Madison's firefighters and gays and lesbians tend to head to different haunts. Here's where you might find some of each.
Many of those who quash Madison's blazes get their after-hours drinks at the Caribou Tavern (703 E. Johnson, 608-257-5993), a cramped bar owned by retired police officer Denny Schmelzkopf. Schmelzkopf has never given much thought to ambience--packages of popcorn and chips pinned to a rack is about as fancy as it gets. "The jukebox plays everything from heavy metal to Sinatra," says night bartender Aaron Gagliano, who cooks up hamburgers on a greasy grill. "This place is so fun I come here on my day off."
Fire-fighting sports enthusiasts patronize Jingles' Coliseum Bar (232 E. Olin, 608-251-2434). William "Jingles" O'Brien founded his original stadium bar in downtown Madison in 1957; now its successor, run by Jingles's son Mike, occupies a building catercorner from the Dane County Expo Center. At Jingles' the hamburgers are cheap ($3.75), the beer is plentiful (7 brands on tap, another 30 bottled), and the many television monitors are tuned to news during the day and sports at night. An ebullient Mike O'Brien greets regulars, and there's a monthly newsletter called "Jingle Bells," its cheery yellow pages filled with customer birthdays and a word jumble.
For a proper meal firefighters recommend the Avenue Bar (1129 E. Washington, 608-257-6877), a fixture in Madison since the Zach family opened it in 1970. The restaurant employs its own butcher to slice up steak and prime rib--it's $14.25 for the top sirloin accompanied by choice of potato plus either coleslaw or cottage cheese. Otherwise, try the fish boil, a steamed mix of cod, baked potato, and carrots that's $7.95. The bar, with its beer steins, clocks, and farm implements hung on the walls inside, is open every day, with breakfast served on weekend mornings.
The morning at Odana Hills Municipal Golf Course isn't complete without a foursome of active or retired firemen teeing off. Located on Madison's west side (4635 Odana, 608-266-4078), the 18-hole course has fairly open fairways, a clubhouse, and a concession stand, which serves burgers and hot beef and turkey sandwiches.
Biking is one of fundamentalist firefighter Ronnie Greer's favorite pastimes. In all, Madison boasts 110 miles of bike paths and lanes. You can locate bike routes by calling city bicycle coordinator Arthur Ross (608-266-6225), who will also send you a free map. Bikes are easy to rent in Madison--Budget Bicycle Center west of the University of Wisconsin campus (1230 Regent, 608-251-8413) will lease you wheels for $5-$30 a day.
You might want to start with these routes: At Mill Street and Wingra Drive connect with an eight-mile trail through the 1,260-acre University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum (608-262-2746) and beyond. Or consider the 12-mile path that circles Lake Monona. You can pick it up at Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center (1 John Nolen Drive, 608-261-4000), and be sure to make a stop here first. Madison city fathers dismissed Frank Lloyd Wright's plans for the building when he first presented them in 1938, but 30 years later they used the old plans to build the massive structure, cantilevered 90 feet over Lake Monona on steel pilings. Whad 'Ya Know?, Michael Feldman's quiz show on Wisconsin Public Radio (WHAA AM 970), is broadcast from here on Saturday mornings (call 800-942-5669 for tickets). An exhibit featuring photos by Pedro Guerrero, Wright's official photographer, runs at least through July, and on the rooftop terrace a plaque memorializes Otis Redding, who met a watery end when his plane crashed into Lake Monona in 1967.
The Washington hotel was the unofficial community center for Madison gays and lesbians but it burned down in February 1996. Now the reigning gathering place is A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore & Coffee House (307 W. Johnson, 608-257-7888), which specializes in feminist, gay and lesbian, and transgender fare. The homey store hosts readings, plus book groups and such support groups as Incest Survivors Speak Out.
The most feverish venue for dancing in all Madison--for both gays and straights--is the Cardinal Bar (418 E. Wilson, 608-251-0080). The front room of the old railroad-hotel bar (built in 1908 and retaining most of its original fixtures) is staid, with a stuffed deer, wooden tables draped with burgundy cloths, and walls lined with cherry wainscoting, but the separate dance floor rocks, courtesy of DJs who spin everything from techno to Brazilian music on $60,000 worth of sound equipment. The bar's open at 8 every day except Monday, but the action really gets going around midnight. Around the corner is Madison's principal leather bar, Manoeuvres (150 S. Blair, 608-258-9918), with its huge, decorative chain Godzilla might use to augment his S and M outfit. The bar is slated to move at the end of July.
On Madison's east side is Ray's Bar & Grill (3052-54 E. Washington, 608-241-9335), which owner Ray Jacobson, a former furniture salesman, once renamed after his late mother Geraldine. "But then I found that people didn't relate to the name Geraldine, and we want back to Ray's," says the cantankerous Jacobson. Ray's attracts gays and lesbians ("There's no reason we should segregate each other," he says), and his horseshoe-shaped bar is usually packed with a mix of both. The food's better at Fyfe's Corner Bistro (344 E. Washington, 608-251-8700), an old plowshares factory that features steaks and pasta in a cobblestoned, plant-filled dining room. There's live music in the bar on Friday nights; on Saturday nights the small dance floor attracts women couples.
