New Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center now open to the public

Ribbon cutting at Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center ... Members of the Allamakee County Conservation Board (ACCB) join Allamakee County Conservation Director Jim Janett in cutting the ribbon at a dedication event held Thursday, August 10 signifying the opening of the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center just south of Lansing on the former Columbus property. Pictured above, left to right, are ACCB members Jeanie Carroll, Dennis Blocker and Marilyn Clark, Conservation Director Jim Janett, and ACCB members Bill Moody and Dennis Koenig. Photo by Susan Cantine-Maxson.

A brief look inside the Center ... Photos above and below show just some of the many exhibits and interpretive displays inside the new Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center. Photos of additional displays and building features can be viewed by clicking on the Photo Galleries link on The Standard's website, Photos taken by Susan Cantine-Maxson.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

Spectacular, wonderful, magnificent, awesome, amazing… are some of the adjectives used to describe the new Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center, located south of Lansing on the former Columbus property on Great River Road and now officially open to the public.

Nestled onto a plot of land where the first Allamakee County Courthouse was established, the new 10,000 square foot Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center beckons to all who pass to stop a while and learn about how this unique area of the country was formed. The new Center officially opened to the public Saturday, August 12 with several hundred people journeying to an open house at the Center to view the educational interpretive exhibits during Lansing's annual Fish Days celebration. Thursday, August 10 a ribbon cutting ceremony was held for over 200 donors to the project.

The design of the building blends flawlessly with the area's neighboring limestone bluffs. The large expansive windows and wrap-around deck allow visitors an unparalleled view of the Mississippi River and Black Hawk Bridge. The view alone is worth stopping for but there is so much more to take in.

As visitors enter the Center, two boats used for commercial fishing on the Mississippi hang in the Center atrium above a three-dimensional display of the Driftless area along the Mississippi River valley. The interpretive displays feature hands-on experiences such as touching the furs of the various animals found in the region, viewing live reptiles and fish in aquariums, watching a working bee hive and viewing artifacts from and reading about the ecology, archeology, art, indigenous people, river industries, geology and wildlife of the Driftless area.

One large display features the work of  Ellison Orr and Charles Keyes, the founders of Iowa archeology. Education about the Driftless Area is the primary goal of the Center.

As visitors come up to the second floor, they can view the top sides of the hanging boats, outfitted with a variety of nets and equipment from the local commercial fishing museum. A clam boat with its rows of hooks to snag the clams is juxtaposed with a history of clamming and button making in the area. A panoramic mural depicts the area of Fish Farm Mounds and how the original Native Americans used that area along the Mississippi. Lumbering displays, along with more wildlife displays, including a live rattlesnake, keep visitors engaged with the diversity of wildlife and industry that the ecology of the region supported.

In addition to the two floors of interpretative displays, the Center will also house the Allamakee County Conservation offices. Office space and a board room will serve as the administrative headquarters for the Conservation Board. In addition to the main floor offices, a small gift shop area will be featured. A classroom with a kitchenette in the lower level will offer ample space for larger meetings, such as school group or adult learning opportunities. A small library will offer additional learning extensions.

Of the 99 counties in Iowa, 74 have Education and Visitor Centers, but Jim Janett, Director of Allamakee County Conservation, explained how this one differs from the others. “This one is unique because we live in a unique area, the Driftless Area," he said. "There is no other place like this in the United States. We have a beautiful view of the river. None of them can hold a candle to our viewshed. The subject matter of the interpretive displays is unlike any other part of the state. The interpretive displays show the industries that developed in the Driftless Area and how the initial industries were tied to the natural resources.”

Finances for the building have reached their goals through a combination of numerous grants and donations. Additional donations have been used to start an endowment fund to support additional programming and upkeep.

Before the Center had officially opened, over 1,000 people had signed the guest book. Many people from all over the United States and the world stopped when the RAGBRAI route went past the new Center in late July. Retired Senator Tom Harkin stopped in for a preview tour. Allamakee County Economic and Tourism director Val Reinke shared that the new Center will be a strong draw for the area.

“Allamakee County welcomes 80,000 visitors a year to Effigy Mounds National Monument and an estimated 40,000 visitors a year to Yellow River State Forest," she explained. "Allamakee County is the home to the most scenic byway in the state, Driftless Area Scenic Byway, which includes 100 miles of WOW! The county is also home to 36.2 miles of amazing Great River Road. To enhance a visitor’s stay, we now have the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center, which captures a beautiful view of the Mississippi River, the bluffs and the Black Hawk Bridge. It is Allamakee County’s pleasure to invite folks to the northeast corner of Iowa!”

Reinke said studies show that attractions such as this bring numerous additional economic benefits to the area as visitors spend dollars at restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, service industries, retail establishments and lodging facilities. Visitors tend to look for other attractions in the area as well.
Lansing Mayor Michael Brennan voiced his approval of the project and what it adds to the community he leads, saying, “The Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center is an amazing facility, and it is such a huge boost to the area in a time when we really need it. The Conservation Commission staff and board have done an incredible job in getting this facility completed. I'm excited to finally see the facility open, and all the traffic and opportunities it will bring.  Allamakee County and the Lansing community should be proud of this accomplishment."

