Tag Archives: Illinois

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


Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.


Filed under Food, Geography, History, Midwest, Recipe, Thoughts, Travel

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.


Filed under Food, Midwest, Travel

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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Filed under History, Midwest, Travel

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/


Filed under Culture, Food, History, Midwest, Travel

Bored Soldiers and Empty Shells

One advantage of having speaking engagements all over Illinois is that I often get to explore the lovingly created local history museums that commemorate the lives and people of a town or county. A couple of months ago, I was booked by the Putnam County Historical Society for a gathering to be held at the county’s museum in Hennepin, Illinois. Most of these museums include, among other things, displays about the local population’s involvement in the various wars in which the U.S. has fought. I’ve seen a fair number of uniforms, souvenirs, and memorials, but in Hennepin, I saw a display of something I hadn’t seen before: trench art.

Trench art is defined as “objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare.” The term is most commonly associated with World War I, since that is the war that is best known for its use of trenches. While actual combat is horrifying, a lot of wartime is spent waiting for something to happen. When soldiers had nothing else to do, some of them started making things out of whatever they could find, with the most commonly available material being the brass of empty shell casings. The tools soldiers had to work with might be nothing more than a bent nail, and yet the work they produced was often suprisingly beautiful. Here is part of the display of trench art from the museum in Hennepin. A remarkable reminder of how beauty can be salvaged from even the worst situations.

And a closer look.

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Filed under Culture, History, Midwest, Uncategorized

Ray Bradbury and Carnegie Library

In July of last year, I posted about the remarkable rags-to-riches story of Andrew Carnegie and the thousands of libraries he built with the money he made, as a demonstration of his belief that education was vital to success. Iconic, award-winning American fantasy and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury was among the millions who benefited from having a local Carnegie Library.

Born in Waukegan, IL, in 1920, Bradbury had started writing by the time he was eleven. He was an avid reader, and he spent much of his childhood at the Carnegie Library in Waukegan. “Libraries raised me,” Bradbury once said. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression, and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Bradbury’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles, and Bradbury became incredibly famous, with awards ranging from the Pulitzer to an Oscar. His fans are legion.

Today, the Waukegan Carnegie Library is in disrepair, but efforts have begun to restore and renovate it, not just as a library, but as a memorial to Ray Bradbury. The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library, Inc., has as its goal the creation of a “Theater of the mind,” where one can admire the restored library but also have a memorable “Ray Bradbury experience.”

At this stage, the library is not yet available for visitors, but the organization that is doing the renovation is hoping that they can interest both scholars and donors in contributing to their efforts to bring “Bradbury’s library” to life. To donate or to sign up for their email newsletter, visit http://www.bradburycarnegie.org/ (not just for project updates, but also for information on opportunities, such as tours of Bradbury’s Waukegan or presentations on Bradbury’s work). Of course, if you live nearby, if you’re a fan of Bradbury or Carnegie, they’d be glad to have you join the team.


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Filed under Culture, History, Literature, Midwest, Thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized


My speaking engagements often take me far afield, sometimes to big cities on the East Coast, but mostly around the Midwest. I have discovered that there is almost nowhere I can go that doesn’t have something to offer that is of interest.

Last year, I was invited down to Carterville, in southern Illinois, to do two of my programs. Carterville is a small town, but big enough to have a college. And like all places, it has things worth seeing. Granted, when I go somewhere to speak, I don’t always have a lot of free time, but I can usually fit in a little something.

On this trip, there were two memorable “somethings” that got fit in. The town was officially established in 1871, but settlement dates back as far as 1818. Carterville has a number of museums and historic sites, but the “history fix” I managed to fit in was a tour of the Harrison/Bruce Historical Village, a five-acre “village” with a museum and a number of historic buildings moved to the site, including the Purdy School (1860), Hunter cabin (1818), and a log cabin-general store and post office. Always wonderful to see how things were once done. While methods have changed, goals rarely have: have enough to eat, be as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, and get done what needs to be done.

Log cabin and old plow, Harrison/Bruce Historical Village in Carterville

Log cabin and old plow, Harrison/Bruce Historical Village in Carterville

The other “something” was a barbecue joint that I’d been told about even before leaving Chicago: “You’ve got to get to 17th Street Grill.” It’s actually not in Carterville, but in the next town over, Marion, but they’re so close, most of the folks in the restaurant were from Carterville. With an owner who regularly brings home trophies from barbecue competitions and a wall full of impressive reviews (including “best ribs in the U.S.” from Bon Appétit and “best wings” by Food & Wine), it felt like a good place to be. In fact, it was good enough that I got there twice in the two nights I was in town. That gave me a chance to try both their brisket, and their ribs. Both were outstanding—good smoke rings, great sauces, perfectly cooked. Appetizers were wonderful, too, particularly the highly regarded chicken wings, as well as the Southern fried pickles.

