with the Congressional Medal of Honor as his company commander, Capt. Robert Foley, right, looks on. (US Army)

Baker earns the Medal

Baker, then a Private First Class, served with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam on November 5, 1966. Company A was headed to another unit’s rescue when its lead man died instantly under fire. Baker and another soldier knocked out two enemy bunkers, but his comrade fell with a mortal wound. Baker killed four Viet Cong snipers, evacuated the fallen, and returned to lead repeated assaults. Under intense fire, he attacked two more bunkers with another soldier when a grenade blew him off his feet.

He then singlehandedly destroyed a bunker. Seizing his wounded comrade’s machine gun, Baker charged through a fusillade to silence another bunker. After evacuating the wounded and restocking his ammunition, he carried another wounded soldier to the rear and started to evacuate another. Snipers fired at him, but he killed them. He finished the evacuation and returned again. With his ammunition gone, he dragged two more of his fallen comrades to the rear.

President Lyndon Johnson presented the Medal to Sergeant Baker in the East Ballroom of the White House on May 1, 1968. The 5-foot, 2-inch Baker stayed in the Army until 1989. He joined the Veterans Administration and worked there until his death in January 2012. He was 66.

Related: Meet Lyndon Johnson at the Texas White House, and honor veterans on Hero Street USA, Silvis, Illinois.

Roxie’s reliable report: Slide your boat into the river at the public boat ramp near the Freedom Rock. Catch 11 fish species in the Mississippi River’s Pool 14.

3. The Cody Trail in Scott County, Iowa

William Cody was born to Isaac and Mary Cody on February 26, 1846, on a farm in “Napsinekee Hollow” just outside LeClaire. The Codys moved into LeClaire in 1849, where Bill started school. He preferred riding horses and swimming in the river to education. The family soon moved again to Walnut Grove, where Bill’s older brother Samuel died after a horse threw him. The family left Iowa for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1853. 

Explore the Cody Trail. It includes the Cody Homestead, Dan Nagle Walnut Grove Pioneer Village, Buffalo Bill Cody Birthplace, and Samuel Cody’s grave in the historic Long Grove Church Graveyard.

Related: Visit Leavenworth, Kansas, where Cody grew up.

A rusty vintage car painted with American Archaeology's logo sits in front of their red brick store.
American Archaeology exterior

4. American Archaeology LeClaire, Iowa, home of the “American Pickers”

What will Mike Wolfe find on the next “American Pickers” episode? American Archaeology is full of his finds plus show souvenirs. I tried to imagine where the Pickers found the exhibited treasures. Which dilapidated building did this excavated artifact inhabit?

Roadie wears a motorman's cap while riding on a red vintage toy truck as a male mannequin looks on.
Roadie thinks that Antique Archaeology is the cat’s meow.

The LeClaire store is the company’s former fabrication shop. Both buildings are wheelchair accessible.

5. Riverboat Twilight, LeClaire, Iowa

Captain Dennis Trone built the 126-foot-long Twilight to replicate the ornate Victorian old-fashioned riverboat experience. The ship offers three cruise options: a two-day, one-day, or 1.5-hour. The boat docks next to the retired ferry, the City of Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a riverboat ride. 

Roadie cat stands on bottled wine to taste a sample of Wide River Winery's offerings.
Roadie approves of Wide River Winery.

6. Wide River Winery, LeClaire, Iowa

Wide River Winery owner Dorothy O’Brien received her law license in 1984. Her husband, Charlie Pelton, is a judge. It’s no wonder that all the wines’ names refer to law and order.

While I don’t endorse criminal activity, failure to sip Cody Road Felony, a dry red aged in Mississippi River Distilling Co. barrels, would be criminal. Drink White Collar Crime, a refreshing chardonnay-frontenac blanc blend, during tax season for *legal* deduction-finding inspiration. Pair White Collar Crime with Merry Berry Dip with Corn Chips, a sweet, tart, creamy dip with craisins, dried apricots, and Fritos. I was in heaven.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The Wide River Winery Tasting Room on Cody Road offers wine slushies. Try Double Jeopardy, made with Niagara grapes and Midwest cranberries during your wine tasting. Slushies amplify wines’ sweetness, so the tart cranberries provide balance.  

7. Mississippi River Distilling Company

The Mississippi River Distilling Company makes heavenly single-batch bourbon using the “grain-to-glass” approach. Farmers produce all their grains within 25 miles of the distillery. The distillery takes the grain and executes every step. Check out the process during a free tour of the distillery. I recommend the Cody Road Peach, a mixture of Cody Road Bourbon and Big Peach Liqueur. Yum! Stop at the Cody Road Cocktail House for a Buffalo Bill or Iowa’s Best Old-Fashioned.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: During the winter, reserve a heated Cocktail Castle for outdoor imbibing. 

8. Green Tree Brewery

We can’t omit Green Tree Brewery, LeClaire’s third libation destination. Dr. Richard Day loved brewing small-batch craft beers because the store stuff bored him. His family encouraged him to start a brewery. I recommend their fruit-flavored beers. Sip some while staring at the river and listening to live music at the local brewery.

Cody Road Coffee and Cody Road Trading Post exterior
Your beverage awaits at Cody Road Coffee.

9. Cody Road Coffee 

If your drink of choice leans toward caffeine-laced, visit Cody Road Coffee. Try the Cowboy Campfire, made from mocha chocolate and toasted marshmallows. Also, try the Watermelon Cucumber Mint Refresher. 

10. Mississippi Cottage Antiques 

Thus fortified, head for Mississippi Cottage Antiques. Find antique glassware, lamps, furniture, ships’ wheels, clocks, coins, toys, and military items. Local artists sell paintings, sculptures, and framed photographs. Buy pottery, handmade quilts, repurposed flatware, and Iowa wine.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: After all this, you must be starved. Head for the Crane & Pelican Café, Iowa’s Most Adorable Restaurant. Stay in one of LeClaire’s adorable guest houses (ad).

Prepare for a holiday in Buffalo Bill’s birthplace. He would be proud. I hear the tune “Holiday Road” every time I think of “Cody Road.” Sing it with me: 

Cody Road; Cody Road

Cody be nimble, LeClaire be quick
Take a road trip for a Quad Cities kick

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