Category Archives: Culture

White Fence Farm

The original White Fence Farm, in Romeoville, IL, essentially has two start dates. In the 1920s, Jack Peabody, who raised horses nearby, opened the restaurant to entertain out-of-town guests. No doubt due to the fact that there weren’t a lot of options in the area, the restaurant already had a substantial fan following by 1926, when Route 66 was opened, bringing ever more visitors to the farm. It was even reviewed by Duncan Hines, who popularized the concept of writing about food for travelers.

Then, in 1954, the farm was sold to Robert Hastert, Sr., and it remains in the Hastert family to the present. This is when the switch was made from burgers to chicken (chicken was still pretty much a luxury in the 1920s, hence the appeal of the promise of a chicken in every pot during the 1928 presidential race).

Today, it is a combination of history and reputation that bring people to the farm, whether the history of the area, the restaurant, or Route 66. In time, other White Fence Farm locations were opened, but the location in Romeoville is the original. And white fences still set off the farm from the surrounding green fields.

In addition to history, the fried chicken is the big draw here—but eating is not all there is to do. In the summer, there is an outdoor petting zoo, and year ‘round, the inside is filled with antiques, including vintage cars (remembering the Route 66 days), the Peabody collection of Currier and Ives prints, and examples of a wide range of once-common items, primarily dating to the early 1900s, from grandfather clocks to washing machines, toys to farm equipment. So a fun place to wander.

But if you do want to eat, the fried chicken is iconic. It has a crisp crust, rather than the heavy breading one generally expects (and nothing wrong with good breading, it’s just different), and meals are served with classic, old-time staples such as three-bean salad, pickled beets, coleslaw, and corn fritters. The spread in the photo shows “only” four pieces of chicken, because I was dining alone.

This may not be what is known as “destination dining,” but it’s a charming place that offers a fun bit of local history, whether you’re simply enjoying a day in the country, are a fan of Route 66, or are simply visiting the area for other historic sites (such as Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville or several excellent historic options in nearby Joliet).

https://www.whitefencefarm-il.com/

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Isle a la Cache Museum

Knowing that the Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville, IL, was on the actual island in the Des Plaines River where French voyageurs and trappers stopped and “cached” or hid supplies in the 1700s made it a fairly irresistible destination. Though it is close to a fairly built-up area, the island, which is owned and operated by the Forest Preserve District of Will County, seems surprisingly remote. Romeo Road leaves town and enters a wooded area as it crosses the river, and suddenly you’re at the entrance of the museum parking lot.

Isle a la Cache Museum, Romeoville, IL

While I would later take the time to enjoy the walkways, gardens, and forest preserve, my goal was the museum, and I headed there first.

This is not a big museum. You probably only need to allow yourself an hour—unless you get talking to the people who work there, who are enthusiastic about history. But it is no less worthwhile for not being huge.

In the 1600s-1700s, what is now the Midwest was still part of the sprawling region known as New France. Trapping and trade where the cornerstones of life—but not just for the voyageurs. Native Americans had always been active traders, with everything from food traditions to raw materials crossing the continent, from one end to the other. So when the French showed up, the Native Americans in this area—the Potawatomi—happily traded with these newcomers. The French got beaver pelts, and the Potawatomi got metal knives and pots, woven fabrics, and much more, and both sides were happy.

The museum offers both informative signs that explain what lives were like and displays that clearly illustrate what is being discussed. As one follows the story around the museum, life transforms from Native American to intertwined Native American and French to increasingly French.

On display are Native American tools for preparing an animal pelt, along with a pelt.

Information signs, like this one on what a trader’s life was like, give more details on what the displays illustrate.

Just as Native Americans happily adopted goods from the French, so the French happily adopted elements of Native American society, from foods to clothing to building canoes of birch bark.

The promise of New France increasingly drew people to the Americas, and as trade grew, so did settlements.

[Trade]

This display hints at the dramatic increase in French presence as time went buy.

A final display shows a hat shop in Paris, where the beaver pelts were turned into fashionable, water-proof hats.

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The Pioneers by David McCullough

I know enough history and geography to have understood that settling the Midwest could not have been easy. However, reading David McCullough’s book The Pioneers, about the first settlers in Ohio, really brought home not only how hard it was but also how remarkable the people were who were involved in this endeavor. As noted on the book’s cover, it was this period that “brought the American Ideal West.” Even before the U.S. Constitution was finished, the plans for what would become the American Heartland had a document guaranteeing religious liberty and banning slavery.