Several hundred people christened the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center during the official Grand Opening Saturday, August 12. Mondays through Saturdays, the Center will be open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday hours will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Center will be closed major holidays but will try to stay open as much as possible. No admission will be charged but donations are appreciated.

The Center will be seeking volunteers who will be willing to answer questions for visitors. There will be an informational meeting this fall for people who are interested in volunteering so that everyone knows the roles and responsibilities of volunteers.  If anyone needs more information, they are asked to call 563-538-1002.

Over 200 donors gathered Thursday, August 10 for the Dedication Ceremony of the Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center. Allamakee County Conservation Foundation Board member Gary Krapfl welcomed donors and dignitaries for the ribbon cutting. Comments from local community, governmental and capital campaign leaders praised the hard work of all those involved with the project and projected a promising future for the new Center. Special music was provided by Nicole Winke-Gentes, Aaron Gentes and Daryl Hansmeier.

The Allamakee County Conservation Board members cut the official opening ribbon, culminating many years of planning and preparation for the Driftless Education and Visitor Center.

Mayor Mike Brennan stated during the ceremony, “This has been an incredible journey to get to this point. Thanks to the Conservation Board and the Board of Supervisors who had kept up their support throughout the years. This is a world-class facility.”

Larry Schellhammer, chairperson of the Allamakee Board of Supervisors, thanked those who sustained the project, “Thank you for believing in the dream which leads to a successful attitude. Because of what we are doing today, we are saying yes, we can do anything. We hosted 30,000 for RAGBRAI. This is the start of another great era of saying 'Yes, we can.' When this process started, I remember reading a quote, ‘A society grows great when old men grow trees whose shade they know they shall never sit under’. Today, I thank you for planting trees."

James Janett, Allamakee County Conservation Board Director for 28 years, spoke with pride, “There’s a WOW factor here. We have a quality project here. We had great groups of people working on this project: Fehr Graham Engineering & Environmental, Martin Gardner Architecture Firm, Cresco Building Service, Split Rock Studios, Skyline Construction Inc., Shawver Well Company, local subcontractors, campaign co-chairs Jane Regan and John Verdon, honorary campaign co-chairs Mark Farley, Dan Gable, Gary and Karen Galema, and Msgr. Ed Lechtenberg, Allamakee County Conservation Board members Dennis Blocker, Marilyn Clark, Jeanie Carroll, Dennis Koenig, Bill Moody and past members of the board, Allamakee County Supervisors Larry Schellhammer, Dennis Koenig, Dan Byrnes and past Supervisors, Allamakee County Conservation staff, Director James Janett, Assistant Director Jarrod Olson, Naturalist Ross Geerdes, Office Manager Jackie Jellings, and Allamakee County Conservation Foundation Board members Dennis Blocker, Jeanie Carroll, David Duncklee, James Janett, Gary Krapfl, Jane M. Regan, Clem Schulte, Bill Shafer and Larry Schellhammer."

Janett continued, “I think the hardest part of the project was maintaining the continuity of 16 years through numerous members of the Board of Supervisors who shared the dream and made it happen. This is a beginning. We will continue to grow and develop programs. Thank you for continued support.”
Dr. Raleigh Buckmaster gave the background of the R.J. McElroy Trust's involvement with the project through a major matching grant challenge which set the stage for additional grants and donations. He praised R.J. McElroy, Robert Buckmaster and Msgr. Ed Lechtenberg for being people of passion, perseverance and faith. He stated, “This building is a portal. It is an invitation to young and old alike to embrace the past. It will allow us to engage the present and frame our future. We have been the beneficiaries in many forms of this area. In addition, all of you here have helped to create an opportunity to help future generations to better understand and appreciate not only the Driftless but our entire ecosystem, to help these young minds to engage and explore the wonders of the world.”

He continued on with a personal statement about preservation and nature, saying, “Art Buchwald said, ‘At times we treat this planet of ours like we have a spare one in the trunk'. Well, we don’t.’’ He then concluded, “We have a strong tradition of baseball and softball in this area, so you know that every inning has a top and a bottom. Just remember 'Nature bats last'.”

Jane Regan, fundraising co-chair and Mississippi River Parkway Commission member stated, “Allamakee County is a special place. People from across the country and across the world came here through RAGBRAI and the Great River Rumble. We have a treasure here that we have cherished. We have a story to tell to the traveling visitors. The scenic byways are the roads people choose to travel. This Center will be the legacy we will leave. Our children and grandchildren will add to this and build upon it. Belief and perseverance have made it happen.”

Finally, Msgr Ed Lechtenberg offered a blessing to the project, “Rejoice, here our  children will have their minds enlarged and opened to something that I never even dreamt about as a child. They will have their minds expanded about why it is so beautiful in this area.”

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