Category Archives: Midwest

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 – Outdoors

If you do visit Isle a la Cache Museum, leave yourself a little time to enjoy the island, at least if it’s a reasonably nice day. Information signs are as abundant outdoors as in, showing what creatures you might see there, which can include bald eagles, migratory songbirds, mink and a lot of different turtles.

Pollination of native plants is a theme in the surrounding gardens, with flowers and more information signs. I was interested to note the “pollinator hotels,” safe spaces for migrating insects. These keep insects near the plants that need their “services.”

But aside from learning opportunities and wildlife, it’s just pleasant wandering amid the lovely grounds, which offer vistas ranging from forest primeval to something from a Monet painting.

Also on the property are recreations of a Potawatomi longhouse and a trapper’s hut. These are primarily used for special events, visiting school or scout groups, and other forms of education, but they still add to the overall experience.

https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/preserves-trails/visitor-centers/isle-a-la-cache-museum

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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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New Book Ready for Pre-Order

Why pre-order a book? Right now, prices on everything are going up, but if you order the book now, the price is guaranteed. It’s available on all the usual sites (including Amazon and the publisher’s, U of IL Press).

This is a fun book filled with surprising tales and delightful destinations. I take you along as I explore a much-overlooked region, the American Midwest. Everyone from Wyatt Earp to Henry Ford is there. Don’t just read about history, but learn where you can explore more about Native Americans, the Pony Express, shipwrecks, the Underground Railroad, early pioneers, the Civil War, railroads, and a lot of stuff that will make you wonder why it got left out of your textbooks!!!

Don’t be scared by the price of the cloth-bound library version. That is for libraries. The general population version is paperback and only costs $19.95 — and the e-book is cheaper still. But you owe it to yourself to pursue this adventure. The Midwest and its past really are remarkable—and the present is pretty cool, too.

University of Illinois Press

Amazon

Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.

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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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Walnut Cheese

If you’re always on the lookout for something, you’re likely to find it. For me, history, beauty, and food are among the things for which I am generally on the lookout. As a result, I usually find one or more of these things. For example, when I was invited to speak a while back in Will County, I noticed that they had a display of locally produced foods. I bought some of their cheese, all made in Walnut, Illinois. I looked up Walnut, found where it was located, and next time I had a speaking engagement in that general direction, I sought them out.

Walnut Cheese’s chalet

One might expect to see this in Wisconsin, but there it was in Central Illinois—a Swiss chalet, with a cow perched on the balcony. The founder was, in fact, Swiss, so this was a touch of home at one time. Inside, it looked even more Swiss, with handsome wood décor and cow bells hanging overhead. And lots of cheese. Happily, they had plenty of the yummy blue cheese that I’d picked up in Will County, and I bought more of that, as well as some Havarti. I also tried some of their less conventional cheeses, including a lovely sharp cheddar with cherries.

Lots of charm–and cheese–inside the chalet.

Granted, this is not a staggering, mind-blowing cheese pavilion like Mars Cheese Castle in Wisconsin, but it’s a lovely surprise in a place I didn’t think to look for a chalet or a selection of cheeses. It was another reminder that there are fun things to be discovered everywhere. And even a little adventure is a good thing.

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Shelbyville, IL

Shelbyville, founded in 1827, is a delightful little town set in a gently rolling countryside on the edge of a fairly large lake. It has a charming, historic downtown and imposing county courthouse. And, like most places in Central Illinois, it has an Abraham Lincoln connection, memorialized in, among other things, a statue in front of the courthouse that shows Lincoln debating political rival Anthony Thornton.

I was in Shelbyville to give a presentation as part of a Smithsonian project, and I was staying in the place recommended by the people who had booked me: the Shelby Inn. Or, to be more correct, the Shelby Historic House and Inn. Because the historic house, the Tallman House, a 1904 Victorian confection, is on the Register of Historic Places, but the rest of the inn is a bit more recent—though decorated to look charmingly historic. But you can’t stay at the inn without entering Tallman House, because that is where the registration facility and business offices for the inn are located. Therefore, simply checking in (and out) gets you a taste of history—and the manager happily allows a bit of exploration when you get to the Tallman House (which has been lovingly restored and filled to its 1904 glory).

Tallman House-Shelby Inn

While the town is historic enough on its own, it’s still fun to add the partly historic hotel. And even though Shelbyville is not likely to be chosen as a destination by those coming from far away, it’s history and lake (for fishing and boating) is popular among those nearby or passing through. Of course, if you’re tracing Lincoln’s travels, it’s a nice place to stay—and a good reminder that there are a lot of historic spots, wherever your travels take you.

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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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