Long before we planned a trip to Galena, Illinois, the town had been on my radar. A perennial favorite on the pages of Midwest Living magazine, the small city in northwest Illinois is a photogenic destination for visitors looking for all things quaint.
Since my friend Gay is both a proud Land of Lincoln native and has been to Galena before, combined with the trip including a visit to her friend Cathy in Iowa (see two posts ago), added with a crazy-busy spring for me, she graciously took over the planning and logistics. She did a fantastic job.
The hours from Gay's home in Angola, Indiana and Galena, Illinois clicked off with ease as we caught up on months of updates about our lives and times. Gay is not only a great story teller, she is a superb listener.
As we neared Galena, the already-beautiful farm country of rural Illinois got even prettier with deeply rolling hills. Just outside Galena proper, a sign encouraged travelers to pull over for a scenic view. So we did.
And in typical Gay-and-Donna fashion, the vehicle that joined us contained an employee of the Galena tourism bureau. So we picked her brain about dinner spots, told her about Miss Effie’s in Iowa (and she immediately liked Cathy's place on Facebook).
It seems she chose the very moment we did to pull over for a photo op.
We checked into Brierwreath Manor B & B (see previous post), checked out a basket brimming with restaurant menus and set out on foot down the hill into the vibrant downtown retail-dining district.
It was dinnertime, and there were so many choices! We settled on Vinny Vanucchi’s Little Italy. Even though they were busy and we had no reservations, we were ushered right away to our first choice of seating: out on the patio under an umbrella on a lovely evening.
We later learned that it should come as no surprise to find an Italian restaurant (as well as French-German and other nationalities) in Galena. We learned that people once came from all over the world to live and work in Galena.
Many immigrants came to Galena to make their living in the lead mines. Interesting that our server was from Ireland. She apparently was there on summer break earning money for college. She was very nice.
I enjoyed a delicious meatball sandwich and a tossed salad with house dressing. Gay describes her entree: "I had seafood pasta with big chunks of scallops and crab and maybe shrimp. So good."
The next day we took a trolly tour around the city of 3,500 residents. It was lightly raining so couldn't enjoy the open air. The clear but rain-splattered window coverings didn't lend themselves well to the many home photos I would have liked to get.
I can’t stress enough how stunning the houses are in this town! They are in so many different styles dating back from the oldest, 1826, to all periods forward. There is an abundance of mid-18th and 19th century Victorian homes, and it is obvious that Galena has historically been a city of wealth. Some of that is attributed to a thriving, if short-lived riverboat era, and nearby lead mines.
So here are some things we learned from our capable trolly driver / guide:
* The most lead used for the Civil War was produced in Galena.
* Galena was a military town, with a training post there. The small city had nine men promoted to generals during the Civil War. That is the most of any location in the country.
* There were seven brick factories in Galena. There are more than 800 historic buildings in this city, and 1.5 million tourists visit a year.
* Native Americans discovered what they called “mineral” which was in fact lead inside the "mineral" and used to paint their faces, for one thing. French traders came along and traded flour, liquor and blankets for that lead.
* Due to the steamboat era, and quite likely the lead mines, in the mid-1850s, Galena’s population was 14,000. Riverboat captains made their home in Galena and one spectacular example is the Belvedere Mansion, an Italianate home referred to as “the jewel of Galena.”
I will go into the Ulysses S. Grant story in my next post, but one thing I found interesting is that despite a huge emphasis around town on the General / President, the reason he lived in Galena – working in the family leather shop downtown – goes without notice at the site of that shop. It is now a nice sock shop but there is no plate on the door or anything there to indicate that historical fact.
That, my friends, is a great reason to take a guided tour when visiting an interesting place. You get so much more information than you’ll find on your own.
We also saw this incredibly handsome U.S. Post Office, which happens to be the oldest continuously operating post office in the country. One distinction is the white stone which the builder found in Nauvoo, Illinois., where Mormons settled before they moved on to Utah. (Nauvoo is another great Illinois town to visit.) We were told that the builder decided that if the Nauvoo stone was good enough for a Mormon Temple, it filled the bill for the Galena post office.
We shopped til we dropped in the afternoon. Several downtown blocks on both sides of the street are filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques offering everything from pretty paper (and ribbon) goods to kitchen gourmet foods (and lots and lots of free samples) to clothing, accessories, socks, tourist fare (Brian loves the General U.S.Grant T-shirt I brought him) and an abundance of restaurants. It’s so hard to choose which!
For dinner our second night, we selected Fritz and Frites, a French-German eatery. We felt as though we were in Europe. Such an elegant restaurant, with fine-dining choices.
We dressed up and settled in for a lovely meal. Gay decided on the rainbow trout that she says, "just melted in my mouth." I had the chicken and potatoes, beautifully presented, with the most delicious juices and tasty mushrooms tempting my palette.
Gay, left, and Donna enjoying a French and German old-world taste and decor at Fritz and Frites.
It was an easy walk up the hill, back to our B & B, and a good night’s sleep (after the tornado warning passed). Check out a few more pictures.
If you'd like more information on Galena, Illinois, click on www.VisitGalena.org. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hoosier Donna Cronk welcomes readers to her blog, on which she posts twice a week. She is a career newspaper journalist and author of two novels, Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast and That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland, both available on Amazon.