Frozen In Time
General Ulysses Grant, the handsome eighteenth President of the United States and his wife Julia descend the flight of stairs from their stately home on the hill. It’s truly like a freeze frame from a historical blockbuster. “They are locals in period costumes off to perform at an event in the museum,” says our guide as we watch with bated breath. I am in Galena, Illinois, in the heartland of America. “It’s an authentic American experience, not Disneyworld,” says Kate Murphy from the Illinois Office of Tourism, when she tells me about this small historic town. “Today people head here not only for its history but for its small town hospitality, local wines, concerts and plays as well as golf courses,” she adds. That’s enough to convince me to go on the trip. I drive through golden cornfields, large sprinklers, old stagecoach routes, cottonwood trees and dairy cows grazing on gentle hillsides. Galena, whose name is derived from the Latin word for lead ore, was once a town larger than Chicago — a boom town of trappers, miners and traders. The town owes its early growth to the lead mines or ‘gray gold’ when steamboats sailed down the Mississippi and its tributary, the local Galena river. In the 1880s the town slowly went into decline as the river silted up and river-ways lost their importance with the advent of the railroad.
My home away from home is the luxurious Eagle Ridge Golf Resort and Spa, located on 6800 acres amidst the rolling hills, with biking, punting, horseback riding, golfing and miles of wilderness and hiking trails to satisfy the active traveller. You can choose to stay in a regular hotel room or splurge out on a lake-view condo or a resort villa. I explore the town, walking on Main Street dotted with brick buildings and vintage shop signs. I peek into antique stores and hip boutiques, admiring cool home décor and smell my way into gourmet food stores stocked with bottles of homemade goodies. I love the fact that there are no cookie-cutter shops here — each one is unique with eclectic handcrafted creations from a quirky fun socks shop called For Your Bare Feet to Floral Chic which has floral themed gifts and products. I indulge at the family-operated Great Popcorn Company redolent with the flavour of butter and spices which sells buttery popcorn in unique flavours from the usual mix of caramel and cheese to cinnamon. Vintaj Earth owned by local jewellery designer Jess Lincoln, boasts one of a kind handcrafted jewellery made out of crystal, glass and semiprecious stones. Because of the string of fires in the 1850s there was a town ordinance that prohibited construction in wood and instead advocated using stone and brick. Looking at the brick buildings lining the street, I can almost feel the vibrations of the past when women in voluminous gowns and men in bowler hats strolled the street and walked on the riverside. At the corner of the street is the limestone building housing the post office dating back to 1858 and touted to be the second oldest continuously-in-operation post office in the US next to Boston.
“In the 1950s the town became like a ghost town with dilapidated and boarded-up inns and houses,” explains our guide. It was a blessing in disguise as there was no money to even tear down the buildings. In the 1960s the historic preservation movement gained strength and close to one thousand buildings were put on the National register. Many Chicago residents and artists were attracted by the handcrafted look of Main Street and set up small antique stores and moved here. With it being less than three hours away from Chicago, Galena also become a favoured location for second homes for wealthy Chicagoans. Today more than 85 per cent of the buildings in the town are listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
Exploring the town is like walking a natural Stairmaster — you can huff and puff your way through the town built like a wedding cake on five different levels with steep flights of stairs linking the different levels. To make my job easier, I take a trolley tour on a San Francisco-style trolley bus on wheels with a guide who doles out historical tidbits. Wemosey along the stately De Soto Building which is a historic hotel built in 1855 –“Abraham Lincoln gave a speech from that very balcony,” says our guide. It has had famous guests down the ages from Roosevelt to Emerson and even today is a 55-room hotel!
I am privy to the town’s quality of life and its enriching ‘life in the slow lane’. “I used to live in Chicago…. One day I decided I did not want to wear a suit or commute to work ever again. I moved here and opened this store…life has been great ever since,”says Tim Horman, the owner of a gourmet food store called Timothy’s Table. “What I love about the place is the quality of life — bike trails along the river up to the Mississippi, and walking paths….” say Todd Lincoln and his lovely wife whom I meet over dinner at One Eleven Main, a unique farm-to-table restaurant that supports local farmers, artisans and producers with its menus created from products grown within the region. Todd is a voluntary member of the local Fire Department and his charming wife Jess designs jewellery.
History is embedded in every stone and pillar of the town — large earthen levees that protect the town from periodic floods which have reduced Main Street to a river in the past, Perry Street paved with cobblestones hark back to an era when it was a challenge for horses and wagons to climb steep streets and lead miners homes built into hillsides which used to accommodate as many as 10 miners in every room! As I walk around town, I learn to recognise the distinctive Galena-style houses with no porch, two windows and a door on the ground floor and three windows on the first floor. A litany of historic sites and steeples and spires dazzles me as I trawl through the pint sized town discovering Belvedere House with 22 rooms that used to be home to the US Ambassador to Belgium and an authentic blacksmith shop dating to 1897, on Commerce Street with working tools.
I enjoy the modern renaissance that echoes down its streets where the old morphs into the new. Galena’s Old Market that housed vendors for over six decades is today the Galena Welcome Centre. The old Galena High School rebuilt after a fire is today a classy block of modern condominiums. The Tourist Centre of the city is housed in a heritage building which used to be its old train depot. At High Street hugging the hill sides are huge mansions built by mine owners and steam boat captains in a mishmash of architectural styles surrounded by maple and oak trees and grassy lawns. Victorian mansions and Italianate homes with kitchens in outhouses because of the fear of fires, tall columns, ornate gables, and lace covered windows and flags fluttering from the roofs, this is an architectural feast. Come evening we head to the Irish Boutique Cottage hotel where some lively Irish tap dancing and single malts keep us high — John Mazor the owner of the pub has moved here from Dublin and speaks highly about the town.
The town’s main claim to fame is of course Ulysses Grant. On Bouthillier Street perched on a slope, is the brick home that locals gifted to Ulysses Grant, the eighteenth President of the United States when he returned from the Civil War — this red brick home is furnished with original articles from the family including the general’s favourite olive green velvet chair and canister of cigars. Old Bohemia glass, family porcelain with motifs of flowers engraved with their initials, the family piano, an ancient copy of a Bible are some of the artifacts that are displayed. Julia Grant was the first President’s wife to be called the First Lady and she was an ardent supporter of women’s rights.
A high of a different sort is my trip to Galena Cellars Winery in the city’s outskirts, which produces more than 45 kinds of wines including zesty fruit wines. Alan Hyland, the enthusiastic wine master walks us through the sprawling vineyards and engages us in a wine tasting after that. Being in the bread basket of America, the wines are completely organic and named innovatively like ‘General’s wife’ and ‘Eric the Red’. They are fruity and fresh, produced from grapes that are a synthesis of local and European grapes. I sit on the patio of the wine tasting room sipping a white wine and look at a bright banner with the words ‘Wine a bit, you will feel better’ fluttering in the breeze framed by a cobalt blue Midwest sky. History, good food, wine and entertainment…. What’s not to love?
Far and Away
Getting there: Fly to Chicago through Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways and connect to Galena by road. It takes about three hours.
Stay: At the luxurious Eagle Ridge Golf Resort and Spa. http://www.eagleridge.com
What to do: Take a trolley tour of the town, wine tasting at Galena Cellars and Winery, visit the Mississippi Palisades National Park, 31 miles from the town, for hiking and an excellent view of the great river.
Eat: At One Eleven Main on Main Street and spend a lively evening at the Irish Cottage Boutique Hotel with Irish dancing. Visit the Galena Brewing company for locally brewed beer.
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