Watch dragon boats race on the Mississippi River during the 25th annual Dragon Boat Festival in Dubuque, Sept. 7-9, hosted by the Dubuque Dragon Boat Association. (Dubuque Chamber of Commerce photo)

Exploring Our Northwest, in Dubuque, Galena and Carroll County

It’s remarkable how far from home we feel when vacationing in our tri-state area. Karla Nagy explores the spirit of these historic towns, and the sheer number of interesting activities they offer this summer.

Watch dragon boats race on the Mississippi River during the 25th annual Dragon Boat Festival in Dubuque, Sept. 7-9, hosted by the Dubuque Dragon Boat Association. (Dubuque Chamber of Commerce photo)

For the perfect getaway this season, how about a trip to a storied river city, with casinos, paddleboats, great food and historic sites? Maybe you’d prefer to tour world-class vineyards, or visit indulgent spas and special themed weekend events. Perhaps a visit to a place with scenic golf courses, live theater, fun shopping and unique tourist spots is more your style, with pristine lakes and flowing rivers for fishing, skiing and boating.
Don’t call the airlines or start calculating fuel costs, ’cause we’re not talking N’awlans, Napa or Tahoe. All of these attractions and activities – and more – are available right here in the Old Northwest Territory, in Dubuque, Iowa, and Jo Daviess and Carroll counties, Illinois.

