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Lincoln Highway Tour

The Lincoln Highway is the first officially designated transcontinental highway in the United States. It was first designated in 1913, although it took several years more to fully develop. In Iowa, it runs around 350 miles starting in Clinton along the Mississippi River. From there – generally as today’s U.S. Highway 30 – it heads across the state through DeWitt, Mt. Vernon, Cedar Rapids, Tama, Marshalltown, Ames, Boone, Jefferson, and Denison before heading towards Council Bluffs and heading over the Missouri River into Nebraska.

Along the way you’ll find many historic sites and markers celebrating the Lincoln Highway, vibrant cities and quaint little towns, museums, unique roadside features, and more. So let’s check out Iowa’s portion of the 14-state cross-country historic route known as the Lincoln Highway!

We begin by heading into Iowa via Illinois on the Lyons-Fulton Bridge, which carries U.S. 30, brings you into Clinton. About 26,000 residents call Clinton home, which not only hosts the Lincoln Highway but also the Iowa side of the Great River Road (U.S. 67), which goes north to Dubuque and south to Davenport and the Quad Cities. Lumber coming from up north was floating to Clinton in droves during the latter half of the 19th century and the city buzzed with the sound of sawmills; between 1850 and 1900, Clinton was often referred to as the “Lumber Capital of the World.”

That legacy lives on with the MiLB Clinton Lumberkings, a Class ‘A’ baseball team affiliated with the Seattle Mariners in the Midwest League. They play home games in Ashford University Field, adjacent to the riverfront and levee, which has an expansive promenade, great views of the two highway bridges connecting Clinton with Illinois. Heading out of downtown Clinton, U.S. 30/Lincoln Highway and U.S. 67/Great River Road join for a few miles. You’ll see Lincoln Highway markings as these two national byways stick together until you’re just southwest of the city, at which point U.S. 67/Great River Road breaks south toward Davenport and we head west on U.S. 30 across the Iowa countryside.

U.S 30 has been upgraded in recent years and frequently runs as a four-lane highway that bypasses towns in Iowa, so we’ll look for significant stretches of the original road where we can. One of those places is as you approach DeWitt, you can follow 330th Avenue to 245th Street and follow the old Lincoln Highway right through town. It joins U.S. 30 west of town and you continue past small towns like Grand Mound, Calamus, and Wheatland, all founded from being on the railroad that pre-dated the Lincoln Highway, offer stops for refreshments and occasionally a glimpse of the original highway.

One original offshoot is County Road Z24 to just past Lowden, where you can check out the historic Lincoln Hotel Bed & Breakfast, which hosted Lincoln Highway and railroad travelers dating back to its opening in 1915. Another portion of the old Lincoln Highway starts shortly before Mechanicsville, named for the rather large percentage of original settlers who were indeed mechanics.

Next up, follow the exit for Mount Vernon, a charming town of 4,000 people located where the Lincoln Highway meets Iowa Highway 1. Budget Travel magazine counted Mount Vernon as one of “America’s 10 Coolest Small Towns” in 2009, and is also home to Cornell College, which sports a beautiful campus – all of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Follow 1st Street through town to travel a significant chunk of the historic route for a while.


For a bit of a jog off the Lincoln Highway, head north on Iowa Highway 1 from Mount Vernon to U.S. 151, then go north just a few miles to Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum. With one of the largest collections of vintage bikes in the world, this is an Iowa must see! The Grant Wood Art Gallery salutes the Anamosa-born artist who painted American Gothic and other works.

From Anamosa, head south on U.S. 151 and then continue west on Business U.S. 151/Iowa 922 to downtown Marion, where you re-join the original Lincoln Highway route (1913-1923) near the Granger House and into Cedar Rapids, which we cover in the main route below.

Continue out of Mount Vernon on County Highway E48, and you’ll see plenty of original Lincoln Highway references. A stretch right here is quite historic; you’ll find the Abbe Creek School Museum, which started as a school back in 1844 named after Linn County’s first white settler, William Abbe. Along with the grounds is an original concrete Lincoln Highway marker from 1913 (and a restroom, if you have the need). This area is also known as the “Seedling Mile,” the first paved mile of the Lincoln Highway in Iowa.

