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A Day in Lucas County
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A Day in Lucas County

Our first stop of the day was the John L. Lewis Memorial Museum of Mining and Labor in the town of Lucas. No matter what your feelings are about labor unions, this is a “must see” because it’s not only a part of Iowa history, but American history as well.

Coal mining was a major industry in central and southern Iowa in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s. Nowadays, Lucas is a town of 240 people, but in the mining heyday, it boasted a population of 3,450, most of them coal miners.

John L. Lewis was born nearby in 1880 and began working in the mines at the age of 17. Despite only three years of high school, he worked his way up to become one of the most powerful men in the country as president of United Mine Workers of America.

Known for his bushy, bird’s-nest eyebrows, powerful voice and ever-present scowl, he could intimidate mine owners and politicians alike.

There’s a life-size statue of Lewis at the museum, a gift from the United Mine Workers of America and Canada…along with some of Lewis’ personal papers, letters, photos and other memorabilia.

Lewis didn’t get along with his son, and when he died in 1969, his personal property was dispersed far and wide when his son sold it at auction. So in addition to telling the story of coal mining in Iowa, the museum in Lucas is one of the most important depositories of Lewis memorabilia in the country.

Bird-watchers could easily spend a day at Stephens State Forest, which consists of about 14,000 acres divided into seven units, is home to rarities ranging from mockingbirds and whip-poor-wills to yellow and black-billed cuckoos.

If you want to stretch your legs or go biking, head for the Cinder Path, which is Iowa’s first rails-to-trails conversion trail. Starting near Chariton, it follows the old Burlington Northern Railroad right-of-way south under a canopy of trees 13.5 miles to Humeston.

No visit to Chariton would be complete without a stop at Piper’s on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. It’s an old-fashioned grocery store, where they also produce homemade candies in the back room.

The store’s been around for over 100 years, and the candies are made in small batches from recipes that have been in the Piper family for more than 60 years. Jill Kerns returned home from Alaska in 1999 to keep the family business going.

We sampled some of the chocolate turtles and understand why Piper’s Candies are now shipped to every continent. They’re that good!

After lunch, we stopped at the Lucas County Historical Museum in Chariton. It’s a complex of historic buildings that includes a museum with numerous exhibits, the 1908 Stephens Home listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a one-room schoolhouse, country church, barn and an 1870s log cabin.

We learned something interesting there from one of the volunteer guides: A cabin built with round logs was an indication that the family planned to live there a few years, then move on.

But a pioneer who went to the time and trouble of hand-hewing logs into tight-fitting, squared-off timbers, as they were in this cabin, likely intended to put down roots and stay. Never thought about that before, but it makes sense.

This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at

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  1. Travel Iowa Team
    Travel Iowa Team
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