When you’re located in the middle of farm country, tractors are a big deal. Nowhere is this more true than in Charles City, Iowa. Not only is it the home of the Floyd County Historical Museum and its impressive collection of the farm implement, it’s also the birthplace of the gasoline-driven tractor and of the actual word “tractor.”
It’s surrounded by seemingly endless fields, and if you look at just those two facets you might think that this town is a stereotypical rural community. In a sense, you’d be right, but not because they’re all about tractors and farming. Charles City, Iowa, is a stereotypical rural community because it is filled with surprises. There’s more beneath the surface than drainage tiles. A lot more.
Like what, you ask? Like white water rafting. An art collection in the library that would astound any art fan, anywhere. Public art everywhere. An entire pharmacy from the early 1900’s moved lock, stock, and barbiturates into the museum. Farming with drones. Moving a silo and a farmhouse – intact – from one plot to another just because that’s where you want them to be. A herd of buffalo and artisan pizza and an independent coffee roaster and a town that really, really cares.
I learned all of this and more during a visit to this North Central Iowa town with a few fellow travel writers. A small group of us stayed in the rustic luxury of Red Cedar Lodge and owner Lorraine Winterink proudly helped us discover her warm and welcoming community.
From the moment we arrived we were treated to the definition of Midwestern hospitality. Lorraine introduced us to Ginger Williams of the Charles City Chamber of Commerce, and Randy Heitz, Regional Manager of Iowa Farm Bureau, in one of Red Cedar Lodge’s cabins. As we nibbled and sipped on wine, apple cider, cheese, crackers, and “crack cookies” (a.k.a. the best sugar cookies EVER) from Hy-Vee, these civic ambassadors proudly gave us a few highlights before we headed out to explore their home.
Here, Part I of the surprise that is Charles City:
Charles City Suspension Bridge
In 1906 a suspension bridge was built across the Cedar River. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the pedestrian bridge was lost to all during the flooding of 2008. Fortunately for Charles City, FEMA and the state of Iowa stepped in and this beautiful new bridge was opened in 2010. While they love the new bridge, it’s not nearly as much fun as the old rickety contraption…It’s so stable they actually hosted a farm-to-table dinner on the bridge itself shortly before my visit.
Just down the road from the Suspension Bridge is Otto’s Oasis. This greenhouse and gift shop is just about as cute as it can be, with beautiful seasonal displays and a large greenhouse that automatically controls the climate. They grow as many of the plants and flowers they offer as they can, including the poinsettias that will soon fill homes all over Floyd County. The shop itself is a destination for gift-givers, with a varied selection of art, jewelry, cards, lawn ornaments, home accessories, and some gorgeous leather purses. Locals know to sign up for their newsletter, where they can learn about events like pumpkin decorating. This involved melting crayons with a heat gun to create a surprisingly attractive ornament for Fall.
Floyd County Historical Museum
When we first approached this large, unassuming brick building, we thought it was going to be one floor of tractors topped with offices or something else. We certainly did not expect the surprising wealth contained inside. There are lots of tractors, to be sure, including a model of Hart-Parr #1 and an experimental one that had Cindy Ladage almost speechless. She writes about tractors for multiple publications, including her own Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl, and she said it’s very rare to find a concept model anywhere.
That alone would have been enough for Cindy (she really loves tractors!), but there is so much more to this museum. There’s a local history artifact collection, with over 50,000 artifacts; a log cabin that illustrates pioneer life; a country schoolroom and a county emporium; and the aforementioned entire drug store, including a cash register that could be programmed to use different sounds and open unique drawers based on who was ringing up the customer. I could go on and on and on.
This museum is one of the largest county museums in the country, and we could have spent the entire day diving into the history it shares. There’s so much to the museum it’s getting its own post, and I’ll link to it here when it’s live.
The Mooney Collection
Yes, that is exactly what you think it is. That, my friends, is an original Rembrandt and it’s part of The Mooney Collection at the Charles City Public Library.
(When I mentioned this town was full of surprises I was NOT kidding.)
And guess what? That’s just one of THREE works by Rembrandt, and they’re hanging alongside a veritable who’s who of Old Masters. This collection is phenomenal, astonishing, breathtaking. It was enough to make me almost speechless. When I’ve recovered I’ll share more about this Hope Diamond-sized hidden gem.
Charles City Whitewater
I hope you didn’t think I was done with the whole “they’ve got WHAT???” theme. Because yes, Virginia, they do have white water rafting in Iowa. In 2011 Charles City WhiteWater turned the Cedar River into a playground for kayakers and tubers. Unlike most river towns in the state, the banks weren’t built up with concrete levies and were closer to their natural slope, making access to the river easier. At the end of the course there’s a park with an amphitheater and disc golf, and Charles City, Iowa, has now become a destination for those looking for some aqua-adventure.
Pub on the Cedar
After some serious calorie burning, you need some serious grub. The Pub On The Cedar fits the bill, with those heavenly nachos, burgers, and the juiciest giant pork tenderloin ever to sit precariously on a teeny tiny bun. As the name implies, it’s located right on the banks, and during the summer their tiki bar does some brisk business.
But wait – there’s more! This is just scratching the surface of everything we explored in the surprising town of Charles City, Iowa. Read Part II to learn all about that artisan pizza, a house in a tree, farming with drones, and a whole lot more.