Seeing a Few Sights of Omaha

After a good night’s sleep from seeing Iowa towns like Des Moines and Ames, I made my way back into Nebraska to see the last place on my Midwest tour – Omaha. Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha is home to close to 447,000 people and sits on the banks of the Missouri River. Although there were cool things I saw in the capital city of Lincoln, Omaha had its own share of visit-worthy places I wanted to check out before heading home.

Upon arriving in town after a two-hour drive, the first stop I went to was the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Spanning 3000 feet long and crossing the Missouri River, this bridge links the cities of Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

One super cool activity that can be done here is standing in both Nebraska and Iowa at the same time – and that I did!

Although it was a weekday morning, there was still a constant stream of foot traffic here. Many folks were getting their morning run in, while others simply came to see this piece of American engineering. This bridge has probably the best view of the Missouri River here in town! Signs placed all around served to educate visitors about the history of the river, the bridge’s origins, and so forth.

Missouri River in Omaha

Bob Kerrey Bridge educational panel

Before heading into downtown Omaha, I stopped briefly at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center, located right next to the Bob Kerrey and run by the National Park Service. As the name suggests, this place is the headquarters of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail system, which stretches through eleven states(with Omaha being a stop!).

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center.

Although most of the building is office space used by the National Park Service, the first floor had several exhibits that talked about Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Venturing across the United States in an effort to map out and study the west, this journey took over two years back in the early 1800s. Photos and maps displayed here gave me a good clue as to the places the explorers passed through. There were also a few interactive activities that make this a good family-friendly stop. A gift shop sold Lewis and Clark themed merchandise, as well as NPS hats and other souvenirs.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center

When doing my trip planning, I saw that Union Pacific had their headquarters in downtown Omaha, and I stopped there briefly, wanting to see if there were tours available or exhibits on display.

Union Pacific headquarter building
The headquarters of Union Pacific.

My advice: not really worth stopping by unless you know someone there that can show you around. There weren’t tours, and the gift shop was disappointing. Pretty much it was just a typical multi-story office building.

From there, it was off to my next stop, the Durham Museum, a railroad museum located inside the city’s former Union Station.

Durham Museum
The Durham Museum.

Now this place is much more interesting! Built in 1931, Union Station quickly became a hub of activity, with 1.5 million passengers passing thru in its first year. Various rail lines brought people in and out of this station. However, starting in the mid-50s, rail service began to stop running thru Omaha, and the station was shuttered and turned into a museum in the 70s.

Not just any boring museum, the station’s interior has been well preserved, and is now a main focal point of this place! From the still-operating soda fountain bar to the ticket counter now serving as a gift shop, it almost felt as though I stepped back in time.

Durham Museum Great Hall
The great hall inside the Durham Museum. Look at that architecture!

Behind the Great Hall were several exhibits talking about the history of the station.

Durham Museum
Various artifacts from the station’s heyday are displayed.

Downstairs, several train cars were on display. Fully open to climb onboard, it was cool seeing how rail transportation was like back in the day.

rail cars inside a railroad museum
Pretty much all the cars were open, allowing for a glimpse into the days of rail travel.

Honestly, many of the seats inside these cars are much more comfortable than those on today’s commercial airplanes!

Durham Museum

Durham Museum

There was also a steam locomotive as well as an Omaha streetcar on display.

Durham Museum

Durham Museum Streetcar

Although a whole exhibit section and model train display was down here as well, I had to get going since my parking meter was about to run out of time, 10 minutes away back at Union Pacific’s headquarters. When I was writing this post, however, I discovered that there was free parking at the museum, so when you go, don’t make the same mistake that I did!

Durham Museum Great Hall
The Durham Museum is a must-see while in Omaha.

After lunch at Panera Bread was my last stop in town, Nebraska Furniture Mart. Living in Dallas, we have a huge NFM, which is also the biggest store in Texas. However, Nebraska Furniture Mart got their start in..you guessed it, Nebraska. I was curious to see how good(or bad) the home store would be.

