Editor's note: In his quest to present the hidden gems of his native Midwest, Illinois writer Doug Kamholz sticks close to home, which is fine with us because we, too, come from these fertile Illinois lands he writes about. Indeed, we visited them this month, and as we gazed out on sun-drenched corn from horizon to horizon, we recalled Carl Sandburg's words about Midwesterners blessed with vision from these wide-open prairies.
by Doug Kamholz
A longtime friend was kvetching about how dull it looked out all her windows in Tremont, Illinois. This Moxie means to spur you to vacation in central Illinois or, more likely, construct a “Put a Pin in It” where you live.
Let’s say you are just south of Peoria and don’t want to travel more than two hours to anywhere. You might start by imagining this (or any) little village as the center of a clock. On Tremont’s clockface, somewhere between noon and one is LaSalle. You can have a mule-powered ride down and back up a section of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. You can board a 60-passenger packet boat while a trusty mule, probably not named Sal, trods a path beside the water pulling a line tied to the bow. The I&M has nothing to do with connecting Illinois and Michigan but rather links Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, and that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. The I&M’s 96 miles joined about 3,000 miles of waterways built during the early 1800s. By mid-century the iron horse had put Sal’s pals out to pasture.
Moving a bit past one o’clock on the Tremont Timex is Starved Rock State Park which dates from 1911 and is the state’s second oldest. The name comes from a gruesome tale of inter-tribal warfare, not that anybody has found one shred or shard of evidence of starvation atop this 125-foot sandstone butte jutting out toward the Illinois River. However, there are many other parky treats: trails, waterfalls, dining and lodging. Plus there is another treasure right next door, one much less known and traveled. Matthiessen State Park was once a private preserve along the Vermilion River. It is now the scaled down Illinois version of Wisconsin Dells, though there are no amphibious ducks to ride nor any Tommy Bartlett Water Show antics. Rather a human-made waterfall creates an upper and lower dells (or dalles if you are French). There is a fun trail that steps rock to rock across the water, and a well-maintained paved walkway all around both the upper and lower dells. Up the road, come October, Utica holds its 52nd annual burgoo festival. Burgoo is sort of a Midwestern squirrel hunters’ stone soup and is loved by many, whatever is in that pot.
Coming around to two is Dwight, now a burg of about 4,000. Full disclosure demands I confess this was my favorite town when I was a Chicago-to-Springfield docent for the National Park Service on Amtrak. Dwight’s fame is from the Keeley Institute, an early proponent of alcoholism as a curable disease. This legacy includes a mammoth pillared building downtown currently used as a developmental disability residence facility. But you can still enter the lobby and mezzanine where there are five exquisite stained glass windows, pictured above, meant to represent humans’ five senses destroyed by excessive drinking. On the same main street is a 1906 bank by Frank Lloyd Wright with a fireplace, not a vault, as its centerpiece. A couple blocks away is the historic Oughton farm whose owners were partners in the lucrative Keeley institute. A couple family members served in the Illinois General Assembly but it was a grandchild Diana who gained the most fame. She was a child of privilege. She went east to Bryn Mawr in the ‘60s but then moved to Ann Arbor to bolster anti-war Students for a Democratic Society. Her politics grew more militant; she joined the Weather Underground and died from an explosion in a clandestine New York City bomb factory.
Also at two but closer to Tremont is Pontiac, home of perhaps the best of several Route 66 museums scattered from Chicago to LA’s Santa Monica pier along The Mother Road. (I may be biased as they have the most stuff from my late friend Bob Waldmire, pen-and-ink artist of the asphalt.) Pontiac boasts an old Chautauqua grounds with a swinging bridge. There is a car museum called Pontiac-Oakland, but Pontiacs came from a factory on Oakland Street in Pontiac, Michigan.
Even closer to Tremont at about four o’clock is Bloomington-Normal, our state’s own Twin Cities. (As an Illinois kid I thought Minnesota had stolen the name from us.) The McLean County Museum, housed in an old and filigreed courthouse, is fine and farm-focused, just as it should be sitting near the most fecund earth on earth. Not far east of those Twin Cities, outside Le Roy (pronounced LEE-roy) is a wind farm that sits on what was the western shore of Lake Chicago, the older and larger precursor to Lake Michigan.
