Traveling across Iowa, you’ll find all types of museums, ranging from art to history. But, what about a museum dedicated to hobos? Or, salt and pepper shakers? Yep, Iowa is full of fun and unusual museums, hidden gems. From Council Bluffs’ Squirrel Cage Jail Museum to Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum, here’s a look at some of Iowa’s most unique museums.
Matchstick Marvels Museum
In a small town, a boy played with wood and models. As a young man, Pat Acton started playing with matches, or matchsticks, to be exact. He’s used the miniature pieces to create some of the most beautiful – and unusual – models in the world.
Giant models of things such as a steampunk train engine, International Space Station, and a two-headed dragon, have found their way to Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums around the world. While Ripley’s may get the largest models, Matchstick Marvels, which opened in 2003, houses about two dozen pieces of his works, including a model of the USS Iowa Battleship, a barn, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the US Capitol.
Iowa 80 Trucking Museum
As if being the world’s largest truck stop isn’t enough, Iowa 80 Truckstop is home to the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum. Bill Moon, the truck stop’s founder, enjoyed collecting antique trucks and trucking artifacts.
With vehicles dating back to 1890, the Iowa Trucking Museum features more than 100 trucks, such as a 1986 Kenworth (not hauling hogs. Shoutout to CW McCall). Other exhibits include dozens of antique toy trucks, gasoline pumps, and chauffeur badges and pins. The museum, just off of Interstate 80 in eastern Iowa, is open seasonally, including daily during summer.
Buffalo Bill Museum
Buffalo Bill’s life crossed several states, with Nebraska being home to his ranch and Golden, Colorado, his final resting place. But, it all began on a farm near the small river town of LeClaire.
Named after the frontier showman, the Buffalo Bill Museum features a variety of exhibits related to the area’s history, including a one-room schoolhouse, antique firetruck, and an airplane flight recorder – better known as “Black Box” – invented by LeClaire native James P. “Crash” Ryan II. The steamboat Lone Star has a display for itself.
Outside of town, you’ll find the childhood home of William F. Cody, along with family treasures and artifacts, including a rifle.
Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum
Where: Le Mars
How many museums can you visit and eat the exhibits? Well, OK, maybe it’s not quite like that, but the Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum combines the best of two worlds – fun exhibits and even more fun ice cream treats.
Starting your visit with a stop at the interactive virtual production line, you’ll learn how Wells Blue Bunny makes more than 150 million gallons of ice cream and how it’s shipped around the country. Located on the visitor center’s second floor, the museum includes displays and other interactive exhibits highlighting the ice cream company’s story. On the first floor, you can sample all the ice cream you want, before settling on a favorite to create a frozen treat, such as sundae or banana split.
A 25-foot boat – The Tradewind – became the smallest sailboat to cross the Atlantic Ocean as two brothers took it from Norway to the United States. The boat is part of the historical exhibits at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American museum in Decorah.
While the boat may be one of the most-popular artifacts at the Vesterheim, visitors will find a replica of a Stave, a classic church used by Vikings before Christianity, as well as furniture and tools. The Historic Park is a living history museum, with 12 antique buildings, ranging from a mill to a blacksmith shop.
National Pearl Button Museum
At the beginning of the 20th century, chances were if a person wore an outfit with Mother of Pearl buttons, those buttons were made in Muscatine. Companies annually produced about 1.5 billion pearl buttons in the southeast Iowa town.
Today, you can learn the stories behind those buttons at the National Pearl Button Museum, with thousands of pearl buttons on display, as well as equipment and other memorabilia. The museum also features photos and posters to help tell the story of pearl buttons, and its impact on the area.
National Farm Toy Museum
With thousands of toys on display, The National Farm Toy Museum will have you wanting to create your own farm and use tractors, combines, discs, and much more, to plant your own crops or manage the toy cattle, hogs, and horses on display.
From miniature toys, western figurines (Johnny West and company), and trucks to peddle tractors, the museum offers hours of enjoyment and learning opportunities. The National Farm Toy Museum hosts special exhibits, as well as a national farm toy show.
Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery
It began with a visit to the Brookfield (Illinois) Zoo. Ruth Rasmussen bought a salt and pepper shaker to commemorate the 1946 visit. Who knew the collection would grow to more than 16,000 salt and pepper shakers?
Today, much of the collection is shared at the Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery. With themes such as Christmas, sports, military, presidents, fruits and vegetables, and animals (think cute puppies and kittens), each salt and pepper shaker set is individual, with no two alike. You’ll feel like you’re on the farm with shakers in the shapes of chickens, cattle, pigs, and other animals.
The museum is located about 20 miles south of Waterloo.
National Hobo Museum
Hobos was a term used for people who traveled by train and were homeless by choice. They often rode the rails, looking for temporary work. Opened as a result of three lifelong hobos, the National Hobo Museum in Britt showcases the story of the American hobo, traveling town to town in the early 1900s. You’ll find artifacts, memorabilia, and personal gifts from hobos on display, as well as photographs.
Open seasonally, between Memorial Day and Britt Hobo Days (usually hosted in mid-August), the museum offers an excellent educational opportunity.
Bily Clocks Museum
With life-size hand-carved clocks, the Bily brothers created multiple clock frames, including an Apostle Clock, with each of the 12 apostles appearing hourly, as well as a Charles Lindbergh tribute clock. The Bily Clocks Museum shares the Iowa farmers’ precision pieces.
Along with the clocks, the museum features instruments, such as a pump organ, and written material belonging to Antonin Dvorak, a musical genius who lived in Spillville for a time after relocating from New York. A country schoolhouse is also found on the museum’s grounds. The museum is open during spring and summer.
Squirrel Cage Jail Museum
Where: Council Bluffs
One of 18 revolving jails – squirrel cage – built in the United States, the Squirrel Cage Jail was used by Pottawattamie County law enforcement from 1885 until Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, the jail’s operation was taken by a local historical group.
Today, visitors can tour the jail – Squirrel Cage Jail Museum – built in a cylinder style and stands three floors high. Would it drive you squirrelly? The jail is open year-round, but only weekends during winter months.
Iowa’s highways are home to some of the oddest, and coolest, museums in the country, with each worth exploring. Whether you prefer the more distinguished art or historical museum, checking out museums telling the tales of pearl buttons and salt and pepper shakers, as well as models created from matchsticks, offers a fun and entertaining experience on Iowa’s off-the-beaten path.