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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Trip to the Mouth of the Illinois River

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On a stormy morning in June, I took off to see the counties following the Illinois River and to see where it stops at the great Mississippi.

Menard County – Petersburg

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The town of Petersburg is nestled near the Sangamon River.  This river valley gives the area a sense of height and beauty with the hills hiding the full size of the town in the beautiful forest. 

The Menard County Courthouse is a few blocks away from the river sitting in the middle of the town square.  The landscaping is rather pretty, it is one of the few that grows native flowers and trees.

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Built around the turn of the 20th century, it is rather imposing brick and concrete structure compared to the smaller commercial structures lining the square.

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The square is a mix of dying  establishments catering local tastes and a few small tourist shops that are only open during the weekend.  The later businesses seem to survive because Lincoln’s New Salem State Park is just down the South IL-123.

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An old school converted to residential and mixed use.  The wording on the central building was so faded that I couldn’t tell what the name was.  It was one of a number of closed school structures near the downtown signifying the slow decline in population in the area.

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Former home of Edgar Lee Masters, a poet and writer famous in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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The town of Petersburg doesn’t have a statue of Lincoln.  This is not surprising as just down the road, visitors can get their fill of his life at the state park noted above.  In the park there are many depictions of the man.  Boy do artists seem to revere him.  The statue above makes him look like Adonis.  True man’s man in frontier Illinois.  He is famous in the area as a surveyor before becoming a lawyer and president.

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The park is a reenactment of live around the time of settlement in Illinois.  Not being of interest to me as this area doesn’t have wifi, I took a quick look and moved on to the next town.

Cass County – Virginia

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The Cass County Courthouse is in the small town of Virginia.  Built in 1875, the locals couldn’t keep well enough alone with poorly added addition over the next 100 years.  The wings mar the interesting main section of the building.  The structure reminds me of a what you’d see on a southern plantations built around the same time. 

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On the side of the entrance shows the Ten Commandments.  I saw similar plaques in Carrolton and Carlinville.  These were all added around the same time in efforts to solidify the conservative nature of the area, although I am not sure when it happened.

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The square is a bit run down with many commercial buildings constructed around the same time as the courthouse.   The businesses that were left seemed busy unlike other towns I visited.  Given its remoteness in the wilds of corn and soybean plots, Virginia is likely a hub of activity for the rural residents.

Morgan County – Jacksonville

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The Morgan County Courthouse in Jacksonville is an impressive stone structure.   Built in 1868 of large limestone blocks, it looks like a cross between an Italian villa and a older catholic church. 

Oddly, it is a block away from one of the larger town squares I have seen that looks like the read center of the towns summer activities.   The plaques on the square says that after the second courthouse burned down, they decided to relocate it further west.

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The clock tower on the southeast side of the building.

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In place of the old courthouse, and impressive roman inspired statue to that solutes the end of slavery.  I actually found this a bit ironic since one of the major employers in the area is the Jacksonville Correctional Center.

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The Constitution and Bill of Rights in the town square.  The square is very well kept, with a stage and other park equipment.  The businesses around look like they cater to the local population.  Most of the buildings in the area seemed well kept even if they were vacant.

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Jacksonville is home to two small colleges and several specialized schools.  MacMurray College is a small private liberal arts college that was once women only.  Now it is the bright spot in an otherwise run down area of town.  It is not as bad as the barbed wire and high steel fences surrounding Knox College, but the area is more neglected than most college campuses I visit.

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Illinois College is the larger college in town.  This liberal arts college is nestled in an older well kept area of town.  The college quad reminds me of Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington but with a more southern flare in the architecture.

Scott County – Winchester

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Scott County Courthouse looks like the model southern Illinois courthouse.  Built in the late 19th century of brick surrounded by tin painted in a pretty pearl color.

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While the clock was added later, it still was broken.  Must has been because of the 1.21 gigawatt lightening strike it received is the past.

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When driving south of Springfield, Lincoln is not revered as much.  Instead, Stephen A Douglas becomes more of a historical figure.   On this spot in Winchester is where Lincoln got into politics after a debate about legalizing slavery in Illinois, which would go against the Missouri Compromise.  This argue culminated in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

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The abandoned Winchester Hotel on the southeast side of the square is indicative of the state of the town.   Given its remoteness to larger communities, there is not much here to keep the youth from migrating away.

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On the way to Hardin, one needs a boat ride.  This is one of the two farriers that Illinois operates.

The drive down from Winchester to Hardin is one of the most beautiful in Illinois.  Their are many large farms surrounded by forested bluffs.  The farm land changes when moving south from Central Illinois.  The soil becomes sandier and there is more irrigation piping.  Since it is warmer, the crops are much further along.

Calhoun County – Hardin

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Calhoun is the least populated county in Illinois.  As such, their county courthouse looks more like a small church or elementary school.   From the outside, it looks new, but it is actually older than most.  The center section was built in 1848 and slowly expanded over time.

Hardin is a surprise after the rolling valleys north of it. The town is up against hills and looks more like it should be on the Mississippi River.

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After Hardin, it was off to the mouth of the Illinois River near Grafton Illinois.

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Where the Illinois meets the mighty Mississippi is much like any other location in Mississippi with bluffs surrounding wide flood plans.


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Look the lawnmower of my dreams!  This swag is just what I expect in a tourist trap.  Grafton is a tourist town, albeit a dying one.  I’d wager this is because it is hard to find since it is not on an Interstate and the fact there are so many nicer places to take vacations in the 21st century.  The area is ideal for fishing and hiking, but the town doesn’t offer much to those with kids.  Most of the vacationers around town were older married people without kids in tow.

