Watermelons along the Great White Way

This column by Daniel G. Clark first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on June 28, 2023. Above: Detail from poster by Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Not finished in time for RAGBRAI, the 40-foot installation was dedicated on October 14.

One month hence, on July 29, RAGBRAI cyclists will dip their tires here, the seventh time Muscatine will have rolled out the red carpet—previously 1976, 1986, 1995, 2001, 2006, 2016.

Before paved roads, Iowa was famous for mud and muck. And no river-to-river Great Bicycle Ride, obviously.

Long before Interstate 80 was imagined, a coalition of town leaders mobilized to build the border-to-border road christened the Great White Way. Its course from Davenport to Council Bluffs passed through Muscatine and Fruitland. It bragged the fastest route across Iowa, even outpacing the Lincoln Highway (later U.S. Highway 30).

In April 1914, about 40 Muscatine “boosters” drove through the construction zone 100 miles to Oskaloosa, headquarters of the Great White Way Association of Iowa, to make a pitch for hosting the movement’s annual picnic, an event promised to bring throngs of visitors.

Having won their bid, they retraced their tracks in high spirits, parading and partying and inviting everyone they met to attend  the grand occasion on their Mississippi riverfront.

Muscatine Journal, April 24, 1914: “In fact nearly every culvert along the route is either concrete or currugated iron, both of these being manufactured in Muscatine.”

Journal, July 21: “Muscatine will be the scene of the greatest good roads celebration ever held in the state of Iowa when the Great White Way picnic is staged here from August 17th to 20th. Fifteen thousand visitors are expected to be attracted to Muscatine by the elaborate entertainment which is to be provided. Three thousand dollars is to be appropriated to meet the expenses of the event which will be of such magnitude as to attract tourists from the Mississippi to the Missouri rivers.”

Motor-boat racing. Aqua-plane racing. Hydro-plane flights. Venetian Night illuminated boat parade. Free vaudeville acts and more.

“The visitors will also be permitted to indulge in a Muscatine water melon orgy. Thousands of melons from the Muscatine Island, the richest melon producing area in the world, will be brought….”

The word went out. “5 p.m. Watermelon feed. Free watermelon to out of town visitors, who register at the headquarters.”

But the picnic got rained out. Presenters of activity and performers of entertainment slogged and soldiered on, but mud and muck prevailed. An effusive letter of thanks signed by officers of the association put on a brave face in praise of “arrangements for holding the greatest event of the kind ever planned.”

“However valuable this deluge, the thousands who were thereby prevented from motoring to the picnic more than share your regret…. Muscatine and the hospitality of its people have become better known to hundreds of thousands of people through the middle west.”

Association secretary Don McClure left for Oskaloosa “in his big touring car.”

“‘I will tell every one who intends to take an auto trip in Iowa to be sure to stop at Muscatine and get a melon’ said McClure. He took with him two of the biggest melons in the city.”


So, listen up, you RAGBRAI riders. That historic route is how you will enter our town. After you cross under U.S. Highway 61, you will be on Hershey Avenue, admiring our soccer fields to your right. Soon you will approach our riverfront and at least one slice of fresh, juicy melon some volunteer will offer you.

You won’t believe your eyes when the 40-foot Largest Watermelon Slice on Planet Earth appears in view! Our mayor has promised to erect it for your passing pleasure and then grow it into a permanent icon.

He’s our Chamber of Commerce CEO, too: Booster-in-Chief Brad Bark.

But wait! Just a brief moment earlier you will be gliding by Carver Corner, and there you might give a special, grateful salute to those old-time good-roads boosters.

Glance left at that red brick, three-story, Civil War-era building. It’s vacant. Some call it an eyesore, but still it stands defiantly—like it belongs there. After decades as grocery, saloon, restaurant, and dance hall, a new owner refurbished it for the comfort of 20th-century motorists and reopened in 1919 as the White Way Hotel.


Muscatine Journal, September 29, 1914, quoting the Iowa Highway Commission magazine: “She had five blocks of her main street bejewelled with myriads of electric lights. White Way banners and streamers were countless. Store fronts were orgies of bunting and banners. Muscatine water melons straight from Muscatine Island were there, enough to feed the armies of the allies and Germans combined…. But the rains descended and the floods came and soaked all eastern Iowa. Instead of picnickers, Muscatine for two days had only messages from White Way automobilists tied up, scores of miles away.”

