LANSING, Iowa — The new Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center houses 10,000 square feet of artifacts, interactive displays and expansive murals, but perhaps the greatest attraction is the stunning view, showcasing mile upon mile of the scenic Mississippi River.
“The viewsheds we have are unrivaled,” said Jim Janett, conservation director of the Allamakee County Conservation Board. “And the Center has that wow factor when people come in. It’s a beautiful building ... people are really impressed with the architecture.”
The public had a chance to tour the three-floor facility for the first time Saturday, and within the first two hours, more than 400 people of all ages had passed through, some from several hours away.
“I’m really impressed,” said Ruth Spinner of Minneapolis, accompanied by husband Tom. “A lot of people don’t know all this history.”
“It’s so surprising to come in,” added Ellen Modersohn of Lansing. “It’s so comprehensive in how much history it covers, and the detail, too.”
The Center is located at the heart of the 24,000-square-mile Driftless Area, which covers Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, and was designed to encompass the history, geography and wildlife of the region.
The facility is built on what was once the village of Columbus and the location of the county courthouse, a piece of land turned over to the Allamakee County Conservation Board in 2007. The Board began raising funds to develop the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center in 2012, using an initial grant from the Allamakee County Community Foundation to research design and feasibility, given the small lot.
Grants from the National Scenic By-Ways Program, Federal Transportation and Enhancement Program, Vision Iowa Community Attraction and Tourism Program, Allamakee Conservation Foundation and the R.J. McElroy Foundation, along with sizable donations from area residents and businesses, helped funded the $3.7 million project.
“We’ve had broadbased support,” Janett said. “People have been monitoring the development of the project since we broke ground (in 2014). The true success story of this project is the amount of time and money put into it by private-sector businesses and volunteers.”
John Verdon, co-chairman of the Center’s fundraising committee along with Jane Regan, was all in from the start.
“Not many times in our lives do we have the opportunity to create something that will be here 100 years from now,” Verdon said. “I had to be a part of this. It’s a legacy. I’m so fortunate to be involved in this project that came to be such a fantastic building that will be visited by generations of people.”
The exterior of the building is done in earth tones to match the scenery, and is flanked by balconies overlooking the river. The basement floor features a classroom, open to K-12 school groups, and will also offer adult learning programs.
“This gives naturalists the opportunity to educate the school children, and along with that will come their parents,” Verdon said. “And with that I expect will be a boost to tourism and the economy of the area.”
The first floor of the Center offers a highlight of Driftless Area attractions, as well as an overview of the area’s geological attributes, limnology and unique birds and mammals. Glass exhibits house toads, snakes, turtles, fish and a live beehive, and an interactive display highlights common bird calls.
The second floor is dedicated to the history of the region, from the early Native American settlements and the 17th century arrival of European fur traders through the 1987 establishment of the Driftless Wildlife Refuge. Artifacts from the clamming, timber and fishing industries, from a well-worn Redwood Hogan Skiff fishing boat to old surveyors transit, are on display. Commercial fishing boomed during the 20th century, as did the clamming industry. One exhibit features buttons from the Turner Button Company, which closed in 2016 after almost 120 years, which are composed of mussel shells. Select displays on the second floor will be rotated seasonally.
“The displays are to educate our local residents, as well as people in the region and people traveling around the Great River Road, and try to get them to explore the things that are unique to the area,” Janett said. “The most gratifying thing I seen is the kids coming in who are totally fascinated with the displays.”
“People are thrilled. They love the building, they love the interactive displays, they love the history and they love the view,” Verdon said “I have a sincere appreciation for all the people involved in this project. This is a major, major project for a small area in northeast Iowa. It couldn’t have happened without the large commitment from dedicated people.”