At this point, we should note that the Lincoln Highway has had multiple routes through Cedar Rapids since 1913. The original route followed Mt. Vernon and Bloomington Roads northwest to Marion, the original Linn County seat. When the seat moved to Cedar Rapids in 1921, the Lincoln Highway route was changed to follow Mt. Vernon Road straight into Cedar Rapids’ downtown. We’ll check out both of those – today’s main route follows U.S. 30, which is a freeway bypass around the south side of town. But it’s better to go in and check out the heart of the towns!

To follow the original Lincoln Highway route, stay on Bloomington Road (straight) to Marion, a fast-growing suburb of Cedar Rapids and the original county seat of Linn County before it moved to Cedar Rapids in 1921. It was then that the Lincoln Highway was re-designated via Mt. Vernon Road into southern Cedar Rapids directly. For the original 1913 route head to Marion and join Business U.S. 151/7th Street. While in Marion, check out the Granger House Museum right near downtown; it’s a restored home dating back to the 1870s. Tours of it and the unique brick carriage house – the only one of its kind in the Midwest – will reveal plenty of artifacts from the late 1800s related to daily life, horses, dairying, and farming. In Marion, head south/west on Business U.S. 151, also known at 7th Street.

Following Business U.S. 151 you enter Cedar Rapids right by the Best Western PLUS Longbranch Hotel & Convention Center, which has a cool and unusual layout, including the Longbranch Restaurant & Lounge, an attached full-service gym, and a skywalk connecting them all! It is located one block off the Lincoln Highway route via “Twixt Town Road.” Right by the Best Western, U.S. 151 becomes 1st Street NE and heads into the city.

With 128,000 residents, Cedar Rapids is the largest city along the Lincoln Highway in Iowa, and the second largest city in the state. Counting suburbs like Marion, Hiawatha, and surrounding towns in the metro, Cedar Rapids anchors an area of over one quarter million people. Whether arriving downtown from the 1913-1921 route (via 1st Street NE/Business U.S. 151) or Mt. Vernon Road on the south side (1921-1940s), you’ll find yourself in the heart of a city with lots to see and do. When you arrive, the city just might smell like cereal, owning to huge Quaker Oats plants near downtown. Cedar Rapids’ downtown bustles with shops, theatres, restaurants, museums, and event activities, in part because of a robust business base and in part because of nearby Coe College, which adds 1,300 students to the downtown vibe.

Cedar Rapids has a sizable arts and culture scene. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art features 63,000 square feet of exhibits, paintings, and contemporary art, including featured exhibits on Marvin Cone, Ann Royer, Bertha Jacques, and Grant Wood. Wood’s original studio, where he painted American Gothic¸ is only three blocks away and is also part of the museum. For theatre, you’ll find the Paramount Theatre and Theatre Cedar Rapids. The city’s and county’s history is explored in detail at the Carl & Mary Koehler History Center, Further south is the African American Museum of Iowa, which chronicles the history of African-American culture in the state – which goes further than many might think.

Trivia: Cedar Rapids is the birthplace for quite a few famous actors, including Bobby Driscoll, Ashton Kutcher, Elijah Wood, and Ron Livingston of Office Space fame.

Just southeast of downtown centered along 16th Avenue SW and spanning the Cedar River is the New Bohemia District (“NewBo” for short) and Czech Village. This area is home to the traditional Czech and Slovak settlers, who gathered in Cedar Rapids as far back as 1852. The district is in the midst of revitalization and hosts shops, numerous artists’ studios, ethnic markets, restaurants, and events. Annual events include Houby Days (featuring mushrooms, “Houby” being the Czech word for them), EcoFest, NewBo Arts Fest, Czech Fall Festival, and Old Prague Christmas Market.

The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library anchors the district; you can visit the museum and then stroll across the Cedar River on the nearby “Lions Bridge.” If a malted beverage is in order, feel free to “czech” out the Lion Bridge Brewery in the heart of the district; they brew eight to 12 beers along with a popular ginger hibiscus soda. Over the Lion Bridge towards downtown, you’ll find the NewBo City Market, filled with produce and arts and crafts vendors; it’s a nice complement to the traditional downtown Farmers’ Market in Cedar Rapids, which runs on weekends and has offerings fresh from area farms.

