Category Archives: Midwest

Heritage Radio Talks Heartland

The great food radio organization, Heritage Radio Network, is putting together a delightful new series titled “Eat Your Heartland Out.” This series of podcasts will include interviews with a wide range of experts on topics related to the food, culture, and history of the Greater Midwest. Happily, they invited me to comment on the diversity and abundance of the Midwest, which is one of my favorite themes.

If you’re interested to hear not only what I have to say but also what a couple of other experts think, the link is below. Note that, in this introductory entry, we’re kind of all over the place, as far as time frame. I’m mostly talking 1800s, but Lucy Long talks about Green Bean Casserole, which didn’t come along until 1955. So pretty diverse approaches.

Enjoy. https://heritageradionetwork.org/podcast/welcome-to-the-heartland-an-introduction-to-midwestern-foodways/

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Still Charming: Historic Long Grove

 

When I was a youngster, my family often drove out into what was still the countryside—farmland, orchards, and such. These outings occasionally involved the 20-mile drive to Long Grove. It was a town where just about all the stores sold antiques, and so it was a place my mom loved to visit. I loved the look of the place even then, before I understood the village’s significance.

The Village of Long Grove was settled in the 1840s. Though the first settler was from New England, those that followed were almost entirely German. (Worth noting: in the 1800s, the Germany we know today did not exist. The term “German” referred to people groups who shared Germanic ethnicity, language, and culture. There were Germans living in Russia, in Poland, in Austria, but also in many small principalities, kingdoms, and duchies, such as Bavaria, Hesse, Prussia, Baden, and Saxe-Coburg, home of Victoria’s Prince Albert.) Even today, with considerably more diversity, it’s still a very German town.

But the point of the story is that it is still very much as it was. When it started, the town was remarkably far from other settlements, but as suburbs spread outward from Chicago, farms and old buildings were vanishing. However, in Long Grove, the residents decided to preserve both the old buildings and the feel of the town—no neon, lots of trees, gardens and open spaces, one-lane road, original covered bridge—which, along with its venerable buildings, earned it the designation of first historic district in Illinois.

The reason I thought it would be good to post about Long Grove now is that two years of road construction on all the access roads that lead to the village are finally at an end, and people can get to the town.

The things being sold in the stores are different from what I saw when I was younger—but then part of that is because what constitutes an antique has changed. The old cider press is gone, but the building that once housed it still stands. In fact, most of the original buildings still stand. It is a town of independent businesses, and there are craft stores and gifts shops, places to buy chocolate and olive oil, galleries, a winery, and a few restaurants. And, happy to say, the Village Tavern is still in business—a place that remained part of my life long after mom’s antique shopping had ended. Opened in 1847, the Village Tavern of Long Grove is the oldest restaurant in Illinois.

The food at the Village Tavern is the kind of classic, fresh, made-from-scratch cuisine one would expect from a small-town restaurant, though with a lot more options than would have been available in 1847. Mary Ann Ullrich, who, with her husband, has been the owner since 1962 (only the fourth owner in 170 years), notes that they work to keep the feeling old-fashioned and historic, but they also know that customers want variety and interest. She relates that the fried fish is hand breaded using a recipe that was given to them by the previous owner—so historic in its own right. Though the restaurant is known for hand-cut steaks and hefty burgers, they have now added gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan options. Guacamole and Buffalo wings are among the offered appetizers. So holding on to the past and, at the same time, accommodating changes in demand.

Ullrich points out that the village is something of an island in suburbia, a quiet crossroads away from the rush of modern life. She relates that the covered bridge was recently added to the National Historic Register, which saved it from being scrapped when a truck driver damaged it. Instead of being scrapped, the bridge has been repaired, and the roof will go back on this spring. She also shares that when repairs and an expansion were needed on the restaurant, they used wood from old barns that had been torn down and architectural elements from other buildings, which enabled them to keep the antique look throughout the restaurant.

So, it’s a great time to get back to Long Grove. Updates are being made, now that the completion of road construction has residents feeling hopeful about being accessible again. However, if you plan to visit, be aware that Long Grove is famous for its festivals (the three biggest being Strawberries, Chocolate, and Apples) and concerts, so check before going if you’re looking for a quiet day in the country. Crowds can be surprisingly large on special weekends. Of course, if you like festivals, these are great ones. But whenever you go, do give yourself some time to wander around town and enjoy the ambience, the shops, the antiquity. It’s a lovely step back in time.

For more information on Long Grove, you can visit http://longgrove.org/ and for the Village Tavern, see http://www.villagetavernoflonggrove.com/

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Pursuing Midwestern History

I haven’t posted in a while because I’m wildly busy working on a new book. This one is about the astonishing history of the Midwest and all the places one can “visit” — from living-history venues to museums, large and small, to many other historic sites. I’m having great fun driving around the region, enjoying the remarkably beautiful forests of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and vistas across (and fish from) the Great Lakes. I’ve been exploring charming historic inns in Ohio and Illinois, fabulous museums in Nebraska and Kansas, forts in North Dakota and Michigan, reenactments in Indiana, French settlements in Missouri, German farms in Iowa, archaeological digs in South Dakota–though in reality, every state has a fabulous array of all of these things. Older states may have a few more places to visit (and a few more people to support those places), but there is no state that is not a delight. This is a remarkable region with a history far more important than most people realize. So I’m loving getting to both “see” and write about it.

But you don’t necessarily have to go far to visit a bit of Midwestern history. Historical societies in the region actually started up in the 1800s, and most towns or counties (depending on population density) have both societies and museums to display a society’s work. Within half an hour of my home, there are a dozen historical societies, housed in a wide range of buildings (from an entire town square, with church and schoolhouse, to a warehouse to a few large old homes). Just do an Internet search with the name of your town or county and the words “historical society” or possibly “museum”–and then go relive your home’s past, or possibly learn about a place you’ve just arrived. Bigger cities have bigger museums and state capitals usually have museums that cover the whole state. Everybody has history.

Here as an example: This is the DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton, IL. This museum offers a charming collection that traces details of local history, from farming to fashion, in a beautiful building that itself reflects the period in which it was built (1890)–and which also has a fascinating history (it was the first public library in Wheaton and one of the first libraries in Illinois to adopt the Dewey decimal system for cataloguing books).
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Filed under Geography, History, Midwest, Travel

The Still Mighty Mississippi

Often, when speaking of the Mississippi River, people think only of the southern part of the river (if they think of it at all). However, the Mississippi starts in Minnesota and half of the states it touches are in the Midwest. Even the name came from a northern people—it’s an Ojibwa word for “Big River.” I think a lot of people also think of the Mississippi as something from our past—especially if they have read Mark Twain. But it is a remarkable part of the world today. Because of its importance, past and present, I thought you might enjoy this video trip down the river, from its peaceful source to it’s often unruly mouth, 2,348 miles farther south.

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Beck’s “Why I Farm” Series

Beck’s Hybrids is a seed company that serves much of the Midwest, plus Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ve seen their signs at the sides of fields as I’ve driven around the Midwest, doing research for various books. But it was on YouTube that I really came to love them. A few years ago, they started a series of videos titled “Why I Farm,” featuring farmers in the region they cover—they actually sent someone out on the road to do interviews and record images—and the videos are wonderful. They are remarkably well made, with beautiful images and heartwarming stories of families who have been on the land for many generations, making sure the rest of us have enough to eat. Thought I’d share a couple here, but then you can just go to YouTube, search for Why I Farm, and see some of the others. I’m grateful to Beck’s for their having made these videos. We need to know farmers and appreciate them. And for what it’s worth, my experience with farmers as I’ve traveled around the region matches what is shown in these videos—solid, hard-working, loving, generous, open, creative, smart, God-fearing people who see themselves as stewards of the land and cherish what they do. Perhaps it is my own experience with farmers that makes these videos resonate. But I’m hoping they’ll appeal to others, as well.

Of the two I picked, the first one is very short, just to get you started—you can pick longer ones if you enjoy these as much as I do. The second one I included because it’s fun—a seventh-generation farm family that also makes great music, in this case, a song they wrote as response to the Why I Farm project. Because farmers can do a lot more than till the soil. Oh—and all the photos they show in the music video are from the family of those who are singing. Because they are real farmers.

