Last week I shared my discovery of a few fantastic free adventures in Dubuque. This week I want to share my visits to two Dubuque museums. As best I can tell, I visited half the museums in Dubuque, a community of 60,000.

Mathias Ham Historic Site

It’ll be no surprise to longtime readers that I found an early home of the Dubuque area. Old homes converted into period museums are fast becoming something I visit in the locations I stay. It hasn’t been strategic. I simply find them informative of the early history plus, generally, low cost.

To my mind: a perfect combination.

The Mathias Ham Historic Site is more than just the Mathias Ham House. Three other historic structures now reside on the property. And two historically-accurate structures built on the property round out the experience of the early years in Dubuque.

Mathias Ham House

You enter at the back door which leads to the gift shop which was the original kitchen. The signage wasn’t great for understanding this (or for figuring out where to park) but if you go to the front door, you’ll find it locked. So it is easy to figure out.

Victoria era home.

Back door of Dubuque’s Mathias Ham House and entrance to the gift shop (and original kitchen).

After purchasing your ticket, the period-costumed interpreter leads you outside and around the house. The first reason is to point out the boundaries of the original house and the expansion. The home with the expansion was completed in 1855 or 1856 (I saw both dates) and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

I wouldn’t have known the house was an original plus an extension if the tour guide hadn’t pointed it out. But once she did, it seemed so obvious. For starters, the stone on the back section (the original house) is different from the front section.

We walked to the front door and she unlocked it. Besides showing the stone on the outside, they want you to get the full experience of what it would’ve been like entering the house as a guest during the period.

By the size of the house, it is obvious Mathias Ham was a man of wealth. Once inside, though, I learned at the time of the expansion, Ham hit financial hardship. Not wanting to lower his social status, he had a few tricks up his sleeve for saving money.

Badger hole where miners slept.

Recreated Badger Hole onsite at the Mathias Ham Historic Site. 

For example, only the public rooms were wall-to-wall carpet. The bedrooms and other private rooms got rugs. Only the public areas were ornate. This included the high ceiling foyer. Guests would assume it was decorated in gold leaf. In fact, it is gold paint mixed with gold leaf because gold paint was must less expensive than gold leaf. Pretty crafty, right?

Like many period homes that converted to museums, the Ham house lived many lives in between, including as an office building. By the time they decided to make it a period museum, nothing original to the house—except a photo of the patriarch—remained or was recoverable.

The furnishings are period-appropriate, early Victorian, but I admit to being disappointed at finding nothing original to the Ham family.

The learning nuggets during my visit to the Ham House:

  • “Sleep tight.” On I guess, I would’ve thought the expression meant to be tucked in tight with the sheets and blankets tucked in around you. But, nope. Before boards held a mattress in the frame, ropes did the job. On a regular basis, the ropes needed tightening or the mattress would sag and make for an uncomfortable night’s sleep. Sleep tight comes from a good night’s sleep as a result of tight ropes.
  • Seashells were on display in the curio cabinet. It seemed ho-hum, no big deal. But I learned it was a big deal during the period because seashells signaled wealth. While one could collect seashells for free on a beach, having them meant you could afford a vacation to the beach to begin with.

Other Structures at Ham Historic Site

Once we toured the house, we stepped outside again for a tour of the other buildings.

  • The one-room school house built in the 1880s reminded me of the country schoolhouses I visited in Texas. The schoolhouse was originally located in Centralia, Iowa, 10 miles west of Dubuque.
  • The 1827 early settler’s log cabin is believed to be the oldest still-standing building in all of Iowa. That’s impressive. It comes with a great story, one where the city didn’t actually know the treasure they had because the cabin had been covered with other material.


    1827 early settler’s cabin.

  • The two recreated structures are a lead mine and a badger hole. I loved the story of the badger hole and, though in Iowa, this story relates to Wisconsin. Did you know that Wisconsin is the Badger State? It would be natural to think the name comes from the animal. In fact, it comes from miners. When new miners would get to an area, they put up a fast structure for sleeping and eating and then found time to build more livable housing such as a cabin. They created “badger holes” which were dug unto the earth (to take advantage of the natural insulation) and only rose a couple feet from ground level. Basically, shelter and not much more. When miners emerged from the shelter, people thought they looked like badgers emerging from their holes. So the Badger State means a lot of miners lived in Wisconsin. And lots of miners, particularly lead miners, lived in Iowa.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

For some reason, I didn’t pick this up looking at it from the outside (though I should have), but the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is as big as the name implies. For all intents and purposes, let’s call the place a museum complex.

Brochures for the National Mississippi River Museum.

Ticket and brochures from my visit. Plus a bag because, of course, I bought postcards to send to friends and to blog readers.

Two buildings, each with two floors, are the indoor part of the museum. Additionally, the quarter-mile walk outside between the two buildings is filled with more fun to see and do. So much, in fact, a ticket is good for two consecutive days. I didn’t see this on the website making it a bonus surprise to me.

History of the River

As the name suggests, the museum is dedicated to the Mississippi River. And this museum has it all, from the bugs and fish of the river to the early tools used to conquer it. I enjoyed the multi-disciplinary approach with side rooms running short informational films to hands-on displays, from readable timelines to things mounted overhead. Even though the place isn’t over packed, I admit to experiencing sensory overload. (That’s where the benefit of breaking it into days comes in handy.)

