G. KunzBy B Ang
Thanks to Hollywood and its recent blockbuster, Lincoln, Illinois and its most famous son, Abraham Lincoln are back in the spotlight.
Whet Your Appetite in Western Illinois
Western Illinois is also known as the Great River Country with the Mississippi River on its western boundary and the Illinois River on the east.
Kayaking, canoeing or jet-skiing are the best ways to experience the confluence of the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri rivers up close. The river towns in this area attract many visitors – Alton features great antique shops, B&Bs and historic tours while Elsah seems to be frozen in time. Grafton offers a haunted hotel, winery and the Pere Marquette State Park.
Tom FosterIn winter, Alton boasts the largest concentration of American bald eagles in the continental U.S. To kick-off the eagle watching season, the Alton-Audubon Eagle Festival in January provides information on how to spot them and where to look, plus a live eagle meet-and-greet session. There are several choice spots to see these birds of prey – one is with a nature expert at Pere Marquette State Park during Bald Eagle Days from late December to early March. The other is at Melvin Price Locks & Dam for a bird’s-eye view of them soaring along the Mississippi River.
To soak in the great outdoors, the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail runs parallel to the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, and the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. This paved route goes through Elsah and Grafton.
The 11 historic sites along the Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail offer visitors the chance to walk in the footsteps of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Civil War soldiers from both North and South. Also, Confederate soldiers were held captive, died and were buried here.
The J.E. Robinson Underground Railroad tells how the Alton community helped slaves to cross the Mississippi River to become free in the state of Illinois. Brave souls can join in the Mineral Springs Haunted Tours that include an investigation of the Mineral Springs Hotel, participation in a seance and tarot card reading.
Nestled in the Mississippi River Valley, Galena oozes historical charm. Its Main Street has more than 100 carefully preserved 19th-century red brick buildings that have been converted into charming boutiques, art galleries and eateries. Illinois’ oldest operating hotel, the Victorian-style, 55-room DeSoto House Hotel (circa 1855) can also be found here. Soak in the charm of Galena in horse-drawn carriages or sleigh rides in the winter.
For some supernatural legends, the Annie Wiggins Ghost Tours hopes that guests “will be entertained and maybe a little frightened”. Led by a guide clad as Annie Wiggins in her black tattered mourning gown and veil, and carrying a lantern, it covers Galena’s historic sites and cemeteries.
The Black Hawk State Historic Site on Rock Island was home to prehistoric Indians and 19th-century settlers. It is most closely identified with the Sauk nation and its great warrior, Black Hawk. Located within this pristine park is the John Hauberg Indian Museum featuring Sauk and Meskwaki Native American Indian artifacts and displays.
While on Rock Island, catch one of go-karting’s largest cash purses at the Grand Prix One from August 31 to September 1. Kids will also enjoy the stunts performed by professionals at the Backwater Gamblers Water Ski Shows from May 26 to September 1.
The second East West Riverfest held September 6 to 22 celebrates the arts, culture, history and the Mississippi River with concerts, art fairs, live theatre, ballet and river cruises. Or hop onboard the 800-passenger Celebration Belle riverboat that operates on the Mississippi River from April to October.
Or, take it easy and sample some vino from one of the 70 wineries in the region.
A Learning Experience
Central Illinois, a.k.a. Land of Lincoln, was once the stomping ground of 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln with Springfield being home to the largest number of Lincoln-related sites around.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum traces the life of Lincoln and houses artifacts like his stovepipe hat and an original copy of the Gettysburg Address. Also, special effects theatres bring historical figures and the Civil War battlefield back to life.
Linda DittmerDuring the Living History event in the summer, costumed actors like “Lincoln” regale visitors with “back porch” stories at the Museum. Then there’s “General Grant” or one of the “boys in blue” from the Civil War at the Old State Capitol. Spooky stories surrounding Lincoln have resulted in the Lincoln’s Ghost Walk: Legends & Lore tour, which is based on historical facts and includes reported ghost sightings.
For something different, head to Scheels, a sporting goods store that features an old-fashioned shooting gallery, and simulators for various sports including NASCAR racing and hockey. There is also a 20-metre Ferris wheel and a 16,000-gallon saltwater aquarium inside the store.
Route 66 winds its way through the city offering kitschy roadside attractions (e.g. Shea’s Gas Station Museum) and diners. Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac boasts one of the finest memorabilia collections of the Mother Road in Illinois. In September, celebrations abound during the International Route 66 Mother Road Festival.
Visitors to the thriving Amish community in Arcola can sign up for tours and a traditional meal in an Amish home, plus experience first-hand, cheese production, candy making and baking Amish-style. Arcola is also home to the Johnny Gruelle Raggedy Ann & Andy Museum featuring the famous dolls, drawings and collectibles.
Jake SoperIn Decatur, the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum showcases extensive Chevrolet memorabilia including classic and race cars. The courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced can be found at Macon County History Museum and Prairie Village. Other historic buildings here include a railroad depot (1880), one-room school, smithy and print shop.
For a change in scenery, look for three covered bridges in the area. Chatham’s red Sugar Creek Covered Bridge was constructed in 1880 to accommodate horse-drawn wagons. The Thompson Mill Covered Bridge (1868) near Cowden spans the Kaskaskia River while Cumberland County Covered Bridge near Greenup is the longest single span covered bridge at 61 metres. This timber bridge replaced an early 20th-century metal and concrete bridge.
Artsy Oak Park
About half-an-hour’s drive from downtown Chicago and the airports lies the village of Oak Park.
This historic community is home to the world’s largest collection of buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of these are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for instance, the cubist concrete Unity Temple and Prairie-styled houses.
Oak Park has also produced some well-known figures in history including Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan; Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s; and Ernest Hemingway where each July, a festival is held to commemorate his birthday. Fans of the author can visit the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and the Hemingway Museum to see rare photos of Hemingway, his childhood diary, letters, early writings and other memorabilia.
This very arts-oriented Village is filled with more than 40 galleries, studios and antique shops featuring the works of local artists. Among its 12 distinct shopping districts, stopping in at the Farmers’ Market is highly recommended. Live bluegrass music fills the air while shoppers check out not only fresh and local produce but also unique, one-of-a-kind items for sale. Next door, the Pilgrim Church offers freshly made warm donuts, juice and coffee – be warned, these donuts have a devoted following.