Nebraska Furniture Mart
The home store of Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Founded right here in Omaha in 1937, what started as a family business has now grown to four locations in four states. The company is currently owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

This location is made up of three buildings. The main showroom has all sorts of furniture for sale. Everything from lamps to beds can be found here!

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior
Think of a Rooms To Go store and make it several times bigger, and you’ve got NFM Omaha.

Walking around, I was slightly disappointed. With low ceilings, and not as much energy as the Texas store, it would have been easy to mix up the two had it not been for the name that served as the obvious giveaway.

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior
No second floor, but there is a basement!

The appliances and electronics building, right next door, had gizmos like cameras, computers, and dryers. A Subway restaurant here allowed you to take a break when you got a bit tired of looking for a new washer.

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior

IMG_1432

The last place was Mrs. B’s Clearance Center. Also started by Rose Blumkin, the founder of NFM, this is an outlet type store selling floor samples and various clearance items.

Mrs. B's
Mrs. B’s.

There was an ample selection of products, and a constant stream of people coming in and out. One thing to keep in mind about Mrs. B’s – all sales are final.

Mrs. B's
One giant outlet store.

All in all, although it didn’t come close to the Texas location in terms of size or people, the home store still had lots of merchandise and friendly sales associates. It was interesting seeing how this huge store many know of in Texas had humble roots right here in the Midwest.

Nebraska Furniture Mart Logo
Although I didn’t walk out with a new sofa or some rugs, it was still cool seeing NFM’s roots!

From there, it was off to the airport for my flight back home. It had been nice seeing Omaha, and what it had to offer. Although I didn’t get to visit places like the Old Market, an area in downtown filled with dining and shopping options, it was still cool checking out some of the places that make up the “Gateway to the West”.

Until next time, Nebraska!

Ames: Home of Iowa State University

After finishing up seeing places like John Deere’s plant and the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines, I headed off for the college town of Ames, located about 38 miles to the north. Ames, with a population of over 60,000, is home to the largest university in the state- Iowa State University.

Iowa State University

Founded in 1858, Iowa State has been around for 160 years! The school got its start as a land-grant university under the Morrill Act. Although ISU started off focusing on farming and agriculture experimentation, it grew over the years and today offers more than 100 undergraduate majors. Distinctions that were picked up along the way include the birthplace of the first electronic digital computer, and being part of the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for the development of the atomic bomb. The school nickname, the Cyclones, has been around since 1895. After a high number of cyclones(what is now called tornadoes) devastated Iowa that year, ISU’s football team had a 36-0 win over Northwestern State. The press put two and two together, and Iowa State and the Cyclones have been associated ever since.

Arriving on campus, I parked in the east parking deck, which worked out well since no permit was needed in the evening time. From there, I began checking out the many buildings that make up this 1,813-acre campus. The first place I explored was the Gerdin Business Building, home to the Ivy College of Business.

Gerdin Business Building

One of the newer buildings on campus, the atmosphere and environment inside were pretty positive. It felt like a great place for learning and studying in pursuit of an accounting, finance, or other business degree. The interior setup reminded me a bit of my own school, UT Dallas.

Gerdin Business Building
The hallways of the Gerdin Business Building.

As I always do when visiting a school, I went into a few of their classrooms and lecture halls. ISU has a pretty standard setup, although their lecture halls are rather big compared to UTD. I am not a fan of large class sizes since you get much less attention as a student, but that seems to be the case at the majority of public universities wherever you go.

Gerdin Business Building Lecture Hall
A typical lecture hall.

The Memorial Union was my next stop, and is home to the school’s student union.

Memorial Union at Iowa State
The Memorial Union.

Inside, you can find everything from a bookstore packed with Cyclone merchandise, to a food court, and even a bowling alley! Although it was pretty dead when I went, I imagine this place gets pretty packed during the school year. Upon walking in, signs pointed the way to a hotel, so I went to ask one of the student workers about its whereabouts. It turned out there indeed was one, but it has since been closed. Nevertheless, I thought that was pretty cool as it was my first time seeing a hotel on university grounds.

Iowa State University Memorial Union
Walking down the hallways of the Memorial Union. School history and pictures line the walls.

