Wednesday, April 13, 2011

“I” Is for Follow Your Interests

Before moving to southern Illinois, I, like other Chicagoans, thought the south end of the state was vast wasteland. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is true we don’t have the museums and theaters you can find in Chicago but what we lack in cultural we more than make up with interesting diversity.

Southern Illinois is truly a place where you can follow your interests. If you are into the great outdoors, there is no better place. Deer, turkey and other fowl hunting abound here. There are literally tens of thousands of acres national and state parks that offer hiking, hunting, camping and fishing.

If history is your thing, you can pursue those interests as well. Like American Indian history? You can visit several Mississippian mound sites dating back hundreds of years. You can follow the Illinois portion of the Trail of Tears and walk and weep where the Cherokee did. Historic sites including forts and local museums dot the landscape.

There are bicycle trails, casinos, unique shopping opportunities and wildlife viewing stations. There are festivals and fairs focusing on unique themes like Makanda’s Vulture Festival, Ridgway’s Popcorn Festival and Metropolis’ Superman Celebration.

Illinois is a place that allows you to rock climb, enjoy art or study history in a setting like no other. What an interesting place.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

“H” Is for Hardin County

Hardin County was once part of Gallatin and Pope Counties and came into being in 1839. Hardin County takes its name from John Hardin, an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. It is filled with beautiful parks and trails and vistas one doesn’t often associate with southern Illinois.

Ox-lot cave, photo by Theresa Leschmann

Rim Rock and Pounds Hollow

Pounds Hollow and Rim Rock are two distinct park areas connected by trails that climb to the tops of bluffs and descend to the valley floor below. Caves and a lake area for swimming and fishing provide plenty of fun and opportunities for exploration. We packed a picnic, parked at Pounds Hollow and hiked to Rim Rock and back. Our trail took along the canyon floor where we saw a natural beaver dam in a creek bed and Ox Lot Cave where Native Americans and later pioneers kept livestock in the natural rock formation. As we ascended, the trail squeezed us between towering sheets of rock and at the top we were rewarded with stunning views. We followed the walk with a picnic and a swim in the lake to cool off.

Pounds Hollow Lake, photo by Theresa Leschmann

Cave-in-Rock, IL

The town was settled in 1816 but not chartered until 1901. Sitting directly on the bank of the river, the town was a transportation hub for nearby towns and states. River traffic was substantial in the area. The cave for which the town is named is now the centerpiece of Cave in Rock State Park. Accessible by following a set of steep stairs up a hill and then down another set on the riverside of the hill, you can access the cave, once the home of river pirates and counterfeiters. The view of the river from the bluff above the cave brings certain serenity to those who spend a few moments appreciating its beauty.

Descent to the Cave, photo by Theresa Leschmann

There are many other sites to see in Cave-in-Rock. How about the old jail? It stands open to visitors around the clock. A tiny little stone structure that has been added on to, the jail contains 2 cells, each with the remains of the bed and bedsprings in place. The cell is scarcely big enough to squeeze the bed in let alone a pirate or counterfeiter.

Elsewhere in town, a pair of murals depicts the cave as seen from the river. And for something perhaps a little different, a ferry still operates at Cave-in-Rock. You can drive aboard or walk and ride across the Ohio River to Kentucky. The ride grants an exquisite view of the cave from the river and best of all it is free! For those who are interested in following the Lewis and Clark trail, there is a marker commemorating the pair’s stop here as well.

One of the Lewis & Clark markers, phot by Theresa Leschmann

Elizabethtown and Rosiclare are also worth a visit and I promise to cover them in more detail in another post. You’ll just have to come back and keep reading.

“G” Is for Gallatin County

Old Shawneetown Marker, photo by Theresa Leschmann

 Gallatin County in southeastern Illinois was formed in 1812. I have visited the area many times and am touched by the history and beauty of the region. From the historic buildings and markers to the scenic views of the Ohio River and the Shawnee National Forest, I am never at a loss for something to marvel at.

The primary industry at that time of Gallatin County’s founding and for years prior was salt production. Native Americans and French settlers had used the salt works before its value was noted and the salt works were taken over.

The county seat of Gallatin is Shawneetown. At one time, it was in what is now known as Old Shawneetown. Old Shawneetown is a small town that doesn’t see much activity these days but was once a major trading post and thriving community. The first known settler was Michael Sprinkle, a blacksmith and gunsmith who settled in the area of Shawneetown. His cabin became a trading post for Indians and traders from four states. The first ferry was created in Shawneetown in 1802. Lewis and Clark stopped here on their way to Fort Massac further down the river. There is a marker here remembering their visit like 20 other markers throughout southern Illinois highlighting their trip. Later, a fort was erected in 1810 to provide protection from Native Americans.

Old Shawnee town’s claim to fame is that it is the oldest town in Illinois. Very few buildings are left from its early days but what you’ll want to see as you drive through is the Bank of Illinois built in the classic Greek Revival architectural style. It was built between 1839 and 1841 and is currently owned by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Old Shawneetown was also home to the first bank built in Illinois in 1812. It was operated in the third oldest brick building in all of Illinois, the 1808 John Marshall House. Only remnants of its original foundation remain and a museum now sits on part of the site. Local legend says that two bankers made a trip on horseback from the fledgling town of Chicago to ask for a loan. The Shawneetown Bank turned them down because they weren’t located on a major waterway and figured such a town was doomed to fail.

Spend some time enjoying this historic site, reading the markers that explain its significance and then wander across the street and up the levee for a splendid view of the river. The sunlit photo of the bank building was taken from this vantage point. Take a casual drive through some of the streets and you’ll find some beautiful old buildings still being used and lived in though very few have any markers. Much of the town moved further west in 1937 following a series of floods to what is now known as just Shawneetown as opposed to Old Shawneetown.

Leaving Old Shawneetown, heading west as you follow the byway and for the first half of the trip, you’ll find yourself travelling through the Shawnee National Forest, 280,000 acres of forest designated as a national park in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most of it was depleted farmland restored by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

Head west out of Old Shawneetown. You’ll see Shawneetown and eventually arrive at the town of Equality. Equality sprang up as a result of the salt licks found in the area. Native Americans made salt here before the French settlers came in 1735. The salt springs were given to the U.S. government as part of a treaty in 1803 and were then run by a series of men who used exceptions to Illinois’ anti-slavery laws to put slaves to work in the salt mines. More than 200 slaves were counted in Gallatin County’s census in 1820.

The Ohio River Visitor Center on the corner of Lane and Calhoun is open from April through October. Aside from maps, directions and information, they also have artifacts and local artwork on display.

Another site visible from the road in Equality is the Crenshaw House, sometimes called the Slave House. The site is owned by the state of Illinois but remains closed to the public. A sign at the entrance to the driveway declares trespassers will be fined and prosecuted so do not enter. The Crenshaw house sits atop Hickory Hill and belonged to John Crenshaw who designed and built it in the late 1830’s. The third floor was reportedly used to house slaves. Photos of it can be found on the web and in books reveal narrowly partitioned “rooms” and places where chains were once mounted to the walls. These slaves were used in the salt mines that Crenshaw ran for a number of years. The house sits on the west side of Illinois Route 1 just seven-tenths of a mile or so south of Illinois Route 13.

The Old Slave House, photo by Theresa Leschmann

Thursday, April 7, 2011

“F” Is for Federal Government Shutdown

We keep hearing about the federal budget and how they can’t balance it. Congress is trying to figure out what to do before the end of the week when the United States runs out of money and many National Parks will be closed come Friday at midnight.

Many States will be hard hit by such actions. Already reeling from budget crises within their own states, some are already struggling to provide ‘non-essential’ services. Here, in southern Illinois, visitors get the first glimpse that something is wrong as they enter via the two interstates, I-4 on the east side and I-57 on the west. Both provide informational rest stops run by the state.

In the past, the Metropolis Rest stop and The Trail of Tears Rest Stop just north of Anna both offered an information booth where visitors could get travel, weather and tourist information. Each offered large racks that housed informational flyers on activities throughout the southern region and even up into Chicago. Many is he time I witnessed visitors studying those brochures, smiling and planning trips throughout my home state. Those information booths are now closed and the racks of information tucked away behind steel shutters. There is no money in the Illinois budget to pay an information clerk or anyone to keep the racks stocked.

If the federal government closes down the National Park Service, some of the locations affected in southern Illinois could include Carlysle Lake, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the Shawnee National Forest and the Smithland Lock and Dam on the Ohio River near Hamletsburg.

Not only would visitors lose access to these wondrous sites but the communities around them that provide food, lodging and other tourist activities will suffer as well. Shutting down the National Park Service may save the country some money but it could also force many mom and pop operations around to shut down, too…permanently.

“E” Is for Little Egypt

Southern Illinois is known locally as “Little Egypt.” Towns bearing Egyptian or Greek names sprang up in the region. No one is entirely sure of the reason for this moniker but there are several interesting suppositions.

One idea is that the name arose when poor crops in the north during the 1830s caused people to come south to buy grains, not unlike the famine that struck and forced people to travel to Egypt for food in the Biblical tale. Another says the name arose when the land, which is bordered on three sides by The Ohio, the Wabash, and the Mississippi Rivers, was compared to the land in Egypt and its Nile delta. True enough, much of the region still experiences annual flooding in the spring. The third most commonly floated story pertains to the development of the peninsula that sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. This land mass was purchased by the Cairo City and Canal Company in 1837 and the city of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) was founded. Some say that started the trend of naming places and things after Egyptian places.

