Family Adventures · Southeast Iowa · The Mud Belt-Traveling the Mississippi

All Roads Led to Keokuk-A Trip to One of Iowa’s Most Historic and Important Towns

 

Keokuk, IA and Donnellson, IA: Lee County (Our 10th County!)

When professional baseball was getting warmed up, in the late 1800’s, they had teams in places like Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Boston……and Keokuk. When the country was thrown into a brutal civil war, there needed to be strategic staging and training points for Union and Confederate soldiers awaiting deployment. Thousands of troops reported to points such as New York City, Richmond, New Orleans, Baltimore, Washington DC…….and Keokuk. Some of the world’s most important achievements in energy production are in places like southern Nevada’s Hoover Dam, The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, Brazil and Paraguay’s Itaipu Dam…….and Keokuk. Yes, the extreme southeast corner of Iowa has seen its share of history and it’s only getting warmed up. And Team Goodvin was ready to take in as much as we could.

The memorial of Sac Chief, Keokuk. The statue looks over his proud land that was nestled in between the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. In Keokuk, IA.
The memorial of Sac Chief, Keokuk. The statue looks over his proud land that was nestled in between the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers. In Keokuk, IA.

When the history craving itch occurs…..scratch it! And Keokuk is one of the best instruments to use for such a condition. However, we must get one thing out of the way. It’s obvious to anyone that Keokuk is in need of a renaissance. America’s “River Towns” were once the main economic centers that drove industry in all its forms for decades. The tertiary river and canals that vein through middle America were once the main highway system of the US while rivers such as the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Arkansas served as the interstate system. These rivers and towns that sit on their banks are still very important, but times have obviously changed. The ports along Iowa’s east and west borders have experienced meteoric rises and a slow decline as our country changed. That’s not saying that towns, like Keokuk, don’t have potential. In fact, Keokuk is just the place for entrepreneurs looking for a new start. Keokuk may have already experienced its glory days, but the millennial generation is expanding their horizons on areas where they can purchase affordable commercial land and housing while creating a whole new industry and culture to areas. The motto of this town is “Make It Yours” and the wind could very well be on your side here in Lee County. Ladies and gentleman, I give you mighty Keokuk!

Lock and Dam #19.
Lock and Dam #19. Keokuk, IA.

Keokuk’s hydroelectric power plant was once the world’s top electricity producers giving Keokuk the nickname “The Power City”. The above picture was taken from the old bridge that stretches across the Mississippi to Illinois. It is now used as an observance deck for anyone who wants to watch the world float by.

The statue of General Samuel Curtis. A union general and Keokuk citizen, was the commanding officer during the Civil War battle of Pea Ridge.
The statue of General Samuel Curtis. A union general and Keokuk citizen, was the commanding officer during the Civil War battle of Pea Ridge. This statue is one of many historical markers peppered across Keokuk’s riverfront.
You can take a tour in one of the many steamboats that once ruled the Mississippi. In Keokuk, IA.
You can take a tour in one of the many steamboats that once ruled the Mississippi. In Keokuk, IA.
The steamboat has a gift shop and some very impressive historical documents. They have a few binders that have picture of Keokuk's historical homes and neighborhoods with descriptions written to their left. I could have spent hours reading about them. This little gift shop is an absolute gem and a necessary home for Iowa history.  In Keokuk, IA.
The steamboat has a gift shop and some very impressive historical documents. They have a few binders that have picture of Keokuk’s historical homes and neighborhoods with descriptions written to their left. I could have spent hours reading about them. This little gift shop is an absolute gem and a necessary home for Iowa history. In Keokuk, IA.
Watching the traffic go by on the river. The huge barges get up close to their observers as they inch along through the lock. In Keokuk, IA.
Watching the traffic go by on the river. The huge barges get up close to their observers as they inch along through the lock. In Keokuk, IA.

After a quick lunch at the Great Wall Chinese restaurant, we drove to what could be one of Iowa’s most scenic public parks. Rand Park sits atop of a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi. The historic Grand Ave neighborhood runs along Rand Park and has some of Iowa’s most impressive homes.

A view from Rand Park. In Keokuk, IA.
A view from Rand Park. In Keokuk, IA.
All four sides of the Chief  Keokuk memorial give description of this great warriors life.
All four sides of the Chief Keokuk memorial give description of this great warriors life.

