Galena, You Are Charming: A Conversation with Susan Steffan of the Farmers Guest House

Guest Post by Max, The Urbanologist

In my line of work (urbanologist, traveler, college lecturer, etc) I spend a great deal of time on the road. It’s nice when I get to bunk down in a place as charming as Galena, Illinois with hosts as cordial and friendly as Susan and Don Steffan at their lovely B&B, the Farmers Guest House.

After a visit this summer, I reached out to Susan to ask her a few questions about what this lovely corner of Illinois, the B&B business, and some of the challenges they have encountered in the world of hospitality.

Farmers Front Large 2

What led you to start a B&B in Galena?

We first stayed at a bed and breakfast on our honeymoon to Mackinaw Island in 2004. After that we would stay at a B&B whenever we traveled and began toying with the idea of having one of our own. In 2007 we went to an Aspiring Innkeeper Seminar, much like the one we host now, and determined that B&B ownership would be our next career. We studied the industry for a few years and made a “bucket list” of what would be our perfect inn. The search for the ideal B&B took three years but in 2012 we left our mainstream jobs and took the plunge.

What’s been the greatest challenge for you and Don as you’ve started this new endeavor?

Don and I were both in careers that involved less teamwork and more solitary effort. Working with another person and having to compromise frequently involved quite the learning curve. We also live and work 24 hours a day with each other. During the first few months we wondered if our marriage was going to make it; but now our relationship is better than ever. We know and appreciate each other more than ever before and have also learned that we are much better as innkeepers when we take “me” time and “us” time. Don goes bowling, I quilt and go antique hunting, and we both disappear with friends now and then to sit at a vineyard and watch the grapes grow. Most folks who ask what our greatest challenge was also ask what our greatest surprise was. What has surprised us is that we are having a great time and we don’t have problems with unruly or difficult guests. We would hear horror stories and get worried about how we would handle troublesome people but we just haven’t encountered those people. We love our guests and enjoy our new life as innkeepers!

What are your top 3 destinations in Galena, your “must-sees”, if you will?

This is hard to answer because there is so much to do and see in Galena and the surrounding areas. We have guests that return year after year and continue to find something new and entertaining to enjoy. But, when first time guests ask this of us, we always recommend strolling historic Main Street with all its shops, art galleries and tasting rooms; touring Grant’s Home, which is over 90% filled with furnishings from when President Grant lived there; and the Historic Galena Museum. However, we also highly recommend the many year-round outdoor sporting activities, not to mention our fine restaurants, brewery and distillery. And these are just the activities within walking distance!

Recommendations IMHO {in my humble opinion} on what you absolutely can’t miss in Galena.

Enjoy one bloggers insight on what is “uniquely Galena.”

In every special place, there are those unique things you just have to do, see or taste that make your journey complete.

In Galena, there are so many things that make our home exceptional and draw thousands of visitors each year. History, architecture, romance, adventure, shopping, amazing food, wineries. Check out these “can’t-find-it-anywhere-else” experiences so you can truly get a taste of what makes Galena uniquely “Galena.”

  • Order dessert. Bread pudding at Embe Eatery & Lounge (and yeah, splurge and go for the whipped cream on top).
  • View–first hand—“Peace in Union,” the original 9x12’ painting by famed artist Thomas Nast depicting Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox in 1865, on display in the War Room at the Galena & U.S. Grant History Museum. Did you know that nine of Galena’s citizens became Union Generals rendered for service in the Civil War, including Ulysses S. Grant?

