Mount Carroll is a cute little historic town located two and a half hours west of Chicago and just ten minutes from the Iowa border. The farmland on the way is flat as a pancake; the town gets its name because it was built on a hill that, according to legend, was the result of glacial formations that remain a mystery to some (especially me).
With a population of 1,700, it's the kind of town where no place is more than a three-minute drive from any other place and everybody knows everybody. My suggestion is to take the nose ring out, tuck the pink hair into a ball cap that says "I love my truck," and buy an oversize Illinois sweatshirt. These folks are proud of their town, and from what I gather, many have lived there all their lives--like their great-grandparents, who are buried over the wrought-iron Galena Street Bridge, past the old mill site, in the cemetery at the top of the hill.
Settled in the early 1800s, Mount Carroll has a fully functioning but small downtown area. Built around the 130-year-old red brick courthouse, this town square--with its shops, restaurants, the local newspaper, and a bowling alley--has been declared a national historic district.
Despite all the interesting history, the main attraction for me was artist Jim Warfield and his flipped-out fun house, the Raven's Grin Inn (411 N. Carroll, 815-244-4746). It's covered with old cars, giant skulls, prehistoric birds, and rusty welded figures, and it has a humongous pink polka-dot octopus head on the roof. Jim's neighbors complained when he first began offering $2 tours to the public back in 1987 (actually he told me he used to literally beg passersby to take his tour), but they changed their tune when Jim and his "eyesore" became one of the most popular tourist attractions in town, bringing in lots of outside business the entire town profited from. (He likes to tell the story of the Pennsylvania teenager whose parents offered her a graduation trip to either Paris or the Raven's Grin Inn. Guess which one she picked?)
Jim, who cites Mad magazine as one of his main influences, is a riot to talk to, with an infectious laugh and an endless supply of entertaining stories about living in a haunted house. He appears to have found his dharma, his true calling in life. He's an interesting sculptor and painter to be sure, but the real intrigue for me was the far-out way he chooses to showcase his art and himself. In an age of art poseurs and performance artists who do little or nothing before they crawl up onstage, it's refreshing to discover somebody who's more into the work than into getting rich and famous. But don't get me wrong--Jim's no stranger to self-promotion or making a buck.
I especially enjoyed Jim's low-tech, Mr. Microphone, no-computer approach to his work. His idea of progress is when he builds another crawl space or installs one more secret passageway. Not wheelchair accessible, not recommended for people over 300 pounds, and, contrary to its name, not an inn!
If you're in the market for a place to stay, Mount Carroll is the land of the bed and breakfast. But my husband and I opted to stay at the Carrollton Inn (1 Carrollton Blvd., 815-244-1000), which used to be a college dormitory. Ask Butch (the guy in the "Shut up and fish" cap who runs the place) to give you the tour of their deluxe Jacuzzi suites. With their heart-shaped Jacuzzis, love mirrors, beds big enough for Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice, you, and your husband, as well as flocked red, gold, and black wallpaper, these love cribs are fit for an Elvis impersonator. Designed to put the pizzazz back in your relationship, they also have extra rooms attached in case you get in a fight or can't find a baby-sitter for the kids. The only complaint I had was one of the pillows felt like a bag of marbles, so you might want to bring your own.
We also spent one night at the Mount Carroll Motel (16747A U.S. highway 52, 815-244-9581), which at first looked kind of creepy because the big old 1950s sign looked like it was in the middle of doing a backbend, giving the impression that the place was barely open. But it was actually very nice. I was thrilled to find the old indoor pool behind the motel clean and not too chilly. The chilly part was running back to the room across the parking lot, so don't forget your flip-flops!
Speaking of chili, if you're hungry, head on over to the Mount Carroll Cafe (314 N. Main, 815-244-1700) and get yourself some breakfast. They've got good eggs and some of the glossiest laminated wood plaques on the walls, with pictures of cute animals, Indian chiefs, and Dennis Rodman. Back near the bathrooms is a doorway that leads to the general store, which is jam-packed with collectibles and flea-market-type goodies mixed in with drug-store items. Some items have been on the shelves for a few decades, and many are unpriced. When I asked the cashier (who doubles as a waitress as if she's part of a Carol Burnett skit) what the price of something was, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "I dunno. Make one up!" Now, the entire town was preparing for the annual citywide rummage sale that was going to take place the very next day, and I did notice that the cafe was listed as one of the 150 participants, so this may account for all the junk in the general store. But I'm not sure. If you're interested in finding out about future rummage sales and other special events, try calling the Mount Carroll Chamber of Commerce (815-244-9161).