Dubuque, Iowa

With its location on the Mississippi River and its status as the oldest city in Iowa, Dubuque has a rich history. In its heyday, this “Key City” was a doorway for settlers heading further west. First known for fur trading and mining, it soon became an industrial center for everything from logging and millwork to boat building and meat packing, well into the 20th century.
In the 1980s, the loss of many of the city’s industrial employers left the once-grand waterfront deserted. In recent years, thanks to a focused effort, it has been reborn as the lively Port of Dubuque, once again bustling with activity, from award-winning museums to crowd-pleasing festivals and special events. One of the longest-running is the Dubuque County Historical Society’s (DCHS) Taste of Dubuque.
“This is our 17th annual Taste,” says John Sutter, marketing and sales director for the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium at Port of Dubuque. “Long before the expansion and growth, it was started to get people to recognize the port area as a festival destination.”
Held on the first Saturday of August, the food and music festival has grown since it was first introduced. “It used to be held on a Wednesday evening, and now it’s an 8-hour Saturday event,” says Sutter. Mouthwatering fare from two dozen local food vendors and great live music from bands on two stages draw 7,000 to 8,000 visitors each year.
“We invite all the local restaurants to take part,” says Sutter. “We have children’s activities, a mascot parade featuring local sports teams and businesses, local dance and martial arts demonstrations, a karaoke contest. And there are so many other things to do within walking distance. It’s a great day trip for families, couples or anybody.”
The DCHS was officially formed in 1950 and opened the Mathias Ham House, its first museum, in 1964. Now, its small Mississippi River Museum has evolved into the award-winning, Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, with live fish, ducks, frogs and much more; interactive exhibits, such as a computer simulation of steering a barge on the river; a 3-D/4-D theater that includes wind, mist and seat movement; even a wetland. Over 25 years, the DCHS raised $54 million for the organization and expansion of the facility; it opened in June 2003 and received its one millionth visitor just four years later.
The museum is only a piece of Dubuque’s $400 million riverfront renovation, supported and financed through a unique collaboration of public and private entities as part of America’s River Project.
“Port of Dubuque is a great destination for any budget,” says Taylor Kellogg, vice president of marketing for Dubuque Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There are so many things to do there – the museum, the riverwalk, river cruises, the casinos, the water park, wine tastings, the brewery. There’s something for everyone.”
Taste of Dubuque is Aug. 4 from 3-11 p.m. There’s no admission fee, but donations are accepted. Visitors pay only for food and beverages. Proceeds support educational programs at the River Museum, the Ham House and the Old Jail Museum.
Just a week later, on Aug. 10, Summerfest Dubuque takes place at the city’s Town Clock, from 5-10 p.m. This well-established food and music fest is a fundraising event for Dubuque Area Labor-Management Council’s (DALMC) Education-to-Employment Grant Program.
Once again, there’s no admission charge, but donations are accepted, and attendees pay for food and beverages. “We have at least 10 local food vendors, and we bring in two bands to perform,” says Megan Starr, program specialist for DALMC. “Our headliner is the Minneapolis-based The R Factor, and opening for them this year is Hard Salami, a popular local acoustic group.”
Downtown Dubuque has an outdoor performance venue with a stage set up under the Town Clock. “A lot of festivals are held under the Town Clock, and there are already tables set up,” says Starr. Since 2000, DALMC has awarded grants amounting to nearly $200,000 to 182 area students from the proceeds raised at Summerfest Dubuque. Held on the second Friday in August, the event is always well-attended. “We estimate we’ve drawn upwards of 5,000 in some years, and 2,000 at the low end,” says Starr. “People really like the band [The R Factor], and they know they’re supporting a great organization that supports the local economy and its workforce.”
Dubuque is on the “Mighty Miss,” and when one thinks of boats and the Mississippi, the image that comes to mind is most likely a paddleboat. But come Sept. 7, the waters of this mighty river will be filled with something very different, as the Dubuque Dragon Boat Association hosts its 25th annual three-day Dragon Boat Festival.
“Our goal, as an association, is to promote healthy activities on the river – kayaking, canoeing – but dragon boating is our main focus,” says Sue Miller, Dubuque Dragon Boat Association president. “We work with Loras College’s sports camp, to introduce the sport to youth, and we focus on teamwork. We also host local businesses and organizations, who bring employees to learn to paddle dragon boats as a team-building exercise.”
The term “dragon boat” may conjure pictures of a Viking longboat. “It’s more like a really big canoe, decorated like a dragon,” says Miller. “It’s 40 feet long, and holds between 18 and 20 paddlers, who sit in pairs. A drummer faces the paddlers and keeps time, and someone steers. In Dubuque, we do Taiwan-style racing, which involves grabbing a flag positioned on a buoy, so we also have a flag catcher.”
Dragon boating is an international sport with national regions across the country. Dubuque’s group belongs to the American Dragon Boat Association, which covers the Midwest; that group belongs to the United States Dragon Boat Federation, which, in turn, belongs to the International Dragon Boat Federation.
Miller has been part of the group for at least 22 years. “Somebody asked me to be on a team one year,” she says. “I like the competitive nature, but I also like the fun and camaraderie. Our motto is ‘Friendship Through Paddling.’ Because of dragon boating, I’ve had the chance to travel and make friends all over the world. We have a couple of competitive teams in town who’ve competed throughout the Midwest and in the World Dragon Boat Championships.”
Dubuque’s annual race isn’t part of any official dragon boat competitions, but it still draws a good number of groups from across the Midwest, Canada and even Europe. “We sometimes get teams from Germany, England and Italy,” Miller says. “We own two boats here in Dubuque, and we rent boats for the festival from the American Dragon Boat Association. That makes it affordable for teams to come, when they don’t have to worry about transporting boats. We draw quite a few beginner teams, who come for the experience and just to have fun for the weekend.”
The event is held at Miller Riverview Campground, 1851 Admiral Sheehy Dr., adjacent to Mystique Casino, and the group rents the entire 20 acres for the weekend. “We usually get between 30 and 40 teams, and each team can carry a roster of 25,” Miller explains. “With family members, friends and spectators, we usually have around 2,000 people throughout the weekend. We have different divisions, based on age, experience, group affiliation. We get several youth teams. We even have a newly sanctioned breast cancer survivor division.”
Many paddlers camp out at the park, and each team has its own tent as a home base. The group sells T-shirts, and a few food vendors set up shop. “It’s really a festival atmosphere,” Miller says.
Saturday time trials establish the lineup, followed by single-elimination races held on Saturday and Sunday; medals are awarded for first, second and third place in each division. There’s no charge for admission.

Decked out with matching hats and bags, these ladies are ready for the annual Galena Girlfriends’ Getaway Weekend. This year’s event is Sept. 7-9. (Photo provided)

Jo Daviess County/Galena, Ill.