The guns of August 1914. Germany rolled over Belgium, and the Great War was on.

Early in 2022 I set out to relate pieces of our shared story framed as local Black History. This is Column 60.

Next time: A “colored” businessman on the Great White Way

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Iowa Senator Adrian Dickey arrested during RAGBRAI

Republican State Senator Adrian Dickey was arrested on July 24 and charged with interference with official acts after he refused to move along a Sac County road during the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).

According to a complaint signed by Sgt. Jonathan Meyer of the Sac County Sheriff’s office, Dickey was among a large group of bicycle riders who “had stopped in the middle of the road” on Quincy Avenue. The complaint said after the group had been there for about an hour and a half, Meyer “advised a subject to move on as we needed to open the road.”

The individual refused to move and “advised me to arrest him,” Meyer wrote. The sergeant, who has specialized in traffic enforcement, then “advised him that the road way down the road was open and then could go that way.” But the subject (identified as Adrian Dickey) “kept arguing with me about what he was going to do.” The sergeant eventually arrested Dickey and took him to the Sac County jail, where he was charged with interference with official acts.

Sac County court records indicate that Dickey was released after posting a cash bond of $300.

Dickey could not immediately be reached for comment. This post will be updated if he responds to phone or email messages.

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Calling on RAGBRAI riders to help plant milkweed for monarchs

Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have prepared more than 50,000 balls containing common milkweed seeds for riders participating in next week’s Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). As its name suggests, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most prevalent among the 17 types of milkweed found in Iowa. However, the use of genetically-modified Roundup Ready corn and soybeans greatly diminished common milkweed on Iowa cropland. “Kelly Milkweed” Guilbeau and a friend scattered some milkweed seeds while doing RAGBRAI in 2014, then prepared about 2,000 balls of seed to hand out during last summer’s ride across Iowa.

Elizabeth Hill, who manages the Conard Environmental Research Area at Grinnell College, has collaborated with Guilbeau on the Milkweed Matters initiative, greatly expanded this year. I wish them every success; driving around Iowa last week, I saw huge stands of wild parsnip along too many roadsides.

I enclose below two pictures of common milkweed blooming, as well as a press release explaining where riders can pick up seed balls to toss in unmowed ditches along the RAGBRAI route, which runs across southern Iowa from July 24 through 30.

You can learn more at the Milkweed Matters website and receive regular updates on Twitter (@milkweedmatters) or Facebook. Butterfly fans can find more good links at the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa website. Although I’m not skilled at identifying butterflies, I enjoy the occasional “butterfly forecasts” by the Poweshiek Skipper Project.

P.S.- Hill will always have a special place in my heart as the accidental godmother of Bleeding Heartland’s Iowa wildflower Wednesday series.

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2016 RAGBRAI route announced: A short ride across southern Iowa

After two straight years of taking bicyclists across northern parts of the state, the Des Moines Register announced this evening that the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) will cross southern Iowa from July 24 to 30. The route starting in Glenwood and ending in Muscatine will take riders “419.9 miles (third-shortest in the event’s 44-year history), with a total climb of 18,488 feet (making it the 24th flattest).”

Full details on the 2016 route are on the official RAGBRAI website. After the jump I’ve listed the overnight stops, along with daily mileage totals and feet of climb and some political trivia about places riders will visit this summer.

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2015 RAGBRAI route announced: Another northern trip

A few minutes ago, the Des Moines Register announced the 2015 route for the Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). None of the ten most-guessed overnight towns are on this year’s ride; many people wrongly predicted a southerly route after last year’s northern passage. Instead, most of the route will traverse northern Iowa again this year, until the last two nights in Coralville and Davenport. Muscatine boosters, buoyed by unsubstantiated rumors, will have to hope for next year.

A 15-mile gravel loop will be an option for riders on July 20, added this year to honor the memory of Steve Hed. The legendary bike designer passed away last November.

Overnight stops are after the jump, along with daily mileage totals and feet of climb. Three overnight stops on this year’s route were part of the original RAGBRAI in 1973.

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Weekend open thread: Walking the talk edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread.

State Representative Chuck Isenhart, the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee, has installed solar panels on his Dubuque home as a personal step to address climate change. Details are after the jump. Solar power has a reputation for being expensive to install, but technological advances and policy changes have reduced the payback time for many home and business owners. Isenhart expects to save money in the long-term. A bill approved during this year’s legislative session improved Iowa’s tax incentives for solar in several ways.