Madison's Pride Weekend (608-255-4297), an annual of events, is scheduled for July 17-19. The Magic Picnic, now in its 26th year and featuring games, retail booths, information tables for various organizations, and music, takes place in Brittingham Park (West Washington and Park Street) at noon on July 18. On the following day the GALVAnize March--more restrained than Chicago's gay-pride parade--kicks off at 1 from the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol, at Wisconsin and Mifflin streets. State representative Tammy Baldwin and her aide Alderman Mike Verveer are Madison's most vocal openly gay officeholders, and they keep offices in room 124-N of the capitol. To Verveer's mind there is nothing grander than the beaux arts building itself; finished in 1917 and the only state capitol with a granite dome, it brims with gold leaf and mosaics. Tours of the building, which contains both houses of the legislature and the state supreme court, can be had on the hour throughout the day except for noon (parties of ten or more should call 608-266-0382). The Dane County Farmers' Market (920-563-5037), Wisconsin's largest, is held on the capitol grounds every Saturday from 6 AM to 2 PM the last week in April until the first week in November.
For those unfamiliar with Saint Charles it might be hard to figure out why, of all the places in the world, former Beach Boys front man Brian Wilson would choose to build his dream house here. But its allure becomes apparent the minute you see its vital, historic downtown and its gently sloping streets, restored brick buildings, tall trees, and fabulous view of the Fox River.
Early white settlers were attracted to the area's fertile land, and Saint Charles and its mills were a hub for farmers from the outlying areas. Many farmers hauling loads of grain to Chicago would stay overnight at the 281-acre Garfield Farm, now preserved and maintained as the Garfield Farm Museum (Route 38 and Garfield Road in La Fox, 630-538-8485), just a short drive from Saint Charles. Several of the museum's nine buildings are open to the public on Wednesdays and Sundays from June to September; the original inn is filled with antiques, and there are also live oxen, sheep, and chickens on the premises. The museum also hosts preservation-themed events throughout the year, including a rare-breed livestock show in May; the Heirloom Garden Show (August 30), which showcases varieties of rare fruits and vegetables and other endangered flora; and the Harvest Days Festival (October 4 and 11), where costumed volunteers reenact 1840s farm life.
For another look at early Saint Charles, the Durant-Peterson House, located in the LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve (half a mile west of Randall Road on Dean, 630-377-6424), boasts a restored and furnished 1843 prairie farmhouse. Like Harvest Days, one of its attractions is its "costumed interpreters," but here visitors are involved in the reenactment. It's open from 1 to 4 on Sundays from June 15 to October 15 (or year-round by appointment).
Saint Charles is perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of the 30-year-old Kane County Flea Market, where you can pay $5 to look at dirty old toys, expensive antique furniture, and glassware of every color in the spectrum. It's held the weekend of the first Sunday of every month at the Kane County Fairgrounds (Route 64 and Randall Road, 630-377-2252).
On the east bank of the Fox River in Saint Charles proper sits Century Corners, a small neighborhood made up of restored, brightly colored Victorian houses filled with antique and specialty shops. One of the most inviting is the cozy Town House Books & Cafe (105 N. Second Avenue, 630-584-8600), located on the first floor of a sprawling 1853 Greek revival home. Its 30,000 books are stacked to the rafters, and its poetry selection is as extensive as what you'll find in most Chicago bookstores, running the gamut from Rilke to Safire. There's all the usual fiction, best-sellers, and specialty books such as Jim Hochgesang's Hiking and Biking in the Fox River Valley. A receipt from the store gets you a free cup of coffee at the lively cafe down the hall, where light meals are also served. In the summer there's outdoor seating, and on Friday nights the cafe usually showcases live music.
Just across the river is an eight-block stretch of landmarks where pioneers first settled, in the mid-1830s. One of the first things they did was build a dam to power the mills along the river, and the dam is still the focal point of the town. Today the rehabbed area, known as Old Saint Charles, is home to restaurants and shops, including Antique Markets I, II, III (11 N. Third Street, 630-377-1868; 301-3 W. Main, 630-377-5798; and 413 W. Main, 630-377-5599, respectively), where over 80 dealers trade in everything from bad oil paintings and first-edition books to 1920s wedding dresses and Johnny West dolls. More sifting is required nearby at the St. Charles Resale Shoppe (111 W. Main, 630-513-0244). It's filled to the brim with books, jewelry, glassware, and linen. The prices are all over the place, so try to haggle; I managed to find Melrose Place star Jack Wagner's 1987 album, Don't Give Up Your Day Job, for $2.
For even more downscale shopping, try the Living Branches Thrift Shop (216 Riverside, 630-584-5833); the volunteer behind the counter will interrupt her singing to tell you what's on special. The store contains a lot of filler and the occasional treasure, such as a set of green polka-dot glasses from the 1960s for 60 cents each.
The gem of downtown is the Hotel Baker, a 70-year-old Spanish-Moroccan grand dame that recently underwent a $9 million renovation. Grand, of course, means that the price is also muy grande--rooms range from $145 to $200 a night; the latter gets you a king-size bed, three phones, a bathroom with a green marble floor, fancy soap, fluffy robes, and a balcony with a river view and Jacuzzi. Suites run from $245 to $495 for the penthouse. But the amenities, which include a second-floor writing room with antique desks that overlook the stained-glass entrance, and the solicitous service (the desk clerk saw our bent car key and offered to run out and have a new one made; even the best of my old boyfriends were never that attentive) seem almost worth the price.
The hotel serves Sunday brunch ($19.98) in the Rainbow Room, an elegant oval ballroom with a lighted floor. Nearly every table has a view of the Fox. The airy Trophy Room restaurant next door is designed to look like an outdoor Spanish courtyard, complete with a spouting lion's-head fountain and Salamancan columns. It also overlooks the river; entrees range from fish and pasta to grilled chicken and filet mignon and average about $18.
If you've spent all your money on a room at the Hotel Baker, you can head across the street to the Manor Restaurant (1 W. Main, 630-584-2469), a modest family joint that has mediocre decor but a spectacular view of the river. They serve reasonably priced omelettes, club sandwiches, and burgers.
A two-block walk from the Hotel Baker is Francesca's by the River (200 S. Second Street, 630-587-8221), the fifth and newest addition to Chicago's Mia Francesca empire. Entrees go up to $15.95, with plenty of vegetarian options. There's also a full bar. The service, by the way, is a lot less snooty out here in the hinterlands. A short walk away is the Arcada Theater (105 E. Main, 630-584-9755), a beautifully restored 1926 movie house that shows current films.
If nostalgia is not your trip, two miles east of downtown you'll find the Pheasant Run Resort (4051 E. Main, 630-584-6300), a mind-boggling hodgepodge of ugly-on-the-outside attractions that include restaurants, shops, swimming pools, riverboat gambling expeditions, and hot tubs--there's also a comedy club, a golf course, an expo center, and a day spa. And, of course, there are rooms for rent (complete with nature prints on the walls), including weekend packages that range from $85 to $385. Room service is prompt, and the $21.95 Sunday brunch provides a decadent selection of crepes, omelettes, desserts, meats, fish, fruit, salads, pancakes, breads, vegetables, and pasta dishes worthy of Caligula, and the room overlooks an indoor pool with a waterfall.
Across the street from Pheasant Run is Charlestowne Mall (3800 E. Main, 630-513-1120), which boasts fountains, foliage, and a two-level Italian carousel for the kids. You can bypass Carson's, Kohl's, Sears, and JCPenney and check out the Oberweis Dairy (630-513-1166), an ice cream shop that sells turtle pies, sundaes, and other bovine specialties with that old-fashioned flavor.
The town's most affordable digs ($55.98 and up) are a short drive from downtown at the Super 8 (1520 E. Main, 630-377-8388), which is nestled between a Baker's Square and an Arby's and boasts 68 guest rooms and a complimentary coffee-and-toast bar.
The biggest annual event is the Scarecrow Festival (October 9-11), where up to 100 people enter their own elaborate versions of the bird scarers and compete for $1,700 in prizes; winners are selected by the public. It overlaps the Prairie Star Quilter's Guild Quiltfest at the Kane County Fairgrounds (October 8-10, Route 64 and Randall Road, 630-879-5071).
The Fox River Trail follows the river from Aurora north to Crystal Lake (and through Saint Charles). Skates and bikes for the trail can be rented by the day or hour at Milrace Cyclery (11 E. State in Geneva, 630-232-2833), where they'll throw in a free map. Or take a $5 scenic four-mile cruise on a replica of the steamboats that traveled up and down the river 100 years ago with St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats at Saint Charles's Pottawatomie Park (2 North Avenue, 630-584-2334). They run from May through mid-October.
Du Page County
In a 1963 letter to the Chicago Tribune, 70-year-old naturalist and author May Theilgaard Watts outlined a novel idea that would eventually help launch the national rails-to-trails movement. Her proposal sought to convert the abandoned Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin (CA&E) railroad right-of-way through Chicago's west suburbs into a trail; fellow nature lovers responded to the letter by helping Watts form an organization that would later succeed in developing the Illinois Prairie Path, now one of Chicagoland's premier bicycle and pedestrian trails.
With its hub in Wheaton the 55-mile IPP's three main branches extend east to Maywood, northwest to Elgin, and southwest to Aurora. Spurs to Geneva and Batavia sprout from the Elgin and Aurora branches, respectively. After years of rain and steady use, the crushed limestone surface is, for the most part, pavementlike--very easy on bicycle tires.
Before scheduling your trip, get the excellent IPP map, available for $3 from the Illinois Prairie Path (630-752-0120). Relatively short loop trips begin in Wheaton itself, but why not make a day of it and do the whole shebang? The route outlined below covers a bit less than 60 miles.
