A giant grain silo used as a canvas to depict the history of the city attracted my wife and me to Fort Dodge. What we found over a weekend of exploring the North Iowa community intrigued us so much that we look forward to visiting again.
Located about 90 minutes northwest of Des Moines, Fort Dodge is easily accessible from Interstate 35 and Highway 20. From a historic Western fort to classic architecture and fantastic food, Fort Dodge is an excellent choice for a weekend excursion. Here are a few of the fun things to do — and some eateries to enjoy — in Fort Dodge.
Things To Do In Fort Dodge
1. Fort Dodge Grain Silo Mural
The Tallest Art Piece In Iowa
When people take the Highway 20 exit and travel more than 30 minutes out of their way just to see a mural, you know that Fort Dodge may be on to something. It’s no ordinary mural. The Fort Dodge Grain Silo Mural projects a 360-degree look into the area’s industrial and cultural history. The mural is a perfect example of repurposing aged facilities rather than demolishing them.
Australian artist Guido van Helten worked with the city’s Public Art Coalition to create the 110-foot-tall mural, which features a composite of locals as the characters in the painting. Completed in 2016, the mural uses a black-and-white scheme to share the city’s history. Among the mural’s seven characters are a worker from the gypsum mine and an African-American community leader. Each person in the mural holds stoneware created from the clay that’s found in the Des Moines River valley. Each pottery piece is actually displayed at the Fort Museum.
2. The Fort Museum And Frontier Village
The Birthplace Of Fort Dodge And The Home Of A Giant
The military outpost of Fort Dodge sat in the Des Moines River valley. Built in 1850, the fort outlived its mission, so a local businessman bought the land, eventually building a town. Today, you can tour a replica fort, along with a museum showcasing Euro-American and Native American artifacts, at the Fort Museum and Frontier Village. A frontier village of about a dozen buildings outside the fort recreates the early days of Fort Dodge. Original buildings -— including a one-room schoolhouse and log cabin — stand beside replicas of a general store, drug store, and livery stable. Each building features artifacts, such as the drug store’s pharmaceuticals or the hardware store’s straw broom maker.
A 10-foot-tall giant calls Fort Dodge home. Sort of. Considered one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century, the remains of a giant were “discovered” in Cardiff, New York. Eventually, people realized that the giant was nothing more than a stone sculpture. Only two copies of the Cardiff Giant exist — in New York and Fort Dodge. The story of how the Cardiff Giant found its way to North Iowa is told at the Frontier Village exhibit.
3. Iowa Racing Museum And Hall Of Fame
Establishment Tracing The State’s Dirt Track Stars
Marty Pringle grew up on the dirt race tracks of Iowa. From Fort Dodge to Council Bluffs and almost every other track in the state, Marty tagged along as his dad raced for trophies and paychecks. Marty naturally became a race car driver, too. Today, Marty shares his love for the track with others through the Iowa Hall of Fame and Racing Museum.
Located in Otho, a few miles outside of Fort Dodge, the museum is a collection of old cars, helmets, photos, and other memorabilia honoring some of the best drivers to ever take to the dirt tracks around the Hawkeye State. From vintage cars in a small garage attached to his house to another garage retrofitted to serve as a museum, the Iowa Racing Museum is a fun spot to visit, regardless of your interest in auto racing.
4. Historic Mansion Tours
Ann Smeltzer House
One of the first things visitors want to know about the Ann Smeltzer House is if it’s haunted. It is not. But it’s home to immaculate art, beautiful furniture, and eccentric tales of the family. From her mother running a Montessori-style school in the house to Ann’s love of nature resulting in the untrimmed landscape, the Smeltzer house is a beautiful stroll through Fort Dodge’s history.
The Vincent House, named to the National Register of Historic Places, is considered one of the most haunted mansions in the Midwest. Ghost hunters have identified at least two dozen spirits living in the home, almost all from the same family.
Whether or not you believe in spirits, a tour of the three floors at the Vincent House offers a unique look into the wealthy families of the city’s past. Built in 1872 for the pharmaceutical-selling Swain family, the house was sold to Webb and Catherine Vincent following the death of James Swain. You’ll learn about the role that Adelaide Swain played during the Suffrage Movement. You’ll also see furniture and accessories common to the Vincents’ era, along with other historical pieces.
5. Blanden Memorial Art Museum
Museum Celebrating Classic Art, Regional Artists
Receiving the bulk of its classical art collection from the Smeltzer family, the Blanden Memorial Art Museum showcases regional artists in three galleries. From European paintings to contemporary sculptures, the Blanden rotates exhibits, offering fresh views year round. Located in a Neoclassical building, the art museum exceeds expectations for a small city gallery. Its grounds also include a variety of sculptures.
6. Kayak Des Moines River
The Area’s Most Scenic River
Limestone cliffs tower over the Des Moines River as people travel via kayak or canoe. Enjoy the beautiful scenery as blue skies help the wooded river shore reflect in the clear water. Running almost 50 miles, Fort Dodge caps the Des Moines River Trail in Webster County. Kayakers enjoy floating the shallow waterway, taking in excellent views of the river’s sandy bottom, along with colorful rocks and natural scenery.