Keokuk played a major role during the Civil War. No battles were fought there, but it witnessed thousands of troops flow through the city to go fight in the southern states. Keokuk was also a supply line for the Union army and was home to five hospitals that treated wounded soldiers from both north and south. During the bloody years of the Civil War, Keokuk had the unfortunate hub for the temporary river traffic that brought in the sick, wounded, dying and dead troops to Iowa for medical treatment. Keokuk was once home to one of the country’s most outstanding medical schools, which made the Union’s decision very easy to setup medical facilities for the troops. The doctors and nurses worked night and day for many years. Though very talented, the world of medicine was not prepared for the carnage of this brutal war. Many of the wounded died while getting treated in Keokuk. Soon Iowa’s first and, this day, only national cemetery would be plotted. The countless white tombstones have names of both Union and Confederate soldiers and veterans from every era since.

Keokuk National Cemetery.
Keokuk National Cemetery.

It was time to head back to Iowa City. Naturally we took the long way home. We set out on Iowa’s Great River Road, a scenic byway that led us on the Mormon and Pioneer Trails. When we reached Ft. Madison, we decided to get on the main HWY home. Just outside of Donnellson, we found an oasis of family fun that will keep us coming back- Harvestville Farm!

This boulder marks the spot of Iowa's first school. Near Keokuk, IA on the scenic Great River Road.
This boulder marks the spot of Iowa’s first school. Near Keokuk, IA on the scenic Great River Road.
A replica of Iowa's first school near Keokuk on Iowa's Great River Road.
A replica of Iowa’s first school near Keokuk on Iowa’s Great River Road.
Inside the main building of Harvestville Farms near Donnellson, IA.
Inside the main building of Harvestville Farm near Donnellson, IA.

Harvestville Farm turned out to be one of the best Iowa roadside attractions we’ve ever visited! It features a large showroom, in the main building, with art, crafts, locally made baked goods, snacks and candy. Outside is a whole world of children’s activities centered around a rural Iowa farm theme. Which is where we were. So……that works for them. You can bounce on a huge inflatable pillow, conquer the corn maze, play on the haystacks, splash into a corn pool……You need to get to Harvestville Farm. (Not pictured is the Blueberry-Zucchini Bread. It had a date with a large plate of butter and didn’t last long.)

A large inflatable jumping pillow with the proud farm buildings in the landscape.  At Harvestville Farm near Donnellson, IA.
Jump up, jump up, and get down! A large inflatable jumping pillow with the proud farm buildings in the landscape. At Harvestville Farm near Donnellson, IA.
Taking a dip in the corn pool. I had to beg Charlie to get out when it was time to go. At Harvestville Farm near Donnellson, IA.
Taking a dip in the corn pool. I had to beg Charlie to get out when it was time to go. At Harvestville Farm near Donnellson, IA.

There’s still much to see in Lee County and as usual we left with another “to-do” list for our return to Keokuk and the surrounding area. Like looking into Keokuk’s longtime professional baseball influence. The rise of the Hughes family that had a well know grandson named Howard. Visit the homes and areas that Mark Twain lived and came back to time and time again. My favorite part of the trip were the homes in Keokuk. And I’m not talking about the mansions on Grand Ave. The mansions were amazing, but I loved driving up and down the side streets of old Keokuk. Many of them made from brick and constructed in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. They have an aged look about them these days with many of them being a “fixer-upper’s” dream. The proud homes and buildings were built to last, though. Just like the city of Keokuk itself.

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15 thoughts on “All Roads Led to Keokuk-A Trip to One of Iowa’s Most Historic and Important Towns

  1. I’ve lived in Keokuk my entire life. From the time I was a young child I knew there was something special about our community. It’s rich history stands tall and proud along side other much larger cities . Such as Chicago, New York, St. Louis and New Orleans. With overflowing amounts of famous people that formed and changed our country. I believe I read somewhere that Keokuk at one point was the home to the first Yonkers store. We also hosted the world’s largest street fair. Yes Mark Twain’s family lived in Keokuk as well as Howard Hughes family. Leisey brewery made a home here and the Leisey family mansion still stands with broken glass from beer bottles adorned in its architecture. J.C. Hubinger was one of Keokuks most prominent citizens. His factory now owned by Roquete America still operates on our riverfront. Mr. Hubingers mansion however perished in a fire. The grand estate was the largest in Keokuk and his property housed a zoo, a horse track, several ponds, and Pastime Park . The old photographs of his home and property are breathtaking. Keokuk was the home to some of baseball’s greatest players. Dozens of paddlewheel boats would grace our river banks with their beauty. Iowa’s first medical college was built in Keokuk. Many know it now as the University Of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The first Jewish Temple of worship in Iowa was built here as well. There are rumors that at one point Keokuk was known as little Chicago. I believe the nickname came from rumors that Keokuk would grow to be the same size. There is so much more history, and I wish I had the ability to share with you. I love my home . I’m proud of my home. I just wish others can see the golden heart of Keokuk that over time has tarnished . Yes my town needs dusted off, but she’s still beautiful.
    Thank you for your thoughts of Keokuk.
    Chris Washburn