Park your car on the east side of Maywood, in a residential neighborhood or at the Commonwealth Edison facility on First Avenue (about five blocks north of I-290). The main stem of the IPP begins on the west side of First, just south of the Duke of Oil shop. At the trailhead you're at mile marker 15, counting down. Pedaling west five miles brings you to Elmhurst. Another mile brings you to the Wild Meadows Trace Park, where there's a drinking fountain and a picnic area. You can liberate any tots you're toting at the small colorful playground a short distance further on the south side of the path. If you're not packing a lunch, you can go to mile marker 9 and cut north on Spring Road to the Silverado Grill (477 Spring, 630-833-1602). Snag an outdoor table there, especially if mounted deer heads make you nervous. Back on the IPP, don't overlook the small zone of restored prairie vegetation a few hundred yards west. Larger zones of prairie await you further on.
Another mile takes you into Villa Park. Sober yourself with a glance at the decrepit old Ovaltine plant. Check out the Villa Park Historical Society Museum (220 S. Villa, 630-941-0223), with its interesting material about Sears Homes, prefabricated houses that, a century ago, could be ordered by rural families and shipped to railroad towns like Villa Park. Consider forking briefly from the IPP onto the Great Western Trail and riding it two miles to Lombard Common (433 E. Saint Charles, 630-627-1281), where there's a water park, a nine-hole disc-golf course, and an ice cream shop.
You may find the Great Western Trail itself relatively drab; if so, cut back south four blocks to the IPP and continue west. More prairie foliage can be seen trailside as you pass through Glen Ellyn; in Wheaton you'll skirt Wheaton College and the surprisingly attractive DuPage County Courthouse complex. You're closing in now on mile marker 0, the convergence point of the IPP's three branches.
In downtown Wheaton, just east of Main Street, consider locking up so you can stroll the historic Front Street neighborhood. If you're riding on a Saturday, try to get there before 1 so you can go to the outdoor French Market and see the crafts, veggies, flowers, and more. It's just south of the Metra tracks on Liberty Street. (For details on the French Market talk to Carla or Liz at the Wheaton Downtown Business Association, 630-682-0633). Just north of the tracks, on Front Street itself, you can see Doug or his father, Tom, at Midwest Cyclery (117 E. Front, 630-668-2424) for any necessary bike repairs. Three doors west see Jack at Tates Old Fashion Ice Cream Parlor (109 E. Front, 630-668-4434) to cool off.
A few blocks further west on the IPP's main stem (it's always south of the Metra tracks in Wheaton) you'll reach the IPP Founders Park and IPP Volunteer Park. At the Volunteer Park, the CA&E bridge over the Chicago & North Western railroad is of particular note: it was restored in 1983 by IPP volunteers using donated money and materials.
Cross the CA&E bridge; after mile marker 2, fork onto the Geneva Spur, which will take you through quaint West Chicago and past another, larger prairie remnant. At Geneva, pick up the outstanding (though often heavily trafficked) Fox River Trail, ride it five miles south to Batavia, and loop back east to Wheaton. The Geneva-Batavia loop, combined with the return trip down the main stem from Wheaton to your car in Maywood, produces the total ride length of 60 miles. (Higher-octane riders may prefer loops through the more distant towns of Elgin or Aurora, also linked via the Fox River Trail.)
Obviously you can choose from dozens of other bicycle paths around Chicago. For a great overview get the Chicagoland Bicycle Map, which highlights on- and off-road routes from the Wisconsin state line to Joliet and from Lake Michigan out to McHenry, Kane, and Kendall counties. For a copy, send $6.95 to the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, 417 S. Dearborn, suite 1000, Chicago 60605 (312-427-3325). General trail information is also available from the League of Illinois Bicyclists (708-481-3429).
Here's a quick look at two more paths--one in the south suburbs and one north of Chicago:
To the far south there's the Old Plank Road Trail, which runs from Park Forest to Frankfort (and will be extended to New Lenox by August of this year and to Joliet by August 1999). An OPRT map is available free of charge from the Will County Forest Preserve (815-727-8700). To start from the OPRT's east end, park in the lot at the southwest corner of Orchard Drive and the trail itself (half a mile south of Route 30 and half a mile west of Western Avenue). Consider taking some time to explore Park Forest, one of the nation's first completely planned communities, founded by a private developer after World War II. For more information call the Park Forest village offices (708-748-2005).
A dozen miles west on the OPRT lies the historic town of Frankfort, boasting classic prairie-style architecture and 143 years of agricultural and immigrant heritage. Though heavily touristed, the village center retains most of its 19th-century charm and remains quite cyclist and pedestrian friendly. For a fabulous German lunch or dinner try Die Bier Stube (42 Kansas, 630-469-6660). Chef Klaus's kaiserschnitzel is highly recommended. If you want to learn more about the history of Frankfort, you can rent a one-hour tour cassette from Always Open (6 Elwood, 815-469-7270), at the intersection of Elwood and White streets. White Street itself is worth a look--don't miss the shops in the old Trolley Barn (11 S. White, 815-464-1120). One block west you might visit Frankfort Bowl and Billiards (15 S. Ash, 815-469-5333), with its alleys on the second floor. The now-segmented complex at 15-23 Ash used to house Balchowsky and Sons General Store--Frankfort's first, founded in 1877 by Barney Balchowsky, my great-great-grandfather. For other ideas talk to Sue at the Frankfort village offices (815-469-2177).
