Bemidji, the site of our first stay on the Mississippi, is named from a derivation of the Ojibwe (or Chippewa) word for a lake with a river (the Mississippi) running through it. The university and county-seat city is a year-round tourist center and is situated among a variety of beautiful lakes, though swimming and boating is presently hampered by large chunks of ice. Bemidji is close to Lake Itasca (from veritas caput), which is the headwaters of the Mississippi. The Mississippi River initially runs north and east to Lake Bemidji, a fact probably known to Midwesterners and educators, but either never learned or forgotten by many of us. Shortly after Lake Bemidji it turns south, with many twists and turns. Bemidji also claims Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. We were reminded that Paul and Babe, in addition to unbelievable skills in logging and helping others survive Minnesota winters, invented the first ice cream cone and fountain pen, but who knows where tall tales begin and end?
Grand Rapids, MN
Grand Rapids is the second small city in which we stayed. It grew rapidly in the second half of the 1800s as a logging center, and Blandin still has a large operating paper mill. The Mississippi River runs through the center of the city, unsurprisingly in a series of rapids. However, a heavy fog limited visibility, and it was quite cold, so we have no pictures. Judy Garland was born in Grand Rapids, though her family moved to California when she was four.
Little Falls, MN
Little Falls is further south, close to the bottom of the question mark shape that defines the upper part of the Upper Mississippi. Logging, paper, and flour mills dominated in the city’s early years in the 19th century, with the falls providing needed power. Knowing how challenging it can be to navigate in a kayak, we have heightened admiration for the log drivers of that time, who jumped from moving log to moving log in the river to make sure the logs kept moving downriver without forming any sort of dam. Some grand old homes reflect the wealth of that era, and there is a lively downtown. Nearby Camp Ripley helps to support the economy, and striking stone pillars and walls reflect its origins as Fort Ripley in the mid-1800s. Charles Lindbergh grew up in Little Falls and his mother taught at Little Falls High School, from which he graduated, though he also spent a fair amount of time in Washington, where his father was a Congressman from Minnesota.
Monticello is about 40 miles north of Minneapolis. Torrential rain prevented us from seeing much of the city, but we read about Swan Lake, where roughly 3,000 trumpeter swans typically winter from December to March.
La Crosse, WI
Our next overnight, after a visit with Pat and John in Shoreview, just outside Minneapolis, was in La Crosse. After a last paddle from Hastings, MN by the merging St. Croix in Prescott to Diamond Bluff, WI, the drive down Route 35 on the east side of the Mississippi was stunning. Of particular note are artsy Stockholm and Lake Pepin, both the lake itself and the town, where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born and spent her childhood years. After moving from Wisconsin to the Dakota Territories and several more locations before marrying and settling in Missouri, she used her tremendous energy to start writing at the age of 65. With the success of Little House on the Prairie, she continued writing. Further south, Trempealeau has an attractive downtown with an inn and restaurants on the river. La Crosse is a university town and a manufacturing center, originally related to logging, but now brewing and other light manufacturing.
Today’s drive (mostly along the west side of the Mississippi) provided many great vistas of the river and of attractive river towns. There is much more agriculture and less forest than in Minnesota. The Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, IA shows how native Americans created mounds shaped like various animals (bears most commonly, but also birds, turtles, lizards, and bison) from 850 to 1,400 years ago. With no written records from the period, the purpose is not clear, but it is believed they were used in seasonal ceremonies celebrating the spirit world. The creation of effigy mounds ceased when the population started to live in larger permanent settlements and to depend more on agriculture than hunting and gathering. Guttenberg has beautiful limestone buildings and a nice park along the riverfront. Tonight, we are in Dubuque, the commercial center of the tri-state area of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Dubuque’s port area is an attractive combination of old and new. Historically a manufacturing center (Deere), Dubuque is growing more rapidly in education, tourism, publishing (McGraw-Hill), and financial services. The bluffs are high, and many homes have spectacular views.
Galena and Nauvoo IL, LeCler MO, & Keokuk, IA
Heading south from Dubuque, we stopped first in picturesque Galena, IL (shown below), with its many old, but refurbished buildings housing shops and restaurants. The arts and tourism dominate the small city first focused on lead mining and agriculture. Ulysses S. Grant married Julia Dent of Galena and settled in Galena after the Mexican-American War. Galena also supplied eight other Civil War generals. LeClaire, IA is another charming river town, though much more focused on breweries. Nauvoo, IL has an interesting history, including many names, with the current one dating from its period as a Mormon community. Joseph Smith was murdered here in 1844, and Brigham Young led the Mormons west. More than any other place we have stayed, Keokuk appears to be facing difficult times, with many vacant buildings in the downtown area. Historically, Keokuk was important in the fur trade, in supplying settlers heading west, and in the Civil War, as it is located on the border with Missouri. Samuel Clemens’ brother lived in Keokuk, and he wrote about the beauty of the area in Life on the Mississippi.
St. Louis, MO
Flooding caused us to head south through Illinois, returning to the west side of the river at Hannibal, Samuel Clemens’ boyhood home. Clemens was born in a two-room cabin in Florida, MO, with his family moving to Hannibal in 1839, when he was four. A statue of Tom and Huck welcomes travelers to the town. The area near his home contains many replicas of matters related to his novels, but much of Hannibal seems to have suffered in economic terms. We are spending two nights in St. Louis. There is a lovely park by the Arch and a wonderful museum on the history of the city, including its longstanding diversity, the course of western expansion, and the city’s complex role in emancipation and civil rights. Compared to what we learned in school, the presentations are much more balanced as to the roles of various groups and the plight of peoples here long before any Europeans. In the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Dred Scott initially won his freedom, before the decision was reversed by the Missouri court and the reversal was disastrously upheld by the Supreme Court. The new National Blues Museum describes the key role blues plays in helping people to cope and to find expression, as well as its influence on rock and roll, country, and jazz.