The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, begins its northern route in Rock Valley today. Good luck to everyone in the Bleeding Heartland community planning to do all or part of RAGBRAI. Last week’s weather would have been absolutely perfect; I hope the high temperatures will mostly stay below 90 this week. In its recent feature on “33 useful tips for newbies” to the experience, I found it strange that the Register focused so much on the drinking culture. Carl Voss, a Des Moines bicycling advocate and veteran of 36 RAGBRAIs, unloaded on what he called “sophomoric drivel” in an angry letter to the editor. Excerpt:

Granted, alcohol attracts some riders and non-riders among the more than 10,000 RAGBRAI participants. It happens. But trust me, that isn’t the way most participants enjoy RAGBRAI, Iowa and our communities.

Now, flip to the RAGBRAI website, where RAGBRAI (and therefore the Register) includes among the “Top 10 Recommendations for Rider Safety“: Do NOT drink alcohol and ride. […]

Publishing crap like this in your news columns will turn me off to RAGBRAI and the Register.

Another letter to the editor, which I’ve posted after the jump, focused on the large number of puppy mills near this year’s RAGBRAI route. The Iowa legislature passed a bill in 2010 that was designed to reduce abuses at puppy mills, but unfortunately Iowa still has some bad actors in the industry. Adopting a pet from a shelter such as the Animal Rescue League has so many advantages. If your heart is set on a purebred animal, at least visit the breeder’s facility before buying a pet.

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2014 RAGBRAI route announced: Northern passage, great architecture

On Saturday night the Des Moines Register announced the major stops on the 2014 Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The rumor going around the Iowa Bike Expo today turned out to be true: the 418-mile ride takes a northern path through the state from July 20 to July 26. It is the third-shortest route in RAGBRAI history and the second-easiest in terms of feet of climb. I’ve seen some bicyclists complaining on social media already, but let’s face it: north-central Iowa is pretty flat.

Overnight stops are after the jump. This may be the best RAGBRAI ever for architecture buffs.

UPDATE: I’ve been playing around with the Location Affordability Portal this weekend, so just for fun I thought I’d see which of the RAGBRAI overnight stops are the most and least affordable for residents, in terms of housing and transportation costs. Scroll down for the available data.

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2013 RAGBRAI route announced

On Saturday night the Des Moines Register announced the major stops on the 2013 Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The 406.6-mile ride takes a southern path through the state from July 21 to July 27. It is the second-shortest route in RAGBRAI history and the seventh-easiest in terms of feet of climb. (Last year’s route was also on the easy side.) Bonus for RAGBRAI riders: this year’s route goes through what is probably Iowa’s best small town for ethnic food. UPDATE: The lead ride planner for the Des Moines Register explained at the announcement party that they went with a relaxed route this year because although last year’s ride was supposed to be easy, it turned out to be grueling with temperatures above 100 degrees several days.

Overnight stops are after the jump.

P.S.-An exhibition on RAGBRAI and the history of bicycling in Iowa will open this summer at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, I learned today at the Iowa Bike Expo. Anyone who appreciates trails, bike lanes and everything that makes bicycling safer and more fun in Iowa should go join the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

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2012 RAGBRAI route announced

On Saturday night the Des Moines Register announced the major stops on the 2012 Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The 471-mile ride will start in Sioux Center on July 21 and end in Clinton on July 28.

Overnight stops are after the jump, along with findings from a new study on the economic impacts of recreational bicycling for Iowa.

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Weekend open thread: 2011 RAGBRAI route edition

The Des Moines Register announced the overnight stops for the 39th Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) this evening. It starts in Glenwood (Mills County, south of Council Bluffs) on July 24 with overnights in Atlantic (Cass County), Carroll (Carroll County), Boone (Boone County), Altoona (Polk County), Grinnell (Poweshiek County) and Coralville (Johnson County) before ending in Davenport (Scott County) on July 30.