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  2. THANK YOU for your fair and positive review of Keokuk. Because of the depressed conditions of many of our smaller communities, of which Keokuk would be included, the condition of many of our century-old downtown buildings is of deterioration If the economy would swing back, I think Keokuk might too..

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  3. voted as one of the top 5 worst places to live in all of Iowa due to crime poverty and drug’s.
    but I’m sure this comment will be erased as it won’t fit into what you’re trying to make this town out to be, which it is obviously nowhere near it.

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    1. Discussion is always better than silence. And happy Monday to you KWB. (Keokuk Whistle Blower)

      There is no denying that Keokuk has its modern day challenges. I’ve also recently read that Keokuk was ranked as the second “most dangerous town in Iowa”. On the list were other towns that I’ve visited many times and have already blogged about. (Btw….I’m still wondering how Centerville, also on the list, could ever be considered “dangerous”. But I’m not the one making subjective lists) With these glaring challenges comes great opportunity if handled and managed properly. I’ve had the pleasure to meet many of Keokuk’s city leaders and proud citizens over the past 11 months since the said blog was published. There are naysayers and folks that believe that the best of Keokuk was seen decades ago. However, there are ambitious efforts happening right now to change the tides, perception, and future of one of Iowa’s most historic areas. They will never relive their past, but its history is Keokuk’s biggest ally. America’s expansion west cannot be accurately portrayed without the mention of Keokuk. Though thousands of wounded soldiers died in the civil war, Keokuk was known throughout the north and south as having some of the war’s most skilled surgeons, nurses, and physicians. Our national love of Major League Baseball has much of its roots in Keokuk. Some of the most technological advancements in energy production have been created on its banks. Keokuk is Iowa. Just like Waukee, Storm Lake, Ames, State Center, and all 900 plus towns in Iowa. It’s not just Lee County’s town- it’s Iowa’s.
      I’m JayJay and my family and I live in Hills. A great little town with its own challenges. Just south of Iowa City, one of Iowa’s most well-known areas that attracts boatloads of visitors every year. And they have their unique challenges as well. We could most definitely report about these areas of improvement. However, The Iowa Gallivant’s mission is to showcase the splendor in Iowa in as many communities as we can. Instead of being a self proclaimed “whistle blower,” I suggest tooting your own horn. Show the world what is great about your hometown rather than attempting to demoralize another. Which you didn’t. Knowing the Keokuk leaders the way I do I can only predict that you’ve just increased their drive and determination to show you what their proud city can do and will do.

      Always nice to hear from our readers, KWB. I hope this reply finds you well.
      -JayJay

      P.S.
      We have the following towns filling up our summer schedule:
      Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Corning, Sabula, Solon, Fairfield, Mason City, Centerville (Gasp!) and all the unincorporated towns of Johnson County. Please feel free to let us know of any criticisms you may have of these areas and I’ll be sure to let their councils and local law enforcement know of your concerns. Like Keokuk, they are always excepting volunteers to assist in some hands opportunities to improve their cities. You may find some of these enjoyable and fulfilling.

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      1. I have to wonder if the crime rate isnt exaggerated to qualify for federal and state grants and equipment for law enforcement . Also I had read the Chief Keokuk Couldnt write his name. So he always signed it, OK for old Keokuk . Any time the government wanted indians to sign a treaty they would want OK . Because he agreed to sign anything they wanted. Supposedly thats where OK originated when a person asks you something you agree with

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  4. I enjoyed the articles on Keokuk. I was born and raised in Keoku,know and did not know some things. Keokuk was a beautiful town when I was growing up. Miss it at times, but I always return. A. Gutierrez

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