Summer may be fading, but there’s still time before the snow flies to hit the open road for a mini-vacation. Looking for ideas? Here are some easy day or weekend trips from Omaha any preservationist would love.
Mason City, Iowa
Travel time: 3 hours, 52 minutes
Mason City, Iowa, with a population of 28,000 people, boasts 38 sites on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The Park Inn Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 20th century, is the only extant Wright hotel in the world. Built originally to house the hotel and the City National Bank, the building fell into disrepair in the 1970s. Many in the town wanted to demolish it, but a few enlightened souls formed the nonprofit Wright on the Park, Inc. in 2005 and embarked on a major renovation. They spent some $20 million restoring the hotel. The group offers guided tours Thursday through Sunday and overnight stays any day of the week.
Another Wright designed home, the Stockman House, is open for tours. Wright’s contemporaries—who came to town to supervise the construction of the Park Hotel—spread the Prairie School influence in Mason City. William Drummond, Walter Burley Griffin, Einar Broaten and Francis Berry Byrne designed about 15 houses in the Rock Glen and Rock Crest National Historic District, the largest collection of prairie style homes in a natural setting in the world. Guided or self-guided tours are available.
Mason City was home to Meredith Wilson, a composer noted especially for the Broadway musical “The Music Man.” Wilson’s boyhood home and Music Man Square, a contemporary arts center, are open to the public. There are fine examples of classic architecture in the city, including the Parker Opera House, the original City National Bank building and homes in the neo-classical, Georgian, Queen Anne, Italianate and foursquare styles.
Just east of Mason City is another Iowa town known for its musical heritage, Clear Lake. The town is home to the Surf Ballroom, which on Feb. 2, 1959, featured Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in their final concert before they died in a plane crash. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named the ballroom a historic rock and roll landmark in 2009, two years before it gained landmark status on the NRHP. The Surf Ballroom still stages concerts today.
Travel time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Historic preservation and recreation are fueling economic growth in Perry, Iowa, which grew up as a railroad town. Roberta Green Ahmanson, whose father was an engineer on the Milwaukee Road, financed the $20 million renovation of the Hotel Pattee, which has been the centerpiece of the resurgence in Perry. Built in 1913, the Hotel Pattee features 40 unique, individually decorated and themed guest rooms featuring more than 130 pieces of original art. Next to the hotel is a public walkway that features arches constructed from farm equipment, mining tools, railroad artifacts and metal pieces donated by local residents.
Ahmanson, a former resident, financed the walkway and the $3 million transformation of the former Carnegie Library into a museum and community center. The museum sits on a three-sided parcel of land—dubbed the Triangle—that forms the hub of the community. Built in 1904 and still a working library, its collection includes many of the library’s original 1,000 titles. The Court Room on the basement level recreates a brief time in Perry’s history (1907-1917) when this room served as the town’s courthouse.
Perry’s downtown business district is on the National Register and includes 58 contributing properties, including the Hotel Pattee. Improvements in this area include the installation of historically compatible street lights and street medians faced with brick pavers. A historic clock removed many years ago from the First National Bank was recently reinstalled in its original location. Entertainment buildings that have been restored include the Rex Theater and the Grand Opera House.
Travel time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Known mainly for its covered bridges, Winterset, Iowa, is home to about two-thirds of Madison County’s 47 NRHP properties. Of the 19 covered bridges built in or near the town, only six remain. Five are on the NRHP. The bridges were covered by order of the Madison County Board of Supervisors to help preserve the large flooring timbers. The town celebrates the bridges with a quilt show, car show, parade and other festivities in October.
The Winterset Courthouse Square Commercial District was added to the National Register in 2015. A roughly nine–block area around the courthouse, 77 buildings – many Italianate in architectural style – comprise the district. Three of the buildings are individually listed on the register. The Madison County Courthouse, the county’s third courthouse, uses limestone blocks salvaged from a fire that destroyed the second courthouse. Noted French architect A.E. Piquenard designed it. Also individually listed are the White, Munger & Co. building and the Sprague, Brown & Knowlton building, both constructed of native limestone. Most of the other buildings are brick with limestone or terra cotta trim.
