Dan Kaercher finds a family-run restaurant in Jackson County that offers a homey atmosphere in the country and all-you-can-eat entrees.
Dan Kaercher: This family run restaurant in Jackson County offers a homey atmosphere in the country and all you can eat entrees. We were captivated by the picturesque Jackson County landscape. So, we pulled over at the Hurstville Interpretive Center just north of Maquoketa on Highway 61. It rests on an 18 acre wetland that offers fantastic opportunities to learn about the natural habitat and history of the area. Once inside Anne Burns gives us a brief overview of what is available at the center and also some local history.
Anne Burns: Inside the building you will see some exhibits that are devoted to wetlands, prairies and the old town of Hurstville which is just located up the road from us. Outside you will see some hiking trails. The trails wind through the prairie, take you out to a bird blind, and also take you through our butterfly garden.
Dan Kaercher: Limestone had a lot to do with Jackson County too, right?
Anne Burns: It does. Limestone and the processing of limestone was a big industry in Iowa in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Dan Kaercher: Now the Interpretive Center is named for Hurstville. What is that all about?
Anne Burns: Well, Alfred Hurst and his brother William came from the Davenport area in the 1870s and found a spot where they found the right kind of limestone to make what was called unslaked lime which is the powder that was used to make the mortar which was used for building foundations back at the turn of the century.
Dan Kaercher: And what happened to Hurstville?
Anne Burns: Hurstville declined in the mid-1930s to 1940s and what happened there was what was happening kind of all over the country. We had the Depression going on which decreased demand for building products.
Dan Kaercher: What if people want to visit? What hours and days are you open?
Anne Burns: We are open seven days a week except some of the major holidays and on weeks we are open 12pm to 5pm, but the grounds out here are open all day long really.
Dan Kaercher: After our visit to the Hurstville Interpretive Center it was back on the road to the Bluff Lake Catfish Farm. When we visited the area the caves at the Maquoketa Caves State Park were closed to protect local -- from something called White Nose Syndrome. However the Iowa DNR has reopened the caves to visitors. After making it through the state park and still more winding Jackson County roads we crested a hill. There we spotted an unassuming building by a pond in a secluded little valley. Linda Wells, is the daughter of the original owner Clayton Kuhlman and has been working at the restaurant since 1972. She tells us the remarkable story about how that pond and building came to be.
Linda Wells: My dad had a house in town and he traded it for this farm which is approximately 100 some acres. But my stepmother on the weekends liked to fish. So to keep everyone in the family happy he built this pond and he put a camper on the hillside for her and stocked it with catfish.
Dan Kaercher: Clayton Kuhlman sold the place in 1977 but kept it in the family selling to Linda's mom and stepdad.
Linda Wells: You know they did a handshake, they counted the money, and the place was my stepfather's.
Dan Kaercher: Word spread throughout Jackson County about the hideaway with the fantastic catfish. People started coming from all over and on weekends were packing the place.
Kory Kuhlman: We keep things pretty normal. We get a lot of people from cities and they just like to get away from their jobs and you can come out here and just disappear for awhile.
Dan Kaercher: When you decide to make the trip to Bluff Lake be prepared to wait. The restaurant doesn't accept reservations. No exceptions.
Linda Wells: A lady called me from California asking for reservations and we don't take reservations. So, it was a little hard for me to tell this person from California "Oh, sorry you are coming all this way but we don't take reservations".
Dan Kaercher: Please don't let the long lines scare you. There are plenty of things to keep you busy while you wait for an open table. They can sit on the decks and sit outside and have a drink. We serve them popcorn.
Kory Kuhlman: And have a family conversation and just kind of hang out here.
Dan Kaercher: I did notice you have a gift shop too.
Linda Wells: Yes. We opened that up in March. We try to get as much handmade stuff as we can from the local people and give some people something to look at while they are waiting for their supper too.
Dan Kaercher: But most people don't come for the gift shop and pretty trees. They come for the food. So, when you get your table be ready to eat. This relaxed family restaurant backs up its reputation with dish after dish of hearty meals. It is called the Catfish Farm but you don't actually raise catfish do you?
Linda Wells: No, that is how it started. Actually dad would stock the ponds. My brothers would sane them out or a customer would fish for their fish. My brothers would clean it and then bring it to me.
Dan Kaercher: But nowadays the Bluff Lake Catfish Farm specializes in all you can eat meals. So, it is just a real hidden treasure.
Customer: It is a hidden treasure. Yes. We love it.
Dan Kaercher: After a long day of exploring Jackson County I was ready to dive into some haddock from the Bluff Lake kitchen. Oh boy. Nice bit sized pieces of haddock. Which I understand is the Cadillac of the cod family according to Linda. Very good. Wonderful flavor on the breading. I got to try grandma's coleslaw. Very fresh tasting. It is a sweet coleslaw. Not too tangy. There is just some extra flavor there. I am going to have to just pry that out of Linda. Something special in that flavor. Pretty good. Bluff Lake Catfish Farm has been serving up favorites for more than 40 years and when you are here as they say "you are family".
Kory Kuhlman: There is a lot of customers that, you know, keep coming here and I have known for years and they are wonderful people and I think of them as family. No matter the season, Jackson County offers visitors hidden gems around every bend.