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A great ‘pick’ to explore the Midwestern spirit

Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa

In a vacation first for our family, my husband’s must-do list included shopping when we made our first visit to the Quad Cities region, a collection of communities straddling the Mississippi River and the Iowa-Illinois border.

Among the iconic picks on display at the Antique Archaeology shop in LeClaire, Iowa, is this land speed bike that took Mike Wolfe and a friend on a treasure hunt to Gulf Shores, Alabama. The bike was a record-winning bike that raced in the Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1970s and now is part of Wolfe’s motorcycle collection. The Iowa native is the star of the History Channel’s “American Pickers.” Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

Though he’s not a shopper, he couldn’t resist the chance to see Antique Archaeology, the store that Iowa native Mike Wolfe opened a decade before television viewers came to know him as the star of the History Channel’s American Pickers. The reality show, which debuted in 2010 and has surpassed 320 episodes, follows Wolfe and team around the country looking for treasures among others’ oft-forgotten stuff.

The show is still filming and its popularity led to the opening of a second shop in Nashville, though the original store in LeClaire is considered the home base for the show. Thousands visit every year and, like my husband, many are lookie-loos there to spot a few of Wolfe’s epic picks featured on the show (some for sale, others are for display only), pick up show merchandise, and pose with the picker van parked out front.

Though I don’t watch the show, it was interesting to see some of the rusted “treasures” the team had salvaged from barns, attics, and storage sheds. I made my own “find” in LeClaire, too. We walked from Antique Archaeology along Cody Road, named for the infamous frontiersman and showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was born in LeClaire in 1846. The town’s nine-block historic district has boutiques and more antiques shops, restaurants, a brewery, a winery, and a distillery. Though we didn’t have time to take a paddlewheel river cruise, we did stop at the Buffalo Bill Museum.

I was surprised to find that despite its name, the museum covers wide-ranging local history, and I had no idea I’d find an exhibit on the man credited with patenting the first U.S. design for a flight data recorder, or black box.

According to the display, James J. Ryan II went to high school in LeClaire and eventually taught mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota. He worked on aviation equipment in the 1940s and 1950s, when he came up with his design for the Ryan Recorder and joined General Mills’ mechanical division to continue developing the concept. There are four models of his early recorders at the museum, along with artifacts from his research in aviation safety as well as automobile safety. His compartmentalized design is still the basis for today’s flight data recorders, and Ryan also is considered the inventor of the retractable safety seat belt for automobiles in the 1960s.

LeClaire was just one of the communities we explored in the Quad Cities region, which is about 120 nautical miles west of Chicago. Despite the name, five main cities make up the region—Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa—and at least another 15 smaller towns like LeClaire.

The two closest airports are Davenport Municipal Airport and Quad Cities International Airport. Another interesting aviation connection hangs in the Quad Cities International Airport atrium: a restored 1928 Velie Monocoupe. A Davenport-based company operated by John Deere descendants first purchased a company that developed airplane motors and eventually bought the company that had been manufacturing the Monocoupe.

We based our stay at The Current Iowa Hotel in downtown Davenport. The 1912 building became The Current in 2017 after a $35 million renovation. Its name plays off its location overlooking the Mississippi River, which you can see from the rooftop bar and restaurant.

We crisscrossed the river as we traveled throughout the area for three days. In addition to LeClaire, we explored Moline and Davenport, and we spent half a day in the middle of the river at Rock Island Arsenal.

Because it’s still an active U.S. Army facility, the 946-acre Rock Island Arsenal requires a visitor pass, so be sure to check the guidelines before traveling. On the island, you can tour the historic Colonel Davenport House, see the National and Confederate cemeteries and historic structures dating as far back as 1816, and visit the Mississippi River Visitors Center, home to the largest roller dam in the world. Closed for renovation until summer 2022, the Rock Island Arsenal Museum is the Army’s second oldest museum.

