The 99: What's Doing in Allamakee
Fields, flowers and farm buildings border the tasting room at Empty Nest Winery, five miles west of Waukon, and guests frequently spend hours enjoying the serene setting. In fact, after they first opened the winery in 2011, owners Pam and Dave Kruger found themselves surprised by visitors’ leisurely approach to sipping and sampling.
“People aren’t in a hurry... My husband and I have always farmed, and we’ve always kind of been in a hurry to get things done. We never sat around for hours enjoying a glass of wine,” Pam says, laughing. “A lot of people, that’s what they’re looking to do. They’ll sit out on the patio and taste wine for two or three hours, and they’re having a great time.”
Wine enthusiasts travel from as far as the Twin Cities, Des Moines and Galena to visit the Allamakee County winery, where most of the nearly 20 wine varieties are made with berries grown on the property. The Krugers do everything by hand, picking and fermenting whole raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, elderberries and other types of fruit that produce refreshing blends rich in color and flavor.
The pair started making wine when their four children finished school and moved away. They could no longer eat all the fruit grown on their farm, and they thought the berries might keep better in wine than in jams and jellies. Pam grew up watching her mother make dandelion wine, so she knew the basics, and once the Krugers got licensed, friends started buying bottles to serve at weddings and special events.
As demand grew, opening a tasting room seemed like a logical next step. Still, the Krugers didn’t expect their tasting room to become such a destination.
“I don’t think this business would have made it 10 or 15 years ago,” Pam says. “But now, the buying local idea is really catching on and it is so good for communities.”
In this scenic corner of northeast Iowa, new businesses are capitalizing on the region’s natural beauty and bounty. Allamakee County’s deep agricultural roots and scenic river landscapes – the Mississippi outlines the county’s eastern border – position it to thrive in a changing marketplace.
“We have seen an increase in the desire to buy local, and our visitors who come in the tourist season want to buy local, as well,” says Laura Olson, executive director of Allamakee County Economic Development & Tourism. “Our farmers’ markets are flourishing, and we have had quite a few local producers expand what they do – or even take the big step to start a business and go out on their own.”
Waukon, Lansing and Harpers Ferry host farmers’ markets from June through October. As more local ingredients become available, some restaurants are starting to source from regional producers, as well. Waukon’s WW Homestead Dairy, a family-run operation that also opened in 2011, sells to area cafes, Luther College and grocery stores between Dubuque and La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Liz Weighner came home to work at the dairy started by her father, Tom Weighner, and her mother’s cousin, Tom Walleser, after graduating from Iowa State University as a veterinarian. She says her family founded the business, in part, to give the younger generations a reason to come back to the farm. They also wanted more control over what they produced.
“We wanted to try something new and have a value-added product,” Weighner explains. “Regularly, when you’re dairy farming, you have the milk and they come pick it up and away it goes. You never see it again.”
At WW Homestead Dairy’s processing plant, visitors can peek through four windows and watch the family’s products being bottled and packaged. Some days, milk fills pints and gallons; other days, employees turn milk into cheese, butter and 40 flavors of ice cream. Guests can shop in the adjacent retail store and ice cream parlor, and arrange for full plant and farm tours by appointment.
“People find that there’s more than meets the eye from the outside of the building. They come in and just think they’re going to get ice cream, but then they realize that we actually make everything here,” Weighner says. “They can meet the farmers and see where we make the products, and then we put things right on our shelves. These are some of the freshest local products around, and I think people really enjoy that.”
The dairy’s location, off Highway 76 along one of the main routes into Waukon, makes it a convenient stop for travelers who want to pick up picnic supplies and head to one of the Allamakee County’s stunning parks. Effigy Mounds, Iowa’s only national monument, is near the Mississippi River about 20 miles southeast of Waukon. Hiking trails in the 2,500-acre park wind through oak, sugar maple, shagbark hickory and ash trees surrounding nearly 200 ancient burial and ceremonial mounds.
Nearly 20 miles southwest of Waukon, Postville has several city parks with picnic shelters, grills, playground equipment and walking trails. The city’s restaurants range from Club 51, a mainstay with classic burgers, to newer additions such as Taste of Mexico.
Several campgrounds and boat landings dot the valleys along the Upper Iowa and Mississippi Rivers in northeastern Allamakee County, where canoeing, kayaking, tubing, fishing and hiking are popular all season long. Hungry travelers frequently stop at the City Meat Market in tiny New Albin for jerky, beef sticks and mouthwatering cuts of meat. Down the road in Lansing, the picnic tables and walking trails at Mount Hosmer City Park overlook Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin from a bluff 450 feet above the Mississippi.
Mount Hosmer is a favorite of Nick and Melissa Hammell, who have operated the Safe House Saloon in downtown Lansing for five years. They serve from-scratch hot wings, pizzas and appetizers for their guests, and they’ve built an impressive craft beer menu featuring 12 rotating taps and more than 50 bottles.
In addition to some of the most buzz-worthy brands in beer, such as Founders Brewing Co., Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Evil Twin Brewing, Goose Island and Prairie Artisan Ales, the pub carries regional beers from Decorah’s Toppling Goliath and Coralville’s Backpocket Brewing.
“You don’t usually go to a small town, walk into a bar and find beer that you can’t find in a big city,” says Nick.
Just outside of Hammell’s small town, a big new project will soon educate visitors on Allamakee County and the surrounding “Driftless Area.” This region of bluffs, rivers and rolling hills extends into corners of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and features rugged landscapes untouched by the glaciers that leveled other areas. In 2012, the National Scenic Byways Program provided a $1.3 million grant to support the development of a Driftless Area visitor center south of Lansing.
The new center will be located along the Driftless Area Scenic Byway, a 100-mile route that crisscrosses Allamakee County as it travels through Lansing, Waukon, Harpers Ferry, Postville and other communities.
Back at Empty Nest Winery, Pam Kruger distributes Driftless Area maps to her tasting room guests. The brochures outline restaurants, fishing spots, parks, attractions and more.
“The maps list about 100 things to see, just right around in this area,” she says. There really is a lot around here to do.”
Some businesses are open seasonally; call ahead for hours and information.
City Meat Market, New Albin: 563.544.4236
Driftless Area Scenic Byway, Allamakee County: IowaByways.org/driftless-area
Empty Nest Winery, Waukon: EmptyNestWinery.com :: 563.568.2758
Old Rossville Store, Rossville: 563.535.7272
Peake Orchards, Waukon: Visit Peake Orchards on Facebook
Safe House Saloon, Lansing: SafeHouseSaloon.com :: 563.538.4228
Steel Cow Gallery, Waukon: SteelCowGallery.com :: 866.670.2477
WW Homestead Dairy, Waukon: WWHomesteadDairy.com :: 563.568.4950
Blue Heron Inn, Lansing: BlueHeronIowa.com :: 563.568.7686
Lansing Loft, Lansing: LansingIowaLoft.com :: 563.419.2115
Little House on the Farm, Postville: LittleHouseOnTheFarm.com :: 563.864.7304
Stoney Creek Inn, Waukon: StoneyCreekInn.com :: 563.568.2220