Other towns and villages bearing Egyptian names include: Thebes, Dongola, New Athens, Karnak, Sparta and Lebanon. Even the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale follows the tradition, naming its school teams after one of the oldest known breeds of domesticated dog, the Egyptian Saluki.

There are many businesses and such that use variations of the word Egypt in their names. Others use obvious related terms Like King Tut’s Food and Fuel in Marion or the Egyptian Day Spa, also in Marion. Other than that, here is really nothing significant That I have yet found that ties southern Illinois to Egypt, ancient or otherwise. I have seen road signs indicating there is a Historic Egyptian Trail and I am researching that. As soon as I learn more about it, I will definitely be sharing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

“D” Is for Day Trips in Southern Illinois

One of the Mississipian mounds at the Cahokia Mounds site
Illinois is a huge state, even if you just look at the southern portion. There is so much to see and to here, there is no way to take it in during a single vacation. If you live close enough or even if you are a resident of the region, consider breaking the excursions into day trips.

A day trip is just what it sounds like. You travel to a destination, explore and enjoy it and return home the same day. This saves on motel costs and if you pack meals, you can save even more. Of course you might want to experience local cuisine so think that one over carefully.

What Types of Trips Can You Plan?

That is entirely up to you. The options are as vast as your imagination For example:

Historical Interests:

  • Abraham Lincoln – Visit the site of one of the Lincoln Douglas debates and have a picnic.
  • Trail of Tears – Follow the trail the Cherokee followed during their resettlement
  • Museums – Many of the midsize small towns have museums dedicated to their past, their industry or their famous sons and daughters

Natural Interests:

  • The Shawnee National Forest covers most of the bottom of the state and offers numerous back-to-nature experience
  • Fort Massac is the first state park created in Illinois and provides scenic views of the Ohio River and educational experiences through annual reenactments
  • Ferne Clyffe State park is home to more than 700 plant types and boasts 2 intermittent waterfalls.
  • Garden of the Gods is a look back in time at limestone and other rock formations left behind after the ice age.
  • Hiking and riding trails abound at these and other parks.


  • The Superman Festival in Metropolis is an annual event that draws thousands every year.
  • The Popcorn Festival in Ridgway, The Vulture Festival in Makanda and the Wonder Water Reunion in Creal Springs all pay homage to their communities pasts or place in the eco-structure.

  • Follow the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail or the Southern Illinois Wine Trail to experience the finest wines Illinois has to offer.
  • Harrah’s Casino provides entertainment of an adult variety

I have to stop this post here because I could go on for hours. Keep checking back to find more interesting places to visit and things to do in Southern Illinois.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"C" Is for Cache River

The Cache River Wetlands is an area my family and I discovered last year. It will be springing to life like many other preserve areas as April unfurls its’ warm, wet blanket on the Earth. If you have never visited the state natural area, put it on your calendar for this spring or summer. For today’s post, I’ve decided to share some photos of my visit there last year.
Information abounds throughout the park, along its walkways.
This is a pair of giant Cypress trees we found on one of trails in the wetlands.
The baseof the giant Bald Cypress which is hundreds of years old
If you want to know more about what the wetlands offer, you can find it here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bald Eagle Watching in Southern Illinoios

I remember years ago, growing up in Chicago, hearing how Bald Eagles were endangered. I thought at the time that my chances of ever seeing one in my life time were slim to none. Certainly these majestic symbols of our country would never be found above the skyscrapers of the loop.

Twelve years ago I moved to southern Illinois and found a very rural lifestyle appealing. People I met would occasionally mention spotting a Bald Eagle and I would smile and think, “Sure you did. Time to get those glasses checked.” Just this past year, I spotted my own along a desolate stretch of county road on the eastern side of the state, just north of Brookport. That’s him in the photo.

When I got home I did a little research about Bald Eagles in this part of the state. These birds actually populate 49 out of the 50 states and have made a remarkable comeback. (Read more)

Friday, April 1, 2011

"A” is for Antiquing in Southern Illinois

I am engaging in a writing challenge that kicks off today known as the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge, which you can sign up for here. So today’s blog post is about antique shopping in southern Illinois.

Shopping for antiques in southern Illinois is a great way to spend a day, a weekend or even a week. There are dozens of shops scattered around the region. No matter how meticulous you are, you probably still won’t find them all.

“Antiquing” means different things to different people. You are not likely to find medieval suits of armor or Louis XIV furniture in any of these shops but you can still find treasures. The trick is to know what you are looking for. Many of the shops are owned by folks with a passion for history and a penchant for collecting other people’s junk. While some items may look like junk to you, you’d be surprised at what some people get excited over.