Go to ragbrai.com for more information about the ride or to register. Lots of RAGBRAI trivia can be found here. For instance,

• Longest RAGBRAI route: 550 miles from Hawarden to Clinton in 1985 Shortest route: 370 miles from Onawa to Lansing in 1977

• Average length of RAGBRAI route: 472 miles

• Longest single day: 114 miles from Webster to Waverly in 1980

• Shortest single day: 25 miles from Elkader to Guttenberg, also in 1980 […]

• Most climb: 26,374 feet of incline going up hills between Missouri Valley and Keokuk in 1981

• Least climb: 10,675 feet of incline going up hills between Onawa and Lansing in 1977

• Most climb in a single day: 5,942 feet of incline between Des Moines and Williamsburg in 1973. That’s almost 10 trips up the state’s tallest skyscraper, the 630-foot tower at 801 Grand.

• Least climb in a single day: 760 feet of incline from Onawa to Ida Grove in 1977

This is an open thread. What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers?

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No RAGBRAI for my friends this year

My friends from Little Farm Fair Trade will not be showing up at RAGBRAI this year, along with several other long time participants. 

Little Farm is a tiny collective that provides Fair Trade coffee at a lot of fun events during the course of the year.  Like the Rainbow Gathering, Burning Man, and usually, RAGBRAI.  They leave a jar out for anybody that wants to drop in a donation, but don't charge for the coffee at any event.  It's a hippee cosmic kind of organic experience for them.

No longer.  Last year several people were charged for not having a vending permit along the route by various counties.  Taking a lesson from last year, the counties along the route this year have apparently decided to set fees for folks “vending” along the route.  Anything from $700-$1000 a day.  

Little Farm, and several of the others don't really even cover the cost of their gas on these trips, it's just something they do for fun and laughs, kind of a vacation.  

Now it will only be the big money folks along the route, not the fun mom & pop eccentrics.  Our loss.

UPDATE:  Here's RAGBRAI's response; http://ragbrai.com/index.php/2010/07/14/ragbrai-vendors-towns/

Des Moines Register announces full RAGBRAI route

Six weeks after revealing the overnight towns for the 2010 Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, the Des Moines Register announced the full 442-mile route that cycling enthusiasts will follow the last week of July.

RAGBRAI XXXVIII will treat riders to one of the shortest and flattest routes ever as it winds through northern Iowa from Sioux City to Dubuque from July 25-31. That combination means the 10,000 riders will navigate a 442-mile route that ranks as third-easiest historically, at least as far as hills and mileage go. The ride will be the sixth-shortest. The 14,527 feet of climb is fifth-lowest total, so rejoice and save the hill complaints until at least Day 3.

Click here for an interactive map. On day 1, riders will start in Sioux City, passing through Leeds, Kingsley, Washta and Quimby en route to Storm Lake. The second day, riders will pass through Varina, Pocahontas, Plover, West Bend and Whittemore before reaching the overnight stop of Algona. The third day, riders will pass through Wesley, Britt and Garner en route to Clear Lake. Day 4 will take riders through Swaledale, Rockwell, Cartersville and Rockford before they stop in Charles City. The fifth day, riders pass through Clarksville, Parkersburg, Stout and Dike on the way to Waterloo. Day 6 takes the riders through Washburn, Gilbertville, Rowley, Quasqueton and Winthrop on the way to Manchester. The route for the final day passes through Earlville, Dyersville, Bankston and Graf before riders reach Dubuque and dip their wheels in the Mississippi River.

Click here to register for RAGBRAI. You can follow @ragbrai_iowa on Twitter here for updates between now and the ride.

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RAGBRAI route to go through northern Iowa, July 25-31

The Des Moines Register threw a sold-out party Saturday night to announce the route for the 2010 Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. The 38th RAGBRAI will go through northern Iowa, beginning in Sioux City on the Missouri River and ending in Dubuque on the Mississippi. The other overnight stays will be in the towns of Storm Lake (Buena Vista County), Algona (Kossuth County), Clear Lake (Cerro Gordo County), Charles City (Floyd County), Waterloo (Black Hawk County), and Manchester (Delaware County).

Perry Beeman writes for the Des Moines Register,

RAGBRAI XXXVIII will treat riders to one of the shortest and flattest routes ever as it winds through northern Iowa from Sioux City to Dubuque. That combination means the 10,000 riders will navigate a 442-mile route that ranks as third-easiest historically, at least as far as hills and mileage go.

Click here to register for RAGBRAI. You can follow @ragbrai_iowa on Twitter here for updates between now and the ride.

I’ve never done RAGBRAI, and I probably never will unless my kids become cycling fanatics as they get older. But I would love to have one or more Bleeding Heartland users post updates from RAGBRAI this summer. In an election year you can count on plenty of candidate sightings and funny road/yard signs along the route.

