A friend who had introduced me to a number of historic locales in central Illinois had told me I needed to stop in Pontiac next time I was nearby, and so on my way home a couple of months ago from a conference in Springfield, I did just that—and was, as always, pleased that I had. Because Pontiac offers a number of delights—not least of which is its position on the historic Route 66.
One of the things for which Pontiac is famous is its glorious murals. There are dozens, all over town, celebrating various aspects of the town’s history.
But the real draw, for most folks, is the Pontiac Museum Complex. This complex includes most notably the Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, which is packed with information about every iconic stop along the Illinois section of the Mother Road, along with a considerable amount of memorabilia from Bob Waldmire, an artist most noted for his detailed art capturing the essence of just about every inch of Route 66—but the whole thing, not just the Illinois section.
Equally remarkable is the War Museum, in the same building, and covering every era of conflict from World War I to the present. Hundreds of uniforms fill the many rooms of this section of the complex, representing all those from this area who served in every branch of the military. The volunteers in this museum are themselves veterans, and so they are happy to share their part of the story. In addition to information on service, there is also a section that recreates life on the homefront during the 1940s.
Small but still worthwhile museums within the complex include Music of the Civil War, Life on the Titanic, and more on artist Bob Waldmire. So definitely a worthwhile stop. Allow yourself a couple of hours to see it all—especially if, in addition to exploring the museum complex, you want to use the available map of murals to try to see them all.
The museums are free but, of course, donations are welcome. Volunteers are enthusiastic, but money is needed to keep the lights on.
I didn’t make it to the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum on this trip—but I have to leave something for next time.
My book, Destination Heartland, is not the only way one might have heard of the splendid historic site of Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, IA, but it is because I included it that I get regular updates. The reason updates are welcome is that in 2020, a horrific storm known as a derecho devastated a good bit of the Midwest, including Brucemore. (I actually did three posts on the derecho at the time, including this one, which offers a bit of history.)
I have followed the progress of repairs and just received this latest update. The damage on Brucemore is reported to have been among the most dreadful to any historic landmark in U.S. history. So I was glad to see the amount of headway that has been made. The Brucemore YouTube channel also has a shorter video that shows how extensive the damage was, including massive loss of old trees. There is still work to be done, but it is encouraging to see that so much headway has been made, and and definitely pleasing to see that Brucemore, while still hurt, has been able to resume its place as a center for the arts in the area.
While this blog has grown to include anything about the Midwest, it still focuses primarily on history and food. Of course, the name of the blog does make it clear that corn/maize is where we started. As the author of the book Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland, I clearly have an interest in that iconic American grain. So I thought I’d share a video on making cornbread 200 years ago. Happily, this video also connects Midwest Maize with my newest work, Destination Heartland, because the historic cooking reenacted here takes place in St. Genevieve, MO, which is featured in the new book. If you, too, like food and history, you may find much to enjoy on this channel. Hope you enjoy this visit to the past.
There are so many things for me to love at Forest Grove No. 5, a one-room schoolhouse in Pleasant Valley Township, Iowa (Quad Cities area). It is history. It is education. It is community.
Opened in 1873, this is the last of the five schools that once existed in this township. It made it possible for children on the surrounding farms to get an education that was probably better than what was available in many city schools.
What drew me to this particular schoolhouse was friend Alane Watkins, whose family once lived on one of the farms once served by this school—though it was her father and uncles who attended here, not Alane.
The school closed in 1957. Over the decades, the school had fallen into disrepair, until a group of volunteers, including Alane’s father, decided that perhaps it could be salvaged. The whole community got behind the project—and if you visit, there is a wonderful, professionally-produced video you can watch that documents the restoration but also interviews the remaining teachers and students still around at the time the project began. It is charming and heartwarming to see the community pulling together to save this bit of history. There are additional videos on their website: https://forestgroveschool.org/ The Forest Grove No. 5 schoolhouse reopened as a museum in 2021.
The school, which accommodated grades K–8, actually still sits on the site where it was originally built, and Alane points out that the massive oak trees on one side of the building were there back when the school was still in use.
Inside tremendous attention to detail has brought the school as close to what it was a century ago as is possible. As was the norm in one-room schoolhouses, desks are different sizes, with the smallest up front and largest at the back, to accommodate the multiple grades. Students would go to the blackboard by grade level, with other grades focusing on reading, writing, or other projects they could do on their own.
