Going Home–Courthouses of Northwest Illinois

These seven counties are the last stretch I needed to complete all of the 102 county courthouses.  In that time I have visited nearly every town that had over 20,000 people and got to see some amazing landscapes and spoke with many people. 

I waited to do these last since they include my hometown and many places that I haunted when I was a child.

Yes, going through the area I had a bit a nostalgia.  However, several decades after leaving,  I don’t feel the need to return.  Other than the beautiful areas surrounding Galena, most towns are typical of the Rust Belt.  Both Freeport and the west side of Rockford being some of the worst areas I have seen in my travels in Illinois.

 

Ogle County – Oregon

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Driving west from I-39 towards Oregon the land changes from rolling plains of Central Illinois to hilly and  forested land of the Driftless Area.  While not as forested as the Shawnee National Forest part of the Little Egypt in southern part of the state, it still contain pretty drives, especially along the Rock and Mississippi Rivers.

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The courthouse is a fairly typical 1890’s structure with deep red façade with a base of limestone.  The grounds and it’s upkeep where above average given the small population of the county.

It sits on the confluence of two very busy routes through the area giving it block around it a somewhat vibrant feel .

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Like many towns in western and northern rural areas, the county decided to just keep adding structures.  To the south lay the ugly jail and police station.

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Monument of wars fought from the Spanish-American War on.

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One of the stark contrasts of the Little Egypt area and Northwestern Illinois is the enthusiasm to remember the Civil War.   During this time, this area of Illinois very a strong supporter of the Union and Lincoln.

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This highly detailed monument was on the court grounds along with several Civil War era cannon visible in front of the entry of the courthouse.

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Old school water fountain.  These were built in the early 20th Century as the Temperance Movement took off.   The idea was to give people somewhere to drink without having to go to a saloon for a beer.  However, this model is very unhygienic.  There is a great 99% Invisible podcast about them.

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The square around the grounds has a few open stores catering to local needs.  However, like most other small towns, many buildings are vacant. 

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The city seems to have kept most of the early 20th Century buildings from the decay happening in central and southern Illinois.  It helps that there is so much local traffic that drives the town to keep up appearances.

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Off the courthouse square is historic Conover Square Mall.  It doesn’t look like much, but I love the old water tower stand in the back.

Lee County – Dixon

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Dixon is a typical rust belt time that saw its peak in the 1960.  Since then, it has suffered a slow decline as manufacturing moved from the area and rail became less important. 

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The New Lee County Courthouse is a typical bland 1980-90s structure standing on the edge of the downtown on a busy north-south road.

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There isn’t much to like about the structure. 

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On the west side an old police sign hangs outside the old police station.

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Unlike many towns, Dixon kept its old 1900s era courthouse.  It is impressive neoclassical structure dominating a hill overlooking the downtown.

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The front has some neat pillars and give it an almost gaudy presence of governmental power.

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One the grounds, there are several plaques about famous people from past era.  Unlike many towns, they are tasteful remembrances of the past.

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To the south and east is residential areas with several grand churches and large historical homes.

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An old church on the square.  It needs a little TLC.

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Traveling towards the river, we see some of the historical legacy of Ronald Regan.  Here is a part (or recreation) of the Belin Wall.

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Some paintings remembering Reagon’s Tear Down This Wall speech.

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Dixon’s downtown caters to local tastes with a hint of tourism mixed in.  Like most towns, many of the storefronts are vacant.

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Walgreen started his first store in Dixon.  He is remembered along the river walk.

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The Rock river park walk.  Here is Regan riding a horse straight out of western film.

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Unlike many of the other former president’s birth sites, Regan’s birth place is in an unassuming middle class area with many of the local homes in the area still inhabited by locals.

Whiteside County – Morrison

Since Morrison is a small town in the middle of nowhere, I have never stopped in Morrison before today.  The only times I have been in the area is to go somewhere else like Iowa.

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The Whiteside County Courthouse is a thoroughly modern structure that is out of place in the older residential area is sits in.

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The front reminds me of the county courthouse in Springfield.  It is very unitarian like something built in Minecraft.

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It does have some interesting topological features as several of the floors are built into the hill. 

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Several block south of courthouse hill is the downtown area situated near the rail line running through town.

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Most of the business are small local mom and pop shops with most of the larger buildings vacant.  The town is trying to keep up appearances, but most it looks like most people shop in the larger communities such as Sterling-Rock Falls.

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The veterans memorial sits in the local cemetery.  It contained one of the few Vietnam era howitzers. 

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Just outside of town near Morrison-Rockwood State Park, there is wooden covered bridge that can be driven across.  I used to country cruise to this spot on occasion in my youth.

