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Buffalo Bill museum showcases his Iowa roots along the Mississippi River in LeClaire

The museum showcases the history behind America's first greatest showman "Buffalo Bill" and takes you on a journey of the history of early Mississippi River ports.

LE CLAIRE, Iowa — The great American showman "Buffalo Bill Cody" may be best associated with the Western frontier, cowboys and cattle drives. But Cody's story started along the Mississippi River before heading West.

Buffalo Bill was born William L. Cody in rural LeClaire in the Iowa Territory on Feb. 26, 1846. 

Buffalo Bill became one of America's first superstars, producing Western-themed "Cowboy and Indian" shows and taking them on tour around the United States.

To honor his ties to LeClaire and Iowa, a privately-run museum called the "Buffalo Bill Museum" was established in 1957. In 1971, the collection moved to its present location and has expanded a couple of times since its opening.

The museum is located at 199 N. Front Street, LeClaire, Iowa, right along the Mississippi riverfront.

Although it bears the Buffalo Bill name, only about a quarter of the space in the museum is dedicated to his life story. It tells Cody's story through photos, mementos such as his guns and show posters, and a couple short films.

Just 15 minutes north of the LeClaire museum, sits the "Cody Homestead." The home was not the birthplace of William, but rather his boyhood home where he lived from the ages of 1 to 4.

William's father Isaac Cody was hired to build the limestone home in 1847 for a senator, who ended up passing away before he could move in, so the family was able to live there for a few years.

The Cody Homestead was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in early 1974. 

Visitors are able to tour the home as it is outfitted with furnishings and supplies from the mid-1800s. The home is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., April through October. Admission is $2 for adults, free for kids age 16 and under.

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Back in LeClaire, Buffalo Bill may be the popular name that brings guests in the door, but the museum really includes much more regional history.

"The museum has really evolved into a regional history museum. And so we have a lot of history, river history, the history of the pioneers who came here," Bob Schiffke, executive director of the Buffalo Bill Museum, said.

Early American pioneers came and stayed in LeClaire because of the Mississippi River, establishing the town as an important steamboat port.

The town was home to many riverboat captains, who were hired to steer boats through the Rock Island Rapids, a particularly dangerous part of the river back then.

Everywhere visitors look in the museum, there is an ode to the river, with paintings and replicas of steamboats all over!

One of the museum's special attractions is an 1890 steamboat named the "Lone Star." 

"The one we have now was built in 1890 and ran until 1967, for 77 years, which is by far a record for a wooden-hulled steamboat of any kind," Schiffke said.

The boat itself almost wasn't saved. It sat on the riverbank for 40 years without a protective cover, rotting away.

The museum raised almost $1 million to build an enclosure, which was completed in 2008.

The "Lone Star" has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and is the only surviving wooden-hulled vessel of that design. The boat has been restored for visitor tours.

"They can go through the whole boat, the machinery is still on it. It's pretty much like it was when they brought it here in 1968," Schiffke said.

The museum also spotlights many other local antiquities such as Native American artifacts, LeClaire's first fire truck, a collection of women's clothing from the Civil War era to the 1920s, and an early 1900s one-room schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse exhibit was added in 2018 and is interactive for visitors.

"They can look at the books from that time and write on the slates at their desks or write on the blackboards. So they enjoy it and maybe learn a little bit at the same time," Schiffke said.

In more recent history, the museum features a replica of the office of LeClaire native James Ryan, who is credited as the inventor of the flight recorder.

The museum houses early prototypes of those "Black Boxes."

If you plan on visiting the museum, Schiffke recommends on spending one to three hours there, "depending on how much you read!"

They are open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors over 65, and $1 for children age 6-16.

So while the popular name may draw guests in, they will be pleasantly surprised with so much more!

"The name is misleading…nevertheless it does bring people in who know something about Buffalo Bill," Schiffke said.

Previously on "Daytrippin'"

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