The Des Plaines River Trail system runs, with some gaps, from the Wisconsin state line south to River Forest. A map of the DPR's two northern segments is available for free from the Lake County Forest Preserve (2000 N. Milwaukee in Libertyville, 847-367-6640). The northernmost segment, 11 miles long, runs south from Russell Road (about half a mile south of the Wisconsin state line, just east of I-94) to Washington Street, in Gurnee. The next segment, about 12 miles long, picks up at Route 137 (one mile north of Libertyville) and ends at Half Day Road in Lincolnshire.
Maps of the two southern segments are available for free from the Cook County Forest Preserve (536 N. Harlem in River Forest, 708-771-1330). The 13-mile Des Plaines segment runs south from Lake Cook Road to Touhy Avenue, with a one-mile gap at Dempster Street near the intersection with I-294. The 11-mile Indian Boundary segment picks up at Touhy and runs down to Madison Street in River Forest. These gravel- and dirt-surfaced Cook County segments are rougher than the other trails described above.
Long-range plans for the DPR include filling in gaps, adding better-surfaced trails, and extending the southern end to a junction with the IPP in Maywood. When these improvements are completed, in perhaps three years, cyclists will be able to ride a smooth, uninterrupted, designated trail from Wisconsin to Chicago's near-west suburbs, and west from there to the Fox River and beyond.
There's one stop everybody must make when in Huntley: the Huntley Dairy Mart (10706 Route 47, 847-669-5737). Since 1956, this little drive-in has been a favorite stop for the Lake Geneva-bound weekend traffic and for anybody else tooling around south central McHenry County in search of a burger or a root beer float.
There's no curb service, but you can sit at picnic tables under the long red-and-white awning. Steve Grechis bought the Dairy Mart in 1985 and has steadfastly maintained its traditions, particularly the Friday-night fried fish. It's on the menu every day, but Grechis says many customers preserve the old ritual of ordering it only on Fridays. Known as the Haddock Family Meal Deal, it's 12 pieces of haddock, a quart of french fries, a pint of coleslaw, and six dinner rolls, all for $22. How is it? I don't know. I wasn't in town on a Friday.
After the Dairy Mart, take your trip even farther back in time by wandering along the town's brick-paved Woodstock Street, one block east of Route 47. There's currently a battle going on over whether the bricks should be replaced with ordinary pavement, so you might want to get there soon before the street loses some of its appeal. Outside of the bricks, Woodstock Street has some lovely old houses of assorted vintage. On a breezy day it looks like something out of a Frank Capra movie, with flags flapping on front porches and laundry flapping on lines in backyards. On the east side of Woodstock (at Second Street) is the house built by Thomas Stillwell Huntley (10904 N. Woodstock), who founded the town, originally known as Huntley Station, then Huntley Grove, in 1851. Larry Kahl, a local historian who lives down the block and teaches social studies at Huntley Junior High School, says T.S. Huntley was an Elgin banker who foreclosed on several farm parcels in the area. Official histories in the town library say that Huntley built the town's first store around the time of its founding.
Across the street from the Huntley house is one that Kahl says is haunted. He doesn't know why it's haunted, but he's sure it is. He lived there for a while in the 1970s and can still recount vivid tales of watching the figure of a man passing through walls, and of his dog baring its teeth at a blank wall "for hours on end."
While on foot in old Huntley, check out three churches: Trinity Lutheran, at 11008 N. Church; First Congregational, at 11628 E. Main; and St. Mary, at 10911 N. Woodstock. One five-minute walk takes you past all three. They're the same three congregations, though not all the same buildings, that were in town in 1885. First Congregational is a prim, white New England-style square building built in 1863, still charming to look at even though it's now covered in aluminum siding.
Unlike the precious town squares in postcard towns like Woodstock, Huntley's is a wee little slip of lawn with a few small monuments. On the square you get the feeling nobody ever expected Huntley to get very big--even the storefronts around it are modest, none of those grand 19th-century retail emporiums. In the 1920s and '30s, local businessmen sponsored outdoor showings of movies on the square to attract shoppers. There's a wooden bandstand restored in 1994 and a few memorial plaques to war veterans, but they're obscured by huge signboards listing everybody who has had anything to do with cleaning, building, or planting the square in the past decade.
Back on Route 47, between Fourth Street and the Chicago & North Western railroad tracks, you can see parts of the Union Special plant along the west side of the street. Union Special, an industrial-sewing-machine producer, was founded in 1881 in Chicago and has been in Huntley for 50 years, employing 500 people on ground that formerly held a Borden dairy plant. Huntley was once a major milk-shipping station, sending three railcars of milk a day into Chicago. In 1875 the town had the world's largest creamery.