7. Veterans Memorials
Webster County Freedom Rock
Home to the Webster County Freedom Rock, Fort Dodge honors veterans with a magnificent art piece on the southeast corner of A and 2nd Avenue South. Each of Iowa’s 99 counties has its own Freedom Rock, with paintings representing local veterans. The Freedom Rock in Fort Dodge depicts locals’ military service from the Civil War through World War II. An artistic interpretation of the American flag tops the rock.
Terry Moehnke Veterans Memorial Park
Overlooking Badger Lake, Terry Moehnke Veterans Memorial Park is a short drive outside the city. With flags representing each military branch flapping in the wind, the memorial recognizes Webster County veterans with granite markers along a tree-lined path. Sculptures, including one of an eagle, add to the beauty of the serene setting.
8. Classic Architecture
A Downtown Walk Through History
With buildings dating back to the 1800s, a self-guided tour of Fort Dodge’s downtown provides a look into its early days. The Webster County Courthouse is the major draw, with its classic dome ceiling accented by a clock tower. A walk through the small courthouse showcases a marble staircase with gold-trimmed railings. You’ll find business facades seemingly out of the 1950s and ’60s, including Daniel Pharmacy and Rieman Music, one of six locations of the legendary Iowa music store. The Key on Central uses the proceeds from its thrift store to help a domestic assault outreach center that serves 20 Iowa counties.
9. Public Art
A Historical Pig And More
The Universities of Iowa and Minnesota have long been football rivals in the Big Ten Conference. For about 115 years, the teams have played for a trophy honoring a pig from Fort Dodge. Floyd of Rosedale was a prized hog given to the winner of the 1935 contest and as a reminder of the teams’ goals of fair play on the field; the 1934 game was marred by racial targeting. In 2021, a large statue of Floyd was erected near Rosedale Farms.
Meanwhile, downtown Fort Dodge features sculptures — such as a modern piece called Chronicle — and murals recognizing its history. One mural traces the Fort Dodge story from its earliest days as a pioneer settlement to its modern era.
Dr. Seuss fans enjoy touring the wooden carvings at Kennedy Park’s Children’s Forest. Rather than cut down trees infected with disease, artists created a sculpture garden featuring characters from The Lorax. It’s an enjoyable walk, which can be combined with a visit to the Terry Moehnke Veterans Memorial Park.
Best Restaurants In Fort Dodge
For a city of about 25,000, Fort Dodge’s dining menu features a variety of delicious, local eateries. From Korean to barbecue, you’ll salivate over your options.
1. Tea Thyme
Known For: Rotating Homestyle Menu
For more than 15 years, locals have gathered for high tea or lunch at Tea Thyme. Diners enjoy everything from chicken salad and soup in a bread bowl to specialty salads. Tea Thyme offers a rotating menu of homestyle recipes, so you’ll enjoy trying something new with each visit. While lunch is served Monday–Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., enjoy tea, coffee, and dessert from 2 to 4 p.m. Tea Thyme’s boutique, featuring cute and practical home accessories, is open for retail sales 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
2. Gaga And Hoo Korean Restaurant
Known For: Authentic Korean Fare
When Korean executives opened a new business in Fort Dodge, they struggled to find food that reminded them of home. So they recruited a Korean chef and moved their family here to open a new Korean eatery. Named after the chef’s daughter and son (translated in English to “beautiful and king”), Gaga and Hoo Korean Restaurant opened in 2019 to great fanfare. Popular with visitors and locals, Gaga and Hoo serves authentic Korean dishes, including dumplings, bulgogi (Korean barbecue beef), and spicy stir-fried squid.
If you prefer American fare, they’ll grill a nice juicy steak filet to your liking.
3. Buford’s Steakhouse And Barbecue
Known For: Ribeye And Walleye Entrées
With classic burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, and a sandwich featuring smoked brisket, pulled pork, and chicken — The Outlaw — Buford’s Steakhouse and Barbecue is a great spot for American fare. It’s difficult to choose the wrong dish here. You’ll want to check your appetite twice before ordering a full rack of ribs (unless you like leftovers), because the meat is plentiful, whether it’s baby back– or St. Louis–style. Buford’s is also known for its classic ribeye and walleye entrées. Consider an order of walleye cheeks or burnt ends basket as an appetizer.
4. Zakeer’s Family Restaurant
Known For: Smothered Hashbrowns
Making breakfast since 1961, Zakeer’s Family Restaurant has been a Fort Dodge staple for generations. Whether it’s the Dodger, with its two eggs, meat, and side of hashbrowns, or the popular smothered hashbrowns — with two eggs, prepared any style, on a mound of hashbrowns and smothered with white biscuit gravy — breakfast is a must here.
With a seating capacity of about 60, Zakeer’s can be crowded on a weekend morning, but it’s worth the wait. You may think you’re at Grandma’s when you take that first bite of your freshly-made treat.
5. Bloomer’s On Central Coffee Shoppe
Known For: Coffee And Sandwiches
Enjoying saying it’s been around since the Grunge rock era, Bloomer’s on Central Coffee Shoppe is the popular joint to hang out for an excellent cup of coffee, latte, or smoothie in downtown Fort Dodge. They serve breakfast sandwiches, as well. Bloomer’s is the perfect place to grab a bite and enjoy some time with friends, or just to relax before taking in the sights or heading to Studio Fusion for a little DIY pottery painting.