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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 12:13 am

Grant, goodies and great vistas in Galena

Supporters of Ulysses S. Grant gave the Grants a two-story brick home overlooking downtown Galena to show appreciation for his victory in the Civil War. Grant later became the 18th U.S. president, and his home is a popular tourist stop.
Photo by Brent Bohlen


When you visit Grant in Galena, make sure you take a Grant with you. That way, you will be ready when magician P.T. Murphy asks for a $50 bill to help with a mind-baffling trick.

Murphy’s show is just part of the magic of Galena, that hilly city tucked in Illinois’ far northwestern corner and home to the 18th U.S. president. History buffs will glory in seeing Ulysses S. Grant’s former stomping grounds while shoppers and scenery seekers will find plenty to thrill them, 255 miles from Springfield.

The rolling hills and valleys promise to be especially spectacular as fall colors emerge so book lodging now. September and October are busiest, Linda Hallam of the Jo Daviess County Visitor Center says. “People come for the scenery, but we have some large festivals then.”

Hallam says Oktoberfest on Sept. 22 and the 39th annual Galena Country Fair Oct. 6-7 will bring crowds. Some 15,000 could pack the streets for a Halloween parade Oct. 27.

Those streets host a variety of interesting shops, including ones specializing in socks, celebrity hats, pasta, root beer, garlic, leather goods, popcorn, gourmet food, art, toys and candy. Shoppers can pick up unique gifts, sample goodies, visit art galleries and duck into the historic DeSoto House Hotel lobby while strolling Main Street.

Another draw is the tour of historic homes Sept. 29-30. As the one-time largest port between St. Louis and St. Paul and a lead-mining center, Galena boasts 85 percent of its buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Six historic homes will be open for the tour, including the Barrows Mansion, which has been turned into the Galena and U.S. Grant Museum downtown.

The museum has displays on the land around Galena, which was not leveled by glaciers like much of Illinois; Galena pottery, which featured lead-based glazes; steamboating; railroading; and flooding of the Galena River, which once was 300 feet wide but is now more of a stream.

The mansion was built over an 1830s lead mine. Visitors can gaze down the shaft while learning about the industry that helped put Galena on the map and gave it its name from the Latin word for lead sulphide. The industry thrived making ammunition for the Civil War but declined after that.

Probably the most significant museum holding is the 1895 “Peace in Union” oil painting by Thomas Nast showing Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.  The 9-foot-by-12-foot painting includes some of the nine Civil War generals from Galena.

Other Grant keepsakes are his boots, gifts he and wife Julia acquired on a world tour they took after he left office and one of his cigars.

At the Grant home, a National Historic site on a hill overlooking downtown, tour guides note his cigar habit. “He famously smoked 10-15 cigars a day,” says site interpreter Katherine Walker. “Many military men did this to disguise the stench of death during the war.” Fans sent him thousands of cigars once word of his habit got out. Grant died of throat cancer in 1885.

Supporters bought the two-story brick home for the Grants in 1865 to thank him for his Civil War service. Many of the furnishings are original, including his favorite green upholstered chair he took to the White House when he became president in 1868.

Shopping is a popular activity in downtown Galena, with stores specializing a such items as socks, garlic, root beer, pasta and leather goods. The DeSoto House Hotel on Main Street claims to have been the largest hotel in the West when it was built in 1855.
Photo by Brent Bohlen

Visitors learn that the Grants were far from wealthy even though Julia’s parents owned a plantation and slaves in Missouri. Grant’s parents were strong abolitionists. He came to Galena to work with his brothers at a leather goods shop.

Charles Hargan, the site’s interpretive coordinator, says the home draws 50,000 to 80,000 visitors a year from all over the world. “I think it is the name of General Grant (that attracts them). He was probably the most photographed person in his time.” Two recent biographies – one by Ronald C. White and one by Ron Chernow – also may be sparking renewed interest in Grant.

The Old Market House downtown houses a visitors center and more artifacts. You can see Grant’s top hat, chess board, family photos and Julia’s shoes. Other displays showcase his election, games and toys about the Civil War and drawings of battles.

The visitor center is a good place to pick up brochures about four nearby wineries, the popular Blaum Brothers distillery tours and resorts, such as Chestnut Mountain with its ski slopes, alpine slide and zip lines, and Eagle Ridge, known for golfing and hot air balloon rides. Other lodging options include dozens of bed and breakfast inns. Diners can choose French, German, Italian, Irish and all-American fare.

Weekend walking and ghost tours start at the DeSoto Hotel, opened in 1855 with billing as the “largest hotel in the West.” You can join a trolley tour nearby, enjoy the 8.8-mile Galena River bicycle or walking trail or rent kayaks on the river.

Be sure to save time for that magic show. Open all year in a small storefront just off Main Street, the 65-minute show for a maximum of 24 will bring you up close and personal to magician Murphy. Murphy honed his trickery in Chicago and specializes in engaging those attending, even memorizing everyone’s name.

Be prepared to be mystified and don’t forget to bring that $50 Grant.

For more information, go to www.visitgalena.org.

Mary Bohlen, a freelance writer from Springfield, is exploring Illinois in celebration of the state’s bicentennial in 2018 and writing about her findings monthly for Illinois Times.


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