If you compare the photo from the 1940s (when Alane’s dad was a student there) to the photo I took a couple of weeks ago of the interior, you’ll notice that the globe on the right is above the level of the blackboard. The rope attached to it allowed it to be lowered when needed but keep it out of the way when it wasn’t.
Alane now works as a docent at the schoolhouse, but she is not alone in this. Others in the community participate, plus there are special events, such as a costumed teacher inviting local students for a full day of instruction as it would have occurred in the early 1900s. Slates, pens and ink, and old books make participation really engaging.
There is an information sign out front, that gives a good bit of additional intel, but try to be there when it’s open, as there is much more to see inside—and if you visit, definitely ask your docent to explain the Giant Stride out on the playground (chained now to keep visitors from using this once popular piece of equipment). And if you’re really good, they might even let you ring the school’s bell.
So if you have any reason to be in the Quad Cities area, consider dipping into a bit of the past at the Forest Grove No. 5 one-room schoolhouse.
Much of the fun of travel is discovering new foods. I’ve explored much of the planet and sampled a wide range of specialties, but I have also discovered that one need not go far to find new things. And I’m not referring here to ethnic restaurants (though I love those) but rather to local specialties that are cherished in towns, states, or regions, and that are cornerstones of life, though often hardly found outside their home bases.
One such specialty is South Dakota’s chislic. Chislic is an iconic food, particularly in the southeast corner of the state, especially around Freeman, home of an annual chislic festival. In 2018, chislic was named the “official nosh” of South Dakota. The dish is attributed to German/Russian immigrants who arrived in SD in the 1870s.
The “nosh” designation is because chislic is not a main course. It is essentially bar food. Meat on a stick might sound like shish kabob, but in this case, the meat is in half-inch cubes. Of course, order enough, and it can be a full meal. But mostly, it’s a snack.
Knowing this meant I had to plan to not only try chislic, but try it multiple times—and most especially, in Freeman, at a place almost iconically associated with the dish—Meridian Corner. This popular and attractive restaurant sits alone amid sprawling fields at the corner of Hwy 18 and Hwy 81, They serve full dinners and are known for their steaks, but a lot of folks who stop there are searching for chislic—because here, it is completely traditional, with roots going back to the 1870s. Many places (even Meridian Corner) experiment with other ingredients, but traditional chislic is lamb or mutton, so that’s what I ordered. Small cubes of meat threaded on skewers, deep fried (though some places grill them) and served with soda crackers and garlic salt.
Not as iconic as chislic, but also offered at Meridian Corner, is Fleisch Kuchele, a meat-filled pastry that somewhat resembles a Cornish pasty. So I settled down with one order of mutton chislic, one of lamb chislic, and one of Fleisch Kuchele. Enjoyed it all.
This would not be my last chislic while in South Dakota. I was headed for Sioux Falls, for a couple of days of exploring, and I made a point of looking up a newer spot: Urban Chislic. In this trendy venue, in addition to multiple meat options (lamb, of course, but also beef, chicken, pork, fish, venison, and bison) there are other variations. The meat is still cut in small cubes, but here, it is fried un-skewered and served in a bowl, along with one’s choice of dipping sauce (Thai chili, kung pao, buffalo, ranch, and half a dozen hot, hotter and hottest options). That said, the menu does carry “The 1870,” which is on skewers with saltines and garlic salt. But I’d had that in Freeman, so here, I got lamb and opted for garlic parmesan dip. Very tasty.
So if you get to South Dakota, while there is the usual variety of local and ethnic options, do try to find chislic for at least one eating opportunity. There’s a reason it’s still around after 150 years.
Recently joined a few friends at the Des Plains (Illinois) History Center for a tour. Des Plaines is a town on the banks of the Des Plaines River, in suburban Chicagoland, that dates back to the 1830s. Like most older towns, it has changed dramatically over the years. The name Des Plaines, which is French for “of the plains,” like most French place names in the Midwest, actually predates the establishment of the town. But when a town was started here, it was named for Socrates Rand, who constructed one of the cornerstones of the early American Middle West—a grist mill. A grist mill was a necessity for the success of a town in an area that raised grain, and so the town was named Rand. The road that runs nearby is still called Rand, but the town was renamed Riverview and then, in 1925, the town was incorporated using the earlier French name for the area.