    Ghost Tour

  • Stand next to Julia Dent Grant (or at least her statue) that quietly overlooks the city at her and President Grant’s Galena Home. The view is amazing.
  • Get goosebumps on a ghost tour. Galena offers several.
  • Eat breakfast. And don’t miss Banana Bread French Toast at Otto’s Place or the over-the-plate pancakes at Victory Café.
  • Walk the bluffs of the mighty Mississippi. Breathtaking views at Casper Bluff, preserved and open to the public through the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation. At this (free) site, you’ll also see the only known bird effigy mound in the state of Illinois, enjoy birding and picnicking. Check Fever River Outfitters for winter snowshoe hikes by candlelight at the property.
  • Ride a chairlift. Summer or winter, Chestnut Mountain Resort offers a thrill ride down the hill to the edges of the Mississippi River (Alpine slide, ski or snowboard) and a chairlift—with breathtaking views both directions.
  • Paddle the Galena River with a kayak or canoe rental from Fever River Outfitters.
  • Walk or bike ride on the river levee or Galena bike trail, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying Galena’s natural gifts.
  • Pecan Georgies or Jumbo Georgies at Galena’s Kandy Kitchen. Serious YUM. Visit the store and see the original, handwritten recipe for Chuckles candies—invented by the store founder’s father . Be warned: the smell of chocolate in the store is wonderfully intoxicating.
  • Take a narrated trolley tour or home tour and learn about the unique history and architecture in this beautiful town—at one time, a town much larger and prominent than Chicago.
  • Engage in lively conversation (or karaoke) at Ms. Kitty’s Grape Escape.

Winter favs. Events guaranteed to be memory makers.

Signing Santa’s book

  • Chocolate,  Champagne & Candlelight—who wouldn’t like this combination! Buffet upon buffet of delectable treats, a recipe book and opportunity to meet a featured baker.
  • Nouveau Wine Weekend—a preview of the vintage and a lot of celebrating!
  • Galena Brewery Kerstbeirfestival—festive food and locally brewed Christmas ales to celebrate the season.
  • Galena Country Christmas—five weeks of small town spirit that takes you back to your childhood. Make new traditions and celebrate old. Sign Santa’s book, enjoy roasted chestnuts, shop while seeing storefronts come to life with “Living Windows,” carolers and warm wishes.
  • Luminaria—simply breathtaking. A peaceful, enchanting evening with the town aglow in gentle candlelight. Thousands of luminaria throughout the city.

Fall Splendor | Galena, IL Landscape Photography

By Guest Blogger, Cathy Buck, Unposed Photography

I love fall!  I love apple orchards, and pumpkin patches.  Apple cider, apple cider DONUTS, and apple pies (okay okay…I really love apples…but ONLY in the fall.  How weird is that?!?!).  I love watching the leaves changing colors.  Making “forts” and jumping piles out of raked up leaves.  I love how it smells in the air-crisp and fresh.  It’s crazy how the world can smell so new when in fact, everything is dying.

We in the Midwest are preparing to exhange our tank tops and flip flops for coats, boots, hats,  and scarves (I LOVE SCARVES!).  Soon it will be so cold we won’t wander around outside for hours on end.  In just a few weeks, time outside will be exchanged for time spent cuddling indoors watching a lot of movies and snuggling under giant piles of blankets.  But before the dreariness of winter sets in, God seems to love us enough to shower us with the beauty of a world wrapped in color.

Last year, I missed this season.  Between the craziness of our jobs at the time and the city landscape in which we were living, there just wasn’t much time to take in the beauty of the changing seasons around us.  So, to make up for lost time, Jeff and I went exploring this past Sunday.  These were some of the amazing colors and views we saw in just a few short hours around Galena.  I think I finally understood why everyone here told me I would fall in love with autumn here.  It’s peaceful, it’s serene, and it reminded me to take some time to just sit back and gaze at the beauty around me once in awhile.

My new favorite trees!

And the sunlight through these makes me smile every time I look at them!

Galena “Newbies”

My husband and I are what I would call “newbies” to Galena. We have just recently purchased a bed and breakfast, Hawk Valley Retreat & Cottages, outside of Galena and are just getting to know our way around Galena and the surrounding vicinity.

As a business owner, our guests expect that we should know what is going on around Galena. What is there to see, do, and experience? There is so much to see, do, and experience that we haven’t had nearly enough time to enjoy all that Galena has to offer. In addition to some great shopping, wonderful restaurants, and a plethora of historic sites, there are some great opportunities to experience the great outdoors.

First, we have Chestnut Mountain and its ski slopes in the winter and the Alpine Slide in the summer.

Next take advantage of the Galena River by experiencing it via canoe or kayak. Fever River Outfitters on Main Street would be happy to outfit you with the necessary equipment. In addition to vehicles for the water, they also have bikes and scooters and other great equipment.
There are great walking and bike trails in and around Galena to be explored and you may as well take a nice picnic lunch with you so that you can stop and enjoy the majestic beauty of the Mississippi or the rolling hills and farmland surrounding Galena.

The Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation has some wonderful locations available for our Galena guests.  Casper Bluff, offers you breathtaking views of the Mississippi, as well as housing some great burial mounds. Our guests have found this a great way to see the Mississippi and easy to walk. It also provides homes for owls, blue birds, and woodpeckers…just to name a few of its birds. Buehler Preserve is just north of Galena and is a brief hike. Along the way, expect to see birds, frogs and beautiful wildflowers. The Wapello Land & Water Reserve is another great place to experience the prairie and its wildlife and flowers. It abuts the Apple River and during the summer months is ablaze in color, with flowers, trees, and grasses providing all of the colors you would ever want to see.

As you can see, there is something for every one of all ages to enjoy in Galena. I will have to continue my exploring so that I have more information to provide our guests, but in the meantime, I hope that people come to Galena to explore, experience, and enjoy all that Galena has to offer.

Cloran Mansion – Our Story

Let me start off by saying that Cheryl and I were married two weeks before buying the Cloran Mansion.

When Cheryl and I were dating we would talk about our dreams and goals.  She was the Executive Director of a retirement community Lombard, IL. And I was in retail sales.  She was 45 at the time and told me that her dream for the past 20 years was to own a bed and breakfast in Galena, IL by the time she was 50.  I had responded with, “What’s a bed and breakfast and where is Galena?” I had heard the term bed and breakfast, but what I heard was that it was someone’s home with a bedroom for rent.  Why would you want to stay there when there was a perfectly good hotel down the street? Cheryl knew that I did not have a clue as to what she was talking about and asked if I would be willing to make a day trip to Galena, to see the town she fell in love with and to see some of the B&B’s. I agreed.

Cheryl lived in a town house and her neighbor who lived below (He always called himself, Bob, from Down Under.) owned property in the Galena Territory  He found out we were going to Galena and asked if we were going for an event or something special and even asked if we would like to stay at his place.  Cheryl told him we were just going to Galena on a day trip to see the town and to see some B&B’s. Bob excused himself and came back 10 minutes later with the Galenian Newspaper (a bi-annual Galena publication) and it had the Cloran Mansion listed for sale.  Cheryl said “This is perfect, let’s just call the Realtor and pretend we’re buyers. You can see the town and a B&B and ask questions.” I agreed. She called the Realtor and was told there was actually six B&B’s for sale and was asked if she would like to see all six?  Cheryl thought this was ideal. She made the arrangements.

Our Realtor showed us the Cloran Mansion first.  The Cloran is eight blocks from Main St., on an acre and a half of land (this is the low end of what Cheryl wanted, but doable).  All the rooms had private bath, all but 1 had fireplaces (it has it now) all but 1 had double whirlpool Jacuzzi’s.  There was even a cottage that was truly handicapped accessible, which to Cheryl was a real bonus.  Being in health care all of those years she knew how important that was.

She fell in love with it.  She cancelled all of the other appointments.  I thought it was a nice old house, but had no interest what so ever.

We went back to Chicago.  This was a 3-hour trip and I was a captive audience.  She talked and talked and talked about coming back.  For those men out there who are currently single, or remember being single and dating, you should remember that you will normally do anything your girlfriend asks you to do and my girlfriend wanted to come back.  So we did.

It was about a month later that we made our second trip.  In the meantime we had been seeing each other every day and even talked about having a future together.  We were both divorced and swore we would never re-marry and the idea of spending my life with her was overcoming any previous negative anti-marriage feelings that I had had, but that’s another story.

We came back to Galena the second time.  This time Cheryl really scrutinized the house and the rooms.  She went thru all of the rooms with Patricia Weiser (one of the owners) while I walked the grounds with Bob Weiser. The rooms needed cosmetic changes.  The carpeting was old, the rooms needed paint and wallpaper, there was almost no flowers on the grounds.  These were cosmetic, the important things were here and the cosmetic changes could come later.