One of the informational films I watched was about canals. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers with their thousands of branches became a powerful and convenient way to transport goods and people. Construction on canals started as a way to connect various bodies of water and populated areas. And there were plans to pretty much blanket what is now the Midwestern US with canals. I had no idea. Never even heard of such a thing. Their popularity was short-lived however once the railroad came along.


You know how some things appeal to you more than others? Aquariums have never held much interest to me so I walked through these sections but didn’t stop much. That said, I found one gem in the fish section that tickled me.

Sting rays in a tank.

Tank of sting rays. My new friends. Photo taken from the second floor.

I pet a sting ray!

Okay, let me pause here to share a side benefit of RV life. At least this has turned out to be true for me. I find I worry a lot less about what people think or how I am perceived. I’ve pondered on this a lot because I cannot logically explain the shift. I simply know it to be true. At some point, I may write more about this not only because it has been a great surprise but also because I would like to understand it better.

I share this because I seemed to be the only adult petting sting rays. And I totally didn’t care that it was me and a bunch of kids.

Before you pet a sting ray, a sign instructs you to wash your hands. The funniest thing happens next. Nearly all of us, after washing our hands, reach for a paper towel. The employee says, “You don’t have to dry your hands.” Duh. Seconds later our hands are in a tank of water.

The sting rays swim around the tank and when they come near you, you extend your first two fingers and pet down their back. I was a bit squeamish at first. My hand was in the water but I was a little fearful of actually touching one. But my commitment to do things that scare me kicked in. So, finally I touched one as it swam by. After the first time, it was easier. They feel like wet velvet. Not slimy like fish.

I’m glad I did it. Secretly, I think the adults standing behind their children probably wanted to do it too.

Dredge Boat and Other Outdoor Exhibits

Boatyard Plaza at the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa.

Walking the history of boat making by the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works company.

I enjoyed the walk between the two buildings, particularly a section called Boatyard Plaza. You walk on a boardwalk beneath a timeline. The timeline lists boats built by the company, Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works, that formerly resided at the location. And even though it was just a list of name of boats, there was something about seeing the work of a company over decades—over more than a century—that I found moving.

Metal sculpture of Mark Twain at National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa.

My good buddy, Mark Twain.

Imagine the lives of each of those boats and where they traveled. Image the lives of the men who built the boats. And imagine the lives of the people who worked on the boats. The company made its last two boats in 1971.

And then guess who I ran into?

Nope, not a fellow RVer.

At the end of Boatyard Plaza, I ran into Mark Twain. No kidding. The famous Mississippi River writer himself. I found him reading one of his own books. If he wasn’t sizzling hot from the sun, I would’ve sat down to converse with him.

After snapping Mr. Twain’s picture, instead of heading into the second building, I followed the walkway out to the William M. Black steam powered dredge boat. An employee greeted me and provided a basic orientation of the space but I loved that you could wander around the boat on your own.

The William M. Black, built in 1934, served the US Army Corps of Engineers from 1935 to 1973 and worked on the Missouri River. Now it serves as part of the Mississippi River Museum and is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

A dredge boat moves through a waterway at a pace of 150 to 200 feet per hour. The front end grabs the dirt, silt and gravel from the bottom of the river. Then the materials are piped though the boat and spit out along the river bank at the back end of the boat. It’s a necessary task so other boats can get through the waterway without getting stuck.

Going to the Movie

William M Black Historic Landmark in Dubuque, Iowa.

Walking to the William M. Black Dredge Boat.

The museum’s theater features two movie options. Each one stays about six months and they rotate in and out on a quarterly basis. That means a new movie every three months. During my visit, a National Geographic film about meerkats showed as did Living in the Age of Airplanes narrated by Harrison Ford.

This is an add-on to your basic ticket so you only pay for what you want to watch. I heard the airplane one was amazing so I bought a ticket. For most of us, we grew up with air travel so we don’t give much thought to how relatively recent it is in the big picture of human existence. The film puts all of that into perspective. It was captivating.

The experience is like a true movie experience. You can purchase popcorn, drinks and candy to enjoy while you watch. With several showings a day, I found it a perfect middle of the day activity. It provided the chance to sit and to enjoy a midday snack (though there is a cafe if you want a more substantial meal).

Smithsonian Affiliation

Even before I arrived at the Dubuque National Mississippi River Museum, I learned something. A tag line on their website says they are an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute. I thought Smithsonian museums were only in Washington DC. Curious, I looked it up. Non-Smithsonian museums partner with the Smithsonian to share collections, exhibits and educational strategies. They are called Smithsonian Affiliate Museum but have only been around since 1996.

When I think Smithsonian, the other thing I think is free. Truly, it is a great treasure of the US that, when in Washington DC, fabulous art and history is available to every person equally, no matter the funds in your bank account. Before I looked up Smithsonian’s affiliate program, I was confused because the National Mississippi River and Aquarium in Dubuque is not free. Now we know.

I share this because there are 200 Smithsonian affiliate museums across the US. So, you might find yourself coming across the same tag line at a museum you are visiting.

I don’t know much about gods, but I think the river

Is a strong brown god–sullen, untamed and intractable.

TS Elliot

One post remains about my time in Dubuque. I went on a cave tour and I visited the Field of Dreams movie set. Can’t wait to share it.

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