Lots of fascinating history here, including the fact that Des Plaines was once famed for its greenhouses and the plants and flowers the provided. (If you ever have a chance to hear the lecture they give on that bit of Des Plaines history, which I heard last year, it’s worth the investment of time.) But much of the history of the town reflects the familiar history of so many other towns—more people, more businesses, more growth, more change.
Among the businesses started at the end of the 1800s was a hardware store run by a man named Benjamin Kinder. Initially, Benjamin, his wife Elizabeth, and their three sons lived above the hardware store. But the classic tale of good, honest labor leading to success eventually resulted in the Kinders and being able to afford, a real home—and in 1907, they built a lovely Victorian house. It was by no means a mansion, but it boasted all the latest modern conveniences, such as a wood-burning stove, running water, radiators (vs. fireplaces), and light fixtures that offered both electric and gas lights, to utilize whichever was available at any given time. (Because the house still exists, one must assume that they did a good job of making sure that no electric sparks made contact with the gas jets.) One unexpected item was the vacuum system built into the walls—just hook the hose up to the socket on the wall, rather than dragging around a vacuum (double benefit in a home that didn’t have electrical outlets in every room).
Surprisingly, the house was not built where it currently sits: It had to be transferred via flatbed truck to its current position, next door to the offices of the Des Plaines History Center. It was in this smaller, more recent building that we began our tour. This center has lots of photos, tremendously knowledgeable docents, and some wonderful relics from an earlier time. I loved the antique, wooden pinball machine, which is in good enough condition to allow visitors to play with it. However, our guide, Emma, told us kids were also enraptured by the old Royal typewriter and love typing on it. (Does make one wonder where how they still manage to find typewriter ribbons.) And then we headed next door, to the Kinder house.
A broad porch welcomes visitors, as do rocking chairs (along with a sign saying to please enjoy sitting in them). Inside, no opportunity is missed to make the home comfortable and clearly Victorian. Glass panels in the door and in the windows of the entry and front room are etched or beveled, creating a wonderful play of light inside. All curtains are lace, and doorways are all outlined in wood. The rooms are not large, but they accommodate all the proprieties of the day. Off the entryway is the parlor, which is where one would entertain guests. Aside from handsome chairs, the room holds numerous objects to contribute to that entertaining: an upright piano, an early phonograph (the kind one sees in photos of Edison, with the wax cylinders, not records), a couple of stereoscopes (devices through which one viewed images designed to create a 3-D effect, kind of like a ViewMaster).
Next was the sitting room, where the family would gather. One chair was pointed out as it was custom-made for Elizabeth Kinder, who was clearly very petit. Solid oak pocket doors make it possible to separate the parlor from the sitting room.
The dining room was set for dinner, with Haviland china and crystal wine glasses. Our guide pointed out that patterns on the china and colors of other elements in the room (including the lamp over the table) reflect the popular color scheme of the day: pink and spring green.
The kitchen, modern for its time, had hot and cold running water, a substantial pantry with built-in cabinets, and a separate room for the all-important ice box. Our guide shared photos of the ice man arriving with the blocks of ice necessary to keep food cool.
One set of stairs ascended directly from the kitchen to the upper floor. We were told that there were five bedrooms, though we only saw two (the rest are for storage or are awaiting appropriate artifacts). The room at the head of the stairs was for the live-in maid/cook. Here, a low bed with a quilt, a lace-draped chest of drawers, and a large wooden trunk were the dominant furnishings, and an oil lamp was a reminder that neither gas not electricity could be relied on a hundred percent of the time.
The house’s sole bathroom was next to the maid’s room. White porcelain claw-footed bathtub, sink, and toilet gave the tiled room a surprisingly Architectural Digest look. Then we walked to the room at the front of the house, where a double bed and more furnishings made it clear this was the parents’ bedroom. Interestingly, because this part of the house has curved walls, the radiators had to curve, as well.
The final room we saw upstairs was the sewing room, which had a vintage treadle sewing machine, as well as an antique Martha Washington sewing table, which I recognized from my own mother’s pursuits in sewing.
Back downstairs at tour’s end, we spent a few minutes wandering around outside, among the tidy, narrow garden between buildings. Interestingly, there are several items memorialized amid the lush hostas that line the garden path, including a salvaged mill stone from the old Rand grist mill.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection