Our region has no shortage of historical sites and landmarks that transport us back in time. Pack up the family for a little sightseeing and an escape to times that seem faraway from today but are still so close.
Northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin bear a rich tapestry of moments that have shaped this region into what it is today.
From ancient indigenous cultures, French explorers and pioneer settlers to the industrial revolution and our modern times, much has happened upon this land.
Sit back, relax and journey through the past to a few significant points of interest in our landscape. Then, pack up the family and hit the open road for a little sightseeing and a journey back through time.
While the city of Ottawa, Ill., boasts connections to the Boy Scouts, “Sesame Street” and the Radium Girls, what happened at Washington Square Park shaped the destiny of the Union.
Back in 1858, this park hosted the first of seven debates between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democratic incumbent Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who were competing for a seat on the U.S. Senate.
More than 10,000 people filled the park and surrounding streets to see the spectacle. Today, a bronze statue of the lanky Lincoln and diminutive Douglas stand at the center of the park, permanently fixed in their debate.
To the north of the park is another landmark that plays into the story of Lincoln and Douglas. The Reddick Mansion was completed in 1857 for William Reddick, a successful businessman and politician who lived there for three decades.
The 22-room, Italianate-style mansion hosted many famous guests, including Lincoln and Civil War Gen. John A. Logan, who used the mansion as his headquarters.
Following Reddick’s death in 1885, the Mansion was given to the City for use as a public library. Today, it’s a history museum that’s open to the public.
Just southwest of Ottawa, Starved Rock State Park stands as one of Illinois’ most beloved natural landmarks. The park has 18 picturesque canyons, each carved into the sandstone cliffs, but its most significant feature is the namesake butte towering over the Illinois River. It takes its name from a gruesome legend.
This area was once home to the Illinois Confederacy, a group of 13 American Indian tribes that once occupied the region. Legend holds that, during the 1700s, the assassination of an Ottawa chief prompted angry Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes to seek revenge on an Illiniwek tribe. The warriors fled to the top of the butte and starved to death.
Over the past century, this area has become a popular destination for tourists who come to marvel at the breathtaking beauty. The Starved Rock Lodge, located inside the park and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is a starting point for many activities, including hiking, overnight lodging and trolley tours.
Rock Falls, Ill.
Follow the Illinois River west to our next destination via the Hennepin Canal. Built from 1892 to 1907, the canal was intended as a shortcut between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Its builders envisioned a faster transit for agricultural products traveling by boat between Midwestern farms, Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico.
For many reasons, the Hennepin quickly became obsolete, yet its engineering marvels have left a distinct impression on historians. It was the first American canal built from concrete without stone cut facings, and it introduced new innovations with its system of locks and dams.
By the 1930s the canal was used for recreational purposes, and that’s still what draws hundreds of visitors a year to this 104.5-mile linear state park, where you’ll find people kayaking, fishing and biking the canal’s towpath.
Follow the trail long enough and you’ll join the Feeder Canal, which draws water from the Rock River around Sterling and Rock Falls, Ill.
These vibrant sister cities offer plenty of their own historical attractions, particularly at the Fire House Ministries Museum, which pays homage to the city’s firefighters. The city’s first fire station was decomissioned in the 1950s, the building was purchased 40 years later by the local Christian outreach group Fire House Ministries. They restored and repurposed the building as a fire museum, and today they invite the public to enjoy early hand-drawn pumps, uniforms, photographs and memorabilia from the early days of firefighting in Rock Falls.
Pearl City, Ill.
The little village of Pearl City, Ill., is believed to have been named for the abundance of pearls found in the mussels of nearby Yellow Creek. But that’s not what puts it on our list.
The village’s Blackhawk War monument commemorates the Battle of Kellogg’s Grove. This was a critical skirmish in the Blackhawk War of 1832, when a coalition of exiled American Indian tribes, led by the Sauk leader Black Hawk, attacked Illinois in an ill-fated effort to win back their ancestral lands.
The Battle of Kellogg’s Grove marked one of the first major engagements between Black Hawk’s forces and the Illinois militia, among them a young Lincoln. The militia were better equipped and had superior numbers, and they repelled Black Hawk’s forces. The raiders spent the next week attacking nearby settlements before returning to Kellog’s Grove. At least 16 Sauk warriors and three militiamen died in the two battles. The monument, dedicated in 1887, serves as a reminder of the state’s wild frontier days.
About 20 minutes northeast of Pearl City is Freeport, where Lincoln and Douglas met for their second debate in 1858. The Debate Square downtown marks the location where as many as 20,000 people gathered to hear Lincoln deliver his “Freeport Question,” in which he challenged Douglas’s position on slavery in non-state territories and solidified his reputation as a skilled orator.
A statue commemorating the moment depicts Lincoln sitting and Douglas standing, the latter frozen in heated debate.
Head across the state line into Green County, Wis., and land in Swiss Country. Swiss immigrants arrived here in the mid-1800s and left a serious impression on the community, as noted at Turner Hall of Monroe.
This historical landmark was established in 1868 for Swiss immigrants to gather and preserve their traditions, especially gymnastics. It was one of many Turner (gymnast) Halls that popped up across America as an outgrowth of German and Swiss immigration.
Fire destroyed the original structure on Labor Day in 1936, and its replacement – a Swiss Chalet structure – officially reopened in 1938.