Carrol County – Mt. Carrol

Mt. Carrol is the smallest county seat in this drive.  It was originally a mill town and seminary school, although both have long since closed.

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The courthouse is of 1850s neoclassical which as been added to at least three times since.  The entrance sport several large pillars in much the style of older courthouses found in the west central areas along the Illinois River.

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Because it has been added to so often, the design is a mishmash of different eras.  Oddly, it looks like much of the downtown area that expanded in a similar way. This makes it look normal and not out of place with the environment.

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The town sports an nice monument to the fallen.

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It is only the second courthouse that houses a jail.  Notice the penned in area where those incarcerated can get some sunshine. 

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Like other towns in the area, the grounds sport a large Civil War monument.  Rather impressive given the population of the county.

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The town still uses its Carnage Library to store books.  It is in good condition given the many abandoned building in the surrounding area. 

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The downtown area was quiet when I went through.  People in the area were a mix of locals and tourists.

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Shimer College had once had their campus in the town.  It closed and moved in the 1950s leaving many of the buildings unused.  In the 1980s, my dad took me to a festival on the grounds and I got to sneak around in some of these buildings.

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The buildings have slowly deteriorated over time.  This is unfortunate as some still show their beautiful designs in the quiet quad.

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Former residence hall.  I was the only person on the grounds making the area feel like a nature preserve dotted by buildings.

Jo Daviess County – Galena

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The river road from Mt Carrol to Galena is some of the most beautiful areas in Illinois.  The hilly and scape is a mix of forest dotted by pastures and the occasional corn farm.

I didn’t spend much time as I would have liked in Galena.  It is the premiere tourist town in Illinois so there is a lot to see and do.  The downtown was packed with visitors from Chicago taking in the beauty of the area.

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The courthouse is on a hill over looking the town.  Built in the 1840s, it isn’t much to look at compared to the splendor of the rest of the town.  It is a common red brick affair with a limestone foundation.

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Like most other rural areas on this trip, the county decided to add on three or four times since it was first built.  They didn’t even bother color matching the additions with limestone making up the next section and  yellow brick on the third part.

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The real entrance to the building is tucked in the back.  The stone looks like typical WPA era construction.

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Former President Grant’s home sits on a hill overlooking the town.   It is fairly modest given many other historical home in the area.

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He and his wife had a splendid view of the town.

Stephenson County – Freeport

Coming into my hometown, was interesting to say the least.  The town has fallen on hard times since I left as the manufacturing base has dwindled.  The street I grew up on now sports several abandoned houses and even vacant lots where homes that I used to play in sat.  Even a apartment building behind my boyhood home was falling in on itself. 

It was a sad site.  Fortunately a family still lives in the home I grew up in.

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I used to think the Stephenson County Courthouse was an oppressive structure until I visited the others in Illinois.  Now its just another example of ugly 1970s era architecture.

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The utilitarian façade shows its age and lack of upkeep.  The only change of note since I last saw it was the addition of ‘In God We Trust’ in the front.  Several years ago, the town decided to add the staying to all its buildings, with mixed success.

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Like others, the grounds sports a large Civil War monument. 


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The downtown was much like I remembered.  If they survived the last few decades, many of the shops still inhabit the same places.  The town has done a decent job of removing the badly maintained buildings.  The apartment that I lived in on the edge of the downtown is now a parking lot for Rubbermaid employees.

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The town once had an impressive town hall built in the early part of the 20th century.  It is now condemned and looking for a buyer.

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Fortunately, the town decided to fix up the Carnage Library.  I spent many hours hiding in the musty book shelves and it good to see the town putting it to use, even if it is no longer a library.

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The Library sits next to a wonderful old church.

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One addition to the town is in Read Park.  The city decided to build a mini Wrigley Field.  It is one of the more interesting little league diamonds I have seen.

Winnebago County – Rockford

Driving from Freeport to Rockford on US-20 was surreal.  On approaching the city from the west, one can really see the blight that Rockford holds.  In the 1980s, US Business 20 used to have many houses and commercial buildings.  Most are gone now with long streets of nothing as nature reclaims the land.

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The courthouse is of typical late 1960s design.  Because of the size of the city, it is one of the largest outside the Chicagoland area.

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It sits mostly in an area with other local government facilities so one the weekend it was rather quiet.  There is a park on the grounds that goes over the history of Lincoln’s time in the area in exhaustive detail.

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Bust of Lincoln next to what looks like the older 1900s era courthouse, which is still in use.

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Courthouse hidden behind some trees to hide the pedestrian outside wall.

Locations

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