People & Places

Exploring Galena: History, galleries anchor tourism mecca

Shoppers walk along Main Street in Galena on Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Shoppers walk along Main Street in Galena on Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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On the south end of Galena’s Main Street, a chalkboard sign tucked into a cobblestone alley reads, “Antiques have personality, charm, soul and scratches.”

That sign may have been written in reference to the contents of the adjacent shop, but it also is an apt descriptor of Galena, Illinois, itself — a town centered on a half-mile Main Street stuffed with artisan galleries, boutiques and cafes in well-maintained brick buildings — a town with plenty of personality, charm and soul to go around.

While other Main Street districts in small towns around the Midwest are trying to revitalize and rehabilitate their historic downtown buildings, Galena never let them go in the first place; city officials passed ordinances in the 1980s that made historic preservation a deliberate priority. Today, the town’s extensive historic district encompasses 75 percent of the businesses and homes. Combined with the surrounding rolling hills and river bluffs of the Driftless Area, the decision helped turn Galena, just across the river from Dubuque, into a tourist destination.

“This is the easiest city to promote. It’s so unique,” said Rose Noble, marketing director for Greater Galena Marketing. “The combination of historical landmarks set in breathtaking scenery makes our destination truly unique.”

Only about 3,500 people live in Galena, but that number swells with bursts of tourists throughout the year. The busiest time is October, when up to 15,000 people attend the Galena Country Fair, a showcase of 150 arts and craft vendors from across the country. Tourists also flock to the Driftless Region in October to take in views of vividly-colored fall trees.

At the south end of downtown, Galena Adventure Center on Commerce Street offers nature enthusiasts canoes, kayaks and bikes for rental into October. In the winter, its moves its shop to the Nordic Center at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, 444 Eagle Ridge Dr., where guests can try ice skating, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or even “skijoring,” a winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by a horse, dogs or a motor vehicle. Those looking for more adventure can head to Chestnut Mountain Resort, 8700 W. Chestnut Mountain Rd., for downhill skiing.

HISTORY BUFF’S HAVEN

Galena also is a haven for history buffs. A stop into the Galena Welcome Center in the Old Market House State Historic Site, just off Main Street, offers a chance to view a portion of the world’s largest Ulysses S. Grant memorabilia collection; the building is a companion property to President Grant’s house, now a museum at 500 Bouthillier St.

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More Grant history can be found down the street at the DeSoto House Hotel, where the Civil War general housed his campaign headquarters and where Abraham Lincoln once gave a speech from an exterior balcony that hotel staff still keeps festooned with red, white and blue ribbons.

The DeSoto is the state’s oldest operating hotel, and the interior pays tribute to its legacy, with rooms named for famous guests along with a self-guided walking tour of captioned photos enumerating local history.

“We’re trying to preserve the property and make the history part of the guest experience,” said hotel controller Michael Steinhoff. “We’re trying to make our property more of a museum, a cultural attraction.”

He said history is one of Galena’s strongest attractions. “I think it’s the draw Galena has — the history, combined with the hills of the Driftless area,” Steinhoff said.

EAT, DRINK, SHOP

Those attractions combine with ample shops and restaurants, places like One Eleven Main, which is celebrating its 10th birthday this fall.

Manager Lauri Santow runs the eatery, which has a “farm-to-fork” theme, with seasonal food and drinks. She said she loves living in such a tourist-friendly town.

“I love the hospitality industry,” she said. “I love to hear people’s stories and what brought them to Galena.”

The restaurant has comfortably worn wooden floors, an exposed tin ceiling, brick walls and antique bar, all ubiquitous features in Galena’s intentionally preserved buildings.

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One Eleven Main’s building started as a funeral home and furniture store — the owner built caskets and church pews — a history that has led to rumors the building is haunted and to its inclusion on local ghost tours.

If you see a figure in the halls who looks just like Illinois author Mark Twain, however, never fear — he’s no ghost, but rather Mark Twain impersonator Jim Post, who performs on the restaurant’s third floor on Fridays and Saturdays, bringing history to life.

If that’s not your thing, plenty of other places in town offer live music, magic shows and theater. Trolley rides are available to ferry visitors up and down Main Street, and the plethora of small shops and boutiques are joined by coffee shops and restaurants, as well as a winery tasting room and a brewery.

Santow, who moved here from Chicago, said she has never regretted leaving the big city for this little Midwestern haven.

“Everyone here is so nice, and the scenery is stunning,” she said. “It’s just breathtaking.”

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