On the northwest side of Cedar Rapids just past the Best Western Cooper’s Mill Hotel, check out Ushers Ferry Historic Village, home to over 20 historic buildings depicting life in rural Iowa during the 1890-1910 era (hint: no Internet back then, but people did take pictures of food). It’s located in Seminole Valley Park along the Cedar River. Early Islamic settlers started arriving in Cedar Rapids during this era too, and what they built on the city’s northwest side is now the oldest Islamic mosque in the U.S. Completed in 1934, the Mother Mosque of America is smaller than many mosques and is located in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the Cedar River. It is available for tours and also serves as the Islamic Cultural & Heritage Center for Iowa.

If you want a taste of 19th and 20th century residential splendor, check out the Brucemore Mansion, home to several of the city’s wealthiest families over a 100-year span. These families were very active in community support and also used their home as a cultural and art center. Today, the Queen Anne-style mansion anchors a 26-acre estate with formal gardens, a children’s garden, ponds, orchards, and woodlands.

And finally, Cedar Rapids has a good share of sports to check out. The Cedar Rapids Kernels have been playing minor league baseball since 1962 and are affiliated with the Minnesota Twins. The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders are a USHL hockey team, and the Cedar Rapids Titans play pro football with the Indoor Football League. Plenty of statewide junior and school tournaments happen here too, so there’s never a shortage of things happening.

WHEW! That’s a busy town on the Lincoln Highway. Ready to continue west? Let’s do it!

From the Best Western Cooper’s Mill Inn on the west side of downtown, follow Business U.S. 151/1st Street south and then just follow the Lincoln Highway guide signs. You’ll end up back on U.S. 30 heading west.

It’s a beeline west through some open road; U.S. 218 joins for a few miles, and the intersection where it breaks north you’ll find the Youngville Café, an original filling station and eatery that opened early in the Lincoln Highway days and has stayed open ever since. They don’t offer gasoline any more, but they do offer lunch and host a weekly farmer’s market. A quick detour south on Iowa Highway 21 brings you to Belle Plaine, which sits on one of the older Lincoln Highway stretches. The Belle Plaine Area Museum offers exhibits reflecting the history of the area and include artifacts from the Lincoln Highway and Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, as well as area Native Americans.

As you approach Tama, you’ll find the John Ernest Vineyard & Winery, nestled in a hill along the Lincoln Highway. Approaching town, look for King Tower Café, originally built in 1937 as a diner with gas, a service garage, and cabins… sort of an early-era “truck stop.” It’s still a café with good eats; chck out the murals while you’re in there depicting the nearby Meskwaki Indians and their history.

Today’s U.S. 30 bypasses Tama as a freeway, but this is an excellent time to hit the original highway once again; be sure to exit (#204) and go into town, following the Lincoln Highway signs.

Tama is a town of about 2,900 and boasts a beautiful, original Lincoln Highway bridge… and there’s no mistaking it was built for the highway! Next to the bridge is a marker with more on the bridge’s – and highway’s – history.

Follow the signs through Tama for the original Lincoln Highway. Follow County E-49 west from Tama to stay on the old road (U.S. 30 is just a few miles to the north if you need a high-speed alternative). Through the countryside and over the Iowa River, you’re in the Meskwaki Settlement, the largest Native American community in Iowa. On the other side is the small town of Montour, a 250-person burg with many old Lincoln Highway markers and some original gas stations – long since shuttered. From E-49, follow County T-47 northwest to re-join U.S. 30 for a faster ride by Le Grand into the next city: Marshalltown.

Marshalltown was founded by a European settler named Henry Anson who referred to the area as “the prettiest place in Iowa.” He named it after a former hometown of his (Marshall, Michigan) and put up a log cabin on a high point in what is today’s downtown area. His son, “Cap” Anson, became one of the most prolific pro baseball players of the 19th century; the city is still a big baseball town. Today, Marshalltown has 27,000 residents and its downtown is perched above the Iowa River.

U.S. 30 approaches Marshalltown and today’s highway bypasses it to the south; we’ll hit the original route through the city. Beforehand, you may want to stay on U.S. 30 to Exit 192/Shady Oaks Road and check out The Big Treehouse, a 12-level, 55-foot high treehouse with over 5,000 square feet of floor space, all the modern touches; the related Shady Oaks Museum, includes a restored 1925 Lincoln Highway cabin. You can explore it by appointment only, so call 641-752-2946 first.

