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Small Towns Along the Mighty Mississippi: a Grand River Boat, Big Boots, Famous Fence and More&#8230

Discover Small Town America Tour correspondents Bruce and Bonnie Rosenthal recently explored small towns located along the banks of the Upper Mississippi in America’s Heartland. The Rosenthals know about small communities. Both worked at the National Association of Towns and Townships in Washington, DC for several years. Bonnie is also a historic preservation expert.


Bruce and Bonnie had a unique vantage point from which to take in these communities. They were passengers on the largest riverboat ever built – The American Queen. This photo from the National Trust ( illustrates the Queen’s grandeur.


Their first small town stop was in Red Wing, Minnesota (pop. 16,481), where they were greeted by beaming Mayor Daniel Bender, who told them “Our community spirit to preserve the past while planning for an exciting future has provided our residents a superb and vibrant quality of life.”

The town is famous for its pottery and stoneware, 6,000 pieces of which are displayed at the Pottery Museum of Red Wing. The museum, which Bruce and Bonnie toured, is “proudly preserving the 100 year history of the clay industry”.

Red Wing Pottery Museum

The town is also known for the Red Wing brand of shoes. The company was founded in 1905 and today makes primarily boots. The town’s quaint downtown features an over-sized boot in honor of the Red Wing brand.


For such a small town, Red Wing has a lot of important history: “Launched from Red Wing, the National Newspaper Association had been the voice and vehicle for grassroots American journalism for 125 years.” Its mission today is the same as when it began: “to protect, promote and enhance America’s community newspapers.”

NNA Plaque

We may think so-called “public-private partnerships” are a modern-day concept; however, it’s not new to Red Wing. Such a partnership at the beginning of the 20th century resulted in the Sheldon Theatre. After many changes due to the Stock Market Crash, the conversion of the theater into a showplace for movies, and a complete restoration in the 1980s, the Sheldon Theatre is now a modern entertainment center with its original 1904 design.

Opera House

The Rosenthals also stopped in Burlington, Iowa (population 25,000). According to Wikipedia there are 20 towns in the U.S. named Burlington. At one point in Burlington there were 70 churches and 70 bars. As one long-time resident out it, “that made us really good or really bad.”

Burlington is home to Mosquito Park, so-named not because of the pesky insect but because of its small size. The park is on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. According to a website about Iowa’s attractions, the park is a popular spot for weddings and, in the winter months, for watching the eagles that soar overhead in search of their daily meals. This photo shows the entirety of the park!

Mosquito Park

Burlington’s Phelps House – now the Phelps House Museum – has three claims to fame. Three generations of the same family lived in the house for over 100 years. From 1894 to 1899 the house was leased to Burlington Hospital and occupied by its School of Nursing. The nurses lived on the third floor and dined in the basement. The first and second floors were patient’s rooms, while the dining room served as the operating room. The house sits at the top of Snake Alley, once recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the Crookedest Street in the World.


The next stop on their riverboat cruise was in the historic town of Hannibal, Missouri (pop. 17,700). Hannibal is best known as the childhood home of author Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and as the location for his most famous books – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Here “Tom Sawyer” and girl friend “Becky Thatcher” welcome the hundreds of passengers on the American Queen. Maybe Tom was trying to impress Becky – as he did in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” – by escorting her to the river to see the replica of a Mississippi River steamboat stopping in their hometown.

Hannibal Welcome

This statue of Sam Clemens stands watch in Hannibal overlooking the American Queen at the dock. From this approximate point Twain once observed “…the extensive view up and down the river is…one of the most beautiful of the Mississippi.”

Bonnie and Bruce’s walking tour of the community took them by this famous place…


Sam Clemens is certainly Hannibal’s most famous resident. This museum pays homage to him and captures the life and times of Mark Twain and his characters’ adventures in this iconic small town.

MT Museum

As our DSTA guides discovered, Hannibal is much more than Mark Twain. Their tour took them to Trinity Episcopal Church which a century-and-a-half commitment to religion, history, and architecture. According to the church’s website, the Sanctuary of Trinity Episcopal Church has stood the test of time. With an interior consisting of a deeply arched heavy wooden beamed ceiling, beautiful bronze lanterns and sidewall lamps, an impressive pipe organ and 18 illustriously conceived stained glass windows, Trinity Church is truly an historic marvel.


Early church members commissioned well-known artists to design the Sanctuary’s beautiful stained glass windows. With signature designs by Charles Booth, Emil Frei, Jr. and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Glass Company, these windows are truly remarkable in their diverse artistic style, thematic construction and conceptual execution. With some dating back as far as 1887, they chronicle decades of changes that took place in the community, as well as in the entire country, and showcase the talents of these noteworthy craftsmen.


Grant’s Drug Store in Hannibal, MO looks like a classic small town establishment. However, the sign on the window on the left side of the photo reveals “the building was named to Missouri Preservation’s ‘Most Endangered Building’ list in 2009. Emergency repairs by volunteers saved the building temporarily, but it is now in dire need of a complete restoration and cannot be reopened to the public until such a restoration is complete. The building is vital to preserving the legacy of Mark Twain.”


After taking in the sights, sounds and history of Hannibal, our weary DSTA Tour correspondents needed an energy boost. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a Starbucks in Hannibal. However, Bonnie and Bruce were pleased to find a very good alternative – Java Jive, which describes itself at “the first coffee shop west of the Mississippi”.

Java Jive

Many of America’s small towns are so small that “there’s no there there”. One such place is Clarksville, Missouri (pop. 490), where – if you’re on a six-story steamboat on the Mississippi River and you need to go through Lock No, 24 – you’re there: Welcome to Clarksville. According to the city’s website, Clarksville  “overlooks U.S. Lock and Dam 24 (construction completed in 1939), providing a close vantage point to view all river boat and barge traffic…(It) is also one of the largest winter migrating areas for the Bald Eagle. Clarksville is filled with artists, potters, glass blowers, jewelry designers, antique dealers, furniture makers, and specialty craftsmen.” This photo from the city’s website was taken from the bluff overlooking the community and the river.


Bonnie and Bruce’s riverboat cruise ended in the not-so-small town of St. Louis, where they had a chance to reflect on their small town (and big city) experiences during the week.

Next up on the Discover Small Town America Tour: the fictionalized town of Seahaven, where actor Jim Carrey “lived” in the movie The Truman Show. Stay tuned…

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