Student life seems to be a big part of this university, and there certainly were many activities that could be done here at the Memorial Union. In addition, there were also quite a few areas where you could just sit somewhere comfortable and knock out homework.

Speaking of student life, Katie, an ISU alumna, had this to say about her time here: “I was lucky to spend four great years at Iowa State. Ames was a true college town – bustling during the school year, and quiet during the summer. The college and its students are the heartbeat of the town. I remember plenty of cold days walking to class in the snow – bundled up, fighting the wind, but somehow not really minding it. Iowa State is one of the Land Grant Universities, which means (among other things) there is lots of green space and the historic buildings are well maintained to reflect the periods in which they were built. I always tell people that it’s almost surprising to find such a beautiful place in the midst of Midwestern farmland. Weekend nights (starting Friday after class) were spent on Welch Avenue. Serious social scene!”

Iowa State University Cy Mascot
Cy the Cardinal, the official mascot of Iowa State. He can be seen at pep rallies and school events, and statues of him can be found around campus!

Katie mentioned something that I loved about here – all the green scenery. While walking thru campus, it felt like I was in a gigantic park. With plenty of trees and places to spread out, it gave off a very relaxing and calming feeling.

Iowa State Campus

On the west side of campus, I checked out the engineering buildings. Engineering(along with agriculture) are some of the oldest departments in the university. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has their Ames Laboratory on campus, the only one of its kind!

Black Engineering Building - Iowa State University

Iowa State Engineering sign

The classrooms inside were much more old-school, but still looked like a great environment for learning.

Iowa State Engineering Classroom
An engineering school classroom. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a chalkboard!

Before heading to check out the athletic complex, I swung by to see the Parks Library. This modern learning commons didn’t have many people inside at the time, but I can almost say for certain during the school year it’s a busy place. I didn’t go upstairs, but I’m sure that there were plentiful amounts of books and other information contained here for pretty much any major on campus.

picture of the iowa state parks library
The Parks Library.

Since it was a bit too far to walk, I decided to drive to Jack Trice Stadium, home of the Iowa State Cyclones football team. Located on the far southeast side of campus, Jack Trice opened in 1975 and boasts a seating capacity of 61,500. It’s not as big as Memorial Stadium at the University of Nebraska, but looked to be very well-designed.

Although Katie lives in Texas now, she still cheers on the Cyclones, and said of a typical game day here: “During football season, Saturdays were spent at Jack Trice. Tailgaters from across the state would show up hours in advance and set up camp – tents, grills, radios…you name it! The tailgates went on for blocks and blocks; young and old celebrating their beloved Cyclones.” This didn’t surprise me, especially being that ISU is part of the Big 12 Conference. For those stopping by here, you can grab free posters and game schedules at the Jacobson Athletic Building, which is connected to the stadium.

Wrapping up my visit to ISU, I have to say that based on what I saw, I left with a very good impression of the Cyclone Nation. The combination of buildings, green scenery, athletics and really just the environment in general made me think that Iowa State University would be an outstanding campus to get your education. That being said, if you aren’t a fan of the cold weather, you probably won’t like it here very much. The winters in Iowa can be frigid and then some. Climate aside though, this place gets two thumbs up from me. Did I mention for some reason, I really liked their school logo too?

 

The chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives

A City Surrounded by Farmland- Visiting Des Moines, Iowa

After a day of exploring Lincoln, Nebraska, I was ready the next morning to go see the other state I planned to visit on my Midwest trip – Iowa. Another place labeled by many as a “flyover state”, I chose to visit its capital city, Des Moines. Located close to the center of the state, it is Iowa’s most populated city. In fact, Des Moines is the only city in the Hawkeye State with a population of over 200,000!

After a nearly two-hour drive, passing by pretty much nothing but cornfields and farmland, I arrived in town. The first destination I went to was the John Deere Des Moines Works factory, located in the city of Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines.