At five on our clock is Atlanta. They have worked hard to make their little town inviting, serving up several murals by the world-famous Walldogs who have enlivened small-town buildings with about 800 artworks across the U.S. Atlanta is home of Dawes Elevator, at the top of this post, a finely restored example of what in our nation’s grain belt are called prairie skyscrapers. Also downtown is Atlanta’s unusual octagonal public library. One nearby storefront has been converted into a pinball arcade with machines from various decades offering the most fun you can have with a roll of quarters.
Also at five but a bit farther toward the clock’s edge is Decatur, known for its frequent aroma of a thousand loaves of rising bread dough. It’s really corn and soybeans being processed. Having community-minded residents, including Warren Buffett’s son Howard, has helped create, among other improvements, an inviting string of attractions side-by-side: a children’s museum; a zoo; and a quite new sculpture park, all along the south shore of Lake Decatur. Downtown the Gin Mill’s silky lobster bisque is so popular they make it all year. A bit west of the city-center there is a well-known street, Millikin Place, with impressive architectural homes from end to end designed by Marion Mahony Griffin and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Due south of Tremont, or six o’clock, is Springfield, where we locals say you can Link On Abe all over the place. Our treasures are pretty well known. A new one is The Route Museum, still in its infancy in finding ways to tell the story of African Americans along Route 66, which came right through town from its inception in 1926.
Moving around to eight o’clock we have Jim Edgar Panther Creek Conservation Area. If you are seeking topography that seems states away from central Illinois without going to the north or south ends of our state, this will do the trick. Fifty years ago Commonwealth Edison bought out adjoining farms for a power-generating plant. Forty years ago they abandoned the whole idea, so Illinois ended up with 16,550 acres of undulating prairie and hill country, now a wilderness wonderland. Rare plants such as the small white lady’s-slipper orchid thrive here as do 87 species of breeding (not just stopping by) birds.
Coming to nine o’clock on our Tremont Timex is Macomb with its Western Illinois Museum and downtown square that was the original model for what we now know as the game board for Monopoly. Macomb native Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie invented The Landlord’s Game in 1903 and was paid $500 for what Parker Brothers has collected many millions even if they never passed GO. Civil rights hero C. T. Vivian grew up in Macomb where his family found less racism than in Missouri. Vivian, who died in 2020, was known as the field marshal for Martin Luther King, Jr. Western Illinois is often called Forgotonia for lack of state attention and funding. It has some up-and-down topography, and that made it ripe for engineer corps training in WWII. The U.S. Army quickly displaced enough farmers to make 18,000-acre Camp Ellis east of Macomb which also quickly became a POW camp that housed up to 5,000 German prisoners. And meandering through Forgotonia is the namesake of Edgar Lee Masters’ most famous literary work, Spoon River Anthology.
An hour before high noon on our clock is Bishop Hill, once a breakaway Swedish religious commune and now a state historical site. Lutheran dissident Eric Jansson led 400 Pietists to the Illinois prairie in 1846. Four years later he was murdered and, as Kurt Vonnegut says, so it goes. Bishop Hill still stands as an alive place, vibrant — as these girls celebrating St. Lucia's Day attest — where goods and meals still lean Swedish.
Each summer has its Chautauqua. A couple Augusts ago it was singer Jenny Lind, radical Joe Hill, poet Carl Sandburg and a few other famous Swedes come to celebrate the town’s 175th birthday. In December it’s Santa Lucia with dangerous young blondes wearing candles. (Well the blondes themselves may not be dangerous but their candle-lit headdresses are.)
Finally due north of Tremont is Peoria, an old river town on the Illinois. Here are a couple lesser known features that definitely play in Peoria. Commonly called the Ag Lab, this fine Art Deco style edifice is where they figured out how to rapidly create millions of doses of penicillin for the Allied war effort in the 1940s. It is also where they store a little bit of everything from Ebola to LSD. Here is one last treasure: There are a few remnants of the work of an Italian stone cutter around town including the fancy work on the facade of the Grand Army of the Republic hall, what’s left of an old bridge and Joseph Petarde’s own unique home at 623 Fairholm in Averyville, where it is said his wife would only use the back door because of the stone nude carved on the front.