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Filed under Agriculture, Culture, Farming, History, Midwest, Thoughts, Video

Talking Pigs

No –not pigs that talk — just me talking about pigs, and about my book Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. A while back, Brian O’Keefe at WDCB radio in Wheaton, IL, talked to me about my corn book. Happily, he thought that went well enough to warrant a discussion of my new book. So here’s the interview.

https://www.wdcbfirstlight.org/news/2019/9/15/the-role-of-pork-throughout-history

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Fred Harvey and the Taming of the West

My first experience of Fred Harvey’s work was as a child, driving with my family across Illinois. Every now and again, the highway is crossed by an oasis, a structure that bridges the highway and offers gasoline, restrooms, and food. Today, the food is an array of fast-food places, but when I was young, the entire dining area was a Harvey House Restaurant. Fred Harvey’s restaurants were nice places, with white tablecloths and good food. In the 1950s, people who weren’t even traveling would go to the oases to eat at Fred Harvey restaurants.

By the time I was experiencing them, the restaurants were run by Harvey’s sons, as Harvey had died in 1901. But Fred Harvey was famous, not only in his day, but long afterwards. He was the man who invented the restaurant chain, but more than that, he was the man who tamed the wild west.

During the Civil War, Harvey, who had experience in the restaurant business, had witnessed the importance of railways but also saw that feeding travelers was a real problem. (This was before trains had dining cars.) He came up with the idea of creating and running restaurants in train depots, starting with the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway, which connected Kansas (Atchison and Topeka) with the rapidly opening West. He brought in fine china and imported linens, as well as good cooks, but the juicy steaks the menu featured were not the key element of his operation. He brought in hundreds of Harvey Girls to serve in the restaurants. Knowing of the serious shortage of females on the frontier (and at this time, Kansas was still the frontier), many single women were eager for the opportunity the restaurants afforded. Uniforms (iconic outfits with black dresses and starched white aprons), accommodations, and transportation were all supplied, as well as a salary. Contracts simply required the girls to work for one year before leaving to accept a marriage proposal. Starting in Topeka in 1876, by 1891, Harvey had 15 locations.

The restaurants and their efficient, well-trained servers became so much a part of Western culture that they became the subject of a 1946 movie titled (not too surprisingly) The Harvey Girls, starring (among others) Judy Garland. The movie’s best-known song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” won an Academy Award.

Here’s a trailer for the movie, just to give you an idea how big Fred Harvey’s idea was.

If you want to know more and happen to be in Kansas, there is a National Fred Harvey Museum in Leavenworth. Alternatively, you could pick up Stephen Fried’s book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time (Bantam; 2010).

But it is a remarkable bit of history.

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Topeka Stop

I’d stopped in Topeka en route to Wichita at the urging of a friend who grew up nearby. I had not originally planned on this stop, but my friend said two things were absolutely worth seeing: the Kansas Museum of History and the Kansas State Capitol. So I wedged another half day into to my driving plan—and I was pleased that I did. I definitely agree that my friend’s choices were outstanding.

The museum was first. What seemed like a relatively small temporary exhibit took a surprising amount of time, as it offered a remarkable amount of history. For each of the 105 counties of Kansas, there was a story of a significant event or person, as well as some background on the county. For example, the death in 1872 of Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, probably influenced the naming of the counties of Horace, Greeley, and Tribune—primarily because he was a noted abolitionist, which was an important cause in Kansas.

That was a fun bit of information, but most of the counties were represented by historic firsts, remarkable discoveries, or important events. For example, Sumner county gave women the vote in 1887. Soon thereafter, the Quaker town of Argonia in Sumner County elected Susanna Madora Salter the first woman mayor in the United States.

Dr. Brewster Higley, who lived in Smith County, was probably a good doctor, but he is best known for a poem he published in 1872 titled “My Western Home.” Friend Daniel Kelley set the poem to music, and it became widely known as “Home on the Range,” now the state song of Kansas.

Chautauqua County’s Alfred Fairfax, who escaped slavery, fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to Kansas, and became the first African American elected to the Kansas legislature.

Lots of other stories, of rough-and-tumble towns, of striking oil, of poets and inn keepers, of Native Americans and African Americans were good reminders that there is almost nowhere you can go that doesn’t have some bit of interesting and even significant history.

And all that was before I even made it into the main part of the museum. And what a great museum it was. Big, impressive displays—such as a full-size tipi, full-size covered wagon, and an actual engine and a few cars from the famed Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe train line—make this museum not only educational but, along with all the stuff that can be touched or explored, also very kid friendly. The narrative moves from Native American to early Spanish and French explorers and trappers, to the waves of pioneers that swept in during the mid-1800s, through the Civil War, up to the present. Here’s a photo of just one of the many displays that help connect visitors to the past.

