Sunday, August 23, 2015



Definitely worth a day trip from Chicago, we went down to LaSalle County, about 100 miles southwest, where we found unexpected pleasant surprises.  The 96 mile long Illinois & Michigan Canal, which operated until 1933,  connects the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean via Lake Michigan.  It begins at 27th and Ashland on the South Side of Chicago and ends near LaSalle where passengers would connect to a steamboat on the Illinois River.    Originally LaSalle and its neighboring town,  Peru were disputing where the canal would end.  Peru wanted more concessions; LaSalle was relatively undeveloped and didn't ask for much.  More importantly, the Canal Commissioners controlled the land in LaSalle.  LaSalle got the port.

In 1830, a young aspiring politician named Abraham Lincoln, running for the legislature, campaigned for the canal.  It was finally built in 1848 by hand--they didn't have steam shovels in those days.  We're talking Irish immigrants, a lot of them, with shovels.  Before the railroad era, numerous canals were built the same way in the Eastern states beginning in 1817 with the 350 mile Erie Canal in New York.  Canals provided a much more comfortable ride to your destination.  Each canal was a major construction project, especially in that era.  In Illinois, the I & M Canal opened the Prairie State to big time commerce and made Chicago the great metropolitan center that it is.

Our trip began at Lock 14 near the end of the canal in LaSalle.  There we boarded the Volunteer, a 76 foot long packet boat which seats 70 passengers.  The boat is a replica of 19th Century boats plying the waters.  In 1848, Congressman Lincoln took his whole family on a similar boat from Chicago on the way to his home in Springfield.   The crew dressed in 1840's garb.  The replica boat,  has 2 small electric motors which are rarely used.  The boat is propelled by a 1500 pound mule named Moe who tows the boat with a long rope.  Moe's partner, Larry, was resting at the nearby stable.  There is no Curly that we are aware of.  Moe eats 2 bales of hay each day.  Unlike horses, mules never overeat--they eat until they are full and then stop.

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.  Mules are sterile, but they are preferable to horses because they are more surefooted, stronger and live longer. 

Towing the boat isn't as difficult as it may appear.  The draft of the boat is only 18 inches; the canal is only about 3 feet deep.  Actually a human could tow the boat though not as easily as a mule.  A human tender walks alongside the mule to keep it moving. 

Back in the 1800's a young mule tender named James Butler Hickok, from nearby Troy Grove, got into a fight with another tender over the treatment of their animals.  Hickok threw the other man in the canal and, believing he had killed him, had to hightail it out of town to the Wild West.  There, he acquired the name Wild Bill Hickok and became a legendary gunfighter working both sides of the law until his untimely death in a poker game in Deadwood South Dakota.  In the final tally, Hickok was reputed to have killed 36 men in gunfights.  Needless to say, he made a lot of enemies.  Hickok always sat facing the door, but on that day, the only available seat at the poker table was with his back to the door.  Jack McCall walked in unnoticed and shot Hickok in the back.  Eventually McCall was brought to justice and hanged. 

Our boat cruised down the canal for about a mile to an aqueduct and then back.  Aqueducts are another amazing engineering feat.  They are built with reinforced steel girders and carry the canal across another river. 

After the canal ride, we stopped for lunch at the nearby Lock 16 CafĂ© and Gift Shop.  The 1910 building used to house a local buggy maker, but there's not much demand for horse drawn buggies nowadays.  There are 15 locks along the length of the canal.  Lock 16 would be analogous to the 19th hole at a golf course.  To our unexpected delight, the food was delicious.  The restaurant served the best fried chicken I've ever tasted, as well as delicious mashed potatoes.  I would drive back there just for the fried chicken.  The price of gasoline is 60 cents lower than in the Chicago area.  It might be worth the trip to fill up my tank and eat chicken. 


The other attraction of note in LaSalle is the Hegeler-Carus Mansion, built in 1874 and just beginning to be restored.   This is an impressive house!  It is 16,000 square feet of living area on 7 stories which includes two levels of basement and a widow's walk on top.  The house has 57 rooms including one of the first private gymnasiums (gymnasia?).  Hegeler and his wife Camilla had separate bedrooms located on opposite sides of the house.  Despite that, they managed to have 10 kids, and they needed all those rooms. 

