Forreston-Freeport, IL | Travel | Chicago Reader

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Forreston-Freeport, IL

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Forreston, the small northwestern Illinois town where Phil's Fresh Eggs is located, has little recreational allure, but within 50 miles there's a lot to do.

Fourteen miles north lies Freeport, a town of 28,000 on the Pecatonica River. It was here, on August 27, 1858, that Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas for the second time during their fabled Senate campaign. "This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," Lincoln intoned at the corner of Douglas and State streets, now marked by a slab of granite dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. City officials hope President Bush will be on hand August 27, when Freeport unveils a bronze statue of Lincoln and Douglas in the throes of argument.

Krape Park, at Park Boulevard and Empire Street (815-235-6114), is a wooded refuge featuring a waterfall, rocky outcrops, a carousel that costs 25 cents a ride, and a Robert Leathers playground mimicking a castle.

The Freeport Art Museum, at 121 N. Harlem (815-235-9755), has a small eclectic collection willed by various benefactors, notably a Freeport spice importer named W.T. Rawleigh. His spice salesmen acquired some intriguing pieces when they were in Europe, including a "mystery woman" executed by a Flemish school painter around 1630. The museum is best known for its examples of pietre dure, a bright style of mosaic popular in late-19th-century Italy. Kids particularly like the mummified crocodile, hawk, and ibis, X rays of which are illuminated beside their exhibit case. The museum is open noon to 5 Wednesday through Sunday; a $1 donation is requested from adults, 50 cents from seniors and students.

Restaurant row in Freeport consists of two side-by-side eateries on West Empire. Cannova's, at 1101 W. Empire (815-233-0032), serves tasty thin-crust pizza and a side salad that has something in it beyond lettuce and dressing; on weekend nights owner Pat Beckman plays a mean jazz piano. Open 5 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11:30 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 10 Sunday. At 1121 W. Empire is Club Esquire (815-235-7404). Owner Frank Hadjokas brings former Bears players to town for his annual charity golf outing the first Sunday in June (June 7 this year), and he has plenty of their photos up. Hadjokas's Greek pork chops, prepared with oregano and spices, are great. Open 11:30 to 2 and 5 to 10 Monday through Thursday, 11:30 to 2 and 5 to 11 Friday, 5 to 11 Saturday, and 11:30 to 8 Sunday.

Jane Addams grew up in Cedarville, minutes north of Freeport. The whitewashed brick home where she was born in 1860 still stands but is not open to the public. Its owner, Thomas Ennenga, says "social workers and U. of C. students" tend to stop by anyway, then head down the road to visit Addams's simple grave in a graceful cemetery set on a hill. The Cedarville Historical Museum, on Red Oak Road west of route 26, houses a collection of Addams memorabilia, including her baby cradle. The museum, which has no phone, is open from 1 to 5 on weekends; no admission charge.

The town of Lena, located a tad west of Freeport, is distinguished by its restaurants. The Land O' Corn Cafe, 152 W. Main Street (815-369-2329), takes its name from an Illinois Central passenger train that used to stop in Lena on its way to Chicago. Noontime regulars at the restaurant go for the biscuits and gravy and the ever-changing selection of pies. Open 6 AM to 3:30 PM Monday through Friday, 6 to 1:30 Saturday, and 7 to 1:30 Sunday. At Gilley's, housed in a 100-year-old converted barn on Lake Road two and a half miles north of town (815-369-5107), diners can cook their steak or fish themselves on an open charcoal grill or have it cooked for them. Open for supper only: 5 to 9 Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 Friday and Saturday, 4 to 8 Sunday, and closed Monday.

One-half mile north of Gilley's is Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park (815-369-4282), the centerpiece of which is a 43-acre lake full of bluegill, crappie, and bass. Come fall, the park's hardwoods deliver a dazzling palette of color. (The Native American-sounding name is the result of a contest held when the park was established in 1958--it's the word "aqua" encased by the two halves of "Lena.") Open all year; campsites are $8, $11 with hookup.

