Rock Island, Ill., gets its name from the 946-acre hunk of rock in the middle of the Mississippi River occupied by the Rock Island Arsenal. Before the island came under the jurisdiction and administration of the U.S. Army in 1809, it belonged to the Sauk and Mesquakie tribes and was the birthplace of Blackhawk (1767-1838), the Sauk leader for whom the Blackhawk War (1831-32) was named.
The City of Rock Island was platted in 1835. But it did not take off until 1856, when the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad built the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi, helping to foster industries such as the John Deere Company. Deere’s invention of a self-cleaning plow changed the landscape not only of Illinois but also much of the agriculture of North America. The success of the Deere plow, the establishment of a federal arsenal on the “rock” in 1862 and the railroad link between Illinois and Iowa helped the city of Rock Island expand and flourish.
The Rock Island Arsenal is the only remaining U.S. Army arsenal in the United States, and it is a beehive of activity employing about 6,000 workers who produce something that is presumably necessary. The Getaway Guys were afraid to ask what it produces for fear of being detained as agents of a foreign power. While getting on the island was easy, getting off might have been delayed by their being too inquisitive. (They were not all that curious anyway.) Their focus was the Arsenal Museum, which proved to be a handgun- and rifle-lover’s paradise, while also showcasing fascinating machine guns, mortars and howitzers.
In nearby Moline, Ill., we investigated the John Deere Visitors Center and the international headquarters of the John Deere Company farther out of town. The Visitors Center in downtown Moline is a gas. It is a hybrid of antique tractors and the latest thing in cutting-edge (pun intended) harvesting machines. City boy (Brooklyn) Neil thought the “antiques” more interesting, while Alan became engrossed in the mammoth harvesting machines required for large family farms or vast tracts of land now controlled by commercial interests. At the Deere International Headquarters, the Guys encountered more cutting-edge farm machines and a vast array of historic farm implements in a very informative display. The headquarters complex is historically significant in itself. Designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, it is an iconic landmark of modernist architecture and the first architectural use of Corten Steel. Planned and executed in conjunction with the natural lay of the land, it is an important site to see.
Moving beyond guns and manufacturing, the Getaway Guys visited the Augustana College Art Museum. For a small, private college, Augustana has an exceptional permanent collection and a robust schedule of temporary exhibitions. While visiting, Neil and Alan viewed a comprehensive exhibit of works by Perle Fine, a painter working in the Abstract Expressionist mode and a contemporary of Wilhelm de Kooning and Franz Klein. An art student protegé of the Abstract Expressionist milieu, Neil got into the paintings. Respectfully, Alan was confused. More to his liking were examples from the permanent collection on display, including works by Mary Cassatt, Gavin Hamilton and Samuel S. Carr, plus some interesting African masks. The Augustana art collection numbers about 4,000 objects, making display choices for a relatively small area problematic. Works by Fernand Léger, Aristide Maillol, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Edgar Degas, James McNeill Whistler and Grant Wood were presumably in storage when the Guys visited in late summer. The College also has a stunning collection of Native American arts and crafts, many of which are exhibited in the Thomas Tredway Library on campus.
Last but not least, Rock Island has an historic residential district from 7th Avenue in the north to 13th Avenue in the south, and 17th Street in the west to 23rd Street in the east. Many of the residences have been restored; others are works in progress. These preserved homes run the gamut from Queen Anne and Italianate Victorian to antebellum classical. Downtown Rock Island does not make the heart beat faster, but there is evidence of gradual rebirth.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.