Just across the river is picturesque Jo Daviess County, Ill., part of the Driftless Area, more than 16,000 square miles of terrain in parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois marked by deeply carved river valleys and extreme elevation changes.
In addition to the amazing scenery, the area boasts a variety of quaint towns offering an abundance of historic sites, activities, attractions and special events. In East Dubuque, Ill., the annual Wing Fest, a benefit for the East Dubuque High School Warrior Boosters, attracts 3,000 visitors each year, more than double the town’s population of 1,200. This year’s date is Aug. 11.
“We were looking for a way to raise money, without sending our young people out into the streets, knocking on people’s doors,” says organizer John Digman and current Booster Club president. “Everybody likes festivals and food, and I suggested a chicken wing festival, so that we could involve the entire community. Our first year, we had eight cooks in a half-circle on an empty lot, and from there, it just boomed. This will be our eighth year, and now we have more than 20 cooks lining both sides of the main street.”
The Boosters supply all of the wings. “We get every kind of preparation you can think of – smoked, deep-fried, charcoaled,” Digman says. “The cooks pay an entry fee, and the public pays $5 for 10 wings, and they can buy as many as they want. We get entries from nonprofit groups like the Lions Club, along with seasoned veterans and amateurs. We have separate categories, so that the backyard grillers aren’t competing against the pros. We give awards for different divisions, like restaurant-style, traditional, most unique.”
The family-friendly event, which runs from noon to 9 p.m., includes live entertainment, a free inflatable ride for kids, a petting zoo, beer tent and additional food and beverage vendors.
“We used to be happy to break even, and now we net around $15,000,” Digman says. “More people come each year. It’s become the town’s signature event.”
Just another 14 miles southeast is Galena, the county seat and, with a population of around 3,500, the largest city in Jo Daviess County. It exists because of the rich veins of lead found there, a direct result of the driftless topography that left many open vertical fissures near the surface.
These crevices made discovery of the lead, and its initial retrieval, fairly easy, and by the 1830s, lead mining had made this boom town the richest in the state, and even provided its name: “Galena” is the technical term for sulphide of lead.
More than 85 percent of Galena’s buildings are within the city’s National Register Historic District. The Ulysses S. Grant home, now a state historic site, was presented to the hero and his family upon his return from the Civil War. The DeSoto House Hotel, still in operation, saw both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas speak from its balcony.
As if the dramatic scenery and historic charm weren’t enough, Galena is rich with unique shops, fantastic restaurants, award-winning vineyards, world-class resorts, top-notch spa facilities, quaint bed-and-breakfasts (B&B), top-rated golf courses, varied activities and special events. One such event is the 2nd Annual Galena/Jo Daviess Quilt Fest, to be held Aug. 10-12 and sponsored by the Bed & Breakfast Innkeepers of Galena, owners of 11 area B&Bs.
“We have three quilters in our group – Rita Wadman, Annette Klingsporn and Susan Steffan – and another member, Leslie Dubois, comes from a family of quilters,” says Wendy Bade Gilpin, owner of Hawk Valley Retreat, 2752 West Cording Road, Galena. “Because of them, we got involved in last year’s first annual Northern Illinois Quilt Fest, running June through August, which featured quilt shows and other events across the region. This year, its focus is a Quilt Shop Hop, but we decided to stay with a quilt show and build momentum from last year.”
The event begins Friday evening at the Midwest Medical Center, 1 Medical Center Dr., Galena, with a trunk show and design presentation by Carol Long of Hidden Quilts, Platteville, Wis. Then, the quilt fest will be held at the Tri-State Christian School, 11084 W. U.S. Hwy. 20, on Saturday and Sunday. Also on Saturday, the group is hosting B&B Parlor & Quilt Tours, and during the weekend, it will also raffle off two quilts made and donated by Wadman and Steffan. After covering expenses, the organizers will donate remaining proceeds to the neediest area charity.
