The 2,400-mile Hiawatha Pioneer Trail, touted as a tourist-promotion route, once traversed the states of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, connecting historic sites, scenic areas, natural features, state parks, and museums in the four states. Approximately 600 miles of the main trail were located in Iowa, and another 500 miles on an alternate route through the state.
Although the trail was officially endorsed by the four governors as a way to boost tourism and economic development in their states, establishment of the trail was actually the marketing brainchild of the American Petroleum Institute (API). API was also behind establishment of the Lincoln Heritage Trail in 1961, and New England Heritage Trail and George Washington Heritage Trail in the east.
While API boasted the fact that they would be contributing nearly $1 million toward campaigns advertising the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail, their ultimate goal was not as altruistic might have seemed, in fact, it was more about getting people traveling in their cars using the petroleum products sold by their members.
The idea of establishing this meandering route was discussed at the Governors’ Conference in January 1963. The official stated purpose for the route’s formation was to “package” vacations in the four states.
The first formal meeting of the trail organization was called by Iowa Governor Harold E. Hughes and held in Amana, Iowa, in September 1963. Other governors attending included Otto Kerner of Illinois, John W. Reynolds of Wisconsin, and Karl Rolvang of Minnesota.
In October 1963, at a workshop held in Madison, Wisconsin, a trail symbol was proposed and tentative locations of the route were drawn. In December of that same year, another meeting was held in Rochester, Minn., at which time the trail was officially adopted as the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail. In February 1964, the governors of the four states met in Minnesota and approved the trail’s plans.
On May 15, 1964, the trail was official opened.
The original design for the trail’s marker consisted of a circular border bearing the words, "Hiawatha Heritage Trail" encircling an Indian head. The artwork was created by Evan Hart, then an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society.
When the four states agreed upon a historical trail, they substituted the word “Pioneer” for “Heritage” and commissioned a public relations firm from Moline, Illinois, to design a symbol, and a pioneer head was added to the center. The new design consisted of a chartreuse and brown overlay on a flat silver background.
Signs marking the routes were paid for and installed by the four states. In Iowa, the trail markers were produced on reflective sign sheeting and overlaid on sign blanks at the Iowa State Highway Commission’s sign shop in Ames. The Iowa route markers were installed in July 1964.
Official state records regarding the Hiawatha-Pioneer Trail dating from 1963 through 1965 (Governor’s Conference documents) are contained in the papers of former Governor Harold Everett Hughes in the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa. This collection was donated to the University of Iowa Libraries in 1975 by Governor Hughes.
Housed in the Iowa Department of Transportation’s library is a folder containing a copy of several promotional brochures, a Feb. 14, 1964, Des Moines Register article and July 1964 Hiway Highlights Iowa State Highway Commission employee newsletter article.
Three folders, dating from 1963-1966 and regarding the Hiawatha-Pioneer Trail, are also available from the Minnesota Historical Society. In addition, Minnesota State Statute, section 61.14, Subd. 12. and Subd. 12a., includes a complete route description of the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail and alternate route through that state.
IOWA ROUTE AND ATTRACTIONS
The route, looping through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, was laid out to link as many historic and scenic areas as possible, and used existing highways.
In a Des Moines Register article dated Feb. 14, 1964, James G. Bennett of New York, travel coordinator for API, described the route as, ". . .a group of attractions to whet the appetite for travel." In the Register article, Bennett is also attributed with telling the governors and other state delegates that 25 additional tourists a day would be equivalent to an industry with a $100,000 annual payroll.
A 1967 promotional brochure published by the Iowa Development Commission, in partnership with the Illinois and Minnesota tourism divisions and Wisconsin’s Vacation and Travel Service, described the route in Iowa as follows:
"The Hiawatha-Pioneer Trail enters Iowa from the east just a few miles from the Hoover Memorial and exists from the state northwest of the area where the Grotto is located. In between lie such relics of Iowa’s Indian-Pioneer heritage as the Mesquakie Indian settlement at Tama and the pre-historic Indian mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument near Marquette, the site of the state’s last Indian Massacre at Spirit Lake, the only fort ever built by the U.S. Government to protect one tribe of Indians from another-at Fort Atkinson; the famed “Little Brown Church in the Vaile” at Nashua, the seven Amana Colonies northwest of Iowa City, which retain their Old World charm and many of the customs carried over from the days when the German sect pioneered its settlement in Iowa; and the scenic views along the Mississippi River which first drew the attention of the white man to Iowa’s productive soil."
When organized, each state was asked to identify 20 of its outstanding tourist attractions. The 1967 publication referenced above identified the 20 historic points of interest in Iowa. They included: Presidential Hoover Birthplace and Presidential Library; Amana Colonies; River Boat Museum at Keokuk; Mason House Museum and Ghost Town at Bentonsport; State Capitol, Historical Building, Art Center at Des Moines; Tama Indian Settlement and Pow Wow; Maquoketa Caves; Breath-taking scenery along the Mississippi River; Picturesque French Village of St. Donatus; Old Shot Tower and Cable Car at Dubuque; Effigy Mounds National Monument-Indian mound country; Norwegian Museum, Spook Cave at Decorah; Hand-carved mechanical clocks, Antonin Dvorak Memorial at Spillville; Historic Fort Atkinson; Little Brown Church in the Vale at Nashua; Clear Lake Resort Area; Old Fort Dodge restoration; Kalsow Prairie, untouched by the plow; Grotto of the Redemption at West Bend; and Spirit Lake Indian massacre and pioneer cabin. A July 1964 Iowa State Highway Commission map denotes the main route, west route and south route of the trail through Iowa, and 20 points of interest along the way.
IOWA PROMOTIONAL EVENT
The first major event on the Iowa section of the trail was held June 19-21, 1964, at Mason City’s 22-acre Margaret M. MacNider Park. The park, new at the time, was located in a wooded area on the Winnebago River just north of East Park. The park promised visitors access to the modern camping amenities, including water, flush toilets, showers, and a sanitary dumping station for the self-contained trailers.
The event featured a campout hosted by the Wigwam-N-Wagon Campers of North Iowa. Joining approximately 1,500 other campers at the event, where Governor Harold E. Hughes and his family, and Mason City’s Mayor George Mendon.
Over the years, the promotional effort for the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail faded into history, along with many of the road signs.
The trail was last shown on the 1975 Iowa Transportation Map. The trail brochures are no longer in print. Illinois removed all of its Hiawatha Pioneer Trail signs in 1972. Wisconsin discontinued maintenance of their signs and over the years removed them from their highways. While Minnesota continued to maintain their signs, they will be removed in 2008.
Because the trail is no longer supported or sponsored by the four states, the Iowa Department of Transportation decided in June 2008 to abandon the trail and remove the signs for Iowa’s roadways.