It’s all about the river in the Quad Cities—the quartet of river towns straddling the Mississippi where Iowa meets Illinois. Low-slung barges slouch under the iron spines of down-to-business bridges. Wailing freight trains trundle along the riverbanks, while bikers and joggers pursue tracks of their own. Old-time paddle wheelers provide excursions, and double as casinos. And summertime’s jazz festivals percolate along its banks.
Each Quad City town boasts its own persona. In Illinois, Rock Island rocks as the party port, while Moline is all about John Deere. In Iowa, Bettendorf is a pretty bedroom community bordering Davenport, the largest of the four, which lays claim as the Quad’s arts mecca.
Davenport’s Figge Museum showcases modern artists, from Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol to uberIowan Grant Wood. The Putnam traces the region’s history, from wildlife dioramas to artifacts like homeboy Bix Beiderbecke’s golden horn. The German American Heritage Museum tracks immigration from its heyday in 1848 to those escaping Nazi persecution. The Bucktown Center houses the open-to-visit studios of working artists.
The prize for quirkiness goes to the Palmer Mansion of 1879, built by the founder of Palmer Chiropractic College (after he ran away from home to join the circus, and before he bought the first radio station west of the Mississippi and hired Ronald Reagan as sports reporter). It houses Palmer’s eccentric, more-is-not-nearly-enough collections, including bronze Buddhas aside a stuffed moose head; Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s chess set atop furniture made from tree trunks by ex-convicts; a Taj Mahal tapestry partnering a Swiss clock carved with a life-size rabbit; and a solarium furnished like a Chinese bordello sporting ashtrays made from cats who misbehaved. Oh, and in the patio, the pool where Palmer’s pet alligator resided.
The fifth town of the Quad Cities (math is not the strong suit here) is Le Claire, a vintage charmer featuring the 1850s homes of riverboat captains, now put to use as B&Bs; retail boutiques; and sweet cafés like Crane & Pelican, serving chicken dumplings from Grandma’s recipe and a killer meatloaf—plus martinis built of vodka from Mississippi River Distilling Company, its new neighbor, open for tours and tastings.
Moline flaunts the famous green-and-yellow of John Deere. He moved here in 1812 to launch what’s now the world’s largest and most-modern combine plant. Climb aboard the lobby’s $378,000 model, with tires taller than most basketball players. It’s the star of a (thankfully) motorized tour of the 28-acre plant to watch humans and robots at work. Step across the road to John Deere Pavilion to “drive” a mighty combine, or “invent” a new crop via interactive displays, then shop for your must-have feed cap or toy tractor, proving the motto true: “It’s not work, it’s a way of life.”
Want to check out the lifestyle of that fab family? Tour the Deere-Wiman Mansion, built by John’s son, Charles, in 1872, which includes a library fitted with a pipe organ, along with show-offy modern conveniences like electricity (since 1899) and a power shower with side valves for “kidney and liver spray.”
Across the street stands the largest house in the Quad Cities, the Butterworth Mansion of 1892, a more formal home built by Charles as his daughter’s wedding present, and attended by a staff of 28. The ballroom’s vast ceiling is covered by an 18th-Century Venetian painting. Beneath the window lies the lovely garden, inviting visitors to loll.
Back at the pavilion, head for Gianni’s (Italian for John—get it?), a steak house with an Italian accent.
The legendary Logomarcino family, however, doesn’t serve Italian in its eponymous café. No need: Just try to pry yourself from the counter of handmade chocolates. But if you do, venture into the backroom, dressed with vintage wooden booths and soda fountain, to be rewarded by sandwiches built on homemade rye, and sundaes cascading with lots of that premier chocolate, warm and fudgy.
Crossing over to Rock Island, Le Figaro also is easy on the palate. This genteel dining room salutes classic French favorites, from escargot and onion soup to steak with Bearnaise. Then, finish the night at a microbrewery like Davenport’s Front Street, where you can sip flights composed of Mississippi Blond, a raspberry wheat beer, an IPA, and a molasses stout.
Best for last: Bix, named for jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke, serves creative, Creole-centric fare as anchor of the recently-reopened Blackhawk Hotel of 1915, which fostered bands like Guy Lombardo and Stan Kenton in its fabled Gold Room, elegantly restored in a palette of white, black, and pewter throughout. Or, opt for the Beiderbecke B&B, occupying the musician’s former home, with terrific river views atop the bluff. The annual jazz festival in his honor (one of many festivals in the Quad Cities) takes place August 4-7, so float on down. Bonus: All tours and museums mentioned are free.
For information, contact the Quad Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 747-7800, or visit www.visitquadcities.com.
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