In Moline, it’ll be hard to miss the influences of John Deere—both the blacksmith who developed the first commercially successful, self-scouring steel plow in 1837 and the company he started and moved to Moline in 1848 for river and railroad access. Deere & Co. still has its world headquarters there.

Explore the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois, where the global headquarters of Deere & Co. remain. The free attraction allows visitors to see and climb in new and vintage equipment and learn more about the company history and evolution through interactive and immersive exhibits. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

The company website shares the various ways of experiencing John Deere in Moline and other nearby areas. At the very least, you’ll want to stop by the free John Deere Pavilion, where you can see and climb in new and vintage equipment and learn more about the company history and evolution through interactive and immersive exhibits. There also are tours available of historic homes that once belonged to Deere’s descendants. Check at the time of your visit to see if factory tours have resumed.

From our hotel, we walked to the year-round Freight House Farmer’s Market; took in the impressive collections of Haitian, Colonial Mexican, and Midwestern art at the Figge Art Museum; and saw several minor league baseball games at Modern Woodmen Park, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits.

Despite having to cross the river often, getting around the Quad Cities region is simple and in early December 2021 a long-awaited new Interstate 74 bridge opened completely to vehicle traffic. The $1.2 billion project included a basket-handle, true-arch twin bridge with four lanes plus a separate pedestrian/bicycle path and observation point in the middle.

The Antique Archaeology shop in LeClaire, Iowa, fills two buildings and is a hodgepodge of “American Pickers” branded merchandise, some of the best picks from recent treasure hunting, and not-for-sale displays of Iowa native and chief picker Mike Wolfe’s favorite finds. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. In Moline, Illinois, visitors can tour two historic estates that once belonged to John Deere’s descendants. The William Butterworth Foundation operates the Butterworth Center & Deere-Wiman House in the Overlook District. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport, Iowa, showcases regionalist artists such as Grant Wood as well as impressive collections of Haitian art and Colonial Mexican art. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. Don’t miss Harris Pizza for a taste of Quad Cities-style pizza. According to Visit Quad Cities, the region’s pizza sets itself apart by having a malty crust, toppings are put under a heavy helping of cheese, and the slices are actually strips cut with pizza shears. You can see the shears in this photo next to a freshly baked pie. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. The Riverboat Twilight is a replica of a Victorian steamboat that was completed in 1987. From May through August, visitors can take a 1.5-hour sightseeing cruise or one- and two-day overnight cruises departing and returning to LeClaire, Iowa. The vessel is shown here about to dock at the landing in LeClaire. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. Among the attractions at the Rock Island Arsenal is the historic Colonel Davenport House that visitors can tour. The Rock Island Arsenal is an active U.S. Army facility, headquarters of the First Army, and located on a 946-acre island in the Mississippi River between the Quad Cities of Davenport, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois. In 1969, the arsenal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, the original arsenal buildings were designated a National Historic Landmark. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. The Rock Island Arsenal Museum is the Army’s second oldest museum. It is closed for renovation until summer 2022. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. This exploded view of one of the early designs by James J. Ryan II for a flight data recorder is on display at the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa. Ryan grew up in LeClaire and is credited with patenting the first U.S. design for a flight data recorder, or black box. In the background is a re-created office for Ryan along with artifacts and other early models of the concept. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. Several early models of the Ryan Recorder, one of the first flight data recorders, are on display at the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa, the hometown of inventor James J. Ryan II.  His compartmentalized design is still the basis for today’s flight data recorders. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. Vander Veer Park Conservatory in Davenport, Iowa, is a 33-acre park established in 1885. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born in LeClaire, Iowa, in 1846, and a museum there is named for him. The Buffalo Bill Museum goes beyond sharing the history and influence of the legendary frontiersman and showman and covers other notable personalities and history of the area. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

MeLinda Schnyder

Aviation and travel writer
MeLinda Schnyder is a writer and editor based in Wichita, Kansas, who frequently writes about travel and aviation. She worked for 12 years in the corporate communications departments for the companies behind the Beechcraft and Cessna brands.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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