Edward Hegeler was a German immigrant who came over with his college buddy Frederick Matthiessen.  They had both studied mining and engineering at Freiburg University in Germany.  They went into the zinc refining business in LaSalle.  Zinc was used for ice box and pie box liners, and galvanizing nails to make them rustproof.  It was a byproduct of lead mining, but it was discarded in large piles in favor of the more valuable lead.  As a result, zinc was cheap and readily available. 

Until Hegeler and Matthiessen came along, zinc wasn't practical or useful because they couldn't make ovens hot enough to smelter it.  The two men knew smelting and decided to come to LaSalle because of large deposits of nearby coal to stoke the ovens.  They could ship the zinc economically because the lead mines were fairly close by in Galena and Southern Wisconsin.  Within a few years, they were the largest zinc refiner in the country. 

Nearby Matthiessen State Park, with its popular hiking trails, was the estate of Frederick Matthiessen, which was given to the State of Illinois after his death. 

If anything, Hegeler's architect, William Boyington was versatile.  He designed and built buildings as varied as the Chicago Water Tower, the Illinois State Capitol and the Joliet State Penitentary.  The interior designer of the mansion was August Fiedler who designed the beautiful parquet floors, with different designs in each room.

Hegeler developed a keen interest in philosophy, science and religion and started a publishing company in the house, called the Open Court Publishing Co. to produce works in these subjects.  He hired a young German scholar, Paul Carus to be the managing editor.  Not long after, Hegeler's oldest daughter Mary married Carus.  Another daughter married a German baron. 

The  Caruses lived in the house and produced 6 kids of their own.  The youngest, Alwyn Carus, who never married, lived in the house his entire life until his untimely death in 2005 at age 103.   About 10 years prior to his death, he deeded the house to the Hegeler-Carus Foundation with the stipulation that none of the family's personal property be sold.   Thus, all the furniture, books, etc. in the house are those belonging to the family.

Volunteers are still digging through boxes and crates, finding new treasures. For example, they found a Steinway piano in the 4000 square foot attic.  They found approximately 20,000 books in the house, many written in German.  The house seriously needs restoration.    It is dark and dingy--the paint is peeling, the wallpaper peeling, the parquet floors need refinishing, and the wooden pocket doors need maintaining.   The back porch was torn down for safety reasons.  Some of the staircases are closed to the public. 

However, the second floor rooms that have been restored provide a glimpse of the glory days of this elegant home.   The beautiful dining room table seats 22 people.  The Foundation has spent millions restoring the house, but millions more are needed to fully bring it back to its rightful magnificence. 
The admission fees they charge are applied to those efforts. 

Hegeler anointed his daughter Mary Carus to run the zinc company after he retired.  His eldest son, Julius Hegeler was very upset that a woman was running the company and not he.  Dad mollified him by building him a large house across the street.  Julius stayed there only 18 months and then moved to Danville to start his own zinc company.  The Julius Hegeler house is owned by the same foundation and is vacant and badly in need of restoration. 

Carus, of course, ran the publishing business and found time to write more than 70 books and numerous scholarly articles and journals.  Well known authors like Leo Tolstoy and Bertrand Russell contributed articles to his publications.  Carus was one of the foremost experts of Eastern religions and brought together European and Oriental scholars to discuss the fine points of the Buddhist Zen religion.   With the help of Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, Carus was the first to publish English translations of the Buddhist texts.  Suzuki lived in the house for 11 years, working on that project.  AS a parting gift, the Japanese gave Carus a beautiful miniature replica of a Japanese Buddhist temple.  Although the mansion is somewhat rundown, that Buddhist temple occupies a prominent space in the house.

The basement houses the gym which contains gymnastic equipment like rings and pommel horses.  I expected to find a basketball court but remembered that basketball hadn't been invented yet. 