For a brief time, my husband and I owned a second hand/antique shop. We went to auctions every week looking for just the right things to add to our inventory. The things we thought were great finds often sat in our shop for months while the oddball items that came in the $1 box lots went almost immediately and for far more than we ever expected.

If you are looking for some shops to explore in southern Illinois, here are some I recommend:

Memorylane Collectibles & Antiques is located at 4575 E. Vienna St. in Anna, IL. The shop features multiple vendors and has over 7000 sq. ft. to explore. They have a nice mix of older and newer stuff at reasonable prices and are easy to locate on Illinois Route 146 just off I-57.

The Shawnee Hill Antique Barn is an antique shop housed in an 1860 barn. When you are done shopping, you can visit the blacksmith shop below the barn. The shop is located at 290 Water Valley Road in Cobden, IL.

Wolf Creek Antiques and Crafts is a family run shop in Goreville, IL. They have an eclectic mix of merchandise from books, records and toys to old farm equipment and tools. You can find them at 215 S Broadway in a three-story building with more than 45 vendors selling wares.

The Marion Antique Mall is a personal favorite where I have shopped for years. The store looks more like a warehouse on the outside but is full of atmosphere on the inside. If you’re lucky, you may stop by when the owner, a violinist, is playing. The shop encompasses a vast 10,000 sq. ft. and you’ll want to explore every nook and cranny. From furniture to specialized glassware and pottery, there’s something for everyone.

This post could go on and on so I will stop here and return to antiquing in southern Illinois at a later date. If you know of a nifty local shop that would of interest, please feel free to leave the details in the comments and I’ll be sure to check it out.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Centralia: The Heart of South Central Illinois

Centralia offers a glimpse into the past with an eye on the future.

Centralia Illinois, famous home of the annual Centralia Balloon Festival, has more to offer visitors than just balloons. From historical sites to contemporary fun, Centralia Illinois has a wide range of site and activities to explore.

Parks and RecreationFoundation ParkFoundation Park is a 250-acre nature park offering miles of hiking and nature trails. Sheltered picnic areas, a gazebo and an outdoor amphitheater are also available for outings. Unique activities include the 27-hole disc golf course and the walking labyrinth.

Fairview ParkFairview Park is a state of the art park with all the amenities of modern parks. More than just playgrounds and ball fields, Fairview Park boast tennis courts, sheltered picnic areas, a skate park, horseshoe pits, a sand volleyball court and a public swimming pool. On the grounds you can also see a Vietnam-era F-105 supersonic fighter bomber, a training fighter jet and an ICRR Steam Engine 2500.

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For More About Centralia:

Friday, January 7, 2011

Garden of the Gods, Illinois - The Prehistoric Scenery Takes You Back in Time

There is a Garden of the Gods in Illinois and its beauty and timelessness are unbelievable.

One of my many road trips through southern Illinois took me through the rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest where I stumbled on some tourist signs that led me to the Garden of the Gods. The Shawnee National forest sits on government-owned land, spreading over 277,000 acres. The Garden of the Gods is nestled within this vast forest at the tip of the state between the flows of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River.

History of Garden of the Gods

The landscape formed by the Shawnee Hills is a mountain range that is approximately 320 million years old. A giant inland sea covered the area and was displaced by uplifts in the land which revealed the limestone and sandstone rocks seen today. The erosion that primarily caused the formations visible today in Garden of the Gods was caused by glaciations.

Though the glaciers did not reach this far south, they stopped just north of the mountain range. The melting of large ice masses, thousands of feet deep, unleashed enormous amounts of water in the area. Further erosion by windblown sand and rain and the natural effects of freezing and thawing have continued to leave their mark for hundreds of thousands of years.

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Check out this music inspired by the Garden of the Gods and other southern Illinois nature spots:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mound City, Illinois – A Strong Civil War Connection

Mound City, Illinois played a significant role in the Civil War though very few know of its contributions.

Mound City started out as two separate communities. One was a project called Emporium City founded by Emporium Real Estate and Manufacturing Company, a group of businessmen from Cincinnati and Cairo Illinois. The other was Mound City founded by Major General Moses Marshal Rawlings. Rawlings owned a hotel and his guests would sleep atop an ancient Indian mound in the summer to enjoy cool breezes. These and other mounds in the immediate area have long since been destroyed. The city was incorporated in 1857.

What put Mound City on the map was its proximity to the Mississippi river and to nearby Cairo, the base of Grant’s army before he invaded the south during the Civil War. It contained a massive military hospital, a naval station, a shipyard that built 3 of the Union’s 7 ironclad gunboats and one of the country’s 12 National Cemeteries for veterans of war.

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For more on Illinois in the Civil War, try these books: