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For lovers of the American heartland, does it get any better than this: An Iowa community theater group doing a thoroughly entertaining production of "State Fair," the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical about an Iowa hog farmer and his family at the state fair, in an opera house several blocks from the Mississippi River?
Then, to complete the picture: The leading roles of the father and mother were played by David Kruse, who actually was a hog farmer, and wife Annette Ruhs Kruse, a United Methodist Church pastor. "I was beginning to wonder who I'd get to play the parts, when they came in the last day of auditions," said director Sue Riedel. "I didn't know them at all. They fit the part and they could sing. I couldn't believe my luck."
This summer's "State Fair" was one of only a number of year-round attractions in Dubuque's beautifully restored Grand Opera House, a 110-year old, 640-seat facility. Legendary stars George M. Cohan, Lillian Russell, Joseph Jefferson, Ethel Barrymore and Sara Bernhardt once played the facility before it was turned into a movie house in the 1930s.
The local Barn Community Theatre group, spurred by the energetic Riedel, purchased the opera house in 1986, restored the building to its former use as a home for live productions and made it into one of the most successful facilities of its kind.
The Grand Opera House revival could very well be a metaphor for Dubuque.
Located in the heart of picturesque Mississippi bluff country, this historic river town of approximately 57,000 residents has fully awakened to the outside world in recent years, dusted off its colorful past and become an appealing destination spot.
I discovered on my two-day visit there was much more than the Grand Opera House to keep tourists busy and entertained -- though I readily admit the "State Fair" plot about an Iowa newspaperman (which I used to be) going to work at the Chicago Tribune (which I did) couldn't miss as a highlight for me.
Growing up 75 miles away in a small town near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I rarely visited Dubuque, which always appeared to be merely a hilly, insular, old river town teeming with Catholic churches (there are 14 parishes today). It seemed to offer little to an outsider other than cable car rides up a bluff, a view of both Illinois and Wisconsin across the Mississippi, and three small liberal arts colleges -- Loras, Clarke and the University of Dubuque, which still are in business.
The addition of a greyhound racing track in 1985 and a riverboat casino in 1994 raised Dubuque's profile with those who enjoy gambling, but a visit to the bustling Ice Harbor area on the riverfront -- a must-stop for visitors -- now shows how serious everyone here is about becoming a complete destination city.
You could almost hear hammers and saws at work.
There are three new museums within walking distance of Ice Harbor, and each does an excellent job embracing the history and lore of both the Mississippi River and Dubuque. This area, secure ever since a floodwall was installed just before the big washout of 1973, continues to be a docking area for current river travel and commerce.
The harbor is also where the city's famed Old Shot Tower, where lead bullets were made for Civil War rifles, is located.
The city, founded in 1833, was first settled by Julien Dubuque in the 1780s. He was a French-Canadian fur trapper who turned to lead mining after discovering large deposits.
The city's location on a great riverway, which was a major transportation mode for much of the country in the 1800s, contributed to early growth that made this the largest Iowa city by 1860 with a population of 13,000 residents. (Today it ranks seventh.)
Waves of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, encouraged by early Catholic priests seeking to build their parishes, contributed to the early growth. There also was a relatively large segment of African-Americans adding to the ethnic mix, and by the time Dubuque was incorporated, four different national flags -- Spain, England, France, U.S. -- had flown over the community.
The National Rivers Hall of Fame Gallery is in one of the Ice Harbor museums and among inductees, alongside more famous persons such as Samuel Clemens (nee Mark Twain), is William Hopkins, a native of Scotland who came to Dubuque in 1867. He was a pioneer iron shipbuilder. After working on ships for the U.S Navy, he built steamers that chugged up and down the Mississippi.
The cable car rides began as a practical form of transportation in 1882 and I discovered they are still available ($1.50 for a round trip). The bottom station, near the intersection of 4th and Bluff Streets, is in the heart of antique shopping known as Cable Car Square.
Having three colleges in Dubuque guarantees a full slate of regular campus activities, but it also helps provide a pool of talent that makes possible such civic gems as a symphony orchestra, art museum, arboretum, art shows, festivals, galleries, and annual Victorian House Tour and Progressive Dinner.
A good way to get below the surface is on one of Don Nauman's narrated, trolley car tours, which have pickup points in Cable Car Square and at the Iowa Welcome Center in Ice Harbor. The drivers are as likely to tell you information that isn't on brochures -- such as Chicago mobster Al Capone's weekend visits in the Julien Inn -- as they are to jam on the brakes and start chatting with a nephew working on a construction project they're about to pass.
The receptionist who sold a $6 ticket to me at the Iowa Welcome Center good for all of the Ice Harbor attractions was quick to point out that I could redeem any unused admission at a future date. But the friendliest reception occurred at the Redstone Inn near Cable Car Square, where I stopped for breakfast at 10:05 a.m. on a weekday -- five minutes after the kitchen closed.
Linda Kisting, who manages the 105-year old, 15-room Victorian inn, took my order anyway and personally fixed the meal, which was a very reasonable $5.50.
Kisting also told me how the beautiful inn had been built by local businessman A.A. Cooper, a prosperous wagon manufacturer Henry Ford tried unsuccessfully to recruit. The house originally was a wedding gift for Cooper's daughter and new son-in-law.
"I don't think he thought the marriage was going to last," noted Kisting. "He had two entrances built."
The union lasted, however, and the house has become one more reason to visit Dubuque.
IF YOU GO
Dubuque is about 180 miles west of Chicago on U.S. Highway 20. Take Interstate Highway 90 to Rockford, where the link with U.S. 20 -- either the bypass or city route -- can be made by exiting the tollway. The hilly route west of Stockton, which includes going through Galena, provides some of the state's prettiest scenery.
Many major hotel chains, including Holiday Inn, Super 8, Fairfield Inn, Best Western and Days Inn, are in Dubuque. Timmerman's in East Dubuque also is popular. There are several dozen bed-and-breakfasts, many of which are registered with the Chamber of Commerce. The centrally located Redstone Inn Hotel (504 Bluff St.; 319-582-1894), an easy walk to the cable car rides and antique shopping, is highly recommended. Redstone rates, which include continental breakfast, newspaper and easy parking, are from $60 to $175 for a deluxe suite.
Mario's, 1298 Main St., has excellent Italian fare, friendly staff, and, if he's there, Mario always stops by your booth to see if everything's OK.
Tollbridge Inn, 2800 Rhomberg, where the American-style food would be enough reason to eat here -- even without the great view of the Mississippi and Lock & Dam No. 11.
Dempsey's, 395 W. 9th St., where it's possible to get dinner up to 10 p.m. Molly's Pub, located in the same building that once was a Christian Science reading room, is one of the city's lively night spots.
Shot Tower Inn, 4th and Locust, is the favored spot by many Dubuquers for pizza. It's convenient if you're staying downtown.
Breitbach's is a few miles away in Balltown, Iowa, but the mostly homemade food and views of the rolling, Grant Wood-like rural countryside surrounding this restaurant makes the short trip worthwhile.
Grand Opera House, 135 W. 8th St., offers terrific local productions ("Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Her," Fiddler on the Roof" are upcoming) in a great setting. During the holidays, two professional, touring productions -- "Ozark Mountain Christmas" from Branson, Mo., and "Come Home To Ireland" -- are scheduled.
Five Flags Civic Center, 4th and Main Streets, houses Dubuque's convention center and ice arena as well as the Five Flags Theatre, built in 1910 and which has been a place of public entertainment since 1940.
Ice Harbor is Dubuque's river landing area at the end of East 3rd Street and a must-visit spot in which you can learn almost everything there is to know about the Mississippi River and the area. The Iowa Welcome Center, in the same building as the entrance to the riverboat casino, is here and offers a gift shop, brochures and helpful staff. This is a good place to inquire about river cruises on non-casino boats. (The famous Queen boats -- Delta, American, Mississippi -- that go from New Orleans to the Twin Cities stop in Dubuque but can't be boarded.) For $6, you can purchase a ticket that gets you into the National Landmark steamboat William M. Black, River of Dreams Theatre to see a Garrison Keillor-narrated film, National Rivers Hall of Fame and Woodward Riverboat Museum, where aquariums also have fish on display. Not too far away -- and easily recognizable -- is the Old Shot Tower, where lead shot used in the Civil War was made.
Dubuque Trolley Inc. offers hour-long, narrated tours of Dubuque, which is a good way to get an overview. Specially noteworthy is the swing made by the trolleys on West 11th Street, where some of the city's spectacular old homes have great bluff views.
Golf: The courses in nearby Galena get the publicity, but, for the money ($22 weekdays; $26 weekends), the Meadows Golf Club, 15766 Clover Lane, is a steal. 319-583-7385.
Fenelon Place Elevator is the official name for the cable car rides. You can board either at the base, near the intersection of 4th and Bluff Streets, or at the top at 512 Fenelon Place. The system raises passengers 189 feet, which means a great view of Dubuque, the river, and Illinois and Wisconsin on the opposite side.
Dubuque Fighting Saints, Suite 661, Fischer Building. This is Dubuque's hockey franchise, which competes at the Junior A level and plays in the Five Flags Center October through March.
Diamond Jo Casino riverboat is in Ice Harbor and open year-round, but call ahead (800-LUCKYJO) for the cruise schedule. In addition to slots and video games, there is a live poker room as well as craps, roulette, and blackjack.
Dubuque Greyhound Park & Casino, 1850 Greyhound Park Drive, offers greyhound racing, a casino and race simulcasting from other tracks. The casino and simulcasting are open every day, but live dog racing here is limited. Call 800-373-3647 for dates.
Sundown Mountain Ski Area, 17017 Asbury Rd. (888-SUNDOWN), is open from late November to mid-March. There are 20 runs up to 4,000 feet long with a 475-foot vertical drop.
Dubuque Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitors Bureau, 770 Town Clock Plaza, P.O. Box 705, Dubuque, IA 52004-0705; 319-557-9200; www.dubuquechamber.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.