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Exploring Illinois

Author: Pj Little
Date of Trip: May 2009

Illinois is a contradiction in terms. The Illinois River, the largest and longest river, divides the state in two between Alton near St. Louis and the Des Plaines River near Chicago. Interstate routes carry traffic though some six hundred miles of what is sometimes referred to as “boring corn and beans,” yet the two-lane byways offer such wonders as towering cliffs, majestic views, large state parks, forests, and the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive” as proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt on his historic visit.

Illinois is probably best known for Chicago skyscrapers, and least known for its statue created by Pablo Picasso in Daley Plaza. And while it is true a fifty-dollar bill will buy entry into the majority of tourist attractions, it is equally true that many Illinois attractions are free or low cost. Two I like in Chicago are Chinatown, and the Chicago Water Taxi. It will deliver you there from downtown via the Chicago River for five dollars and give you a view of Chicago from below the street level. Illinois, and even Chicago does include many other lesser known, and perhaps unusual, attractions. The Church of Beethoven in Oak Park comes to mind.

Western Illinois Mississippi River region:

Moline Illinois: John Deer Museum and the Niabi Zoo. A few miles west of Davenport is where the Amana Colonies is found.

Quincy, Illinois is known for Villa Katherine.It is a castle built in 1900 that is fully furnished and features a reflecting pool.

Alton, Illinois: Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, it has a distinct history. Yesterday it was a gateway to the Underground Railroad. Today it is a gateway to the Great Rivers Scenic Byway.

Central Illinois Region:

It is a mix of prairie, large bodies of water and lush vegetation that supported the Native Americans and wildlife 10,000 years ago.

Eureka: Eureka College, a Top 25 College in America, is President Reagan’s Alma Mater. Over the years “Dutch”, as he was called by his friends, donated many personal one-of-a-kind items not found anywhere else. It is showcased inside the school as a tribute to the 40th President of the United State.

Metamora: The old courthouse, now a State Historic Site, is one of the places where a young circuit rider named Abraham Lincoln practiced law. Between 1845 and 1858 he handled seventy cases that included family issues, felony crimes, and slavery.

Peoria: The oldest community in Illinois and the largest on the Illinois River is a STEM city that is best known as the world headquarters of CAT and the Caterpillar Tractor. Lesser known is the three large parks that average 300-600 acres each and house the city Zoo and the Africa! exhibit, and the fourth oldest performing arts group in America. Peoria is also host to the second largest Juried Art Fair in the state, trolley tours of its historical districts, and a river front where kids can play in a fountain, or families take a guided tour of the Illinois River Valley aboard the Spirt of Peoria, an authentic stern paddle wheel boat.

East Peoria is best known for Fondulac Drive that over looks the Illinois River Valley. It’s home to the Festival of Lights, one of the largest night time Christmas Parade in America. Visitors traveling East on I-74 are greeted by a large wreath on Fondulac Drive. In the summer the “wreath” is a circus ferris wheel.

Pekin: It is most noted for its 200 acre Mineral Springs Park and Lagoon on the corner of Court and 14th Streets, The park was formed in 1902. The historic pavilion was completed two years later. Pekin’s most famous son was U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen who loved the fall blooming marigold. It was his fondness for the flower that prompted the Marigold Festival that has been a hugely popular annual event for many years. Don’t miss the Medallion Hunt!

Lewistown: The seat of Fulton County is best known for its county wide Spoon River Drive that takes place the first two weeks in October. It celebrates the life of settlers in the 1800s complete with dress and pies baked in a wood-fired brick oven. While there are over ten towns that participate, Smithfield is one of the more popular. Every year, retired cooks come to the old red school house to prepare and serve thousands of meals for lunch and dinner over the two weekends.

In this particular area of Illinois is found the Banner-Marsh State Park, Anderson Lake State Park, and Emiquon National Refuge. Dickson Mounds should not be missed by history buffs as there is evidence of the Woodlands era Native Americans dating to c100CE.

Bloomington-Normal: Miller Park Zoo is one of the *two* oldest zoological parks in Illinois. The other is in Chicago. The title was devised by population. Bloomington was smaller than 50,000 whilst Chicago was larger. Abraham Lincoln worked on slavery legislation in the historic Dewenters Building c1856.

Jesse Fell, founder of Normal first suggested to Lincoln that he should seek the Presidency when he was in Bloomington.
Normal is most known for its first training school for teachers that was founded in 1857. Today it is known as ISU, and awards bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees in several disciplines.

Lincoln: It was officially named in 1853. Abraham Lincoln had helped plat the town, was council for the newly laid railroad, and participated in the naming ceremony. This was the first town named after him while he was a practicing lawyer and circuit rider. A passenger train still runs thru Lincoln every day 157 years later.

Petersburg: Home of Lincoln’s New Salem. It is a recreated early 19th century village representative of the place where Lincoln first lived, worked. It is here where he elected to the Illinois Legislature.

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