Catch the colors in Calhoun County
When I was growing up, I loved going to my mom’s cousin’s house for Sunday dinner. Iva Rose would serve seemingly endless platters of chicken, roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, garden vegetables and rolls.
To top it off, she would bake several homemade pies and cakes filled with deliciousness and served with love.
Those dinners are long gone, but when I yearn for the feeling of those Sundays, I head to the old Whitmond Hotel in Brussels, Illinois. There, diners sit at communal tables reminiscent of Iva Rose’s dining room and wait for servers to bring bowls full of chicken, homemade sausage, potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, relishes and rolls. Fruit cobblers star on the dessert menu.
Once a stagecoach stop, the Whitmond no longer operates as a hotel but does have rooms full of antiques for browsing. It is open Friday through Monday.
The Whitmond is just one highlight of a trip to Calhoun County, that peninsula some 100 miles southwest of Springfield nestled between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Any trip there is sure to ignite nostalgia for a slower-paced lifestyle, but fall is an especially good time to visit. The trees explode with color and a half dozen orchards offer apples for sale.
“The leaves are starting to turn now,” says Gloria Marienau, manager of the Calhoun County Visitors Center. The 40-mile-long and 13-mile-wide county of mostly farmland has “no billboards or signs along the main highway so visitors can enjoy the pure, beautiful landscape.”
While the bridge at Hardin can carry you into the county, a more interesting ride is on one of the three car ferries that provide access. Those at Brussels and Kampsville cross the Illinois River, and the Golden Eagle ferry crosses the Mississippi from Missouri.
“People love riding the car ferries,” Marienau says. “After all, we are at the confluence of the two rivers.”
If you hurry, you can take in the annual quilt show Oct. 19-21 at the American Legion Hall in Brussels from 9 to 5 each day. Marienau says the county is famous for its quilts, and the show will feature more than 100 homemade ones, 80 percent of which were crafted by local residents.
Those seeking to buy can visit several other spots, including the village hall, the Whitmond and St. Matthew Lutheran Church. “The whole town of Brussels will be Quiltsville,” Marienau says.
A treat any time of year are the more than 90 buildings that sport barn quilts or other artwork. Marienau says the county started the project 12 years ago and relied on utility companies’ bucket trucks to attach the art to buildings.
Brussels was settled in 1822, has many historic structures and is headquarters to the 8,501-acre Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, which extends into nearby Jersey and Greene counties. Marienau says CBS’ “Sunday Morning” show featured the refuge’s Swan Lake three times because of its beauty.
The headquarters offers tours, children’s programs, maps for hiking and driving trails and exhibits in a modern setting. You can pick up a pair of binoculars and search for eagles and water fowl.
“If people miss going there, they really are missing something,” Marienau says.
She adds that Calhoun and Pike counties are the No. 1 white-tailed deer hunting location in the United States. Duck hunting and fishing are popular too.
Several hangouts offer that local fish, but a popular one is the Barefoot in Hardin. A casual bar and grill next to the Illinois River, the Barefoot has some of the best catfish fritters around.
Further north is Kampsville with the Center for American Archeology. Jason King, its executive director, says the center has camps, field-based programs and excavations such as at the nearby Koster site, where archaeologists began digging in the 1970s.
The center showcases exhibits on the lower Illinois River valley and the prehistoric and later people who lived there. King says a special Illinois bicentennial exhibit features a timeline of state history, which ties into local and regional history.
The free center is open from late April until Nov. 18 this year from 10-5 Tuesday through Friday, 10-4 on Saturday and noon to 4 on Sunday. Nov. 17 and 18, the center will host the Calhoun Art Guild sale.
Whenever you go, take time to meander the rest of Calhoun, where you can find plenty of farms, hills, small eateries, remnants of German settlements, scenic river views and peach and apple orchards. Just be sure to save room for that cobbler at the Whitmond.
For more information about Calhoun County, go to www.enjoycalhouncounty.com.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield writes about travel and is featuring Illinois destinations in 2018 in honor of the state’s bicentennial.