The book introduces us to people few remember but who played almost unimaginably important roles in not simply expanding westward but in creating what the U.S. would become.

Granted, there were difficulties—not just those of trying to build homes in a dauntingly inhospitable wilderness, but also those of conflicts, from the cultural conflicts with Native Americans to Aaron Burr plotting to split the country. But the triumphs were greater—starting with the plan for the new territory.

The Northwest Territory—so called because it was north of the Ohio River (the only relatively easy way to travel west) and west of the original colonies—was ceded to the U.S. after the Revolution by the British, who had taken it from the French. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was the document that established that the creation of states was intended, but also set forth the three priorities of those who were working toward settlement of the area: freedom of religion, absolutely no slavery, and an emphasis on education for everyone.

The Northwest Ordinance would have a tremendous impact on the nation’s future. McCullough notes that it has been compared in importance to the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

However, it is the individuals who make the story riveting. Heroes from the American Revolution, visionaries, builders, explorers, wives, children, doctors, traitors, troublemakers—a remarkable cast of characters populate this history. The hardships were numerous and included floods, plagues, earthquakes, economic depression, the War of 1812 (when the British thought they could retake “their” colonies), and the fact that the Little Ice Age (which ended in the mid-1800s) made winters snowier and colder than what we experience today.

A description of one of the key people in the successful settlement of what would become Marietta, Ohio, pretty well established what the pioneers were like—and why they succeeded. “Like so many born and raised on a New England farm in the eighteenth century and who served in the Revolutionary War, Rufus Putnam had known hard work and hardships, great sorrow and seemingly insurmountable obstacles most of his life. It was what was to be expected, just as one was expected to measure up.”

I could go on for much longer—so much to love and so much to learn. We are fortunate that most of these people kept diaries or wrote long letters (John and Abigail Adams were not alone in this tradition), leaving so many details. And we are fortunate that Mr. McCullough has gathered the stories into this book. As important as the Founding Fathers were, without a lot of other brave, visionary folks, the American ideal might never have made its way west.

If you have any love of history, I recommend this book to you.

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Indian Mounds

Traveling around the Midwest, one encounters a surprising number of Indian Mounds—ancient earthworks created by people actually identified as Mound Builders. This is not a single group, but rather a cultural trend among early Native American people who, for various reasons, created a wide range of mounds, from the pyramid-like Monks Mound at Cahokia to a range of animal effigy mounds to simple hills to mark events or burial sites.

I had always thought it was really lucky that so many of these mounds still existed in the region. However, I’m currently reading David McCullough’s wonderful book, The Pioneers, and he makes it clear that it was not luck. It, in fact, reflects the remarkable foresight and wide education and interests of those who built the nation, and particularly those who established the first settlements in what would become the Midwest—at the end of the American Revolution, a region then known as the Northwest Territory.

McCullough’s immensely worthwhile book is not about the Mound Builders (they had vanished centuries and even millennia before Europeans ever caught sight of the Americas)—but it does give us insight into why so many mounds remain.

McCullough details the reactions of both those making the first foray into the land so recently won from the British and those back East to whom they reported. The leader of the first party of settlers, Rufus Putnam, made careful maps of what he called the “Ancient Works.” There was much excitement focused on these mounds and earthworks. When Thomas Jefferson heard of them, he expressed his enthusiasm for studying them further. Putnam, after careful study, wrote about how perfect the work was, and he set aside the land on which mounds were found as parks and areas of study, not open to settlement or alteration.

I guess it is not entirely surprising, given the tremendous insight people at the time had of what was worth building and what was worth saving—insight demonstrated in the Declaration of Independence and in new Constitution being developed at the time of this exploration. What a remarkable period of time—and what a blessing that they had the foresight to protect both our freedoms and the antiquities they encountered. Only half way through the book and so looking forward to the rest of it.

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Burlington, Iowa

I love meeting new people and sharing information, so having a career that involves going places to give presentations delights me, even when the speaking engagement is only a few miles away. However, I increasingly get invited to speak places I’ve never visited before, and this has offered the delightful opportunity of exploring locations that I didn’t know about previously, seeing new things and learning wonderful bits of history.

To me, the name “Burlington” was pretty much only familiar from the Burlington and Northern Railroad. But I’d never been there—until I was invited to speak at the local college. What a delightful town this turned out to be. It’s on a bend in the Mississippi River (which never ceases to amaze me with its impressive size), hills rising up from the water’s edge, offering a downtown and residential area filled with wonderful 19th-century buildings.

The site was chosen by Zebulon Pike in 1805 as a good site for a government fort (those high hills offer remarkable views over the river). Burlington was settled in 1833, and from 1837-1838, it was the capital of the sprawling Wisconsin Territory. Then, until 1840, it was the capital of the Iowa Territory.

There is a 29-block area known as Heritage Hill that is home to Victorian, Greek and Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate houses. This area is also home to Snake Alley, named by Ripley’s Believe it or Not as the crookedest street in the world (even more so than San Francisco’s better-known Lombard Street). The reason it is so crooked is that, when the town was settled, people traveled on horseback, and in icy weather, you wouldn’t want to try to take a horse straight down a slippery street. The sharp turns on Snake Alley made it possible to get down the hill more safely.

Snake Alley

I had a lot of fun at my speaking engagement, meeting a wide range of charming, interested people. But I was equally happy that I had the next morning free to explore the historic district and riverfront. I stopped at the Heritage Museum, and as is so often the case in these very old towns, it was remarkably good. Then it was time to drive home. But what a lovely discovery.

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Another Farmer

While this blog covers a wide range of topics related to the Midwest, from culture and history to food and fun, I do seem to keep being drawn back to farmers–largely because my experience of farmers (both in person and via Internet) has been so different from what a lot of people (non-farmers that is) expect. They are generally educated, often multi-talented, warm, wonderful, enthusiastic, and they rejoice in their ability to grow things and feed people. If you go back through my posts, you’ll find plenty of evidence of this. But I’ve just come across a new farmer who adds a new dimension — cute, bouncy, young. This video is more than a year old and a more recent one relates that Nebraska farmer Laura is now nearing the end of her business degree. But in case you need more proof that farmers are not homely old hayseeds, here it is.

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Giants in the Earth

It is probably not going to come as too much of a surprise that I enjoy reading books about the Midwest and its history. There are more such books than some might imagine—some of them true classics. One of the classics is the novel, Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag. I read this shortly after returning from visiting Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which plays a part in the story—but also has a small park that has preserved buildings associated with the author and the people from whom he learned the stories that are the foundation of the book.

It is difficult to convey how wonderful this book is. Everything–characters, setting, life — is beautifully and lovingly drawn. You feel you really come to know the people and the setting. The stories are fictionalized but are based on the very real experiences, both triumphant and tragic, of Norwegians settling the Dakota Territory in the 1800s–based, in fact, on the recollections of children and grandchildren of the first settlers. The events are both astonishing and ordinary — from locust plagues and record snowstorms (so deep houses were buried) to simple meals and childbearing. The book makes it clear that, even when there weren’t disasters, life in the middle of nowhere was not easy, and harder for some than others.

The book also does an excellent job of reminding us that, in the 1800s, the Old World was very different from what it is today, when sharing a common country didn’t mean you shared anything else, such as dialects, traditions, and livelihoods, but it also shows how life on the frontier caused former strangers to meld together into a new people.

Interestingly, this book was written in Norwegian for Norwegians (though it was translated, happily, while the author was still alive, so he could shepherd the effort, making sure ideas and nuances were saved), so it is in some ways very Norwegian, and yet it is also very American, recounting the daunting task of surviving in the wilderness. (And if you get the version shown above, the intro includes the story of Rolvaag’s coming to the U.S., which is also a remarkable tale.)

The story moves at a leisurely pace. It’s not exactly a page-turner. But it is endlessly fascinating, drawing you in and carrying you along. It is also an important piece of American history, here saved from the excesses and interpretations of TV and movies. Highly recommended.

As an aside, related to the image on the cover: few things seem more representative of the American West than tumbleweeds, and yet these, too, were transplants. They were accidentally introduced by Russians who were settling in South Dakota. The seeds of the tumbleweed had gotten mixed in with the flax seed that they were planting. So while it is iconic today, it, too, is a relative newcomer.

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Corn to Whiskey

You may know, especially if you’ve heard me speak or read my books Midwest Maize or Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs, that getting corn to market was most commonly handled one of two ways. It could be fed to pigs, which could then walk to market. (This led to pigs being referred to as “cornfields on legs.”) Or it could be converted to whiskey. Of course, in addition to getting the corn to market, albeit in an altered state, the advantage of both of these approaches was that it gave those growing the corn both meat and drink.

