While rural areas are hanging their hopes on tourism, Tim Collins rediscovers that land, sky and water are the mightiest attractions of all.
Stephenson County, Illinois, is a convergence of two landscapes, one partly shaped by the great glacier and the other known as the “driftless area.” One rolls gently, its ancient valleys filled with glacial sand and gravel that drifted in from Canada with the ice more than 10,000 years ago. Across the other are low hills and valleys that weren’t filled by the glacier. Each is beautiful in its own way.
The county is not glam, but there’s plenty to do. The welcome center is beautiful and spacious. A small city, Freeport, is county seat. It is trying hard to save its downtown, with some nice shops and eateries to complement the heavy investments in tourism that it and other communities across the county have made. Unfortunately, the downtown suffers some not only from long-standing larger economic changes, but also from the effects of sprawl west of town. Then, there are the rural areas, gloriously quiet, trickling water and calling birds everywhere. Some views verge on the dramatic in that humble, Midwestern sort of way.
Stephenson County and Freeport have friendly people, a good county fair, and miles of back roads especially memorable in high summer, with spots serving good food along the way. This is a rural tourist’s dreamscape: upper Midwest prairie and woodland; corn and soybeans, of course; but also dairy, with some sheep and goats thrown in; towns that are struggling to preserve their charm; scattered forests and abundant, meandering waterways, including the Pecatonica River.
This is the end of Illinois, the beginning of southwestern Wisconsin, and not quite northeastern Iowa, just across the Mississippi River: It is my favorite type of place, gravel road country.
This type of vacation in territory new to the eyes is a rich seeing, listening, tasting, and learning experience.
Sunset 1: High cirrus clouds backed by clear skies and flitting bits of cumulus clouds make day’s end worth waiting for. Green fields and trees, brown road, and a bit of elevation capture changing patterns of pink and amber light that sprays around and through, leaving deepening shadows in their wake.
Sunset 2: Golden reflections on the Pecatonica River are about as good as it gets. An opening in the trees along the road reveals a beautiful moment of sun-drenched trees reflected on the still water of the river: Paradise regained for awhile, even with a few pesky mosquitoes.
What is an entrepreneur after all? The stories of business owners show the quiet courage of escape from a regular job into something that brings out passion and inspires risk-taking. This may not be high-tech entrepreneurship but it is creative and brave nonetheless. Running a gift shop in a house that dates to the 1840s, selling fresh cut flowers from a seasonal garden, helping to plan events, and playing music around the area are creative endeavors for Maggie Davidson, owner of the Rock Run Peddler in Rock City. Diversity helps assure survival.
Living in a rural area doesn’t mean you’re necessarily in touch with farming. There is a touch of irony as a 30ish father asks a woman staffing the 4-H chicken barn at the county fair what noise that bird is making. Crowing, the woman says, with perhaps a look of surprise. He tells his children. Some people are really isolated from farming, not necessarily by miles.
What’s a county fair for, anyhow? “Elephant Ears” are the equivalent of funnel cakes at the Stephenson County Fair. They’re really good and really bad at the same time, huge pieces of fluffy fried dough covered with cinnamon and sugar and whatever else you desire. Add to that a corndog and one of the best sweet-spicy barbecue sandwiches ever from a local church, and you’re prepared to die, sooner perhaps than later.
Sandwich, anyone? How about three-dollar sandwiches with three meats and two cheeses from Miller’s Country Cheese run by Tina Miller in Davis, Illinois? Sandwiches topped off with good, high-test coffee are served in a converted gas station, Local cheeses can be packed in a cold chest to take home. Nothing fancy here, but taste-bud memories in the making. Just guessing: The local clientele has helped Miller’s stay in business for more than seven years. It’s not only a tourist spot.
Following the river: The Pecatonica River begins in southwestern Wisconsin. It enters Stephenson County at Winslow, Illinois, and then wanders through the county in a wiggling crescent, southward to Freeport and then northeast and east toward Winnebago County, where it eventually joins the Rock River to head south and west into the Mississippi at the Quad Cities. In season, the Pecatonica is placid, largely tree lined, and a canoer’s delight from what I hear. I’d love to canoe here, maybe in the fall when the mosquitoes are out of season.
Jane Addams would like this: Progressive social worker Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago, was born in Stephenson County. A rail line that runs near her birthplace has been converted into a namesake trail that runs from just north of Freeport to connect with the Badger Trail at the Wisconsin border, a trek of about 13 miles. A short walk along this trail proves it is something to return for — again, without the mosquitoes.
Community developers have often recommended tourism as a solution for problems of rural areas. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Rural tourism may help rural economies, but it is not the solution, especially when fuel prices are volatile and large sectors of the national economy are in poor shape.
Stephenson County has invested heavily in tourism, and I deeply hope it is paying off. But right now, times are tough. Some folks are scraping by. Saddest were the smaller places we visited where a lot of money and effort had been devoted to refurbishing the downtowns, but the main streets had a number of closed stores.
Whatever the larger worries, memories of this trip are strong and good. Here’s to a return visit.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.