Since undergoing extensive renovations in the 1990s, it’s once again become a hub for Swiss culture and community gatherings, including a Swiss Heritage series.
Considered one of the nation’s oldest continuously running Swiss entities, it is believed to be the only Turner Hall of Swiss origin left in the United States. Listed on the Wisconsin State and National Register of Historic Places, it’s open to the public with family bowling lanes, a Grand Hall and the Ratskeller restaurant, which serves Swiss delicacies.
New Glarus, Wis.
Many of the Swiss immigrants who made their way to Green County in the 19th century stepped off at New Glarus Station.
Built in 1877, this railroad depot was a vital gateway for goods and people. It spurred the local economy by aiding the transport of cheese, milk and other agricultural products to Chicago and other major cities.
Train service ended in 1972, but the now-restored depot is still an important transportation landmark. Today, it houses the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce and the local visitors center.
Many a cyclist begins their journey here as they enter the Sugar River Trail, a recreation path built upon the former railroad tracks. Bike rentals and helmets are available at the depot.
Our next stop takes you through the rolling hills of Wisconsin east into the heart of Walworth County. There lies the village of Elkhorn, Wis., which affectionately calls itself the Christmas Card Town due to its picturesque ways of celebrating Christmas.
But Wisconsin, of course, is famous for its cheese, and there’s no better reminder of the state’s agricultural heritage than the home of one of America’s oldest continuously operating county fairs. The 100-acre Walworth County Fairgrounds, etablished in 1843, still draw local farmers and producers every summer as they showcase their goods and livestock. Over the dcades, the grounds also have set a backdrop for a range of cultural and historical moments, including pollical rallies, concerts and circuses.
Southwest of Elkhorn is Delavan, Wis., a city with a rich connection to circus history. After all, this was the place where more than 25 circuses wintered over in the greatest show’s heyday. One of the city’s most enduring tales is the story of Romeo the killer elephant.
In 1847, The Mabie Brothers U.S. Olympic Circus arrived in Delavan with a nearly 10,500-pound, 11-foot tall Indian elephant. From 1852 to 1869, this elephant, known as Romeo, would claim the lives of five people. At least one was trampled, one was crushed, and another was impaled on his tusk.
A statue of Romeo, in downtown Delavan, between Second and Main streets, was erected in 1985. At a diminutive 7 feet tall, the statue depicts Romeo rearing up on his hind legs, with his trunk raised in the air. It’s a tourist attraction and a source of pride for Delavan.
Up next is a city with a history of innovative thinking. At Water Tower Park stands an iconic stone structure that’s one of Wisconsin’s oldest water towers.
Built in 1885 on one of the city’s highest points, the 36-foot octagonal limestone tower was once the primary source of water for city residents. It was built by local masons to protect Beloit from fires, but it also helped to aid in the city’s development, as it provided a critical water source for homes, businesses and public spaces. And, it promised a cleaner source than the private wells most residents and firefighters relied upon at the time.
Contemporary reports called the structure one of the nation’s most massive pieces of mason work, but the project’s 7.25 miles of water mains were also pretty impressive.
Cross the state line back into Illinois and stop at Rockton, where tales of the past come alive.
Macktown Living History Education Center offers a glimpse into the past through interactive exhibits, demonstrations and costumed re-enactors who showcase what life was like for northern Illinois’ earliest settlers.
Stephen Mack and his wife, Hononegah, staked a claim at this site in 1832, on land that was largely unsettled. The Mack home was a welcoming place for white settlers and natives alike, in part because of Mack’s wife, Hononegah, who was of Winnebago/Potawatomi descent and had nine children with Mack. The town largely died after Hononegah’s death in 1847 and Mack’s death three years later, but their memory still lives on.
This city is rich in history, with connections to Lincoln, women’s baseball and innovations in manufacturing – from furniture and agricultural tools to fasteners, aerospace parts and even socks (the inspiration for sock monkeys). It’s also the place where one man revolutionized home gardening forever.
New Milford native, Civil War veteran and local farmer Roland Shumway started selling seeds to gardeners through the mail in 1870. When he died in 1925, his Rockford company was mailing more than 200,000 catalogs a year.
Shumway donated the site of his business’ first Rockford location to the City in 1905, establishing a location for a permanent farmers market. The city established the Shumway Market Building on the site in the 1920s, to serve as a public “comfort station” for all who passed.
A century later, Shumway’s Seed Co. is based in Wisconsin and the market building, restored in 1987, houses the nonprofit Rockford Area Arts Council.
If you still haven’t found enough magical history, wrap up your tour in the city of DeKalb, Ill., where a simple farm invention totally changed the course of history.
The J.F. Glidden Homestead and Historical Center shows off the lavish residence of Joseph Glidden, the man whose invention of barbed wire in 1873 revolutionized the American West. He fashioned the very first fence from his wife’s hairpins, in an effort to keep livestock out of the yard. He and a local blacksmith eventually adapted a coffee mill to place barbs on a wire.
The Historical Center celebrates the agricultural and industrial heritage of northern Illinois and shines a light on life in the Midwest during the 19th century.
No matter where you choose to take in our region’s historical sites, there’s no shortage of them in our region. As you explore these locales, it’s hard not to wonder at the signs of our past that linger around every corner.