DUBUQUE, Iowa—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.