“We have more than 12 exhibitors, who’ll show quilts or sell wares during the show,” says Bade Gilpin. “We’re also very excited to have a special item on display during the show, an iron quilt made by John Martinson. Then, there’ll be more than 30 quilts in the B&B tour. Our primary goal is to bring quilters together and expose others to the craft. Another major goal is to give visitors an idea of everything there is to do here. Quilting is just one attraction out of many.”
Bade Gilpin is a transplant from Chicago, and before moving to Galena, she had no idea of the variety of pursuits there, so she’s certain many others looking for quick getaways are similarly unaware.
“We’re within a three-hour commute from tons of places,” she says. “Gas and money are tight. Couples and families are looking for things to do. Well, there are plenty of things to do here for everyone, and for any budget. The quilting community is tight-knit, and they tend to group together. Many quilters have husbands and children who can hike, take a hot air balloon ride, canoe, golf. We also wanted to showcase the different kinds of B&Bs, from in-town mansions, inns and Victorians to renovated country homes and retreat-like places, even an alpaca farm B&B – a style for every type of person out there.”
A signature event showcasing much that Galena and the area have to offer is the Annual Galena Girlfriends’ Getaway Weekend, now in its 19th year. Sponsored by the Galena Area Chamber of Commerce, the three-day gathering, Sept. 7-9, includes pajama parties, wine tastings, special dinners, shopping and more.
“It provides a chance for women to get together with girlfriends or relatives, with events designed specifically for them,” says Katie Murphy, president and CEO of the Chamber. “A $50 pre-registration fee includes participation in all Chamber events, a goody bag and the chance to win a $200 Galena shopping spree.”
Pre-registration runs through Sept. 6; day-of registration is available, but to take part in all events will run $65, with no goody bag or chance at the shopping spree. Early registration, available online at or by phone at (815) 777-9050, is strongly recommended.
Popular returning activities: belly dancing lessons; Quartermania, a silent auction-style event where women bid on items donated by local businesses using a roll of quarters; Slipper Party at the local Walmart, with snacks and a scavenger hunt; and Sunday Brunch at the DeSoto House.
“New this year, for an additional charge, is a Friday wine crawl, from 3-9 p.m.,” says Murphy. “We’ll have several wineries, restaurants and bars take part. The women will get a bracelet and a punch card for a drink – not just wine – and there’ll be snacks and hors d’oeuvres.”
In addition, shops, restaurants, lodgings and boutiques offer special activities, sales or discounts during the weekend.
“We have participation from close to 50 percent of our Chamber membership,” says Murphy. “In addition to the added exposure and PR, they all say they get very excited about the extra interaction with the customers during Girlfriends’ Getaway. The focus is on the women themselves, not the location or the events, and it’s fun for all ages and groups – moms and daughters, old school buddies, senior citizens. We get new visitors every year, and they all say they love it.”
Murphy encourages newcomers to check out the area.
“It’s not too far to travel from places like Rockford, Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee, but it’s far enough that it feels like a real getaway,” she says. “It’s more than a rural area or tourist spot. There are vineyards, golfing, skiing and more. Nature-related activities keep growing – kayaking, biking, hiking. We have great wildlife and bird viewing. We have an amazing colony of artists and craftspeople. People are surprised by all of our special attributes. It’s an exceptional area in which to work, play and visit, with a different vibe and feel.”