Follow Shady Oaks Road, Quarry Road, or T-35/Main Street to downtown Marshalltown, where Main Street is the original Lincoln Highway route. The beautiful Marshall County Courthouse, completed in 1886, is visible as you enter the city and certainly a great building to check out from Main Street. Founder Henry Anson is commemorated with a statue out front. Plenty of shops, galleries, and restaurants line the adjacent blocks; some walls have murals depicting earlier years in the city.

Tour the Glick-Sower Heritage Homestead, which dates back to 1859, or explore the Binford House, a Italianate revival home from 1874 with curved cherry staircases and an Italian marble fireplace. The Quarry Depot is the oldest Chicago railroad depot in Iowa and features displays and a craft shop. For more history, a quick detour south on Highway 14 to nearby Haverhill brings you to the Matthew Edel Blacksmith Shop, a uniquely preserved full-service blacksmith shop that operated until 1940. Tours are available; call 641-752-6664 to ensure you can catch one. In season, Appleberry Farm offers apple-picking, cider-making and of course plenty of crafts and foods.

The Best Western Regency Inn is ready for you on the south side of Marshalltown, right along Iowa Highway 14 near the U.S. 30 bypass.

To head west from Marshalltown on the original Lincoln Highway, use Main Street west, which becomes County E-41. Also nearby, you’ll find Grimes Farm, a conservation and nature center re-connecting you with the countryside; included are prairie, wetlands, croplands, and a trail system with an observation tower showing all of it off.

Continuing west, you can choose between old (235th Street) or new (U.S. 30 highway) for the ride to State Center, which is the “Rose Capital of Iowa” and also – not surprisingly – very close to the geographic center of the state. In the town, you’ll spot rose gardens that on a nice day add terrific color. Since round barns aren’t too common, you may want to check out Dobbin Round Barn, which was built 1919 and has a circumference of 65 feet, just off County C-52. Watson’s Grocery Store was built in 1895 right on what became the Lincoln Highway; built as a grocery and dry goods store, it’s now a museum with much of the original fixtures intact.

Follow County S-52 to E-41 west to continue on the original highway (U.S. 30 parallels just to the south). At the crossroads with U.S. 65 in Colo, Niland’s Café has been in business since 1925; it first opened as Reed/Niland Corner, for the two families who opened a “one-stop” business that offered gas, food, tourist cabins and showers, and more. The other offerings were gone by 1995, but the café remains and, with Lincoln Highway trip becoming more popular, some of the others may re-open as well. U.S. 65 heading north is the traditional Jefferson Highway, which was also a major U.S. Auto Trail running from New Orleans to Winnipeg. The two join for the ride west through Nevada, which was named in Iowa a decade before the state of the same name came into being, and to the mid-point of the state: crossing Interstate 35.

On the other side of the freeway is Ames, home to Iowa State University, which educates a student body of around 33,000 on a 2,000-acre campus. The University dominates the city much in the way the electronic digital computer dominates our daily lives; we say that because this is where the first electronic digital computer was created; the Durham Center on campus features a comprehensive exhibit on its history and development. Several museums are on campus: the Brunnier Art Museum offers up fine and decorative art collections and exhibits from all over the world; the Farm House Museum, housed in the university’s oldest building (1860) traces the state’s and university’s agricultural history. The Christian Petersen Art Museum, named for the famous sculptor and the nation’s first permanent campus artist-in-residence, opened in 2007 inside Morrill Hall, which dates back to 1891. Within sight is the Anderson Sculpture Garden, which features 20th and 21st century sculptures ranging in height from 44 inches to nine feet high. The Octagon Center for the Arts also features major works of art. A major symbol of the university is the Campanile, a 110-foot tower that went up in 1898 and is visible from the Lincoln Highway.