I walked the grounds with Bob, listened to his stories (Bob is a great talker) but still had no interest.  I was just there to appease Cheryl.  I was in retail sales for almost 28 years.  When you do something that long you’re probably good at it, if you are good at it, you are comfortable and if you are comfortable, especially at my age, you are not subject to change.  I was not subject to change.  I just assumed I had 5 years to talk her out of it and get it out of her system and that was the way it was going to be.

We went back toChicago.  Another 3-hour trip as a captive audience.  She talked and talked and talked about what she saw and the changes she would make and about how perfect it was. I just kept nodding my head knowing I would talk her out of it.

The talking did not stop when we got home (we were living together at that point).  She even had discussions about it with my parents who loved her like a daughter, and although they would hate to see us move they wanted us to be happy, or rather for Cheryl to be happy so she would keep me.  Cheryl had already mentioned that this was her dream and she was compelled to do it.  It would be a perfect dream with me, but she would be willing to try it on her own if she had to.  I agreed to a third and final trip.

On our third trip I became a little more interested.  Cheryl again scrutinized every room while I spent my time with Bob.  I noticed that they had no sign in front and was concerned.  I asked to see the books and they had a good business going, they were one of the more popular bed and breakfasts probably because of the fireplaces and double whirlpools.

Cheryl and I went back to Chicagoand talked about it and I reluctantly made an offer that I did not think he would take.  He made a reasonable counter offer and now we had some tough decisions to make.  How bad did we want it and how much did I want to please Cheryl?  I was putting a lot of faith in her.

This decision process was not easy.  We would have to come up with the financing.  This was an expensive business, but we could apply for a business loan.  We would have to leave our careers which we were both doing well at.  We would have to move from a major city to a minor city.  We would have to sell her town home but keep my condo because my daughter was still living there.  We had already planned on getting married in September but decided if we were going to have a legitimate partnership then it should be legitimate from the beginning and moved our wedding date up to July 22.  We had six daughters between us and they all met for the first time at the wedding.  The big kicker was that I was getting into a business that I knew absolutely nothing about.  My complete faith was in Cheryl and her dream.

We closed on the Cloran Mansion on August 6, 2001 at 2:00 pm.  I found out two things from Bob Weiser at the closing.  The first was that we went to high school together at the same time.  We were a year apart and had different friends so we had never met.  The other was that we had assumed that we would have a few weeks to get acclimated to things.  We had a garage full of furniture, did not know the house or the town, did not like the web site, had re-modeling to do, etc. except…Bob said “By the way, I kept talking reservations.  You have three couples arriving today.”  We were totally caught off guard by this and rushed thru the closing.

The first couple arrived at 3:00 pm, followed very shortly by two other couples.  Six strangers in my home that I just bought.  Six people asking me simple questions that I could not answer.  “Where’s a good place to eat?” My response. “I don’t know.” “What’s the history of the house?” My response. “I don’t know.”  “Can you turn on the fireplaces?” My response since I did not know how to turn on the fireplaces was, “This is August, you don’t need a fireplace.”  Followed by other questions that I do not remember but am sure I could not answer.

Cheryl and I decided that the best thing to do was to be honest with everyone. We asked everyone to join us in the dining room. When they all gathered together we just came out and told them, “We have owned this for one hour.”  At this point the guests, these 6 strangers had a decision to make.  They could either stay and tough it out, or they could say “You don’t have a clue to what you’re doing and we have to leave!”  I would have understood.

These six strangers were the first blessing that we had. They all stayed. They either took it as a challenge or felt sorry for us, but they all stayed. They asked for paper and pens and went to every room and investigated. They told us what certain switches did and how to turn on the fireplaces. One couple had been to many B&B’s and had a request.  He said all of the B&B’s they had stayed at always served breakfast at 8:00 am and he usually misses half of the meals, is there any way we could serve later?

For me, this was great. I was never a morning person so I agreed.  I let them decide the time. They agreed amongst themselves that the earliest they would like to eat was 9:00 am and the latest 10:30 am. We have had that breakfast time ever since.  They even told us what to make for breakfast. I had never cooked for anyone except my daughters, but the requests were simple.

