A couple of weeks ago, I sought out a place I’d learned about online but had never seen before: the Glenview Naval Air Station Museum. Hadn’t seen it before and almost didn’t find it while looking for it. Having spent years admiring the activity that occurred at the Glenview Naval Air Station, I had expected something more impressive, but what I found was a tiny cubbyhole that was all but hidden at the back of an otherwise unremarkable parking lot, next to Chuck’s Auto Repair. It seemed rather underwhelming, and almost insulting, for the once might military base.
However, I soon learned that, while it seems unprepossessing, it’s absolutely worth a visit—and maybe a little more attention than it has received. (Visitors are the life blood of every museum.) Because here, it’s the history that makes it big, not the building. A lone docent, Irving, long-retired airplane mechanic, was a wonderful combination of enthusiastic about the tale and indignant about how overlooked the museum has become, and shared an endless flow of stories. The tiny space wouldn’t take much time to study, but try to allow yourself at least an hour, as there is a wonderful 40-minute movie (narrated by Bill Kurtis) about the importance of Chicago and Lake Michigan during World War II. Because before there was Top Gun, there was Glenview Naval Air Station.
Lake Michigan, being virtually an inland sea, would become the training ground for the thousands of pilots —because where else could you train flyers to land on aircraft carriers without any chance of a German or Japanese submarine attack. (And in case you always wondered how Navy Pier got its name—now you know.) The film also covers salvage efforts to save the hundred planes that ended up at the bottom of the lake, where the ongoing threat is being consumed by zebra mussels. (Because there is no real museum here, the salvaged planes all end up in Kalamazoo, Pensacola, or D.C.) But the film was stunning to be reminded just how much of the nation’s military might passed through this area. Really remarkable. Also a fair number of interesting and worthwhile artifacts in the museum itself. Absolutely worth a visit. And if you know anyone with a few extra million dollars, they could certainly use a real museum. Open on Saturday and Sunday, 1-4.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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