This is a major university for sports, too: the Iowa State Cyclones field 16 Division I teams in the Big 12 Conference; the Hilton Coliseum holds over 14,000 fans for hoops and is right along Lincoln Way, which is the original Lincoln Highway through Ames. Just south of Hilton Coliseum via University Boulevard is Jack Trice Stadium, which holds 56,800 fans for Cyclones football. Next to the stadium are the Reiman Gardens, 14 acres of horticultural splendor. One dozen garden areas, an indoor conservatory and “butterfly wing” are just part of the Gardens, which are open year ‘round.

Just south of Reiman Gardens and past the U.S. 30 bypass freeway, you’ll find the Best Western PLUS University Park Inn & Suites, with easy access to the ISU campus and points both east and west on the Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway runs straight east-west through Ames as “Lincoln Way.” It goes through the heart of campus and the downtown are. The Main Street Cultural District is a few blocks north in downtown Ames and has a ton of shops, galleries, restaurants, a brewpub (the Old Main Brewery), and more.

Follow the Lincoln Highway signs to head west out of Ames (U.S. 30 is faster, four-lane highway option to the south if you prefer). Some of the original Lincoln Highway sections – as in, dirt road sections – run between Ames and Boone, the next town up. Wide open farmlands, a few railroad crossings, and the plunking of gravel against wheel wells give you the true feel of running the Lincoln Highway back when paved roads were the exception, not the rule.

Whether entering via the old Lincoln Highway or the more modern one via U.S. 30, the next town is Boone. Boone started as a coal mining town and grew with the railroad; it was first platted in 1865 as “Montana” and changed to its current name in 1877. Nineteen years later it became the birthplace of Mamie Doud, who became better known as Mamie Eisenhower, First Lady of the United States from 1953 to 1961 during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The house where she was born is on Carroll Street just west of downtown.

Being a big railroad town, train lovers should check out the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, which runs excursion and dinner trains from the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum & History Center. The Museum features plenty of trains and train memorabilia to get you in the mood for a ride. Race fans may know the town for Boone Speedway, a 1/3-mile banked oval track visible from U.S. 30 that holds Saturday night races and hosts SuperNational events on a regular basis.

Trivia: You know those Casey’s General Stores you see all over Iowa and much of the Midwest and Plains states? The first one ever opened in Boone in 1968. Over 1,700 locations have opened since.

The Dragoon Trail runs through Boone and intersects with the Lincoln Highway downtown.

From Boone, you can take the original route (County E-41) or go directly via U.S. 30 westward; the two merge in Ogden and U.S. 30 then continues west as a two-lane highway into the heart of western Iowa.

As you near Grand Junction, look for a new Lincoln Highway roadside exhibit. Featured are information and historical signs, along with a section of older road and, just north of a railroad trestle, one of the bridges is visible that carried the original road in 1913. It’s inaccessible by car, but you can see it. The park is still under development, so stop by and see what’s new whenever you pass by!

Next up, accessible via Iowa Highway 4 if you’re following U.S. 30, is Jefferson. This city of 4,000 was home to George Gallup, creator of the now-famous poll, and Doreen Wilber, who won the Gold in archery in the 1972 Olympics and thus became the first woman from Iowa to win the Gold medal. A statue of Wilber is located right along the old Lincoln Highway through downtown Jefferson. The most noticeable structure in town, though, is right next to the handsome Greene County Courthouse; the Mahanay Memorial Bell Tower is a 168-foot tall structure that can be seen for miles across the countryside. You can see for miles too, if you take the glass elevator ride to the top (515-386-2155 for details).

From Jefferson, hit U.S. 30 and continue west; some older, shorter segments of the Lincoln Highway will criss and cross, often clearly marked with historic byway signs. You’ll pass Glidden, a town named after the Joseph Glidden, who invented barbed wire in 1873; it was the hometown of Merle Hay, a prominent Iowan who was the first American soldier killed in World War I. He has a monument and mall named after him in Des Moines, and the cemetery where he is buried bears his name – and a big monument – right along the Lincoln Highway in Glidden.

Next up is Carroll, a pleasant town of 10,000 where U.S. 71 crosses the Lincoln Highway/U.S. 30. The Santa Maria Vineyard & Winery is located right along the Lincoln Highway in a converted historic building. The winery offers over 25 wine varieties and a restaurant.