Our first month we stumbled and stumbled  and stumbled. Cheryl even got shingles from stress. I was just terrified but managed to get thru it. As the days moved on it became easier and easier but I still thought we would never see our original guests again, not just from the first day, but from the first month. We kept pretty good records and all but one guest from our first month have returned over the years. Maybe to see if we are still married or if we made changes, but they came back. One couple has been back over 24 times these past nine years. Many have been here over 10 and 12 more times.

We are no longer afraid and hopefully keep the stumbling to a minimum. It was and still is an amazing career and I can honestly say I have no regrets and it is the best decision I have ever made. I can also say that dreams do come true if you want it bad enough. If you don’t believe me just ask my wife.

If you listen, Galena architecture speaks.

Posted by Guest Blogger, Janelle Keeffer, Galena Resident

After living in Galena for more than twenty years, my eyes and “ears” were recently reopened when I played tourist in my own town and took a walking tour with “General Grant,” Bob Buman. Streets that I have been up and down daily suddenly started speaking to me as I noticed bits and pieces of architecture and heard the story behind why things were the way they were. And who had been here before me.

A horseshoe and a key embedded in the sidewalk. Leaded glass above storefronts. Names in tile boasting family heritage. The true reason for a cobblestone street. Balconies from which famous people spoke. Oldest buildings and longest operating businesses not only in Galena, but in the state of Illinois. Additions to and repurposing of structures. Colors of brick and stone, and where those materials originated.

My head started spinning thinking of what this town was like more than a hundred years ago. I love living in a town with beautiful architecture that is so rich in history. It’s well known that more than 85 percent of the city of Galena is registered on the National Registry of Historic places. That equates to over 1,000 buildings in a town with a current population of under 4,000 people!

Main Street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Town that Time Forgot.”

When you come to Galena you’ll experience a glimpse of life in the 1800’s, but now with Wi-Fi and coffee bars (thank heaven!). The mid-1800s—a time when Galena was one of the largest and most prominent cities in the state of Illinois, with a population of nearly 12,000 people. A city that, at that time, was larger than Chicago and provided a core transportation hub (steamship, railroad and highway) and rich base of lead mining.

In 1823, the first steamboat arrived in Galena, and the town began to boom. People from diverse backgrounds and interests came to make their fortune and live their dream here. From miners to steamboat captains and clergy to traders, Galena’s population quickly grew, and so did the physical community. With it, a unique mix of architectural treasures were erected: Renaissance Revival, Italianate, Greek Revival, Federal, Vernacular, Romanesque Revival, Georgian, Queen Anne as well as the humble miners’ cottages.

From the moment you enter Galena’s hallmarked Main Street, you’ll notice something else that is prevalent and unique: Galena brick. Everywhere. During the quick growth of the city, many frame buildings were constructed but also destroyed with fire. In fact, entire blocks were quickly destroyed. In 1850, the city of Galena passed an ordinance requiring all new construction in the business district to be built of brick, which has today helped make Galena one of the top travel destinations in the state because of its historic preservation ability and efforts.

Elihu B. Washburne House State Historic Site

Go on a Galena treasure hunt

My newfound vision with “eyes and ears opened” has given me a new passion for this community. A passion to learn more. And a passion for Galena that I challenge you to find for yourself. Take your experience one step further and stay at one of our many, wonderful lodging properties boasting beautiful architecture and history, and take a step back in time to relax.

Places and resources to help you find Galena’s treasures:

Narrated Tours & Overviews

Galena & U.S. Grant Museum
Explore Galena’s history.

Galena Main Street Historic Walking Tour
Narrated tour by “General Grant.

Galena History Tours & Talks
Professional historian offers personalized lectures and tours of Galena. Advanced booking required.

Galena Trolley & Depot Theater
Narrated tour aboard open-aired cable car replicas or an air-conditioned executive coach.

Tri-State Trolley
Narrated tour aboard ADA-compliant and climate-controlled trolley service.

Self-guided Tours

The Galenian Visitors Guide
The DeSoto House Hotel

Historic Places & Homes Open to the Public / Offering Tours

Belvedere Mansion
An 1857 Italianate mansion.