Madison County is also home to the Madison County Historical Complex and Bevington-Kaser House. The house, a barn, a privy and the North River Stone School on the property are on the NRHP. Also in the complex are a log school, a law office, a post office, an 1871 train depot, Zion Church and other historical buildings. The museum displays thousands of historical artifacts, furniture and clothing. Also on the National Register are the Hiram Smith house and milking shed, constructed of rubble limestone and dating to 1856.
Winterset was the boyhood home of actor John Wayne. His home and a nearby museum attract thousands of tourists each year. The Iowa Quilt Museum opened this month in a former hardware store in the town square. Its mission is to promote the understanding of quilting history in America, as well as the appreciation of quilt styles specific to the Midwest.
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Travel time: 20 minutes
There are 30 National Register sites, including six historic districts, within a two-square-mile area in the heart of Council Bluffs. Several of the sites are open for tours. Others are private homes.
The home of Grenville M. Dodge is one of only 24 National Historic landmarks in Iowa and the only one in Council Bluffs. Also on the National Register, the three-story, 14-room home was designed by Chicago architect W.W. Boyington and constructed in 1869. A major general in the Civil War, Dodge became the chief engineer of the transcontinental railroad. The house is closed Mondays but otherwise open for daily tours. The Ruth Ann Dodge Memorial stands outside of Fairview Cemetery. Better known as the “black angel,” the statue, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, depicts a dream Mrs. Dodge experienced shortly before her death. It was added to the National Register in 1980.
The city’s railroad heritage comes to life at two museums, which are both on the National Register. The Council Bluffs Free Public Library, a Carnegie library built in 1904, has housed the Union Pacific Railroad Museum since 2003. It tells the story of the transcontinental railroad and of passenger travel by rail. The restored Chicago Rock Island Railroad Depot depicts a turn-of-the-century train station and also houses an extensive model railroad layout that simulates the Rock Island operations in Council Bluffs.
The Pottawattamie County Jail, built in stately Romanesque style in 1885, is one of just three rotary or squirrel-cage jails still in existence. Built to house about 60 prisoners in pie-shaped, rotating cells, it was in operation until 1969. It was added to the National Register in 1972. The jail and the railroad museums are open Thursday through Saturday.
Travel time: 2 hours
The Fairbury Commercial Historic District encompasses an area spanning approximately 10 blocks, with nearly 100 contributing properties. Architectural styles include Italianate, Romanesque revival, Queen Anne, late Gothic revival, Neo-Classical revival and Spanish Colonial revival. The district is distinguished by its brick streets, which date to 1916; there are some 125 blocks of brick-paved streets in Fairbury. The Jefferson County Courthouse was built in 1891 of rusticated stone in the Romanesque style. This historic building still boasts ceramic-fronted fireplaces in some offices and antique furniture in the courtroom.
The town dates to 1870 and owes it growth to rail traffic and its selection as the Jefferson County seat. Fairbury’s downtown includes antique stores, an art gallery, and a variety of miscellaneous shops and restaurants. Residents are using historic tax credits and grants to help revive a long-vacant theater. The Bonham Theater was constructed in 1926 by Luther Bonham, a local banker who organized a group of investors to convince Universal Pictures to build a theater in Fairbury. The theater, modernized with a digital projection system, is expected to reopen in the fall.
Other National Register sites in Fairbury include the Rock Island Depot and Freight House – now a museum, the Woral C. Smith house and limekiln, the Fairbury High School building – which has been converted to apartments, the Carnegie library building and the former temple of the International Order of Oddfellows, which has been transformed into a medical facility.
Another popular tourist spot is the nearby Rock Creek State Historical Park Center, 50 acres of prairie hilltops, timber-studded creek bottoms and rugged ravines with deep ruts carved by the many wagons that traveled the Oregon Trail plainly visible.
