Monday, April 26, 2010

Galena Getaway Recap Part I

In the interest of full disclosure, I was not paid for my opinions.  I was invited to spend two days in Galena to better understand what the town offers tourists, but I received no compensation of any kind other than the experiences from the weekend.

I'm not a morning person.  I don't like waking up early, but I made that sacrifice last weekend, and I'm glad I did.  I had to be in Galena, IL by 9:45 to begin a two day whirlwind of just some of what Galena has to offer.  Panicking over having to wake up at 4am to be there on time, I finally Mapquested it and discovered that it was somehow only two hours thirty-eight minutes from my house.  Wait, really?

Yep, just over two and a half hours from my house is the third most visited Illinois city, and I haven't been there since I was a whiny teenager where I remember nothing from my visit other than a horseback trail ride.  I was happy to sleep in (slightly) and be able to make it to my destination with time to spare.

On my way in, I realized that not all Illinois is completely flat.  As I drew closer to Galena, I was driving up and down hills and through some beautiful little towns.  There was a really neat looking state(?) park just before I arrived in downtown Galena that I'd love to explore with the wee ones one day - hopefully this summer.

There were eight bloggers from the Chicago area invited to experience what Galena has to offer: Valerie, Tracey, WeaselMomma, Brandie, Lisa, Kris, and Kim.  After our brief introduction on Jo Daviess (Davis, oddly) County where Galena is located from our hosts Celestino Ruffini and Mike Scholz from the Galena/Jo Daviess CVB and Dorian Dickson from Sotaventures, we were off to our first stop.

We headed to the Ulysses S Grant Home State Historic Site (hereafter to be called the Grant Home), which was the house given to Grant after the Civil War by five of the generals who were from Galena in appreciation for what he did during the war - he had moved to Galena in 1860 and was recruited, along with eight other generals, from that town.  He only actually lived there for about eighteen months with all his traveling and ohhh presidency and all, but much of the house still contains items from that day, including some really great original artwork.

Terry Miller provided our tour, and for a $5 donation, you can receive a tour of the home, as well.  It was here that I learned that Grant's first name was Hiram.  Who ever would have thought?  It was changed when he went to West Point by a family friend who recommended him.

An example of some of the original artwork.  That's Grant with Lincoln and oh help!  I think it was a Supreme Court Justice, but I forget which.  This was something displayed in their library, and it was really intriguing to me to think of how this "ordinary" guy who had a tough time making a go of it in life moved to Galena to take part in his family's business since he'd failed in his own attempts and then went on to be president and become so intertwined in the lives of so many historically significant figures.

This was from their dining room, and it's a replica of the presidential china pattern from Grant's presidency.  I had no idea that each president chose his own china pattern.  It takes a strong man to choose a pink pattern.  Note how there is so much silver all over the table, too.  I'm just picturing the hours of polishing that would entail.

The kitchen of the house was also fascinating to me.  This was their stove and oven, which also helped to heat the house.  Note the four irons on the ledge atop.  You needed four irons like that because they only held their heat for about forty-five seconds.  I know I'd end up with a ton of burns.  And while I found this kitchen fascinating, it certainly isn't my dream kitchen with all sorts of fancy equipment.  This was the latest technology of the day in Illinois in 1865 when the house was built, however. 

Outside the house is a statue of Mrs. Grant.  When built, it was one of a very few statues of women in the country (think about it - most statues you can picture are men, aren't they?) - which was part of the point.  Mrs. Grant was a beloved first lady who opened her house to petitioners after the presidency and also opened the White House to the public when she was First Lady - she was the one who inspired that term, actually.

As you head down towards downtown Galena from the Grant Home, you can see the Galena River and how it separates two portions of the town.  There is a lot of walking to be done here, but I have to admit that I love that kind of getaway - it's good justication for the food we'll eat later.

In the park on the east side of the river, there is plenty of land for picnicking and other activities.  This bandstand is frequently used in the summer months for free concerts in the park.  It was obviously a bit too early in the year for us to be able to enjoy one. It wasn't too early for some picnickers by the river, however. Although it wasn't one of the 269 pictures I took that I've posted today (yep, really that many), we did see a family picnicking by the river on the large grassy riverbank.

In downtown Galena, we walked past a working blacksmith shop.  You can see Kris peeking in the window to see what it looks like inside.

Go fig, when the lovely volunteer Rich from the blacksmith shop saw Kris, he invited us in to see what he was doing.  Although the shop wasn't open yet for the year (it's open now - April 24-25 was Boy Scout weekend in Galena), he was creating some of the items for sale in preparation for the opening.  Here he's making one of the horse shoe puzzles that would drive my wee ones batty.

The blacksmith shop is run all by volunteers to help keep the historic spirit alive.  When the shop is open, you can watch a blacksmith at work making all sorts of items.  If it isn't too busy, they blacksmith will actually let kids take a whack at the item he's making.  And the nice thing?  This is a shop where they talk to you during the demonstration rather than simply having their backs to you while they work.  I love that little touch.