Heading west from Carroll, the land gets hillier; a crest will indicate you’re at the “Subcontinential Divide,” where waters to the east flow back to the Mississippi River and waters west flow to the Missouri (they all end up together near St. Louis anyway, but still…)

Further down the Lincoln Highway – with some older dirt road offshoots being available for brief exploration – we head through Arcadia, Westside, and Vail before arriving in Denison, best known for being the home of actress Donna Reed. Her childhood home in Denison no longer stands, but the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center in the downtown area (Main & Broadway, just a few blocks north of U.S. 30) holds the Donna Reed Theatre, the Donna Reed Museum, and a soda fountain. Tours are available by calling 712-263-3334. Nearby, the McHenry House was built in 1885 and now serves as a local museum, as does the Little Red Schoolhouse, which opened in 1882 and has been restored and furnished with period pieces from the early 1900s. You’ll find that along U.S. 59, just south of the Lincoln Highway. Along U.S. 30 near the intersection with U.S. 59, Cronks Café has been a Lincoln Highway landmark since 1929, famous for their pie.

Past Denison, the Lincoln Highway turns southwest and follows the Boyer River and a major railroad line; towns get further apart and we have a hilly, scenic ride to Woodbine, home to the Tommy Gate hydraulic lifters. Downtown Woodbine features an original section of Lincoln Highway, paved with bricks in 1921. The Merry Brook Rural School Museum can be found in Zell Millard Historic Preservation Park; downtown also features an original railroad depot and a renovated 1928 canopy gas station. White’s Floral Garden in town at 11th and Park Streets features peonys, lilacs, daylilies, hostas, and a host of other flora that date back to a single resident with a green thumb and continue to be maintained by the community. In late September, Woodbine hosts Applefest and draws quite a crowd.

Continuing southwest through Logan, check out the Harrison County Courthouse. Built in 1911, this Classical Revival building features a dome that rises 77 feet, faced in Bedford limestone. An interesting stop is the Museum of Religious Arts (712-644-3888), which features numerous exhibits across multiple religions. Displays, a southwestern-style mission chapel, a Holocaust display, handcrafted stained glass windows obtained from Boys Town in Nebraska, adorn the inside. Outside, the Crosses on the Hill Display overlooks a valley; the crosses themselves are arranged on the hill, with the center cross rising 33 feet high and being illuminated at night.

Continuing southwest down the Lincoln Highway, we approach and an indication that we’re reaching the western end of Iowa: the Harrison County Historical Village & Iowa Welcome Center. This is a museum complex straight out of the 1800s, with an original log cabin, general store, school, and an original Lincoln Highway marker in its original location.

Three miles later, we reach Missouri Valley, a city named of course for the river that lies ahead. In town you’ll find Wisecup’s Farm Museum (1200 Canal Street, 402-689-1984), home to over 100 pieces of current and traditional farm equipment, replicas of an old schoolhouse, church, gas station, antiques, and a putt-putt golf course. You’ll also find Interstate 29, the main north-south highway that follows the Missouri River valley along the western edge of Iowa.

From I-29, you can continue west on U.S. 30 to ride the Lincoln Highway in a beeline to Nebraska. You’ll find the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, a huge wetland and wildlife area encompassing Missouri River frontage and De Soto Lake, which is an oxbow lake off the river. The Lincoln Highway – and U.S. 30 – cuts through the valley area and crosses the Missouri River into Nebraska, reaching Blair on the other side as the Lincoln Highway begins a new state.

We prefer to stay in Iowa on this Tour, so we suggest heading south along I-29. In 20 minutes you’ll be in Council Bluffs, Iowa’s seventh largest city with 62,000 residents – a tad bigger than Ames but slightly smaller than Waterloo. Council Bluffs offers plenty of history, being the early starting point for the Mormon Trail and then the First Transcontinental Railroad back in the 19th century. Historical museums and monuments highlight the history; the Loess Hills and Missouri River provide scenic beauty and parkland; and casinos provide plenty of opportunity to strike it rich – or at least have some fun within a healthy, reasonable limit. Find out all the details about Council Bluffs here.

The Best Western Crossroads of the Bluffs is right by the junction of I-29 and I-80 – which is the Interstate equivalent of the Lincoln Highway today. Stay in Council Bluffs, check out the town, and prepare for another Tour around Iowa! Check the other listings for more great things to see around the state.