Three miles south of the Union Special plant and east of Route 47 is the first outpost of modern-day Huntley, a factory-outlet mall. Opened in 1994, Huntley Factory Shops (11800 Factory Shops Boulevard, 847-669-9100) has the usual array of five dozen stores that carry bras, luggage, stereos, china, sheets, or whatever else you might want to buy cheap. The food court is equally ordinary, with seven stalls selling assorted forms of not entirely awful fast food. But why would you want to eat here? Get in your car and drive back to the Dairy Mart.
If you want to spend the night at Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (14520 River Road, 630-552-8622), you can't. But if you want to go and see it--it's open from 10 to 4 (closed Wednesdays) with tours for $15--you can stay just downstream at the Millhurst Inn (15426 Millhurst, 630-552-8117). The historic mill on the Fox River was destroyed by fire in 1979 but lovingly restored by innkeepers Ken and Arlene Koehler, who packed it with so many tchotchkes Mies might have thought to burn it down again. (Sandwich, about four miles west of Plano, is the land of antique malls.) A stay at the inn just might cancel the effect of the spare Farnsworth House. Rooms range from $120 to $220 per night, including breakfast and Jacuzzi. For simpler fare, try the Super 8 in Yorkville, just east of Plano on Highway 34 (1510A N. Bridge, 630-553-1634), and have your breakfast at Treber's (3 E. Main, 630-552-7220) in downtown Plano.
Yorkville's Bridge Street Cafe (213 S. Bridge, 630-553-9230) offers the most reliable meals in the vicinity at affordable prices, with no surprises, good or ill. For a splurge--or just a surreal night out--try the Fisherman's Inn (43W901 Main Street Road, 630-365-6265) in Elburn, north of Yorkville on Route 47. The barnlike restaurant feels like an annex to the adjoining banquet hall. Make a banquet reservation and you'll be asked what special occasion you're celebrating so they can have your matchbooks printed beforehand. I'd avoid the oysters, but they do cook a mean steak, and the trout they raise out back in "spring-fed raceways" are, amazingly enough, as good as they boast.
Apart from the house Mies built in homage to it, the river is the best thing going in the Fox River valley. If you go before the water level drops in midsummer, consider viewing the house from midstream. For $20 Freeman's Sporting Goods in Yorkville (129 E. Hydraulic, 630-553-0515) will rent you a canoe for the quick five-mile paddle downriver to Silver Spring State Park, right across from the glass house, where they'll pick you up. Longer excursions are also available; reserve your canoe in advance. The park is a good spot for a picnic, and for a parting glimpse of Mies's water world.
Located off Route 23 in the city of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, is the popular but tacky Don Q Inn (608-935-2321; for reservations call 800-666-7848). You can't miss it because there's a gigantic Boeing 377 Stratocruiser freighter plane parked on the grass out front. It was originally to be used as a coffee shop, but the story goes that it never happened because of certain legalities. I secretly think it was due to the hundreds of birds that nest on its wings and tail. You can climb some wooden stairs and peek inside the dark, spooky 180,000-pound plane but you can't go in.
Inside the 300-pound solid brass doors of the inn is a large lobby with at least a dozen vintage barbershop chairs circling a round ten-foot fireplace, which is covered by the boiler from a locomotive. All of the doors, lighting fixtures, wagon wheels, and lumber are from churches, mills, hospitals, banks, and farms in and around the midwest. (Two of the barbershop chairs are from the Iowa state penitentiary.) You can read all about it in the Don Q Inn newsletter, available for free in the lobby.
But the inn's real claim to fame is its popular theme rooms and more expensive FantaSuites, which you can tour every Saturday and Sunday at 2:15. Unfortunately, my husband Chris and I went on a weekday, and the girl at the front desk wouldn't let us look at any of the rooms to decide which one we wanted. (Even when I told her that I was doing a piece for a newspaper she still refused!) Blindly, we chose the Jungle Safari room, which we felt for $130 a night was rather uninspired--a few old dried reeds over doorways, wicker furniture designed to bruise your tailbone for life, and a waterbed, which in itself isn't a bad thing but Chris despises them.
Back at the front desk, we asked once again if we could look at a few other FantaSuites and were handed a little pamphlet with some tiny pictures of the rooms. We decided to try the one called Northern Lights because it had a giant igloo that looked cool (no pun intended). A creepy, full-grown polar bear hide draped over the top of the igloo was strategically positioned to shock us when we first walked in the door. Inside there's a blue-tiled, family-size Jacuzzi, complete with television, mirrors, and bubble bath. (Note: Don't use the entire bottle of bubble bath, no matter how small it looks--I did, and there were enough suds to fill Wrigley Field!) Murals of penguins and polar bears struggle to create the cheesy arctic illusion. Light blue wall-to-igloo carpeting leads down a couple steps to a sitting area with yet another television, located next to the main attraction, the very impressive cartoon igloo. (Note: Watch your head on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night--the entranceway is low and made of cement or something equally hard.) There's a ten-sided bed with a royal blue fake-crushed-velvet bedspread with two stuffed penguins poorly stitched onto it. They meant to sit up on the bed to greet and impress us with their cuteness, but instead were laying in a mysterious little heap, having lost these abilities long, long ago. A Sensurround car stereo system built into the ice-blue-mirrored headboard and still another television inserted into the side of the igloo should provide all the entertainment you'll need, in case you forget the playing cards. There's also a "love mirror" at the top of the dome, which is centered perfectly over the bed for folks who like looking at feet during lovemaking.