Bison

Exploring the museum one encounters a remarkable number of familiar names: Amelia Earhart, Dwight Eisenhower, Fred Harvey, Carrie Nation, plus all those associated with Wichita, from Clyde Cessna to Pizza Hut. Legendary lawmen included “Bat” Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickock. Exhilarating seeing how much “American history” is really “Kansas history.”

I could say more—I have pages of notes—but I’ll leave something for you to discover. To either see more about the museum, or possibly to even plan your own visit, here is their website. https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-museum-of-history/19578 Impressive place.

The capitol building is splendid—a great, domed edifice that makes it clear that it is to be taken seriously. However, the visit here was primarily to see the famous murals by John Steuart Curry, most notably the once-controversial painting of abolitionist John Brown. I enjoyed touring the impressive capitol building. Then it was time to head for Wichita, which fortunately turned out to be so wonderful that I didn’t feel bad about having only one day in Topeka. Still much more to see in Kansas than I fit in this trip. There needs to be a next time.

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Dining on the Santa Fe Trail

Driving through the Flint Hills, I was again delighted by their beauty. As I drove, I was reminded of an observation, stated in a variety of ways: that Europe may have more years than the U.S., but the U.S. has more miles. Crossing so much of the Midwest, I have been vividly aware of how true that is.

Today, I was heading to another historic town: Council Grove. I was definitely not going to have enough time here, as I had to keep going (promises made sometimes drive schedules). I would not have a chance to visit a number of museums and historic buildings that sounded interesting, but I was determined to visit Hays House Restaurant, the oldest continuously operational restaurant west of the Mississippi. But antiquity isn’t the only thing remarkable about Hays House. The builder, Seth Hays, was Daniel Boone’s great-grandson and Kit Carson’s cousin—so a little bit of extra history there. When Hays arrived here in 1847, he was also the first white settler of Council Grove. He had been sent to trade with the Kansa Indians (also known as the Kaw—the people for whom Kansas was named). He soon found himself also handling steadily increasing traffic along the Santa Fe Trail, on which Council Grove sits.

Hays initially built a log cabin and trading post, but by 1856, he needed to expand, as the numbers traveling on the Santa Fe Trail had grown so much. That’s when he built the restaurant that still bears his name. Then, in 1867, after 20 years in the log cabin, Hays built a brick house for himself, which today houses the museum of the Morris County Historical Society. In addition to the restaurant, Hays also started a newspaper for the town and opened the first bank.

Council Grove is as charming as one might hope. I drove through, admiring the layers of history evident in the tidy little town. I parked near Hays House and walked around a bit, discovering a few other places to add to my “next time” list, and then headed for the restaurant. It was too early for lunch and too late for breakfast, but there were still a few folks in the place. I asked the waitress what the fastest thing was I could order. She said biscuits and gravy. While I have a particular fondness for my own sausage gravy, this dish is usually reliably tasty just about everywhere, so I said yes, plus coffee. Still a long drive ahead. Enjoyed my late breakfast, and was delighted when the waitress offered me a large, lidded cup of iced water for the hours ahead on the road. Then I had to leave.

Definitely need to get back here sometime, to explore further. But I had an appointment in Kansas City, so I had to keep on moving.

Below are photos of the front of the restaurant, on the town’s main street, the National Historic Marker for the Santa Fe Trail, and an interior shot that reveals a bit of the older wood from which the building was built. Somehow, perhaps because I grew up with stories of Daniel Boone and the Santa Fe Trail, it seemed every bit as remarkable to be here as it did to visit much older places in Asia and Europe, to which I did not have quite so strong a cultural connection.

Hays House Restaurant

Santa Fe Trail Marker

Hays House Interior

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Before Leaving Wichita

I should probably note that there is vastly more to do in Wichita than go to museums. I was there specifically to do research, so I focused on history this time. However, I’m also a world traveler and know what it takes to make a great destination. As wonderfully worthwhile as the places are that I’ve mentioned, know that there is vastly more, both indoors and outdoors. But one can never do everything. In fact, in addition to theaters and hiking trails, restaurants and art galleries, breweries and botanic gardens and zoos, there are many other museums. And if you like camping, not only does Wichita camping outfitter Coleman have a museum, they have an outlet store.

Wichita is a dandy town in a lovely setting, surrounded by wide-open spaces. Definitely worth a visit, no matter what your interests might be.

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