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22 Peace and Beauty near the big city

Year-round outdoor recreation awaits at Fullersburg Woods.  Part of the DuPage County Forest Preserve system, this peaceful, scenic gem is hidden amidst luxurious homes and shopping centers in Oak Brook, a western suburb of Chicago.  It was winter when I first discovered Fullersburg Woods, as it was the site of a snowshoeing clinic I attended.  It was glorious in the wintertime and made such an impression on me that I have returned during the warmer months to further explore all that Fullersburg Woods have to offer.

There are almost four miles of multi-use trails within the preserve, most of which follow alongside Salt Creek.  The trails are well groomed and shared by hikers, bikers, dog-walkers, and, in the winter, cross-country skiers and snowshoers.  (The 2.3-mile long multipurpose trail also allows horses.)  Families with babies need not worry; the trails are easily navigable for strollers (my one-year-old daughter’s mode of transport on our last visit).  Speaking of families, Fullersburg Woods is an ideal place for a family outing.  There is a spacious picnic area right next to the Visitor Center off the main parking lot, and there are several picnic shelters located along the trails.  Bring the fishing poles and cast a line into Salt Creek for the chance of landing largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, northern pike and walleye.  My daughter especially enjoyed watching the water rush over the dam in Salt Creek, and marveled at the waterfowl flying or swimming by.

Along with recreational opportunities that appeal to every member of the family, Fullersburg Woods is also home to Graue Mill and Museum.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it is the only operating waterwheel gristmill in northern Illinois.  The mill also was used as a hideout for runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad.  Visit the museum and take a step back in time.  Learn about 19th-century life from the milling, weaving, and living history presentations.  A tour of the mill also includes a special hands-on area, which is sure to be a big hit with the younger visitors.  The Graue Mill and Museum is open 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM daily; closed Mondays (except Holiday Mondays). Admission is $3.50 for adults, $3.00 for seniors, $1.50 for children 4-12; children 3 & under free.

When visiting Fullersburg Woods, it is easy to forget that you are only twenty miles outside of Chicago’s Loop.  The natural scenery and tranquility transport you far from the busy, bustling city, and it’s a pleasant reminder of how beautiful Illinois really is.

23 Route 66 Gardner IL
Nielsen Grain Co, Gardner, IL

Nielsen Grain Co, Gardner, IL

Sometimes the best discoveries come in unexpected places. We recently made a hunger-driven stop in tiny Gardner, Illinois while driving north from St. Louis. What better place to visit than a place that shares my name?

Gardner is located along the famous Route 66 (about 40 minutes SW of Joliet), and is known for being an Al Capone hangout during prohibition and for having a historic jail with two cells.

With little time to spare, getting an honest meal was our primary concern on this trip. We certainly scored at Big Fella’s Eatery, a sparkling clean establishment with home-cooked food, friendly waitstaff and quick service. The owner collects Coca-cola antiques, including clocks, which he displays on the restaurant walls. Big Fella’s specializes in pizza, but my husband and I both enjoyed an excellent cod dinner, and our kids tucked into their perennial favorite, fresh buttered noodles and salad.

Afterwards, ready for a bit of leg-stretching before hitting I-55 again, we took a peek around Main Street. Gardner’s clearly a town with farming roots, organized around the railroad and grain storage facilities. A large mowed grassy area between Main Street and the tracks provided a great place for the kids to run while my husband and I took some photos of picturesque rural remnants, including a long-shuttered door to the Nielsen Grain Co. (above).

Buildings like this fascinate me on many levels. This large structure once served as the center of its community. Now it still holds court as an informal monument to Illinois’ farm-family roots. What gorgeous colors shine out from its old siding and weathered woods! What stories this building could tell if only it could speak! If anyone knows the history of this particular building, or more about Gardner’s rural history, please add your comments. The photo below is from a series of metal silos in the same area.

Detail of unused Grain Silo in dowtown Gardner, Illinois

Detail of unused Grain Silo in dowtown Gardner, Illinois

On a future trip to Gardner I’d also like to visit the nearby Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife area. This 1017-acre park and waterfowl refuge includes Braidwood Lake, a popular boating and fishing spot. The park also allows waterfowl and fossil hunting by permit.

Happy Exploring!

– Linda Gardner Phillips


24 Let off a little steam at the threshing show

Along side I-70, about 20 miles west of Effingham is Altamont……and some folks there need to let off a little steam.  On July 23rd, 24th and 25th, the Mill Road Threshermans Association will be holding their 29th annual show. What is threshing? Threshing is a farming term from days gone by for ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’. Before the age of modern, diesel powered machinery, farmers used to use a steam powered engines and a series of drive belts to run machines to remove the edible part of cereal grains (like wheat) from the inedible parts (chaff). These steam engines were huge iron giants, billowing out wood smoke and belching hot steam, with an assortment of gears and levers that would put a railroad locomotive to shame. Every year the Mill Road Association gets together at the Effingham County Fairgrounds in Altamont for a demonstration of farming as it was in the early days. There are horse drawn plows, an antique tractor show, flea markets, a tractor pull and of course…..threshing demonstrations. You’ve got to stand next to these monsters as they operate to really get a feel for the power they contain, the hard work that when into making them run, and the everyday dangers the early field workers faced.
Take a trip to Altamont on the weekend of the 24th and take a trip back in time……

25 A unique boat ride on the I and M Canal

I just spent a great day in Ottawa, Illinois.  A lovely river town with great restaurants, nearby wineries and of course the famous Starved Rock Lodge.  The neat thing I learned is that Illinois is positioned to make a great Sparkling Wine.  According to Mark Wenzel, at August Hill Winery, AugustHillwinery.com, our grapes and the low acidity are perfect for wines with “bubbles” as he puts it!  He already has a great brut.   We enjoyed a quick tasting of his raspberry infused sparkling wine. Fantastic!  The highlight of the day was that I finally got to ride on the Volunteer, the I & M Canal’s 19th century replica of a canal boat powered by a mule,  www.lasallecanalboat.org. Yes, that is right, a mule! The crew (in authentic canal costume) were great story tellers about how the canal was built (by hand and mostly by Irishmen).  It was the “superhighway” of its time.   To plan a get-away, enjoyillinois.com has some other great ideas for the area.  Cheers!  Jan Kostner

26 Rockford Theatre in Running for Top Wonder of the US

Coronado Performing Arts Center

Remember talking about the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World in your grade school social studies class – you know, that list of exotic, far-off places like the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Hanging Gardens of Bablyon? Well, AOL Travel and the U.S. Travel Association have partnered to put their own list together – this one featuring the Seven Wonders of the United States – and the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford, Ill., is in the running!

The contest features several categories, including historical, natural, water, wildlife and unusual wonders, and the Coronado is in the running for the architectural wonders category. The theater was chosen by AOL Travel’s editorial staff from among more than 100 submissions because of its unique, one-of-kind atmospheric style. Some of its top competitors in the architectural category are the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Biltmore in North Carolina.

Voting ends June 30, so be sure to vote for the Coronado Performing Arts Center as the top architectural wonder, as well as your top picks for the other categories. Vote today!

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