Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Old Lake County, Indiana Courthouse

I live in the south suburbs of Illinois, but just a stone's throw from the Indiana border - and Lake County, Indiana. In south Lake County in the city of Crown Point sits the "Grand Old Lady," the old 1878 courthouse that is surrounded by a traditional town square.

It's an absolutely stunning structure that wasn't always so stunning. A few decades back it was falling into disrepair and slated to be demolished. I'm so glad that those plans didn't happen and that it was restored. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The building was constructed at a cost of $52,000 and dedicated in 1880.

Today, the building houses the courthouse shops, Lake County Historical Society and a ballroom that can be rented for special events. A friend of ours was married there and it was a beautiful reception. 

The courthouse was once known as a marriage mill where people could go for a quickie wedding in Las Vegas-style at any time of day due to its lax requirements. Several celebrities were married there during that time period from roughly 1900 to 1938.

The old courthouse is also known for being the jail that gangster John Dillinger escaped from, using a fake wooden gun, in 1933 after his arrest for a killing during a bank robbery.

During the summer months, the square is a bustling place and antique cars can be found lining the streets on their cruise nights.

Visit for more information.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Mississippi River Visitor Center

If you're looking for free attractions in the Quad Cities, one of the coolest is the Rock Island Arsenal, where you can take a in a lot of history, get some great views of the Mississippi River and learn quite about about the history of the military and the area.

While at Rock Island Arsenal, take time for a visit to the Mississippi River Visitor Center where you can see Lock & Dam 15, the largest roller dam in the world. Once in the doors, you head up to the second floor where you can look out at the damn from a long wall of windows or from an outside observation deck.

On the day we visited we were able to see a barge move through the locks with the bridge slowly moving on a 45 degree angle to allow it pass through. I felt a tinge of sympathy for all the cars backed up along the bridge and beyond sitting and waiting to get to the other side.

In the winter months the lock and dam draw in those watching for Bald Eagles that flock there to feed. We didn't see any eagles on this summer visit, but spotted a few pelicans at the dam and even more just down the road near the Colonel Davenport House.

Allow a little time to browse the exhibits and aquarium of native river fish and watch a film on the upper Mississippi River. From Memorial Day to Labor Day the visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. and from Labor Day to Memorial Day it is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Click here for more information and a map of the Rock Island Arsenal.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Route 66 Visitor Center in Dwight, Illinois

Earlier this year my dad relocated to central Illinois to live with my sister. It's been a hard adjustment. I'm a big Daddy's girl and with him living just five minutes away before the move, we would often get together for lunch - and usually talk baseball since we are both huge Chicago Cubs fans.

We both immediately missed our lunch dates and so we've been getting together about once a month. Dwight is about the halfway point from my home in Chicago's south suburbs and his place in Mackinaw, which is between Peoria and Bloomington. 

For out last couple of lunch outings, we met at the Old Route 66 Family Diner, which is at exit 217 right off of I-55. Across the street from the diner is the Route 66 Visitor Center.

The visitor center is located in a historic 1933 Texaco filling station that has been identified as the longest operating gas station along Route 66. It was in business for 66 continuous years until 1999. After major restoration work, it reopened as a visitor center in 2007. In 2001 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

I stopped by in early November when it closed for the season, so I wasn't able to see the interior. There is an exterior audio recording that can be played to hear the history of the station when it isn't open. There's also a very cool retro billboard outside the building and there's a charging station for electric vehicles.

The Old Route 66 Family Restaurant is just across the street and offers typical diner cuisine - sandwiches, dinners, soups, pies and more. The soups I've had were really good as were the sandwiches. It's located at 105 S. Old Route 66 in Dwight. Find out more at

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kankakee Sands Nature Conservancy

My husband and I decided to plan a little day date one day while the kids were in school, so we went out to lunch at a brewpub and then followed it up with a drive out to Morocco, Indiana in search of bison. On a preserve that is in the process of being restored as much as possible to its original state, bison have been placed and hundreds of acres now have native plants and prairie grass. 

There are so short, gravel paths that lead you up a slight incline for better viewing. It is quite breathtaking to look out on all that prairie land - not something I normally get to see living in the suburbs. The day we stopped it was a pleasant fall day - very sunny and warm, but with a chilly wind. My husband had hoped to see the bison roaming in the pastures. Instead we found a herd together near a barn, but they were still exciting to see. The pasture is surrounded by electrified fence, so you can't get very close and getting pictures is a challenge. I had to zoom in quite a bit on my phone, which results in grainy images, but you get the idea. It's a lovely place to spend a little time walking and enjoying nature. For more information, visit their website by clicking here.