One fun little perk was that each FantaSuite comes with four free-drink coupons good at the Don Q restaurant and bar, located right next door. Walking through the dimly lit dark brown paneled hallways on our way to the bar, we read the names on the doors of the different theme rooms and imagined what they looked like inside: the Mid Evil Room, Up, Up & Away (sleep in a hot-air balloon), Cupid's Corner, Caesar's Court, the Chapel, the Cave Room, and Tranquility Base. We did finally get to view a few of these rooms the next morning when a guy named Nathan was working the front desk. He was a lot nicer than than other receptionist and let us look at the Cave Room (totally Flintstones, man), Tranquility Base (the bed is mounted 16 feet up in a lunar module above a crater-shaped Jacuzzi), and the Mid Evil Room, which had your basic shackles and chains on the bed, a chair with leather arm straps that looked like an electric chair, a unicorn painted on the wall, and a pink heart-shaped hot tub for relaxing after you're done whipping the daylights out of each other. (Nathan also told us the Don Q's 800 number spells "MOMS TIT.") At the bar, we discovered that there were specific cocktails assigned to the individual FantaSuites. These fancy drinks supposedly reflected the theme and mood of the various rooms. The bartender was real lenient and let us have whichever we wanted, so I began with an Up, Up & Away and Chris had a Cave Man, which he raved about for days afterward.
Later that night, we donned our super-suits (our secret name for bathing suits) and headed for the pool out back. Being a swimmer, I'm always on the lookout for the perfect aquatic experience whenever we travel, and the Don Q Inn's pool rates right up there in the top ten. First of all and most important, the water was warm like bathwater, the way I like it; second, there wasn't a soul around; and finally, it had something that I have never seen before in any of the thousands of pools I've swum in--a little waterway that you could swim down, with a Plexiglas window with pictures of dolphins on it that you could dolphin-dive under, which led to a smaller but very groovy little outdoor pool. So when you surfaced you were suddenly outside under the stars. The night we were there, the moon was full, the air was cool, and the water was luxurious, like something only movie stars experience on a regular basis. I must add, though, that the posted legal capacity of the outdoor pool was 27 people--I can imagine the horror of having 27 other people crammed in there, so I recommend going on a weekday unless you're into swinging with a couple dozen cheeseheads.
One other FantaSuite that we got to see was the Chapel, located at the far end of the inn and highly visible from down the road with its pointy white pencil-sharp steeple. This suite is neat because it's isolated from the rest of the rooms and it's three stories high, with a tiny room with a minifridge way up at the very top of the steeple.
The Don Q Inn is the perfect complement to the House on the Rock (5754 Route 23 in Spring Green, 608-935-3639). I can't imagine anyone going to the city of Dodgeville (population 4,213) unless they planned a visit there (see comic in this section). But the schedule of summer events in the area looks like a blast: there's the downtown Street Dance (July 11), Farmers Appreciation Day (July 12), complete with hog calling, and Maxwell Street Day (August 1), just to name a few. To receive a complete list of summer events, write or call the Dodgeville Revitalization/ Chamber, P.O. Box 141, Dodgeville, WI 53533 (608-935-9200).
Our good friend John "Sinatra" Connors swore that the restaurant next to the Wal-Mart in Dodgeville was "the best." (He also claimed that this Wal-Mart was the best one in the universe, but we decided to take his word on it and head for the food.) He was right about Narvey's Restaurant (1206 N. Beguette, 608-935-5310). The place isn't anything fancy, which is what we liked about it; it's got a local atmosphere and it's obviously the place in town to hear the latest gossip or even find a tractor for sale. It's got a variety of tasty side orders like coleslaw, onion rings, salads, and homemade bread that we, as vegetarians, appreciated. We liked it so much that we returned for pancakes the next morning. The waitress was real sweet though a little vague about their hours--from what I could decipher, they open around 5 AM and close whenever the last guy at the counter finishes his soup.
Other attractions worth mentioning: The cute little Dodge Theatre (205 N. Iowa, 608-935-5225) is all original on the outside, but the doors were locked and since there was a movie scheduled we gathered that no one had shown up to see it. (Can't say that I blame them considering the crappy films they crank out these days.) Ten miles north of Dodgeville on Route 23, just past the House on the Rock, is Taliesin (Route 23 and Highway C, 608-588-7900), the former home of Frank Lloyd Wright, which offers tours of the six Wright structures in the complex (including the Hillside Home School for architects) and exhibits of his work and life. Continue north and take a left to Route 14 and you'll hit the American Calliope Center (Route 14 in Spring Green, 608-588-7041), which boasts the world's largest circus calliope collection! It's open 10 AM to 8 PM every day. Admission is free.