Streator, Illinois, is the hometown of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.  One would expect that the town, to attract tourists, would promote Tombaugh's legacy.  No!
There is no statue, no street named after him, not even a hall in the high school to honor him.  I'm not sure why.  Ted Weber isn't sure either.

In all fairness, I later learned that a mural was painted above Don's Furniture Store with Tombaugh on it.  I also learned that Streator Tourism planned 9 events (for the 9th planet!) in July, 2015 to coordinate with the recent Pluto flyby space mission.  These featured space themed music--stuff like the Pluto Polka Party (I'm not kidding) with Eddie Korosa Jr., Chicago's Number 1 Polka Band, authentic Polish cuisine and, for the thirsty, Big Bang Brew.  Bring on the kielbasa and czernina.

The most popular tourist attraction in Streator is the Weber House, a storybook cottage built in 1938 by Ted Weber's parents.  In the backyard, Mr. Weber created a 2 acre English garden and did all the work himself for the past 30 years or so.  He is now in his mid 70's and still lives there, working the garden and giving tours of the house.   We started in the foyer where he has walking sticks given to him by "The Shadow" from the long ago radio show. 

The gregarious Weber is quite a storyteller, and he has a lot of personal history to talk about.  At age 19, he talked his way into the 1960 Republican Convention in Chicago without any credentials.   The brash Weber walked up to then Vice President Richard Nixon to interview him.  Nixon was impressed and handed Weber his business card and wrote on the back, "Let this kid go wherever he wants in the Convention."   Security procedures were a lot different in those days.

Weber became a Chicago radio and TV personality and became friends with movie stars, authors and politicians whom he interviewed.  He hung out with guys like Kup and Burr Tillstrom, the creator of the once popular TV puppet show Kukla Fran & Ollie.      Tillstrom received his unusual first name to honor his descendant, Vice President Aaron Burr who achieved notoriety when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.   Tillstrom was a frequent overnight visitor in the house.

Weber pointed out that actress Tallulah Bankhead and author John Steinbeck were big fans of Kukla Fran & Ollie.  I was a kid when the show was popular and I later learned that many adults enjoyed the humor of the show on a different level.   Wherever she was performing, Ms. Bankhead always insisted on having a TV set in her dressing room so she could watch the show. 

An upstairs bedroom is the Kukla Fran & Ollie Room where the actual puppets stayed in the house for several weeks.  Weber tucked them in each night. 

Academy Award actress Myrna Loy was a frequent visitor in the house when she was playing in Chicago.  Weber's dining room is the Myrna Loy Room, and it is decorated with iconic blue and white Wedgwood china as well as a photo of Loy with Clark Gable.   Weber declared that many of the prominent figures he knew are no longer famous because everyone who knew them is now dead.

Ms. Loy was President Roosevelt's favorite actress and was invited to the White House on three occasions to meet the President. The first two times she declined because of other commitments.  The third time, she went and was greeted by Eleanor Roosevelt.  Eleanor had just learned of FDR's dalliance with his secretary Lucy Mercer, and Loy wasn't sure of what type of welcome she would receive.  Mrs. Roosevelt welcomed her with open arms, and the two became good friends.  So where was FDR?  He was in Yalta, meeting with Churchill and Stalin  The trip was a state secret, and it couldn't be disclosed beforehand.  FDR died two months later and never did meet Myrna Loy.

The house is lit by candlelight.  Although there are electrical outlets in the walls Weber has no lamps in the house other than candles.  His electric bills are low but he has a large candle budget. 

The garden has a walk in playhouse which was built for Mr. Weber when he was young.  You can't go inside, but you can see his toys through the glass door.  A stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear is one of his favorites along with Raggady Ann & Andy dolls. 

You could spend hours walking the winding paths through the English Garden  which is overgrown with roses, hollyhocks, hostas, bleeding hearts, Solomon seals and other flowers and ground cover which brush against your legs.  The garden has 14 sections or "rooms".  For example, the Four Seasons "room" features 4 weathered Greek nymph statues weighing hundreds of pounds each representing the four changing seasons.

By the time we were done I was out of breath.  Severe weather was rolling in, and it was time to get back home.  Would you believe we visited all these sites in one day?