Red Cloud, Nebraska
Travel time: 3 hours, 7 minutes
Though named for a Native American warrior and statesman, Red Cloud, Nebraska, is synonymous with author Willa Cather, who moved there with her family from Virginia in 1883. Many of her best-known writings deal with life in the Red Cloud vicinity. The Cather House, in which she lived from 1884 to 1890, figures prominently in “The Song of the Lark,” “The Best Years” and “Old Mrs. Harris.” Many cultural and artistic activities in Red Cloud center around Cather. And, many of the 20 National Register sites in the area have a Cather connection. Her house is on the National Register, as are the Cather farmstead and homestead site.
The Red Cloud Opera House, which serves as an art gallery and performance venue for the Cather Foundation, figured prominently in the life of Willa Cather. Built in 1885 and fully restored in 2003, the Red Cloud Opera House spurred Cather’s interest in the arts. She delivered her high school graduation address from the Opera House stage in 1890. Also important to Cather and listed on the National Register are the Burlington Depot, the Main Street Historic District and several houses, churches and businesses.
The Moon Block, a once forgotten and dilapidated historic building adjacent to the Opera House, is being fully restored and will soon become the permanent home to the National Willa Cather Center. Housing archival papers, photographs, textiles, and artifacts, the space will also include a classroom, exhibition space, an expanded bookstore, loft apartments for visitors and street-level retail spaces.
Also on the National Register are the Auld Public library, financed by local banker William T. Auld and constructed in the neo-Classical Revival style in 1917, the Webster County Courthouse, built in 1914 of brick and stone trim in the Second Renaissance Revival style, the Red Cloud Post Office, a somewhat modern construction from 1939 and the 1902-built Starke round barn.
History and the arts are important in this community of less than one thousand people. Guided town and country tours of historic sites relating to Cather’s life are available.
Nebraska City, Nebraska
Travel time: 51 minutes
Nebraska City is more than apples, trees and J. Sterling Morton. Founded in 1854, the town has a population of more than 7,000 people and a thriving tourism industry. The Nebraska City Historic District comprises many historic homes and buildings that are in excellent condition. With more than 58 square blocks, the historic district contains excellent examples of Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Georgian Revival architectural styles. The Otoe County Courthouse is the oldest public building in Nebraska still in use. Designed by A.G. Basset, the original two-story brick structure was completed in 1865, and additions were built in 1882 and 1936. The Kregel Wind Mill Company began selling windmills in the Nebraska City area in 1890. The factory, now a museum, remains completely intact with equipment and parts appearing as they did when the firm was in operation.
Arbor Lodge, located near Nebraska City, was donated to the State of Nebraska in 1923 and is now a state historical park administered by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Pioneer Nebraska journalist, politician, leader in horticulture and conservation, and founder of Arbor Day J. Sterling Morton served as secretary of agriculture under President Grover Cleveland in 1893. The home started out as a four-room house. In 1903 Morton’s son, Joy, converted the house to the three-story, 52-room Neo-Classical Revival mansion of today. The house is full of period furniture, family artifacts and displays that tell the history of the lodge and the Morton family. The arboretum, which encompasses the entire 65 acres of the park, features more than 250 varieties of trees and shrubs.
The Wildwood Center is a museum that showcases the home of Jasper Ware, a former banker and city treasurer of Nebraska City. The property includes the 1869 brick dwelling and barn and several outbuildings.
Travel time: 1 hour, 13 minutes
Only 130 people live in the village of Brownville. Once a bustling steamboat landing and river crossing site, the town had a population at least 10 times its current number back in the 1870s. Inadequate rail connections, declining steamboat traffic and other factors lead to a steady decline in citizens. Brownville lost the Nemaha County seat to Auburn in 1885, one more strike against the town.