17th Street Grill, Marion, IL

17th Street Grill, Marion, IL

I was amused to note that the benches outside were sleeping pigs. Definitely a place where pork is taken seriously—and whimsically.


Anyway, keep an open mind as you travel, because there are remarkable things everywhere, from archaeological digs to state forests, museums to old mansions, and even a few really top notch places to eat—even in places smaller than Carterville.

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Filed under Culture, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Railway Museum in Union, Illinois

In Midwest Maize, I go into some detail about the impact of trains on the U.S. as a whole and the Midwest in particular. In the mid-1800s, trains changed everything. Suddenly, people could travel and goods could be moved faster and farther than ever before. For those who are fans of trains and interested in their history, the Illinois Railway Museum—the largest railway museum in the United States—is a joy and delight. Stations, signals, train cars, engines (including some you’ve seen in movies), platforms, streetcars, and miles of track give the visitor access to the full history of trains. Unlike many museums, however, this is purely a labor of love. Here are a few images, to hint at what lies in store for anyone who makes the trip to this remarkable museum. (And if you do want to visit, here’s their website URL: http://www.irm.org/)

The Welcome Sign offers important info about the museum.

The Welcome Sign offers important info about the museum.

Take a ride in the streetcar before exploring the trains.

Take a ride in the streetcar before exploring the trains.

Travel was transformed when George Pullman added the dining car -- and kitchen -- in 1868.

Travel was transformed when George Pullman added the dining car — and kitchen — in 1868.

Trains from every period of train history can be seen.

Trains from every period of train history can be seen.


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Filed under History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Peoria’s Past

Peoria surprised me. It was larger and more handsome than I’d expected. One of the earliest European settlements in Illinois, the city was named for the Peoria Indians.

Peoria hugs the Illinois River—which, as mentioned in the last post, was a key part of the “circuit” that connected Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River.

One chilly, February day, I was in Peoria with a friend to visit the Riverfront Museum—there was a Chihuly exhibit she wanted to see. But, though I enjoyed the Chihuly,  I was there primarily because Peoria was once a huge part of the corn story. This city was once the biggest consumer of corn in the world. They had more than one use for corn, but the vast majority of it went to “feed” the distilleries that lined the river in old Peoria. When I tell people that Peoria was once the “Whiskey Capital of the World,” they find it hard to believe. But here, at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, were displays testifying to this one-time legendary aspect of this Illinois town. Things have changed – but it’s still fun to know how much things have changed.

Peoria Riverfront Museum

Peoria Riverfront Museum

Whiskey Bottles and map of Distillers Row

Whiskey Bottles and map of Distillery Row

The Peoria riverfront has changed.

The Peoria riverfront has changed.


Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel

Lockport, Illinois

The first transportation routes into the Midwest, aside from footpaths through forests, were lakes and rivers. Trains and roads would eventually replace reliance on natural waterways, but before that would happen, people created alternative waterways. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was an instant success—enough so that it encouraged a rush to build canals elsewhere in the U.S. By the end of the 1800s, there were more than 4,000 miles of canals.

In the Midwest, the objective was to get from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi—because canals connected waterways, rather than replacing them. That would be accomplished by the Illinois and Michigan, or I&M, Canal. The references to Illinois and Michigan were to the key bodies of water in the region, Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The Illinois River fed into the Mississippi, and by connecting the river with the lake, the ninety-six mile long canal created dramatically improved shipping. It also created opportunities along the route of the canal.

Lockport, IL, was established in 1837 as headquarters for construction and administration of the canal. Then as now, the region’s focus was on agriculture. The canal not only made travel easier for settlers headed to the region, it also made it easier for farmers to ship their crops. Tons of corn, corn whiskey, and corn-fed pigs were carried along the canal. Today, the town of Lockport is home to the I&M Canal Museum, Will County Historical Society, and several handsome buildings that date to the heyday of canal transportation. The canal itself is somewhat diminished, and it is hard to imagine its importance from looking at the picturesque remains of this once vital transportation route. But it was of huge importance in the 1800s.

I&M Canal Leading into Lockport

I&M Canal Leading into Lockport

The canal in the heart of Lockport

The canal in the heart of Lockport

The Gaylord Building, on the right, was built in 1838, though it is named for the local merchant who bought it in 1878. It was part of the large warehouse complex that stored construction materials for building the canal. Today, it houses exhibits on the history of the canal. The part of the warehouse complex on the left was repurposed as well, and now houses the excellent Public Landing Restaurant.

Historic Gaylord Building and Public Landing Restaurant

Historic Gaylord Building and Public Landing Restaurant

Between old buildings, charming museum, and a couple of outstanding restaurants, Lockport is definitely worth a visit, should you find yourself in this part of Illinois.

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Filed under Agriculture, History, Midwest, Midwest Maize, Travel