The Oregon Trail

Sac City

East of Sioux City, US-20 is pretty much a four-lane freeway all the way, racing past acres of farmland and occasional towns. Sac City (pop. 2,074) is one of the few places along this stretch where the road is still old-school two-lane, and the town itself seems to want to preserve its past, with a log cabin and preserved Chautauqua Building along US-20 and a small historical museum on Main Street. It also has the nicely maintained Sac City Motel (103 Ash Ave., 712/662-7109), right off Main Street.

Rockwell City

The Leist Oil Company (705 W. High St., 712/297-8631), 19 mi (31 km) farther east, in Rockwell City (pop. 2,096, “The Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt”), has an incredible collection of old neon and enameled metal roadside signs advertising cars, car parts, soda pop, and sundry other things. Downtown also has a Carnegie Library, a railroad station, and some nifty little shops, well worth a few minutes of wandering.

Fort Dodge

Founded in 1850, Fort Dodge (pop. 24,098) is today a sleepy Midwestern town, economically dependent on local farms, gypsum wallboard plants, and a huge Friskies cat food factory. Amid many stately homes on the south side of downtown, one place really worth a look is the Blanden Memorial Art Museum (920 3rd Ave. S., 515/573-2316, Tues.-Sat., free). Housed inside a grand neoclassical 1930s building, the collections of “Iowa’s Oldest Museum” include examples of pre-Columbian pottery, Renaissance sculpture, and Japanese prints. Modern paintings include works by people you wouldn’t expect to find in the middle of the Midwest—Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, and Rufino Tamayo, to name three—along with works by Grant Wood and other Iowa artists.

The famous Cardiff Giant, a 10-ft-tall (3-m) “petrified man” supposedly unearthed in New York in 1869, was thought by experts to be the body of a prehistoric man. However, the figure, which was kept on prominent display by showman P. T. Barnum for the next 35 years, was later proven to be a hoax, carved from a slab of gypsum quarried at Fort Dodge. A duplicate is on display at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village (515/573-4231, daily May-mid-Oct., $10) along US-20 on the southwest edge of town.

Map of the Oregon Trail through Iowa.
Map of the Oregon Trail through Iowa.

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