Visiting Northeast Iowa: One of America’s Best Kept Secrets


Northeast Iowa is one of America’s best kept secrets when it comes to scenic beauty and an atmosphere densley steeped in culture.

The Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, Decorah, Seed Savers Heritage Farm, Decorah, Dairy Foundation of Northeast Iowa, Calmar, and Bily Clocks Museum including Antonin Dvorak Exhibit, make for a day of Nordic and Bohemiam delights, suitable for the whole family, and a picturesque drive through the hills of Northeast Iowa’s Bluff country.

The Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum – image by

The Vesterheim, 523 West Water St., in downtown Decorah can be accessed at the intersection of U.S. Highway 9, and U.S. Highway 52. It has 24,000 artifacts from the heritage of Norwegian immigrants to America, such as early tools and machinery, and agricultural, fine and folk decorative art items.

According to the museum’s literature, it is the most comprehensive museum in America dedicated to a single immigrant group.

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It has 24,000 artifacts from the heritage of Norwegian immigrants to America – image by

It has 16 buildings and the story of the immigrants is told through traditional dress and textiles, rosemaling furniture, housewares and art.

The museum buildings include a pioneer restored Stone Mill, three pioneer log houses, a log parochial school, a stabbor or Norwegian storage building, and a Lutheran Church.

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Bethania church – image by

In charge of outreach for the museum is Becky Idstrom, who says that you will need at least an hour to wander around the museum’s main building and two hours to really see it all at your leisure.

“During the summer, there are scheduled guided tours of the museum’s Open Air Division, which last about an hour,” Idstrom said. “People are amazed at the scope of the folk art in the museum, such as the rosemaling, woodwordking, and textiles from both Norway and America,” she added.

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People are amazed at the scope of the folk art in the museum – image by

Idstrom also said that the most popular item in the museum is the boat, Tradewind, a 25-foot sailboat, housed in a 3-story room.

“It was sailed across the Atlantic in 1933 by Harold and Hans Hamran, two Norwegian brothers. It is the smallest known vessel to cross the Atlantic, but it’s quite large here in the museum,” Idstrom said.

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Tradewind boat – image by

Before leaving Decorah center, if you are peckish, stop for a taste of Norway on the museum block at the Dayton House Cafe, where traditional Norwegian treats and foods are served for breakfast and lunch, according to Idstrom.

Just six miles north of Decorah, on U.S. Highway 52, is Seed Savers Heritage Farm, located at 3076 North Winn Road. Admission is free and it features displays of endangered vegetables, fruits and cattle.

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Seed Savers Heritage Farm – image by

This living museum is nestled between limestone bluffs, pine woods and streams that sparkle, according to museum literature. The barn was built by Amish carpenters, the cultural history garden features old-time flowers and 650 nineteenth-century varieties of apples, and there are 160 grape varieties in the orchard.

Most worthy of mention are 80, almost extinct, White Park cattle from the British Isles. There are only 800 of these cattle left in the world; 200 of which are in the US.

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White Park cattle – image by

These beautiful ancient cattle have white coats, black-tipped lyre-shaped horns and black noses, ears and hooves.

Adjacent to Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar is the, community-based, Northeast Iowa Dairy Facility where you can learn about dairy farming and view the complete process of milking from beginning to end. Situated on 400 acres, it consists of an eight-stall herringbone parlor, eight-stall paralell parlor, a 144-stall free stall barn and a 30-stall, free stall special needs barn with a three-bedded maternity penn.

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Northeast Iowa Dairy Facility where you can learn about farming – image by

There are two kinds of milking parlors and four manure-handling systems used for demonstrations and animal management classes are also conducted.

Also worth a visit is the Bily Clocks Museum and Antonin Dvorak Exhibit in Spillville, situated at 323 South Main Street. The little Bohemian town of Spillville, originally Spielville means little Switzerland.

Bily Clocks Museum

Brothers, Frank and Joseph, were Iowa farm boys who uniquely designed and carved clocks that today attract visitors from all over the world. They used walnut, butternut, maple and oak woods. Around 1915 they built the Apostle clock and around 1923 they added their masterpiece, “The American Pioneer History Clock,” their literature states. The second floor of the museum was the home of Czeckoslavakian composer Antonin Dvorak in 1893 for three months.

Inside the museum

Also worth a quick look is the Saint Wenceslaus Church, a Bohemian building constructed in 1860 and named after the Patron Saint of Bohemia which features a pipe organ that is still played to this day. It is also home to an old Bohemian cemetery.

Saint Wenceslaus Church

The Vesterheim Museum: 563 382 9681., closed Monday, open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m., to 4 p.m. Adults $4 and children ages 7 to 18 are $2.

Seed Savers Heritage Farm: 319 382 5990., open Monday through Friday 9 a.m., to 5 p.m. Admission is free with no limit on age, group or size.

For Bily Clock Museum and Antonin Dvorak Exhibit for visitors information, as well as the Northeast Iowa Dairy Facility call 1 800 463 4692 or go to or


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