Speaking of fanatics dedicated riders, on February 6 several hundred brave souls will complete the 32nd annual “BRR Ride,” a 24-mile loop from Perry to Rippey and back.

UPDATE: Click here for more on the full route, including pass-through towns.

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Events coming up during the rest of July (updated)

The RAGBRAI riders are enjoying some relatively cool weather this week, although last night’s rain may have been unpleasant for campers. If you’re riding and have any anecdotes to share, post them here.

Details on other events going on around the state are after the jump. As always, post a comment or send me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com) if you know of something I’ve left out.

Occasionally I put a river clean-up on these event calendars, so I wanted to let the Bleeding Heartland community know about this opportunity:

The Iowa Whitewater Coalition today announced the Clean Rivers Team Stewardship Program (CRTSP) — a mini-grant program to help fund local river clean-up activities across Iowa.

Any community group or organization in Iowa is welcome to apply for a grant from the CRTSP for the purpose of paying expenses related to river clean-up activities. Grants are limited to a maximum of $500.

Details are available at www.iowawhitewater.org and a Letter of Application may be submitted at any time to Iowa Whitewater Coalition, PO Box 65453, West Des Moines, IA 50265. Questions can be addressed by Peter Komendowski at 319-269-8493.

UPDATE: Added details on the Iowa Politics forum for Republican gubernatorial candidates (July 22) after the jump.

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Events coming up this weekend and next week

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is holding its annual convention this Saturday, July 18, at the Hotel Fort Des Moines:

Iowa CCI’s statewide annual convention will feature workshops and plenary sessions on factory farming, campaign finance reform, immigration reform, and predatory lending. The convention will conclude with an exciting direct action targeting an undisclosed payday lender in a low-income community in  Des Moines.

More details on that and other events coming up soon are after the jump.

As always, please post a comment or send me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com) if you know of another event I’ve left out.

To Bleeding Heartland readers who plan to do RAGBRAI next week: consider posting a diary about your experience or any candidates you encounter during the ride. I saw this at Bob Krause’s campaign site:

Eric Rysdam of  Fairfield, Iowa has agreed to ride across the state in  RAGBRAI, The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa with a big Krause banner and shirt. Eric will be the core of an amorphous group participating and getting the word out about for us! Please wish Eric well with his training in anticipation of the July 19-25 event! Eric’s number is 319-293-6306 if you want to wish him well, or if you want to be on the ride with him.

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Register announces overnight RAGBRAI stops

I’ve never done the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, but I know many of my readers have. I thought you’d be interested in this story about the route for the 38th RAGBRAI, scheduled for July 19-25, 2009:

[T]he ride cuts a 442-mile route through the southern half of the state, with overnight stops in Council Bluffs, Red Oak, Greenfield, Indianola, Chariton, Ottumwa, Mt. Pleasant and Burlington.

The route is the sixth-shortest in the ride’s history but ranks tenth in terms of overall climb, rising 22,806 from its start in the Missouri River to its finish in the Mississippi. Even so, riders won’t struggle any more than they did last year on the asphalt rollercoaster between Harlan and Jefferson.

“You go south and people just assume it’s going to be really hilly, but this year will be pretty close to last year,” said RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz. “It’ll be an extremely scenic adventure.”

I think Bleeding Heartland needs an official RAGBRAI blogger, assuming internet access is available along the way. Any volunteers out there?

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Post-RAGBRAI open thread

Anyone go on RAGBRAI? What were the highlights and low points?

Other than one rainy day and two rainy nights, it seems like the weather was better than average. Last year I think it was in the 90s almost every day.

Share your stories here.

RAGBRAI open thread

At least one regular Bleeding Heartland reader is going on the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa next week. Surely there will be a few more Bleeding Heartland users among the 10,000 intrepid riders.

This is an open thread for those planning to ride to make contact with each other. Maybe you can meet for a drink or some ice cream in one of the stopover towns.

I've never done RAGBRAI. Someday when my kids are old enough to do the ride, I'll consider it if they are interested. I think I'd enjoy the exercise, and I know I'd enjoy the camaraderie, but frankly, I am not crazy about camping out.

I’d appreciate it if someone who does RAGBRAI would post a diary here afterwards about the visibility of various candidates (road signs, volunteers, etc.) along the way.