Leaving St, Louis, we stayed on the west side of the Mississippi most of the day, skipping Kentucky and most of Tennessee, until Memphis. Kimmswick, MO is an interesting location where Clovis-era people (about 12,000 years ago) hunted mastodons. Because of nearby flooding, most commercial establishments were closed, but it is an attractive town with many shops and several inns. A bit further downriver, Sainte Geneviève is Missouri’s oldest town and hosts the Centre for French Colonial Life. Lead and salt deposits allowed the economy to expand beyond its early focus on fur trading. Today, it is a charming village, with many restored French colonial homes, with vertical log walls and wide porches, and a variety of inns. In Arkansas, we left the river for a few miles to see Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, but it had already closed for the day. It is in a very poor area of Arkansas; the “Dyess Colony” was a New Deal program giving destitute farmers Mississippi Delta land to work with the promise of eventual ownership. Memphis is sprawling with a variety of neighborhoods. Beale Street more than lived up to its reputation, and B.B. King’s Blues Club provided great music, with a tribute to Bobby “Blue” Bland.
After a morning at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, which is a moving history of the tragedy of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement including ongoing human rights issues, we headed into Mississippi. The Delta is flat, feels vast, and is sparsely populated. Much of the flooding appears to be in catchment areas, but some homes have been affected. Vicksburg is high on bluffs, making it easy to understand its strategic importance in the Civil War and impregnability to attack. The historic district has beautiful homes, inns, museums, restaurants, and shopping, all with plenty of flowers, music, and charm.
We traveled from Vicksburg to Natchez in part along the Natchez Trace, which extends from Nashville to Natchez. In the early 1800s, farmers and traders called “Kaintucks” floated crops and livestock down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez or New Orleans, where they sold all including the lumber in their boats and returned home via the Natchez Trace. Part of the Trail of Tears was along the Trace. Mount Locust, about a day’s walk north of Natchez has one of two surviving “stands” from those days (a simple inn perhaps offering cornmeal mush and a place to sleep on the porch or in the yard). We did not allot enough time for lovely Natchez, which was estimated to be the richest per capita location in the U.S. between 1820 and 1860. In northeastern Louisiana, as in Mississippi to the east and Arkansas to the north, there are beautiful places and views, as well as painful poverty. Lafayette is the fourth largest city in the state, the parish seat, and a center of Acadian culture and cuisine. The University of Louisiana, surrounding agriculture, and oil activities in the nearby Gulf all add to the economy. And, most of all, we enjoyed a wonderful visit and dinner with Bill and Joseann.
New Orleans, LA
South and east of Lafayette are vast expanses of bottomland forest, including the Atchafalaya Basin which holds some of the original routes of the Mississippi to the Gulf. The gum, oak, and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss are beautiful and support a large variety of wildlife, including alligators, deer, egrets, armadillos, bears, bobcats, and nutria. The dampness and humidity are not conducive to the cotton and tobacco that predominated elsewhere in the early economic development in the South, but sugar cane thrived. So do peppers, and Avery Island, where Tabasco has been made since 1868, offers a factory tour describing a process that bears some similarities to making wine. In Vacherie, we visited a sugar plantation (shown below) named for Laura Locoul, the great granddaughter of the original owners Guillaume and Nanette Prudhomme Duparc. Alcée Fortier, a professor at Tulane, published Louisiana Creole folktales based on the stories of the slaves at the plantation at about the same time that similar Br’er Rabbit stories were being published in Georgia. All were based on Sengalese folktales. Among the many sad stories of the slaves is that the quarters, which became sharecroppers’ quarters, served as residences until 1978. The guide said that in other locations slave/sharecropper quarters were in use through the 1990s, which speaks in part to the poverty that is apparent in much of the region.
New Orleans stands in sharp contrast, with its fascinating history, architecture, music, and food, reflecting the diversity of cultures affecting the region and the city over hundreds of years. A walking tour was very helpful, even providing a more informed view of voodoo than we had ever heard, including its sometimes more informed approach to the questionable medical practices of the early 1800s, such as using mercury to combat various infections. The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum contains a gruesome history of early medical approaches. The Presbytère, a museum next to the St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, has a moving history of Katrina, with its tragedies and heroes, as well as a floor on the parades and balls that define the Mardi Gras celebration. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar continues to provide a great view of many gracious homes, as well as sections of Tulane and Loyola. At the suggestion of the morning guide, we went to Frenchmen Avenue for more authentic music in the evening and particularly enjoyed the Shotgun Jazz Band at The Spotted Cat.
Driving through Alabama to Montgomery on the interstate afforded virtually no views of farms, towns, or cities; there were trees the entire way, with the occasional river or marsh. In Montgomery, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the more than 4,400 documented cases of African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. It is likely that many more died, and millions were forced to leave all they had and move because of threats. The museum documents by county with the names on blocks hanging above a sloping floor (shown below), creating a feeling similar to that of the Holocaust Museum in Berlin. We later drove through Tuskegee, with its impressive historically black university. However, its resources seem to pale next to those of nearby Auburn University, which has been a public university since just after the Civil War; it started accepting black students in the mid-1960s.