The Hotel Glenview, built in 1886 in Mount Carroll, is now home to the shops @ glenview on the first floor and the new Hotel Glenview on floors above. (Karla Nagy photo)

Carroll County

From Galena, head about 30 miles south to find Savanna, the oldest town in Carroll County, settled in 1828 and officially platted in 1836. Originally part of Jo Daviess County, it was, at the time, the only significant settlement between Rock Island and Galena, and its location on the banks of the Mississippi drew more and more people to the area. Residents quickly tired of traversing the mountainous distance to Galena to conduct county business, and in 1839, Carroll County was officially formed, with Savanna named county seat.
Although it’s no longer the county seat, Savanna is still Carroll County’s largest city, with more than 3,200 people. Also part of the Driftless Area, its landscape is similar to Galena, with steep hills, distinctive limestone outcroppings and dramatic elevation changes. The area is well known as a “sportsman’s paradise.”
“We’re on Hwy. 84, also known as the Great River Road,” says Pam Brown, executive director, Savanna Chamber of Commerce. “We’re the start of the 62-mile Great River Bike Trail in Illinois.”
The Savanna Bike Trail was completed in 2003, and includes a 1,400-foot metal bridge over railroad tracks, and about one mile south, a 200-foot wooden bridge across the Plum River. “When you’re at the top of the metal bridge, you can look down and see where the IC&E and the BNSF railroad tracks intersect to form a diamond, which is pretty rare,” Brown says. “We get a lot of rail fans who come just to see that.”
The Savanna Museum & Cultural Center, 406 Main St., includes a Civil War display with life-size mannequins. “We also have a display there about Wayne King, the 1930s band leader known as ‘The Waltz King,’ who was born in Savanna,” says Brown. There’s also a 1,000-foot HO model train display depicting railroading in Savanna. Farther south on Main Street is the Savanna Train Museum, located in an old Milwaukee passenger car.
“Savanna is also one of the biggest birding areas along the Mississippi,” says Brown. “We get hundreds of waterfowl that nest here – herons, swans, pelicans, several different species of geese and ducks. It’s a big spot for bald eagles. We’re part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a 180-mile area that extends to the Ingersoll Wetlands Learning Center near Thomson. At Ingersoll, visitors can get a golf cart tour of the birding area.”
The 13,000-acre, decomissioned Savanna Army Depot is another great place for wildlife viewing, supporting many flora and fauna, including several threatened and endangered plant species. On Rte. 84 is the 2,500-acre Mississippi Palisades Park, the only state park within Carroll County, offering 200 campsites, great wildlife viewing and breathtaking scenic lookouts high above the Mississippi River. The public Palisades Golf Course has nine holes along the Mississippi’s backwaters, where golfers often spot sandhill cranes, deer and snapping turtles.
Another historic site is the Savanna-Sabula Bridge, a steel cantilevered truss bridge built in 1932 by the WPA and refurbished in 1985. It stretches nearly 2,500 feet across the Mississippi, its highest span reaching more than 500 feet. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, but visitors will only have a few more years to see it.
“It’s scheduled to be replaced with a new bridge by 2016,” says Brown. “It’s very narrow – only 20 feet wide – and the deck is steel grates, which really make a car’s tires shimmy. So it’s been deemed unsafe, and it will soon be gone.”
Surprisingly, this historic town is also a motorcycle mecca. South on Viaduct Road is Poopy’s, billed as Illinois’ biggest biker destination. It includes a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, live bands, a gift shop, even a tattoo parlor, and hosts events like car cruise nights, bike runs and mixed martial arts fights. On Savanna’s Main Street is the Iron Horse Social Club, with its very own biker wedding chapel – complete with stained glass and oak pews – and Hawg Dawgs, offering a full menu and featuring antiques, including “Frank Fritz Finds,” a selection of items from the co-star of History Channel’s “American Pickers.”
Moving on, about 10 miles west on Rte. 64 is Mount Carroll, named the county seat over Savanna in 1843, in a hotly disputed decision of the state legislature. Its Italianate-style courthouse was built of Galena limestone and brick in 1858; featuring an impressive Lorado Taft Civil War monument on its grounds, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Surrounding the Courthouse Square are locally owned restaurants, shops, businesses and organizations that have taken up residence in other historic buildings along Mount Carroll’s brick streets, all part of the Mount Carroll National Historic District established in 1980.
Shops range from specialty and gift boutiques, wine stores and artisan studios to home décor, antiques and craft places. Just a few miles away, golfers can play Oakville Country Club, a nine-hole semi-private course with three sets of tees. One popular attraction is Timber Lake Playhouse, a professional summer stock theater established in 1962, set next to the 12-acre Timber Lake and 100-acre Timber Lake Resort.
“We get many people who come for the plays and stop here to shop,” says Laura Miller, owner of the dabluz boutique, part of the shops @ glenview, 116 Market St., Mount Carroll. “We get quite a few folk from places like Rockford, Chicago or Dubuque, who come for just one day. People are busy and gas is expensive, so this is a great nearby destination that still feels like you’re in a different place and time.”
Miller’s store, specializing in handmade, vintage and antique items, is located in the historic Hotel Glenview, built in 1886 and operated as a full-service hotel until the 1970s. Now, Larry DeSpain, Miller’s husband, is once again running Hotel Glenview, offering guest rooms and even suites on the floors above the shops.
Just a few doors down are the New Morning Glass Studio and Charlotte Arvel Glass Gallery. Across the street is Heritage Market Antiques. On Main Street, across from the courthouse, in the old Kraft Building, you’ll find the Community Welcome Center and the Chamber of Commerce.
“It seems to be a magical place, because people come here to visit, and they end up moving here,” says Miller, an active member in the Chamber. “Several of our businesses aren’t owned by home-growns, but by people who’ve relocated here.”
In fact, Miller shares space in the shops @ glenview with just such a business. Bruce and Penny Lally run The Driftless Area Stillroom, a small wine store specializing in affordable wines from around the world. Transplants from Wauconda, the couple opened their doors in June 2010.
“We traveled around for two years to find an area for a getaway home, and nothing clicked,” says Bruce. “You travel to a place that you’ve read about, and sometimes, it’s not quite what you expected. Well, Mount Carroll was all that we expected, and more. I retired, and after a year of ‘getting away,’ we decided to make this our permanent residence. I’ve never been so graciously accepted anywhere as my family was when we moved here.”
Bruce is especially impressed with the local business owners. “There’s a depth and variety here,” he says. “People are truly involved in the community and care about service and quality. It’s the real thing here.”
“We have solid, stable businesses, like the hardware store, grocery and pharmacy, along with the fun little shops,” says Miller. “We have plenty of things to keep people occupied for a day, a weekend or longer.”