For those who might be interested in how corn got converted to whiskey back in the 1700s, here’s a video from Townsends demonstrating the entire process. What was being created on farms of the time would not generally be elegant, aged whiskey, but rather a strong, clear, “white” whiskey. So not necessarily good whiskey, but it got the job done.

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Wilmot Stage Stop

I love history. I love food. And I’m particularly pleased when the two come together. Among the wonderful, historic venues in which I’ve dined, I have found former stage coach stops to be good, reliable fun. In 2014, a year before I started the Midwest Maize blog, I posted in The World’s Fare (one of my other two blogs) about a couple of stage coach stops I had enjoyed, one in Michigan and one in California. But I have now found a historic stage coach stop closer to home: The Wilmot Stage Stop in southern Wisconsin.

Built in 1848, this is the oldest tap and dining room in Wisconsin. It was a place where those traveling by stage coach between Galena, IL, and Kenosha, WI, could stop during a long trip for a meal, entertainment, and a room for the night. As you can see from this early photo, the exterior still looks much as it did when the Stage Stop opened more than 150 years ago.

The food is hearty steakhouse fare, with its Wisconsin heritage reflected in abundant butter, sour cream, and brandy (WI being the top consumer of brandy in the U.S.).

Dinners come with rolls, butter, salads with house-made dressings, and a baked potato with a stunning amount of butter, plus sour cream. Steaks are cooked on a broad grill that is open to the dining room. Lobsters can be added to any meal, and one watches a steady stream of those emerge from the kitchen. (This is a popular place for special celebrations, so many lobsters are ordered.)

When your meal is done, you can climb the steep, wooden stairs to the second and third floors, which have been turned into a museum. Tours of the museum are offered Thursday through Sunday. The second floor was for dancing and billiards, and an old piano and vintage billiard tables with ivory balls are among the reminders of the entertainment offered. The third floor is where the overnight accommodations were located, and small rooms are furnished as they were during the heyday of the stagecoach.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be meeting friends from further north, to introduce them to this fun, historic spot. Looking forward to re-immersing myself in the past at the Wilmot Stage Stop.

Oh—and worth noting, should you visit: the door that faces the street is the original front door, used back when a stagecoach pulled up in front. Today, however, that door is locked, and the current entrance is on the back side of the building, facing the parking lot.

Wilmot Stage Stop
30646 113th Street
Wilmot, WI 53192
http://www.wilmotstagestop.com/

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Swiss Cheese Salad

Monroe, Wisconsin, attracted me for several reasons. There is a museum that celebrates cheesemaking (the delightful and informative National Historic Cheesemaking Center). It is home to the oldest cheese shop in a state that is practically defined by cheese (Baumgartner, which sits on the town square). And it is the location of what is likely the last Swiss Turner Hall in the U.S.

Turner Halls were/are community centers in German-speaking communities. The halls generally include meeting rooms, event spaces, and somewhere to eat and drink, but the real focus was gymnastics—because Turner means gymnast in German (or, more precisely, a member of a Turnverein, or gymnastics club).

Monroe is at the heart of Green County, which was settled by Swiss immigrants and still has a largely Swiss population. There are cheese makers scattered about the countryside and an annual event at the Cheesemaking Center where cheesemakers hand-craft cheese using the antique equipment. So cheese is common, and of course styles from Switzerland dominate.

Monroe is sometimes called “the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States.” It was because of this claim to fame that, in the Ratskeller Restaurant at the Turner Hall, while all the Swiss specialties on the menu looked good to me, I was particularly attracted to the Swiss Cheese Pie. (That said, as good as the pie was, I now want to go back and try two or three other specialties on the menu.)

Not too surprisingly, I eventually found myself in possession of a nice chunk of Wisconsin Swiss Cheese. Lovely stuff. When I had consumed all but the last quarter pound, I came up with an idea that I thought was worth trying: Swiss Cheese Salad. I chopped the cheese into fairly fine dice, chopped a couple of tablespoons of sweet onion (or just a little less diced onion than you have diced cheese), combined the two, and added enough mayo to hold it together. It was great.

As I enjoyed it, it occurred to me that it was unlikely I was the only person who had ever had such a flash of inspiration. I did a search for Swiss Cheese Salad and learned that, indeed, I was not the first person to come up with the idea. However, my version was much simpler than the other versions I found, which means it is more likely that I’ll make it again. But definitely try it. Very tasty. However, as a food historian, it also reminded me how hard it can be to identify the origins of some dishes—because some food ideas occurred to multiple people in multiple locations.

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