Here's a little history on the Nature Conservancy from their website:

In 1996, The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural land in Newton County from Prudential Insurance.
Why did we do it? 
It may be hard to believe now, but until the beginning of the 20th century, the Kankakee River fed the largest inland marsh in North America. Prior to European settlement, the borderlands between Illinois and Indiana supported an estimated 400,000 to 1 million acres of swamps, savannas, prairies and forests known as the Grand Kankakee Marsh.  
But the arrival of settlers drastically changed the landscape to the detriment of fish and wildlife. Beaver Lake, which covered a significant area in what is today our Kankakee Sands Preserve, was drained over several decades at the end of the 1800s. The land that emerged after the draining was grazed by cattle and then was farmed with row crops in later decades.  And by 1917, the Kankakee River was ditched and straightened on the Indiana site, and the marsh itself ceased to exist.  
While the marsh is gone, remnant landscapes survive with high potential for restoration and conservation. So in 1996, The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural land in central Newton County from a single owner, Prudential Insurance/Bank. The goal was to preserve the unique habitats that still thrived, and restore the land back to its original state as much as possible.
Active restoration began in 1997 by planting 200 acres with seeds of native grasses and wildflowers. Each year since then, additional acres are taken out of farming following the fall harvest. In 2000, the Illinois side of the preserve came online with the purchase of the Tallmadge Sand Forest Land and Water Reserve in June.
Along with sowing seeds, restoration efforts include monitoring and removing undesirable plants that are not native and invasive. These plants can take over an area and decrease the biodiversity and health of an area. Our staff and volunteers reduce the impact of invasive plants by pulling, mowing, herbiciding, grazing and prescribed fire.
Because wildfires are a natural and healthy part of grassland and barrens ecosystems, prescribed burning is carried out by specially trained and experienced personnel who first write a plan which contains a set of conditions (a prescription) for wind, humidity, vegetation, season, burn breaks, crew and equipment. When these conditions are met, the fire crew assembles at the site and burns the specified area.
We also create small, shallow ponds for amphibians, birds and wetland plants.
Together, these different conservation and restoration techniques across the landscape help us reach our goal of increasing the viability of the surviving prairie remnants and oak savannas.
In 2016, the Indiana Chapter introduced a small herd of bison to Kankakee Sands. The bison  will help us fully realize our  vision of restoring the prairie at  Kankakee Sands.
Bison have been a goal of Kankakee Sands project before there was a Kankakee Sands project. The earliest feasibility report that explored the opportunities for a potential Conservancy preserve points out the benefits of having the animal. There’s a reason for this! The scale of our site at currently over 8,300 acres with more than 6,700 acres of planted prairie, naturally elicits thoughts of bison herds. Our restorations that have been lovingly planted with more than 600 plant species and carefully managed for the last 20 years are far from “restored,” but we’re confident that bison will be part of the answer by recreating the historic interactions that helped create our native grassland ecosystems.
Two hundred years after the creation of our state, you now have the opportunity to see the largest, most iconic mammal found in Indiana at the time of statehood roam the prairie at a Conservancy preserve!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Shipshewana Ice Festival

Last year in December we decided to return to Shipshewana the week following Christmas. We had visited the area a couple years earlier and Shipshewana is lovely at Christmastime, especially when there is a blanket of snow on the ground among the twinkling lights in town and the horses galloping along the roads.

We also picked this time of year for a visit because I had noticed there was an ice festival there. It was a few days after Christmas and I love to travel during that time - when the hustle and bustle of the holiday is behind you, but the Christmas spirit is still alive and everything is decorated in festive holiday beauty.

On our first visit to the Shipshewana Ice Festival - around 2012, we had not yet had snow on the ground in our area that season, but as we arrived in Shipshewana a beautiful layer of white was on the ground and snowflakes were gently falling. We parked beside a park where the kids promptly ran out of the van and engaged in a snowball fight. They were having a great time and I was marveling in the joy of watching my boys all getting along -- until one threw a snowball with a chunk of ice in it at my youngest, which hit him in the face and resulted in an instant bloody nose. Ah, life with boys. Happy times often end with someone hurt or bleeding or something broken.

Anyway, on our most recent visit in 2016, the weather was a bit warmer and there was no snow on the ground, but it was just cold enough to sustain the impressive ice sculptures. 

On each of our visits, we have spent a little time shopping at the Davis Mercantile, Yoder's Red Barn Shoppes and a couple other spots. We've stayed at the Blue Gate Garden Inn on our trips to the area, which is a perfect spot for families. The place was really beautiful at Christmas with lights and trees and poinsettia balls hanging from the ceiling. A cozy fire was going in the lobby. There are several common spaces to enjoy time together as well as an indoor pool and game room. There's an ice cream parlor where the boys loved getting treats. We always enjoy our time there in Shipshewana and particularly slowing down and hanging out in this clean, family-friendly inn.

This year's Shipshewana Ice Festival takes place December 28 and 29. For more information, visit

Prairie Guest House, Fishers Indiana

On a recent media trip in Indianapolis, I spent a little time in Hamilton County, staying at the Prairie Guest House Bed & Breakfast in ...