At this time last year it was impossible to go through the pages of the Clinton Herald without seeing some bit of information about the city’s history. June was the month to celebrate our city’s sesquicentennial, and there was no shortage of pageants, parades, parties and all manner of pomp and ceremony to mark the occasion.

As we produced two special sections — 100 pages recapping 150 years of Clinton history — we were drawn time and again to the stories of Clinton’s ties to the lumber industry. The first steam-powered mill on record was in operation six full years before the city was platted.

An old axiom is that Clinton was built on sawdust. While not to be taken literally, of course, it is easy to see how the lumber industry was fundamental in creating the city we live in today. Large mills made millionaires of the men who owned them and paid for those who toiled there to build or buy homes and start families.

Clinton earned prominence for its place on the Upper Mississippi River, taking trees felled in the North Woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin and milling and processing them for shipment across the country. Our town’s prominence on the far eastern point of the state helped position Clinton as the Gateway to the remainder of Iowa.

But that booming age was more than 100 years ago. Sawmills truly are a thing of the past in Clinton, relegated to the same corner of history as horse-drawn carriages and electric streetcars that ran from downtown to Eagle Point Park.

Enter the Clinton Kiwanis Club and its plans for the Sawmill Heritage Experience. The facility would play host to activities that will engage visitors in a real experience of the lumber mill industry, including a working sawmill powered by river water funneled in through a reverse flow floodgate. The goal is to allow visitors to observe craftsmen working their trade, rolling logs and moving them on the water.

Such a facility possibly could lead to Clinton becoming a stop on the lumberjack competition circuit. That may lead to a little head-scratching now, but it certainly would be something different that few neighboring communities could claim.

Ultimately the museum would stand in an unofficial partnership with the new music museum in Davenport and river museum in Dubuque. The three museums, close to each other and to Chicago, would make our corner of Eastern Iowa the premiere place to experience the Upper Mississippi.

Those museums, as would Clinton’s, tell the story of not just something as broad as music or a river, but make them come to life in a dynamic fashion. They also tell the story of their town and stand as a monument to people who not only aim to preserve the past but to make it real enough for all to enjoy and understand. Clinton’s sawmill museum would not only be a draw to tourists, but a hub for the education and activity of our own populace.

The museum plan has been moving from conception to reality and received a boost when it and the rest of Clinton’s proposal were tabbed to be one of the state’s three Iowa Great Places projects. But the real jolt in the arm, the momentum that may well push it over the top, came June 9 when John McEleney, president of McEleney AutoCenter, announced the donation of 1.74 acres of land to the Clinton Kiwanis Club Foundation.

The land is located at 27 23rd Ave. North, the site of the former McEleney AutoCenter body shop. The property includes a 14,720-square-foot building and recently was appraised at $221,000. It is a remarkable gift to the community at large that speaks volumes about McEleney’s desire to see Clinton prosper.

As a commercial district, Lyons has been struggling since the Iowa 136 bridge moved to 19th Avenue North, and even more so since McEleney moved to its new complex in Clinton’s west end. But this museum project, coupled with North River Drive (the idea of replicating Riverview Drive in Lyons), has the full potential to completely reverse the fortunes of the Lyons area.

There will come a time, perhaps in five years, perhaps 10, perhaps even 20, when this museum will be up and running. The ribbon cutting will be a distant memory, the plaque on the wall inside the front door will have lost its initial shine. And in that time, when the museum has become another part of the fabric of our community, we will look back on last Friday at the generous gift of the McEleney business and family, and see it as one of the major events that put the whole works in motion.

The plans were around before there was a gift of land and there is much more work to be done. PLans are in motion to secure a working sawmill and relocate it to Clinton. Real, big-time funding must be secured from private sources because no local government can foot the bill for a project like this.

But June 9 was a banner day in Clinton, a day when people stood up and said “We believe in this town and its future, and we want to be a part of making that future bright.”

Those days are more and more frequent, it seems, because the future is no longer just a dream. Plans are in place, people are working hard to attain goals and progress is taking place.

It’s a fantastic time to be a Clintonian. There are warts, snags and worries, to be sure, but what place is free of those? We must enjoy what we have here, thank people like the Kiwanis club and the McEleneys, and look forward to tomorrow.

In regard to this project in particular, it is our past that makes our future possible.

This Week's Circulars