Category Archives: Travel

One-Room Schoolhouse

Forest Grove No. 5

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.

Inside the school
Forest Grove class, 1940s.

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Seeking Chislic

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.

Meridian Corner, Freeman, SD

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.

Chislic by the Stick

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.

Chislic on right, Fleisch Kuchele on the left

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. 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.

Updated chislic at Urban Chislic in Sioux Falls

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.

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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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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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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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