About this time we had the good fortune to run into Joe McCray, a local retired newspaper photographer who proudly told us the history of his town and even walked us across the brick street to the lawn of the old courthouse, where a Civil War memorial honors the 1,284 Carroll County men who fought in the war. This memorial used to be listed in Ripley's Believe It or Not for having an annex built next to it to accommodate the large quantity of names, but six years ago a similar memorial knocked it right out of the record book.
Next we walked diagonally across the square, because Joe wanted us to see the beautiful little Irene Bianucci WPA mural in the post office. Recently cleaned, this sweet depiction of rural life reminded me a lot of the sideshow banner paintings of Chicagoan Fred Johnson. Curiously, all the animals looked miniature in proportion to the people in the scene.
Speaking of miniature, if you want to give your inner child a thrill, drive three minutes down the road to Huff's Miniature Horses (412 S. Mill; 815-244-7692; call for an appointment). Len Huff, a retired minister, and his wife, Miriam, have a whole barn full of these adorable tiny horses that they raise, train, show, breed, sell, and enjoy. Standing between 20 and 35 inches tall, this unique breed of horse used to be displayed in circuses and carnival freak shows for anyone who wanted to pay to see them, but Len is nice enough to show you his horses for free!
If you're ready for lunch, check out Myrna's Kitchen (204 E. Rapp; open seven days a week; 815-244-2212), right off the square. This cute little fountain restaurant, with its high stools and counter, has a lot of visual appeal, but the Styrofoam plates all over the walls--warning in ballpoint pen, No Swearing or Dirty Talking!--kind of gave me the willies. I was actually scared that I was going to say damn and get thrown out. We also didn't find our waitress (who we were pretty sure was Myrna) especially friendly (until I mentioned that we were from a Chicago newspaper!), but I must say that everything we ordered was delicious. The chocolate milk shake I had was exactly the way I like it--thick, rich, in a fancy old glass with a long thin spoon sticking straight up out of it and served with the rest of the shake in the metal container it was made in, which was enough to fill the glass again.
A trip to Mount Carroll wouldn't be complete without a side trip to Savanna, just ten miles west. But before you go you might want to pick up some healthy snacks at Straddle Creek Natural Foods (114 W. Market, 815-244-2667). The lady there was real nice (her son went to high school with Jim, the haunted-house guy), and the yogurt-covered peanuts and natural peanut-butter cookies we bought were unbelievable! If you're feeling skinny, walk a few doors up to Krafts Korner (102 W. Market, 815-244-3111), where you can choose from ten varieties of fudge and hand-dipped chocolates. They also have clothes for sale. An interesting combination.
"Now keep your eyes peeled for big birds." That's what we were told to do on our way to Savanna, and darned if we didn't see an eagle right off the bat! Savanna is cool because it's built right on the mighty Mississippi River, which was totally flooded in mid-April. It's really worth a hike or drive to the river bluffs of the Mississippi Palisades State Park (16327A route 84, 815-273-2731), which provide some spectacular views of the river that reminded me of the mountains of my native Virginia. They've built this neat wooden deck on the very edge of the highest cliff, where one gigantic bird flew by so close I could've grabbed its beak! Other features of the park include miles and miles of trails, campsites, picnic areas, horseback riding, bathrooms, flowers, a cliff that looks like a big Indian head, fresh air, and some of the steepest roads I've ever seen (the result of more glacial action).
The other big attraction in Savanna is the Pulford Opera House Antique Mall (330 Main, 815-273-2661). With 150 dealers, this old opera house is all divided up into booths, so it's difficult to get a feeling for what it must've been like in its heyday, when steamboats rolled up the river carrying all those excited opera fans. Mr. Pulford built the place for his wife, but one day he caught her with another man right there in the opera house. He shot them both dead, then hung himself from a rafter.
After that hair-raising story, we couldn't wait to get back to Mount Carroll and drink a whiskey and Coke at Sievert's (121 W. Market, 815-244-7553). Steaks and pizza are the big claim to fame here, so we ordered a thin-crust cheese pizza and a noble salad (lettuce, green olives, mozzarella cheese). We liked it so much we came back and ordered the exact same thing the next night! (The whiskey and Cokes weren't bad either.) The whole bill came to less than $15. Sievert's has bar, booth, or table seating and looks to me like it's the place to be on a Saturday night, unless you feel like bowling.
The Carroll Lanes & Lounge (206 N. Main, 815-244-4023) is one block from Sievert's. I could tell it was well managed, because when this girl threw her ball down the lane and it crashed into one of those mechanical pin setters, the kid working behind the counter was on it right away!
(On our way out of town we thought we'd swing by the haunted house just once more. It was cold, raining, and getting late as we pulled around the parking lot, but there was a line of people waiting to go in!)