With all the older homes in Galena (85% are on the historical register), many require hand crafted iron items as part of their restoration and upkeep.  The blacksmiths frequently take orders for some of this difficult and detailed work, which benefits everyone.  These men have real talent.  It isn't simply the horse shoes and other bulky items you're expecting.  There are all sorts of ironwork items from paper towel holders to decorated fire pokers and more.

After our impromptu stop at the blacksmith shop - a perfect example of Galena hospitality - we headed to Cannova's for lunch.  Their food is excellent - Tracey and I shared our pizzas so we could try different ones, and they were fantastic - not your typical pepperoni and sausage fare.  The bread they served before our meals came was soft and chewy, and they sell loaves to go, which I unfortunately didn't pick up before I left town.

Val, Tracey, me, and Kim all enjoyed our meal at Cannova's!

From there, we headed to the Galena History Museum.

With this being Grant celebration weekend - the approximate anniversary of when Grant moved to Galena in 1860 - there were plenty of people in period garb.  Much of it, they make themselves (a talent I definitely don't have!).  As with everyone in Galena, they were more than happy to stop to talk with us and pose for pictures.

Inside the Galena History Museum, there is again a great deal of information on President Grant and his family.  This is a replica of a dress that Mrs. Grant wore.  The history geek in me was absolutely loving this.  While waiting for your tour, there is a video on loop in this room (which also has a number of gorgeous paintings that you can almost kind of see in the background) providing information on the history of Galena.

On the second floor, historical reenactors (who say "me" when talking about Grant!) provided information and answered questions about the president and his wife.  It was a neat interactive experience, and the sheer amount of information they had on the Grants was astounding.

Galena isn't only about the Grants, though.  It started as a mining community, and lead mine shafts are still found all over town.  The state was capping them as they were discovered back when funds were available, but not currently.  The museum had a bit of fun introducing this portion of its history.

In fact, out the back of the museum is a mining shaft - safely walled off with really thick plexiglass - that showed conditions for the miners.  This isn't the tunnels or strip mining that you picture when you think of mining today.  Instead, it was all done by hand and pick axe, which lead to narrow holes through which a single miner usually worked.  I would never have survived that occupation with my claustrophobia!

The museum had some lead ore on display, which was surprisingly heavy.  Brandie was happy to show us what it looked like.  And before you freak out, we learned that lead doesn't give off the poisons until after it's been worked.  Handling "raw" lead like this poses no danger.  The museum does, however have a lot of information about lead poisoning and how to avoid it.

Not pictured -as I wasn't able to figure out how to take a picture of it! - was the floors of the house where the museum is located.  The family that lived there expanded out the back of the house and actually built an indoor roller rink on the first floor.  When looking at the floor today, you can still see the pattern in the floor for the roller skates.  Very cool.

Another thing Galena is famous for is its pottery.  This folk art pottery was created by multiple artists in and around Galena and is pretty rare today.  It goes for hundreds of dollars at auction now, and pieces with lids are even more expensive.  You can also see (maybe if you blow up the picture) the string dog on the pedestal.  This is a very rare piece, and it was used to hold string (there are little niches inside its leg area) by the industrious citizens who would reuse it later.

We also got an extra special opportunity, thanks to Nancy Breed, the executive director of the museum.  After touring the first two floors where only fifteen percent of the museum's items are displayed at any given time - although they are frequently rotated - we were allowed to the third floor where items are stored.  Our white glove tour meant we were actually able to touch and hold these artifacts, like this rifle from the 1860s that I have and the sword Kim is holding.

Some of the items were truly special - like this sword that has the most gorgeous etchings on the blade.  You can't see from here, but the handle is ivory.  It gives me shivers just to see items like this and imagine how they were used and the stories behind them.  This isn't abstract history, and I love it!

The items are tagged and numbered so that the museum can track what it has in house.  They are currently working on putting all their items into a digital library, which will allow historians and other interested parties easier access to the information they own without having to make specific appointments during limited staffed hours to find the items in the storage rooms.  In fact, the museum is looking to expand its footprint entirely and is on a $250,000 fundraising campaign - with over half already raised by the official opening night of the campaign.

There were all sorts of interesting items in storage from ancient banjos to dolls to hats to clothing and furs to pictures to jewelry boxes, modeled by WeaselMomma and Tracey.

One of my favorite discoveries was this Chinese coin dagger.  At first I thought it was just a toy, but it's an actual dagger made of Chinese coins linked together with wire.  What it was actually used for, I have no idea, but I'm fascinated.

We all loved our white glove tour - thank you again, Kathy!  Pictured are WeaselMomma, Dorian, Kris, Val, Tracey, Brandie, me, Lisa, and Kim.

Whew!  I'm exhausted all over again, and this was only the first six hours of our experience in Galena.  I have two more posts coming with more fun and info.  This was the end of our purely historic focus.  We went to the Seal House after this, but then to a wine tasting, dinner, a hot air balloon ride, an alpaca farm, and a ski resort.  Lots more fun to come!

You can now view Part Two of my recap here and Part Three here.

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