Volunteer Capitol

Oct 12, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Fourteen miles upstream from Rock Island at the head of the Rock Island Rapids, sits the small town of LeClaire, Iowa, home of several restaurants and gas stations. Its claim to fame is that Buffalo Bill lived here briefly as a child.

Quite different from the 1850s, when LeClaire could boast eighteen dry good stores, a bank, four hotels, five churches, a plow factory, a sawmill, and two flour mills, as well as a lyceum and debating society. As an important river port, LeClaire was home to the famous Van Sant Boatyard, as well as several well-known river pilots. Forty to fifty rapids pilots waited along the bank to be hired on to steer steamboats through the treacherous Rock Island Rapids in the Mississippi River.

During the winter season when the Mississippi was frozen, however, it was a different story. From late November until early March, LeClaire might have been able to claim the title of Volunteer Capital, had there been a Guinness Book of World Records then.

Not that the citizens of LeClaire were keener on volunteering than any other town. But when steam boating and rafting shut down for the season, as many as four to five hundred rafters, boat hands, and roustabouts chose LeClaire to winter over, a rough and restless gang of men.

During the dark winters they had plenty to drink and nothing to do except exchange crude stories or tear up the town. Solid citizens of LeClaire were afraid the choice might be the later. Mothers looked at their daughters, and worried. Men looked at their wives, and worried.

You never saw so many box suppers, church socials, Sunday school picnics and hikes, as well as lectures, debates, reading circles, plays put on by eager volunteers.

Had the Panic of 1857, and then the Civil War, not brought all this to a halt, LeClaire may well have become the victim of a Sunday School outing gone awry, or, it might today be the culture capitol of the universe.

As is, only pieces of culture are left, such as Sneaky Pete’s, a bar and restaurant where the salad bar sits in an old bathtub and where the bartender will volunteer to cut the bottom half of your tie off if you enter wearing one, and tack it up on the rafters with a thousand or so other half ties.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.