Check out these unique destinations that reflect the genuine character of our region.
Big Thunder Park
699 Van Buren St., Belvidere, Ill.
This park is named after Chief Big Thunder, a Potawatomie leader whose burial site became a popular tourist attraction during the late 1830s through the 1840s.
When he died, Chief Big Thunder was given an above-ground burial, outfitted in his best attire, wrapped in blankets and seated on a bench, with knife, tobacco and other items necessary for a comfortable afterlife. He was placed on the highest ground, facing west, and a 6-foot palisade of white birch was erected around him.
Naturally, most of Big Chief’s clothing and belongings soon disappeared. Then, in 1836, a more northerly route for the Chicago-Galena Stagecoach Trail became a state road, and included a stop at Doty’s Tavern in Belvidere. Passengers would walk up the hill to see the chief’s resting spot. Soon, his bones also began to disappear, plucked by travelers for souvenirs. Eventually, the locals began to seed the site with animal bones, to keep tourists happy.
When the courthouse was erected on the hill, its flagpole was sunk into Chief Big Thunder’s resting place. In 1924, the local DAR installed a boulder at the foot of the flagpole with a bronze plaque to mark the spot.
Across the road, in the park, are three other memorials. The tall Soldiers and Sailors Monument, erected in 1910, is Boone County’s oldest sculpture. Another is a granite stone with plaque honoring soldier and statesman Stephen A. Hurlbut. The third is a memorial to the U.S.S. Maine, a rock mounted with a plate cast of metal recovered from the Maine.
Camp Grant Museum & Command Post Restaurant
1004 Samuelson Road, Rockford, (815) 395-0679, campgrantmuseum.weebly.com
Stanley and Yolanda Weisensel are the proprietors not only of the business, but also of the heritage and memories it represents for Rockford. Along with serving up fresh, homemade breakfast and lunch, the couple throws in a heaping helping of local history on the side.
Camp Grant was built in 1917 as an induction center and training camp for soldiers during World War I, named for Ulysses S. Grant. It covered nearly 5,500 acres and, by 1918, housed more than 50,000 military personnel in 1,100 buildings. The museum and restaurant are located in one of those original buildings.
The land was sold to the Illinois National Guard in 1924, with the agreement that the U.S. War Department could take it back should the need arise. Some 9,000 guardsmen trained there for two weeks each year. During the Great Depression, 1,100 men of the Civilian Conservation Corps improved the grounds there, around the Rock and Kishwaukee rivers, between 1933-1935. In 1940, Camp Grant was transferred back to the U.S. Government and re-established as a military recruitment and training center. During World War II, it also served as a detention center for some 2,500 POWs, and afterward as a separation center for returning GIs. It closed for good in 1946, and much of the property is today part of the Chicago Rockford International Airport.
The Weisensels have amassed an impressive collection of Camp Grant memorabilia from across the country. They keep the history alive with stories, special Army “mess” meals and even paranormal tours.
Hours: Tues.-Fri., 7 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat. to 1 p.m.; and by appointment. Lectures and group tours are available.
126 E. Douglas St., Freeport, (815) 232-7099, theuniondairy.com
he ice cream parlor has been a staple of small-town America for decades. This particular Freeport fixture is celebrating its 100th anniversary and is owned by the Alber family.
In the early 1900s, Stephenson County boasted the most creameries in Illinois, with milk suppliers going head-to-head for customers. Two of them met one day and decided work together, forming the Union Diary in 1914, on East Stephenson Street. The business eventually moved to the present location, and began to produce ice cream in 1934. Among popular and unique flavors concocted by Union Dairy employees is the classic Orange Pudding, still a favorite today. In the ’70s, the dairy was producing 100,000 gallons of ice cream per year.
While it ceased dairy production, the spot has remained an ice cream parlor, selling as many as 600 gallons in one season, in cones, sundaes, shakes and malts. Hamburgers and fries are sold, too. In 2005, following a kitchen remodel, the owners began serving only fresh food, as locally sourced as possible, including Freeport’s own Mrs. Mike’s Potato Chips.
The exterior sports the traditional neon sign, and inside is vintage décor: chrome and Formica, original syrup pumps, even a spindle milkshake mixer. For the centennial celebration, the Alber family has planned a three-day bash, June 20-22, with horse-drawn carriage rides, a car show that includes a costume contest for owners to match their vehicle’s era, a parade, beer garden, children’s activities and more.
For details on the Union Dairy 100th Anniversary Celebration, visit theuniondairy.com. Seasonal hours: Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.