Two other notable state parks are situated within a 40-mile radius. White Pines Forest State Park, at 6712 White Pines Road in Mount Morris (815-946-3717), contains the southernmost stand of virgin white pine in the United States. The park, which is open year-round, drips with the rustic--you have to ford Pine Creek at two sites in your car; $7 for a campsite. The White Pines Inn (815-946-3817), built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, rents out one-room cabins with log walls for $55 a night. The restaurant is distinguished by its chicken pot pie and Paul Bunyan breakfast (the eggs are Phil's). Every Friday night from April through December the restaurant dining room doubles as a community theater; expect comedies and light musicals.

The Mississippi Palisades State Park, three miles north of Savanna on route 84 (815-273-2731), offers spectacular views of the Mississippi from a bluff 200 feet over the river. Understandably, the 11 miles of hiking trails tend to be steep. The park, which is open all year, has 240 campsites; $8, $11 with hookup.

Mount Carroll, a sleepy town a few miles east of Savanna, is remembered by many Chicagoans as the original home of Shimer College, an institution with a Great Books orientation. Shimer abandoned its Mount Carroll campus in 1979, and today the Georgian Revival buildings stand in disrepair. The Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies, which owns the former campus, is slowly renovating them.

The heart of Mount Carroll is a historic district of 33 houses built between 1840 and 1910 in various architectural styles. Free maps for a walking tour can be had at Johnston Realty, 111 W. Market (815-244-9161); open 8:30 to 5 Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 1 Saturday.

On the edge of town a short nature trail adjoins the Caroline Mark Home. The rambling home, at 222 E. Lincoln (815-244-3862) is an Arts and Crafts structure credited to an obscure architect named Berkeley Brandt, who was supposedly from Chicago. The home was endowed in 1900 by a wealthy widow, Caroline Mark; area ladies could live there for free in their dotage. Ten residents, ranging in age from 60 to 94, live there now; there's room for more, but the home doesn't have an elevator, a chair lift, or in-house medical care, which keeps the numbers down.

Some years ago Don Quinn, a hotel owner from Dodgeville, Wisconsin, turned a Shimer men's dormitory into a lodge now known as the Carrollton Inn, at 1 Carrollton Blvd. (815-244-1000). Its suites have flocked wallpaper, mirrored ceilings, and heart-shaped Jacuzzis (except for the suite with an old copper cheese tub six feet across). The views are of cornfields. Out back, sitting on wood blocks, is the observation deck from the control tower of the Madison, Wisconsin, airport, which Quinn intended to mount on top of his inn, but never got around to doing before he died. Suites at the Carrollton go for $110 a night, regular rooms for $39 and up.

For something that looks a little less like a whorehouse, try a bed and breakfast. The Mount Carroll area has everything from Victorian-quaint to a suite in a converted chicken coop, complete with hot tub. Call 815-273-5000 for a referral; rates run from $40 to $90 a night.

For the best meal around drive east to Mac's, 109 E. Carroll (815-493-2490) in Lanark. It's darkly lit, with a bar the length of a house. A train rumbles by the back door. The food gets odd at times--ever see a relish tray that combines strawberries, pasta salad, and a cold egg died purple? But the steaks are juicy, and the catfish (weekends only), marinated and then broasted in some undefined coating, is highly recommended. Open 11 AM to 10 PM Tuesday through Saturday, 10 to 8 Sunday.

Your exit from the Forreston region is incomplete without a stop in Dixon to see the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, a three-bedroom, one-bath home at 816 S. Hennepin (815-288-3404). Jack Reagan, Ron's shoe-salesman dad, rented the frame house for only three years, from 1920 to 1923, the longest he rooted his family anywhere. "It was the only house of his childhood the president has any feelings about," said docent Carol Burris.

The Reagans kept few of their belongings, and the little they did keep was later destroyed in a fire at Ron's older brother Neil's house in California. The museum has re-created the furnishings by consulting Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs of the period and the memories of the Reagans and longtime denizens of Dixon. The house tour makes much of Reagan's two returns to the house, when it was dedicated on his birthday in 1984 and again in 1990. The dining-room table is set with the Jewel Tea Company dinnerware that Ron and Nancy ate vegetable soup and salad from in 1984; their plates are in the exact spots where they enjoyed their meal. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 4 Sunday; admission is free.

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