Wisconsin truly rivals Kentucky and Tennessee for its unique tourist attractions, folk art, and funky roadside wonders, not to mention the beauty of the land, with its breathtaking rolling hills, valleys, and perfect farms. But without a doubt the House on the Rock is the best $15.50 I've ever spent. It's better than Dollywood, Graceland, and the Smithsonian put together. I would allow at least three hours to go through the place. Get ready for operation input and pure pleasure! Tips: bring a sweatshirt in case you get chilly; the pizza at the snack bar looks fantastic; cameras and tape recorders are allowed; bring an extra $10 for tokens to operate the music machines; buy the book about its maker, Alex Jordan, at the gift shop; try to go on a weekday, when it's not so crowded; and, finally, have a ball!
The seat of Porter County, Valparaiso is a conservative city of about 25,000 people, about an hour's drive from Chicago. The county courthouse is on the town's main drag, Lincolnway (Route 130), which is also the location of many antique shops. The finest is Sydow's (153 W. Lincolnway, 219-465-1777), which specializes in exceptional--and expensive--Victorian art and furniture. Bargain hunters might want to try the Valparaiso Antique Mall (212 E. Lincolnway, 219-464-8416), but they should be prepared to wade through some junk.
If a hard day of antiquing has left you thirsty, the Northside Tap Room (712 Calumet, 219-465-0885) has a good beer selection and, as its ads boast, "TVs everywhere!" For lunch or dinner, try Don Quijote (119 E. Lincolnway, 219-462-7976), which bills itself as "Indiana's only Spanish restaurant." When we visited, the dining room was packed with high schoolers there for a demonstration of Spanish music and dance. A few got up to dance to "La Bamba." Hannon's (752 S. Washington, 219-464-3558) is a drive-in root beer and hot dog stand. Look for the giant revolving mug.
Valparaiso was long the home of popcorn king Orville Redenbacher, who had a hybrid-seed business there. He's honored annually with the Valparaiso Popcorn Festival (219-464-8332). This year's festival will be downtown on September 12 and will feature a parade, hot-air balloon show, and five-mile run.
Front Porch Music (505 E. Lincolnway, 219-464-4700) has an impressive inventory of guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, and Irish harps, as well as sheet music and recordings. The store also hosts regular folk-music performances.
Kitty-corner from the county courthouse is the Memorial Opera House (104 Indiana, 219-548-9137), built in 1893 and recently refurbished. It's now home to community theater productions, including the Union Township Theatre Company's Pippin, which runs this Friday and Saturday and next Saturday and Sunday, June 27 and 28.
About eight miles west of town is the Deep River County Park (Old Lincoln Highway and County Line Road, north of Highway 30, 219-947-1958), a 1,000-acre nature preserve with Victorian gardens, 19th-century buildings, and a hiking trail. There's also a meadow that doubles as the home field of the Deep River Grinders, a local baseball team that plays by 1858 rules and with period equipment. The Grinders will host the Berrien County (Michigan) Cranberry Boggers July 12 at 2 PM and the Carriage Hill Clodbusters (Dayton, Ohio) August 30 at 2 PM.
Just south of the Indiana Toll Road, in Chesterton, is the Yellow Brick Road (Route 49 and the Indiana Toll Road, 219-926-7048), a gift shop and museum devoted to The Wizard of Oz. It houses a bizarre collection of dolls, jewelry, miniatures, and Oz-related books, including original Tin Man Buddy Ebsen's autobiography The Other Side of Oz. Chesterton also hosts an Oz festival on the third weekend of September, with a parade and "visits by Munchkins."
About half an hour north of Valparaiso are the Indiana Dunes State Park (Route 49 north of Highway 20, 219-926-1952) and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (219-926-7561, ext. 225), which stretches for about 20 miles along the lake and whose beaches can be as crowded as any in Chicago. Admission to the state park is $5 for out-of-state vehicles, $2 if you have Indiana plates; bicyclists and walk-ins pay 50 cents. The park includes several trails for hiking and biking, the longest of which, the Calumet Trail, runs nine miles along the South Shore Railroad tracks. For hikers, the National Lakeshore office recommends the Ly-co-ki-wi Trail, which runs for almost eight miles and connects with both the visitors' center and the Dunewood Campground (Highway 12, four miles east of Route 49). The Dune Park Station on the South Shore line provides easy access to trails and beaches. You can take a disassembled bike on board as long as it's neatly packed away "in a bag or container," according to the railroad's information number (800-356-2079). From Chicago you can find the South Shore Railroad at the Metra station at Randolph and Michigan (151 E. Randolph; call for schedules). Kids might enjoy the Chellberg Farm (Mineral Springs Road between Highway 12 and Highway 20, 219-926-7561, ext. 225), an 80-acre working farm maintained as it would have been at the turn of the century, with the usual roster of farm animals.