Check out these unique destinations that reflect the genuine character of our region.
Benjamin Lay Wood Carving
Anna Page Park, 3102 N. Springfield Ave., Rockford, rockfordparkdistrict.org/anna-page-park
Benjamin Lay was born in England in 1682 and at 36 years old moved to Barbados, where he was horrified by the practice of slavery on the island. When he moved to colonial Pennsylvania in 1731, he brought with him an outlook that was far ahead of his time and progressive even to his fellow Quakers.
The outspoken Lay published more than 200 pamphlets against slavery and other issues, at one time penning “All Slave-Keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage,” published with help from no less than Benjamin Franklin.
Lay was largely solitary, self-sufficient and vegetarian as he championed such causes as abolition, temperance and the eradication of capital punishment. He died in 1759, seventeen years before Quakers in New Jersey and Philadelphia were prohibited from owning slaves.
How did a statue of this rebellious Pennsylvanian make its way to a park in Rockford? Local multimedia artist Kirk Gessner, whose wood carvings have been sold in Rockford and beyond, learned about Lay and was inspired to share his story.
Seven years ago, Gessner began to carve full-size human figures from locally harvested trees. Lay was his inaugural historical subject. The black cherry wood was crafted mostly with a chainsaw, while the hands and face were detailed with gauges and chisels. The 4.5-foot statue, which nearly matches Lay’s real-life diminutive height, was unveiled in May 2023.
The Eternal Indian
Lowden State Park, 1411 N. River Road, Oregon, Ill., cityoforegon.org
For nearly 50 years, the Oregon, Ill., estate of Wallace Heckman was a sanctuary of creativity as the wealthy Chicago attorney hosted a group of creative spirits calling themselves the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony. Their ranks included artists, writers, architects, sculptors and others, and they lived in a bohemian environment where they could embrace nature and enjoy solace and camaraderie while expressing themselves.
Among the colony’s residents was the esteemed sculptor Lorado Taft, who conceived a grand vision to honor American Indians and their reverence for the great outdoors.
Taft joined sculptor John Prasuhn, from the Art Institute of Chicago, to craft a nearly 50-foot-tall figure atop a 125-foot bluff over the Rock River. One of the largest concrete monolith statues in the world, the sculpture features a 6-foot base, reinforced iron rods and thick walls composed of cement, pink granite chips and screenings. It was cast in December 1910, over a 10-day period when 28 men fought winter’s cold during a single, continuous pour.
The statue is officially known as “The Eternal Indian,” although it’s colloquially called “Black Hawk,” despite the fact that it bears no resemblance to the Sauk leader.
In 2019, the statue received extensive repairs, including work on its head and the replacement of both arms. Visitors to Lowden State Park can stand at the chief’s feet and observe the river valley below.
The site of the old artists’ colony is now the Lorado Taft Field Campus, which serves as an outdoor teacher education program for Northern Illinois University.
330 Broad St., Lake Geneva, (262) 248-4382, horticulturalhall.com
Designed by architectural firm Spencer & Powers, this conference center was built in 1911 for the Lake Geneva Horticultural Society and was intended in part as a gathering place for the professional gardeners and landscape designers who managed Lake Geneva’s nearly 200 country estates. Constructed in the distinctive characteristics of the Arts and Crafts movement, this building’s Great Hall, beamed ceilings and parquet floor exude beauty.
Outside, lush gardens surround the property, both along the public sidewalk and within a garden courtyard where an arcade hosts outdoor events including wedding ceremonies and receptions.
While it’s hosted many garden-related events, Horticultural Hall was also the site of the inaugural Gen Con, a gaming convention first organized in 1968 by Gary Gygax, co-creator of the “Dungeons & Dragons” fantasy game. For a decade, Gen Con found its home within the conference centers’ hallowed halls.
In 1999 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Restoration efforts over the past 15 years have included the replacement of the roof with French-imported tiles and the installation of a commemorative brick walkway.
Today, the Hall remains an active hub for weddings and the Lake Geneva Farmers Market, which meets every Thursday morning from the first week of May to the last week of October.