The Dowling House
Galena’s oldest home, built in 1826.

Elihu B. Washburne House State Historic Site
Washburne was a popular congressman and friend of Lincoln and Grant.

Old Market House (Galena Welcome Center)
Constructed in 1845-1846; the hub of the community, hosting vendors and shoppers. Currently the site is home to the Galena Welcome Center.

The Old Stockade on Cobblestone Street
An early 1820’s log building.

Ryan Mansion Tour
An entertaining view of Victorian life.

Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site
Given to General Grant as a gift from the city upon his return from the Civil War.

Events

Tour of Homes, sponsored by the Galena Historical Society & Museum

Article of Interest

Smithsonian Magazine: Galena, IL, May 2007

Did you know?

The DeSoto House Hotel—Illinois’s Oldest Operating Hotel built in 1855—originally had five stories (six on the Commerce Street entrance), but in 1880, two stories were removed due to fire risk and a declining economy.

St. Michael Churchwas built by a catholic priest, Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, whose talents included architecture. The church was constructed with a unique roof truss formation which eliminates the need of pillars. Father Mazuchelli also planned the construction of St. Mary’s Church, and aided in building a courthouse and markethouse. In total, Father Mazuchelli was noted as building more than 20 churches in the tri-state area.

 

Life in Galena

By Guest Blogger, Katie Murphy, President & CEO of the Galena Area Chamber of Commerce

I was fortunate enough to be raised in Galena, IL. While it’s often easy to take your surroundings and the things you see day in and day out for granted, I still catch myself having those “wow, I love it here” moments. After going away to college and then living in Chicago for a bit, I eventually made my way back to Galena to create a life for myself. I may be a bit biased, but the truth is that I can’t say enough good things about this place.

Galena is a fabulous and unique destination in the Midwest. People come from all over the country and from all walks of life to visit our town for a variety of reasons. A quick weekend getaway, a wedding location, skiing and snowboarding, the Mississippi River, vineyards, shopping, festivals and events, a round of golf, the architecture and natural beauty, a history lesson and the list goes on. Whatever their reason for visiting, my wish is that they have a great time and truly enjoy the “Galena Experience,” just as I have the honor of doing every day!

Why Galena?

“Why Galena?” That’s what friends asked when we opened The Steamboat House Inn in the year 2000. “You really have to experience it for yourselves to understand,” we replied. Thirteen seasons later, when our guests ask, “What’s there to do in Galena?” they are amazed and delighted with our answers.

Galena is a truly unique place to visit and to live.  It is a mecca filled with history, activities, and the kind of gorgeous, breath-taking scenery that makes first-time visitors ask, “Are we still in Illinois?!”

It takes a lot of hard work to be an innkeeper, but helping guests discover this part of the state is fun. We love wine, and there are numerous wineries (Nine!) in the area, along with a brewery. Our guests particularly like gathering at 5:00 pm for a glass of wine in the parlor, gazebo or on the porch, to compare their daily experiences.  Like golf, horseback riding, skiing, or hiking? They are all here, along with an amazing historic Main Street with over 100 unique shops (no chain stores!) and restaurants.  There are so many new and different places to explore in the county that even WE haven’t had the chance to do or see them all.

Galena’s Historic Main Street

Moving here from the Chicago suburbs has meant moving into a relaxing and easy lifestyle. It’s given us the opportunity to pursue our passion for antiques and history, while enjoying a way of life that we thought didn’t exist any more.  When we travel around the town and county and appreciate the magnificent buildings and the scenic vistas, we feel like we are living with Norman Rockwell!

The Steamboat House B&B
We are truly blessed to live here. We were frequent visitors to Galena before moving here full time to open the inn. When we were ready to retire from our hectic jobs, we looked at several towns in different states, but always came back to Galena. We had no idea of what we wanted to do here, but opening an inn seemed interesting, although completely different from anything we had ever done before. Thirteen seasons later, it’s still fun, challenging, and every day is different from the last.

Char Carlson, Innkeeper/Owner
The Steamboat House Bed and Breakfast
Galena, Illinois