Though it seemed headed toward ghost town status, Brownsville started leveling out in the 1950s after two sharp population declines. It was about the same time that the Brownville Historical Society formed and began to promote the town’s historical resources. The society has done an amazing job of preserving the town’s history, while other organizations have created a community where the arts and recreation flourish.
Seven museums now welcome visitors, including the Bailey House, built of brick manufactured in an early Brownville factory; the Carson House, originally built by Brownville founder Richard Brown and later owned by wealthy banker John L. Carson; the Brownville Depot and Railroad History Museum, a finely preserved 1875 railroad depot and caboose; and Dr. Spurgin’s Dental Office, a re-creation of an early 20th century dentist office. There are multiple bookstores, art galleries and cafes that occupy the century-old buildings. The Brownville Concert Series takes place in a church moved to Brownville from Peru, NE. It was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1991.
The 1970 National Register nomination of the Brownville Historic District notes the “compelling and picturesque” setting of Brownville. The nomination’s author praised the town’s “hilly, heavily wooded terrain” and the “surprising number of early buildings” that “form a distinguishable historic entity.” It makes one wonder why those early residents of Brownville gave up on the town.
Travel time: 2 hours, 28 minutes
Atchison, Kansas, boasts more than 30 National Register sites and is also the birthplace of famed aviator Amelia Earhart. Many grand old homes dot the landscape of this northeast Kansas community of 11,000.
Atchison offers trolley tours on weekends during warm weather months. The town embraces its paranormal side with Saturday night trolley rides. Claiming to be the most haunted town in Kansas, Atchison also promotes ghost hunting, paranormal investigations and cemetery walking tours.
Five buildings on the Benedictine College campus are on the National Register, including the St. Benedict’s Parish Church, which dates to 1859. There are several imposing Romanesque buildings, including the Atchison County Courthouse, the town post office and the W.W. Heatherington house. Now known as the Evah C. Cray home, the recently renovated, castle-like Victorian home displays its ornate fireplaces, carved woodwork, original chandeliers and Victorian furnishings as a museum. The family of H.E. Muchnic bequeathed his 1887-built Queen Anne home for use as an art gallery. Part of the art comes from the home’s parquet floors, stained-glass windows, hand-tooled leather and finely carved woodwork.
Amelia Earhart’s home is on the National Register, as is a district of homes and buildings adjacent to the home. Earhart was born in 1897 in a home built by her grandfather in the early 1860s. It is owned and operated as a museum by an international organization of women pilots. Earhart helped found the group in 1929 and served as its first president.
The Atchison Santa Fe Freight Depot is a National Register property that houses the Atchison County Historical Society. The museum highlights Atchison’s importance as a transportation center for steamboats, wagon trains and railroads.
Travel time: 2 hours, 33 minutes
Somewhat like Brownville, Weston, Missouri, is another major steamboat port that suffered a population decline following rapid growth in the nineteenth century. Floods and fires combined to reduce a population that once exceeded 5,000 to only about one thousand. Weston today has fewer than 2,000 residents.
Nestled among the high bluffs of the Missouri River, the town was founded in 1837 and grew into prominence in the 1850s. The Weston Historic District, which encompasses all or part of 24 city blocks, was designated a National Register Historic District in 1972. There are some 200 buildings and homes in the district. The Weston Landmark Committee has designated more than 60 as historic sites. The town promotes its antebellum homes, museums, exhibits, tobacco barns, orchards and educational farms along with its distillery, winery and brewery. There are walking or driving tours available.
Ben Holladay started a distillery here in 1856. It changed hands a number of times and for 70 years was known as the McCormick Distillery. Just this year, the distillery went back to its roots to again bear the name of Holladay Distillery, operated by McCormick Distilling Company. Tours of the distillery offer a glimpse of the limestone spring first discovered by Lewis and Clark in 1804. Also on the tour are the stillhouse – which dates back to the mid-1800s, the bonded warehouses where barrels are aged and the bottling facility. The distillery, added to the National Register in 1974, also offers tasting sessions.
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