The first thing you’ll notice about Jo Daviess County is that this isn’t your typical Midwest terrain. Yes, the views are expansive and you can see for miles, but it’s nothing like the flat Illinois prairie land you’d expect. So how do you describe the depth of the rolling hills and valleys? They’re have-to-see, “Instagram-worthy” incredible.
Jo Daviess County was bypassed by Ice Age glaciers not once, but at least four times. So instead of flattening the terrain, the unique landscape the County is known for was left untouched. The land looks just as it did thousands of years ago. No one knows for certain why the glaciers missed this area, but the results are nothing short of spectacular. Just cruise any of the numerous scenic drives and you’ll see. Keep your phone handy… you’ll want to share this with your friends.
Wander on over to the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum on Bench Street where director Nancy Breed and her team of historical experts will bring history to life for you. The museum has artifacts from this era, a scaled model of Galena during its golden years with a flowing river and remote controlled steamboat, a preserved mining shaft (don’t worry about your husband or the kids, it’s covered in Plexiglas) and so much more. You can even interact with some of the items. Are you really ever too to play with an old telephone switchboard? We think not.
Fast-forward to 1820
Galena went from being a new settlement to a city of 10,000 in seven short years. The reason behind this expansive growth? Lead! The glacier bypass left the land’s surface rich with lead and zinc, making Galena the site of the first major mineral rush in the United States. Gold may have drawn people to California, but lead brought them to northwest Illinois first.
By the 1830s, Galena's population had surpassed Chicago's, and many of the civic leaders believed their thriving port would soon become the Midwest's leading city. Steamboat captains built beautiful, grand homes that still dot the hillsides with their impressive architecture. Downtown Galena took form, and Ulysses S. Grant’s father set up his leather shop on Main Street where Grant worked before the Civil War. These building still stand today. Look for plaques on the side of Main Street storefronts for interesting tidbits about these 19th century structures.
Grant’s tie to the area continued through the Civil War where he used Galena connections to recruit friends that could help lead the Union Army. Talk about social networking! Nine decorated generals came from Galena alone. Thomas Nast’s popular painting “Peace in Union,” hangs at the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum. It shows Galena’s nine generals present at Lee’s surrender to Grant. This life-sized gem is worth checking out.
All the wonderful architecture that is here now was put in place by steamboat captains and business entrepreneurs who spent money on fine homes,” says Nancy. “Today we still have those in place, mostly because we had a very visionary mayor in the 1970s and 80s. He convinced the town that its future was in its past.
See history come alive.
You can always read about history, but wouldn’t you rather see it come to life? We sat down with “Annie Wiggins,” a 19th-century character brought to life by reenactor Wendy Heicken, to learn about Galena’s Civil War commemoration. This reenactment takes place the last weekend in April every year on the banks of the Galena River. “We have Confederate soldiers. We have Union soldiers. One of the things that’s a little bit different about our event in Galena is that we also focus on the civilians. So we showcase what was going on in Galena when the war broke out.”
Galena’s historic homes are also a great way to see history come alive. Many of these homes have been converted to B&B’s or are open to the public for tours. Two great homes to see are the Grant Home on Bouthillier Street and the Washburne. The home on Bouthillier was gifted to Grant by the city after the war, and Grant learned of his presidential win on election night at the Washburne. Both homes have original furnishings and are open to visitors.
Discover how Jo Daviess County got to where it
Galena’s Golden Age didn’t last forever. When the war ended, railroads replaced steamboats and steel replaced lead. This sent Galena’s economy into a slump. By the 1950s, downtown Galena was filled with run-down diners, and boarded-up buildings. This might have been the end of the story if it were not for the vision of Mayor Frank Einsweiler.
After seeing some 1970’s Chicago-area artists take interest in Galena’s Main Street storefronts, Mayor Einsweiler knew what needed to be done. "He convinced the town that its future was in its past,” says Nancy – saving downtown Galena from being destroyed. Einsweiler also put very strict preservation ordinances in place for the historic district to make sure things stayed true to the time period.
Walking through downtown today, you can appreciate its authentic past. Galena boasts more than 1,000 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and more than 80% of the town is declared a national historic district. "This is the real thing," says local historian Steve Repp. "There have been only cosmetic changes, nothing more, since the 1860s.”
Our Main Street buildings look the same as they did when Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant walked down these streets,” says Nancy. “The inventory and shop signs are bit different, but the structure is the same. You just feel yourself immersed in history…
CONTINUE TO PART TWO