Jersey County – Jerseyville

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The Jersey County Courthouse is an impressive limestone mansion married by its central tower.   The central tower looks like a mushroom sprouting up over the roof.  It is oddly colored and doesn’t match the decorum of either the rest of the structure or the other buildings surrounding the courthouse square.

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The counties closer to St Louis features Back the Blue signage,  This is a movement that shows support for the police that started after the problems in Ferguson.  Jerseyville showed the most support but it is likely there is strong support throughout the counties bordering St Louis where I haven’t gone yet.

Greene County – Carrollton

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Green County Courthouse sits in a large busy square in the center of town.  Like many others in the area, it is impressively built from the local limestone.  While traveling in the rural parts of Greene and Morgan counties, the bluffs in the area seemed extensively mined.  Many of the older buildings in the small towns in the area have similar construction.

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Scales of justice.


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Founder of the town, Thomas Carlin, a Democratic Governor of Illinois back in the 19th century.  The statue makes him look like a magician.   Other than this statue, their wasn’t much around town displaying his accomplishments.

Macoupin County – Carlinville

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Macoupin County Courthouse is built in true federal style using the local limestone instead of traditional granite.  The cast iron dome is a little worse for wear but it doesn’t detract from its grandeur.  Surrounding the buildings grounds are large blocks of limestone that used to house a iron fence that was dismantled  some time in the past.  I bet when the fence was up it made the place seem more like a castle grounds for a Duke than a place for judges.

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The veteran memorial is one of the better ones.  Focused around a brick walk way, it displays the name of all the fallen in all wars from 1812 through the present day.

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The old jail just to the south of the courthouse.  The entrance leaves no doubt for what it was originally used for.

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Just to the west is the Carlinville’s town square.  The buildings are mostly in tact with a mix of local watering houses and some touristy shops.  Some of the buildings maintain the limestone facades so common in the older commercial building found throughout the area.

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The town is home to Blackburn College, a small liberal art university.  Its moto Learn. Work. Earn. is very utilitarian though it has a Game Design major.  While on campus, there were many students milling about giving the place more life than the others I visited during the trip.

Sangamon County – Springfield

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Unlike the State of Illinois buildings in the area, the Sangamon County Courthouse looks stale and utilitarian.  Built in similar ways to modern courthouses such as Urbana, Lincoln, and Pontiac, its red brink and glass features make it unremarkable.  To make matters worse, the areas around the building are either vacant lots or run down commercial plots. 

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The front looks like some sort of sun capturing device.

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The Illinois Supreme Court building is built in typical federal style with long marble pillars set throughout its face.  Its is far less impressive than the capital building across the street.

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The seal statues in front on the north side are neat.

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The entrance on the west side of the building.

Illinois River Fall Viewing

Last weekend, I took a trip to look around the lesser known parks on the Tazewell side of the Illinois River in order to take in the fall colors.  This year the color was weaker than in the previous few.  Most tree simply turned pale yellow and sheading their foliage quickly.  Only the sugar maples seem not to notice the unusually warm fall weather in the area.

John T McNaughton Park

This park is one of the larger ones around Pekin named after an advisor in the federal government of whom I never heard of before now but was a local boy.  The park itself is rolling grass and forest covered hills with the lowest points in the park containing several small lakes/mosquito breeding pits.

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The main attractions are a rather large 18-hole Frisbee golf course and equestrian center near its northern end.  The course looked like it would be quite challenging given the hilly terrain.

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It the rolling grassland provided a pleasant stroll but the hiking trails are better served on horseback.  There were too many ruts and mud pit to make for an enjoyable time.

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The park itself had few amenities.  The most interesting ones were the teepee style campfire rings that dotted the area that are for the Boy Scouts who set up camp in the park.

Independence Park

Independence Park is located in Marquette Heights.  It is a well designed park with a fair number of play ground areas, ball diamonds, and paved biking trail.  In the local area, it is also known for having decent mountain bike trails.

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These trails follow most along the upper edges of hollows with some changes in elevation here and there to give a ride some variability.  It reminds me somewhat of Evergreen Park park biking trails with many tree roots to give people bumpy rides.

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Overall it is a nice and well maintained park.  The only problem is you never feel like you are in a rural landscape.  The park abuts I-474, so nature lovers get to hear both bird songs and semis.

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Pekin Lake/Park

I was reluctant to visit Pekin given few people have said good things about it, so I passed up going to both the town and this park for years.  Laying on the Illinois River the park part reminded me other old river towns such as Quincy and the Quad Cities.  Off have tried tried to spruce the riverfront up.  Unfortunately, the nice new park amenities clash with the old industrial theme of the local area.

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There wasn’t much to see in the park itself except bogs and trash.  I was more interested in the industrial areas surround it.

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Totally makes me want to reinstall Fallout and go ruin exploring in a power suit.

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Veterans Park

Veterans Park is a typical park set in East Peoria.  It sits on hills over looking the Peoria downtown cityscape.  The amenities such as the baseball diamond and playground equipment are very well maintained and look almost new.  The walking path lets a person take in the hilly terrain and enjoy the nearly perfect Illinois fall weather.

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Fondulac Park West

This park sits right across the street from Veterans Park.  However, the city does not make it easy to walk to it and place fences between the park and Springfield Road.  To make matters worse, there are no sidewalks in the area in order to even get to the park safely without driving.

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I liked this park for its single feature, it sits on a large steep hill.   Only the brave would sled down it because of the line of trees at the bottom.

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Hmm, doesn’t look as impressive on camera. My maybe the hike up the hill wasn’t as tiring as I thought.

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