The Jefferson Highway Association, organized in 1915, has 220 miles of paved roads throughout Iowa. Early dreamers envisioned this historic border-to-border, north-to-south route for car and freight travel as the automobile came into widespread use. During its early days, the Jefferson Highway followed wagon trails and dirt and gravel roads that took travelers through every town along the route. In Iowa, Northwood sits at the north end of the route, and Lamoni sits at the south end.
The route is named for President Thomas Jefferson, who called it the Palm to Pine Highway. The route begins in the north in Canada in the pine trees, and it ends in the palms in New Orleans, Louisiana. Highways 65 and 69 are highlights of the Jefferson Highway in Iowa. In 2016, this route was designated an Iowa Heritage Byway, meaning travelers who drive this route find themselves enjoying two historic routes simultaneously: the Jefferson Highway and one of Iowa’s designated heritage byways. Several charming towns will greet you along the way as you travel the Jefferson Highway through Iowa.
1. Northwood, Iowa
Northwood is a charming town that sits near the Iowa-Minnesota border. The Old Creamery Museum, Machinery Museum, and Pixley Log House are where history comes to life. My favorite historic site in Northwood is the Swensrud School. The schoolhouse sits behind the Worth County Historical Society Main Museum. The classroom is set up to reflect how it would have looked in the 1870s. These attractions are open seasonally, and I would advise visiting their websites and calling to schedule tours. The folks that offer tours in these historical sites are often eager to share their treasures with visitors.
The city park is an excellent place to stretch your legs and take a nice walk. Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill is a fine place to fill your belly before you travel south. Iowa farmland surrounds Northwood, and it’s an opportunity to view the wide-open skies that Iowa offers.
2. Kensett, Iowa
Kensett is home to one of Iowa’s 99 Freedom Rocks, the Worth County Freedom Rock. You can spot this incredible work of art in front of the town’s community center at 300 Willow Street. Community members worked for The Kensett Community Church to be included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. The significance of this church is that it was designed by F.W. Kinney, who is one of Iowa’s Historic Architects. The church has a tin interior and has documentation of membership from 1895 until the church closed its doors in 1997.
3. Mason City, Iowa
Mason City is home to the Park Inn Hotel, the last known hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Plan to spend a night in this charming hotel that sits in the heart of the town. Central Park offers a place to put up your feet and enjoy nature. The River City Sculptures on Parade offers a 1.5-mile walk that features several incredible works of art.
Music Man Square is the famed home of Mason City’s own Meredith Willson, composer of The Music Man. Meredith’s Boyhood Home is also open for tours. History comes to life in River City, as you learn how Meredith Willson and Frank Lloyd Wright have impacted the city through the years. The Jefferson Highway runs through the heart of town, offering travelers an opportunity to see the town from their windshields. Enjoy dinner at Northwestern Steakhouse, one of Iowa’s award-winning steakhouses. You can easily spend three full days exploring Mason City, so plan accordingly.
Editor’s Note: Consider Sara’s picks for Architecture And Art In Mason City, Iowa: 9 Things To See here.
4. Rockwell, Iowa
Traveling south on the Jefferson Highway as you depart Mason City, you will come to Rockwell, Iowa. This charming community is home to one of the world’s largest tractor pulls, the North Iowa Nationals, a National Tractor Pullers Association (NTPA) event. Linn Grove Park offers camping, a golf course, a swimming pool nearby, and a tennis court. Grab a sandwich to go from Jonesy’s Stop n Shop at 104 1st St North.
5. Hampton, Iowa
Carnegie Library enthusiasts will love driving into Hampton. The Carnegie Public Library is a library that the community treasures for the historical value that it has to offer. The town’s Harriman-Nielsen Historic Farm was added to the National Register of Historic Places in August of 1987. This site is part of the Franklin County Historical Museum. It’s also no secret to Iowans that the Franklin County Fair, hosted here, is one of the top fairs in the country. The events continue, as each fall a festival is held celebrating the harvest, tours of the buildings, demonstrations, vendors, and the like. Beeds Lake State Park offers camping, hiking, fishing, and stargazing. Depending on the time of year you visit, you can easily spend a half day to a full day in Hampton.
6. Iowa Falls, Iowa
As you travel south on the Jefferson Highway, the landscape continues to change. Iowa Falls is known as Iowa’s Scenic City. The town of Iowa Falls sits along the beautiful bluffs of the Iowa River Greenbelt. With more than 100 acres of parks, Iowa Falls is full of scenery, and it’s the ideal spot to get out of the car and take a short walk. Be sure to grab a bag of popcorn at Iowa’s oldest running popcorn stand. Iowa Falls has had a popcorn stand since the 1870s. Visit the corner of Stevens and Estes for your popcorn treat when visiting Iowa Falls. While enjoying your popcorn, take a stroll on the swinging bridge and enjoy a view of the Iowa River below.
7. Indianola, Iowa
Indianola is home to the National Balloon Museum and the U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame. This charming Iowa community hosts the annual National Balloon Classic. With close to 100 hot air balloons, the sky is loaded with brilliant colors and shapes. Nine days of every summer, skilled pilots take to the incredible Iowa skies, so summertime brings a carpet of color in the Iowa fields as well as the air above them. This festival begins at the end of July and runs into the first part of August. Summer is an ideal time for driving the Jefferson Highway, as the Iowa landscape bursts in color. While in Indianola, history buffs will want to stroll through the Warren County Historical Museum. Visit their website to confirm their hours of operation and call them to schedule a tour, if needed.
8. Osceola, Iowa
As you drive the Jefferson Highway, you will begin to realize that this historic route is all tied to transportation, from the automobile to boats, balloons, and even trains. Osceola is where you can find a Prairie-style train depot. This historic depot was built and opened by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in 1907. One century later, the city of Osceola purchased the depot, and it underwent a multi-year restoration. The depot was completed through a lot of teamwork, and it continues to be in use today. The depot is another fun find along the Jefferson Highway. Like many other buildings along the route, the depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. You can visit this historic depot at the corner of Main and East Clay Streets.
9. Lamoni, Iowa
Lamoni was home to Joseph Smith III, the first president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, now the Community of Christ. Liberty Hall was built in 1881, and it was the center of social and religious life. It was a gathering spot for folks in Lamoni during the late 1800s. Liberty Hall is a premier restoration site listed on the National Register of Historic Homes. Here, visitors can learn about Midwestern Victorian culture and the story behind this influential religious movement. Several Smith family artifacts have been given to the Liberty Hall Historic Site. Many local families have also donated items that are true to the time period. As with many historic sites, volunteers keep this site open to the public.
Nine Eagles State Park is nearby and offers a scenic valley. This state park is one of southern Iowa’s most beautiful parks. Hiking, picnicking, fishing, and camping are offered. Lamoni is a great stop where you can incorporate history and outdoor activities into your visit.
Jefferson Highway Pro Tips
Many of these towns have one or more buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. If time permits, you will want to stop into their visitor centers and learn about any current events that are on the calendar during your visit. These communities all have pride in what they offer and they all offer what we call “Iowa Nice.” You can drive this route in Iowa in one day, or you can spend an entire week exploring this historic autoroute.
The Jefferson Highway is a fun drive. It offers something different around every bend and curve in the road. Festivals bring these towns to life during all 12 months of the year. History buffs will fall in love with every town and may find something that even the locals don’t know about, as the history runs deep. The Jefferson Highway will lure you in, and you will find yourself traveling through Iowa, over and over.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Jefferson Highway Association here.