John Deere Des Moines Works

I took a tour of this massive plant, which I had arranged in advance. Tours are available to the public, and can be arranged by following the instructions on John Deere’s website. Although photography was prohibited, the tour was amazing! Our group of around ten people started off watching a film in a “briefing” room, followed by getting onboard a small tractor with attached seats in the back. We then went around to pretty much every building on the lot, seeing how equipment like sprayers and cotton harvesters are made first-hand.

John Deere Cotton Harvester
A cotton harvester module.

From the assembly line to the painting booth where the famous John Deere green is applied, it was a cool 1.5 hours spent seeing the work that goes into making these huge pieces of equipment.

John Deere Des Moines Works
This tour should be on your list of things to do here!

Leaving John Deere and after a nice lunch at a local pizza place, was the Iowa State Capitol.

Iowa State Capitol
The Iowa State Capitol.

Standing out immediately amongst the Des Moines skyline with its gold-covered dome, the capitol was built in 1886 at a cost of close to $2.9 million dollars. It is the only five domed state capitol in the country.

Inside, many parts of the building were open to the public for exploration, including the Governor and Lieutenant Governor’s offices!

Iowa Governor's Office
The Governor’s office.
Iowa Lt. Governor's Office
The Lieutenant Governor’s office.

On the map I got from the information desk, it showed that even the Secretary of State and the Auditor of State’s office was open for exploration. What’s to see there?, I thought. It turned out there are a few items unique to their offices that makes it worth the stop. In the Secretary of State’s space, there was the Iowa Constitution, while the state auditor had a historic safe that they let me check out.

Iowa State Constitution
The Iowa State Constitution.
Iowa State Auditor's Safe
This safe door was heavy!

Much like the rest of the country, Iowa has both a House and a Senate, and I got to see their chambers. Although the architecture of both of these chambers were not as grand as those of Nebraska, they were still very nice. Both the floor and gallery were open.

The chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives
The chamber of the House of Representatives.
Iowa Senate Chamber
The Senate’s working space.

One of the last places I saw here was the State Law Library, located on the second floor. Gorgeous would be an understatement, as the combination of five floors accessed through a spiral staircase makes this one of the grandest libraries I have seen to date.

Iowa Law Library
Libraries can’t get much nicer than this design-wise!

Although a guided tour of the Capitol was available, which (of several destinations) included a visit up to the dome, I had to get going to my next stop. However, if you have time I’d go for walking the 130 steps up there!

My last stop in “DSM” was the State Historical Museum of Iowa, located just west of the Capitol.

State Historical Museum of Iowa
The State Historical Museum of Iowa.

At first, I didn’t know that this museum was so close to the Capitol, for I would have just left my car in their free parking lot. After a few minutes of circling around trying to find a spot, I eventually found some free roadside parking, which was surprising considering there were meters everywhere else.

The museum was free of charge, and talked mainly about the story of Iowa.

State Historical Museum of Iowa

State Historical Museum of Iowa

The importance of agriculture to the state’s economy was well-mentioned, as there were a couple different exhibits talking about food production and the importance of Iowa in feeding the world.

State Historical Museum of Iowa

IMG_1310

There was also a section talking about the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI for short. An annual bike ride going from one side of the state to the other, it is the largest and longest bike-touring event in the world. Artifacts from previous years rides were on display here, and display panels provided me with a detailed history as to how the event got started, equipment used, and so on and so forth.

IMG_1306

State Historical Museum of Iowa

Did you know Iowa had coal mines? I didn’t! A section here talked about the history of this often-dangerous job, as well as life in the mines.

State Historical Museum of Iowa Coal Miner Exhibit
Mining was(and still is) a hard and dangerous profession.

All in all, the State Historical Museum of Iowa was nice, although I will have to say the content can get pretty dry at times. It might have just been me being a bit exhausted from all the sightseeing, but some of the stuff just wasn’t too interesting to read through. That being said, this place does provide you with a well-rounded glimpse into Iowa’s past, present, and future.

Although I didn’t get to see everything in Des Moines, due to me heading off to visit Iowa State University in Ames next, many of the highlights were covered. Every state in the country has some significance, and I certainly learned quite a bit about what Iowa had to offer and the highlights of their capital city!