Prairie Kitchen Store raises funds and awareness during the University of Iowa Natural History Museum’s closure

Prairie Kitchen Store is supporting the UI Museum of Natural History by selling miniature plushies of Iowa City cultural icon, Rusty the Giant Sloth.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

The Prairie Kitchen Store on N Linn St is selling Rusty the Sloth stuffed animals to help raise money for the Natural History Museum. Rusty waits outside for the Natural History Museum to open on November 11 2020.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

Rusty, a giant-sloth replica, stands at 9 feet tall with 6 inch claws in the Iowa Hall of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

People visited the interpretive replica at its home in the UI’s MacBride Hall for 35 years, until the COVID-19 pandemic caused the museum to close temporarily beginning in March.

According to Vox, the UI Museum of Natural History is far from alone when it comes to museums struggling during the pandemic. Many don’t have enough money reserved to carry them through the pandemic without concerns for the future.

Prior to the museum’s ongoing closure, miniature stuffed versions of Rusty could be purchased in its gift shop. Now, local and family-owned business Prairie Kitchen Store sees an opportunity to help. Proceeds from the store’s Rusty plushies will go toward the museum’s future.

Alex Felker, the youngest of the family business trio, grew up in Iowa City. Between field trips and visits with his family, he became very familiar with Rusty and the museum’s gift shop.

Felker said Prairie Kitchen Store opened with an intention to give back to the community, especially in areas of the environment and conservation. Felker said helping the museum seemed like a great way to begin that community outreach.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because there’s a lot of uncertainty going on with the pandemic,” he said. “I think the Rustys project warmth and comfort, and people are delighted to see them in the store and learn about them.”

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In addition to the plushies, Prairie Kitchen Store will host other Rusty-themed sales during December. Felker said the store will auction gift baskets and sell Rusty Christmas ornaments.

All Rusty sales will end on Christmas Day. Until then, they can be purchased at Prairie Kitchen Store or delivered free of charge to the Iowa City area, in collaboration with the Iowa City Downtown District.

Maeve Clark, a former Iowa City Public Library librarian who purchased two Rusty plushies for the holiday season, heard about the sale through social media. Like Felker, she visited the museum growing up. During her time at the university, she attended many classes in MacBride Hall.

“I’ve always felt a kinship to MacBride Hall,” Clark said. “It seemed like this was such an easy thing to do to support them, and Rusty is such an iconic part of the university, I felt very happy to get them.”

Pentacrest Museums Communications Coordinator Jessica Smith said Rusty is beloved by many museum goers.

“I think he’s sort of the Herky of Iowa City museums,” Smith said. “To scientists and museum lovers, Rusty is the unspoken hero around campus.”

Smith said the love for Rusty goes deeper than his mascot status. For museum goers, he’s symbolic, and serves as a reminder of 150 years of fond memories made at the museum.

“A lot of folks visited here as their first museum, then grew up and brought their kids and grandkids here,” she said. “It’s really special because of that, and Rusty is a huge part of that.”

To see more of Rusty, the museum’s website offers “Rusty’s Playtime,” a series of educational videos of a miniature Rusty plushie doing various activities.

Smith and Felker said working together was an easy and enjoyable process. Felker said he hopes to organize more community outreach programs in the near future.

“We would absolutely like to continue the spirit of working with the community,” Felker said. “There’s a lot of groups in Iowa City that work with conservation and prairie work, so we definitely plan to work with them.”