Lansing on the Mississippi
Blessed by topography, a quiet Iowa river town attracts attention.
© Beth Gauper
The view from Mount Hosmer City Park.
Tucked into the tip of northeast Iowa, Lansing has been overlooked for a long time.
In 1851, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed its steep bluff and won a footrace to the top; the
peak became Mount Hosmer.
Lansing was the county seat until 1867, when a posse from Waukon stole the county records. And it was a boom town in the 1870s and '80s, when farmers beat a path to its grain elevator and levee.
Riverboat captains built stately homes at the foot of the bluff, where they could keep an eye on one of the Mississippi's
In 1897, the Lansing Co. began punching buttons out of mussel shells and still is making buttons today, though now they're plastic. And people always have come to fish.But Lansing is far from cities and freeways. So over the years, only a few travelers noticed the lovely Victorian homes on the hill, some of them inns, and the picturesque way in which Main Street tumbled down to the river.
Just a few knew about the hairpin curves that would take them up Mount Hosmer for one of the Mississippi River Valley's most magnificent views.
Many did appreciate the 1931 Black Hawk Bridge, whose Tinker Toy girders look tenuous and graceful at the same time.
In 1999's "The Straight Story," about an elderly man who drove a 1966 John Deere lawn mower across Iowa to visit his brother in Wisconsin, director David Lynch filmed Lansing's bridge instead of the one Alvin Straight really used, calling it "a great bridge."
And many people have heard a kind of siren call, following it only to find themselves under the spell of this Lorelei on the Mississippi.
'A spectacular place'One of the first art galleries was started by Mike Martin, a Milwaukee writer, and his wife, artist Laura Siitari.
"We were coming back from the Sand Hills in Nebraska and stopped here on a whim," Martin says. "My wife fell in love with it, so much she cried when we left. A year later, we came back and thought, 'Oh my God, it's so much cheaper than in Milwaukee, maybe we can afford something here.' "
Martin and Siitari bought an 1872 house on the flank of Mount Hosmer, with flowers spilling from its terraced front yard, though eventually they moved their RiverRoad Gallery up the valley to La Crosse. "It's just a spectacular place to live," he says.Artist and singer Bonnie Koloc already knew the area, having grown up in Waterloo and fished in Lansing as a child. She'd spent her adult life in Chicago and New York, but when she married at 44, she wanted to show Iowa to her East Coast husband, writer and publisher Robert Wolf.
© Beth Gauper
You can find nearly anything you want at Horsfall's Lansing Variety.
"I took Bob through here to show him Iowa isn't all flat, and he just fell in love with it," Koloc said. "He said, 'This is monumental; I could live here.' I said, 'Well, I'm not sure I can.'"
That was in 1990.
"We've always been going to leave, but we keep staying," Koloc says.
An artistic predecessor
It's fitting that so many of those who love Lansing best are creative types. They're following in the steps of Harriet Hosmer, a young sculptor who had traveled from Massachusetts to St. Louis to study anatomy after being denied admittance to medical schools in the East.
After her trip up the Mississippi, she returned home and went on to Rome, where she joined an international circle of artists
that included novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who modeled one of his characters after her.
Hosmer quickly became renowned for her neoclassical sculptures and was only 28 when she sold one to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
The newcomers have brought art, music and new ideas to Lansing. But the town hasn't changed much. You still can't get a latte there, though you can get a million other things — at Horsfall's Lansing Variety, whose ramshackle storefronts occupy a block of Main Street.
"We may not have the right stuff, but we always have a lot of stuff," says Paul Horsfall, whose main store is famous in the region for towering piles of low-priced wares stacked along narrow aisles.
Sunburned farmers drive their pickups into town for the Friday-night fish fries, and processions of motor-cyclists make a racket as they follow the Great River Road through town.
Stuffed game still is propped on the awning of the taxidermy shop, and faded signs on the 1885 storefront across the street still advertise fishing tackle, ammunition and souvenirs.
Boats speed past the foot of Main Street, which ends in water. From the foot of the stone 1860s grain elevator, Mississippi Explorer captain Annie Weymiller pilots tourists into the scenic sloughs of the Mississippi, pointing out fields of water lilies, a beaver lodge, blue herons and a huge nest with two juvenile bald eagles peering over the edge.
A native of Lansing, Weymiller spent years working in Milwaukee, Denver and Tucson, but she returned to make a living on the river. So did the Mississippi Explorer's owner, Jack Libby, a former Mississippi towboat captain who worked for years as a pilot of a casino boat docked in Gary, Ind., before he could afford to return.
Increasing tourism makes it easier to earn a living, though the locals have to compete with affluent out-of-towners who think Lansing real estate is a steal compared with Galena and Lake Geneva.
"If you see a nice home up in the bluffs, it's probably a summer home, because people around here can't afford that," says young Emily Libby, who narrates her father's weekend pontoon-boat trips.
In an 1872 frame house on the river, Steve DuFord sells homemade preserves at his Mount Hosmer Jam Shop and also operates the
1873 Thornton House, a stylist bed-and-breakfast.
The former Chicagoan, who found his way to the region through the Internet, calls Lansing "a little sleeper town," poised for profit — and change.
© Beth Gauper
On the riverfront, 19th-century limestone buildings are left over from the port's heyday.
DuFord says one of his customers is thinking of starting a winery in town.
"A winery comes in, a chocolatier comes in, then a little store with country antiques — yeah, it'll be a little boomtown," DuFord says. "Look down that river; those aren't your locals in those boats. Today, I saw several boats worth $100,000. They don't have a choice but to change."
In Lansing, life still revolves around the river. Some want to be on it, some just want to look at it. And no one gets tired of the views.
Lots of towns can serve a latte. But few can deliver a setting like Lansing.
Trip Tips: Lansing, Iowa
Getting there: It’s half an hour south of La Crosse.
Mount Hosmer City Park: From the river, drive up Main Street and turn right on Sixth Street.
The first overlook has a three-state panoramic view; there’s also a good view from the top, where there’s a playground, picnic tables and a pavilion.
Cruises: The Mississippi Explorer pontoon boat gives 1½-hour eco-tours of the sloughs and also can be chartered. 563-586-4444.
Accommodations: McGarrity’s Inn on Main Street has three very attractive rooms with kitchenettes and a one-bedroom suite with a very fancy kitchen, steam shower and whirlpool bath and wrought-iron balcony with bridge view. The suite sleeps five and adjoins another room that sleeps four.
Guests have use of a gas grill on a back deck. However, noise from traffic and live music at a neighboring bar can be irritating. 866-538-9262.
On the hill, the large 1873 Thornton House B&B has five large rooms and a cottage, 563-538-4878.
The six-bedroom, two-bath Sous les Sapins farmhouse, eight miles from
Lansing, sleeps up to 10 people.
Just south of downtown, with a view of the river, Uncle Charlie’s Place has three bedrooms, 1½ baths and a dock and sleeps up to 10 people. 319-393-1423.
Facing the river near the foot of Main Street, Murphy’s Cove Bed and Bath is a three-bedroom, two-bath home that has a screened porch, 563-568-6448.
West of Lansing, Red Barn Resort & Campground has many amenities, 888-538-4956.
Dining: On Main Street, there's Milty’s supper club. River's Edge is nearby, facing the river.
Or, go across the river to Great River Roadhouse, on Wisconsin 35 just north of De Soto. It serves pizza, pasta and an
excellent selection of beer in a cheerful atmosphere.
Information: Lansing tourism, 563-568-2624.
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