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Exhibit at Dickson Mounds Visitors Center

MOUNDS, NOT THE BAR
Dickson Mounds, Lewiston

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This venerable Illinois destination was suggested to the Getaway Guys by a number of our regular readers.  It’s not close.  It’s the kind of place to go while headed elsewhere or maybe for a weekender with other stuff to do and see.  Alan, of course, knew all about this place.  Neil didn’t.

From their discovery in the late 1920s until the early 1990s, Dickson Mounds (www.museum.state.il.us/ismsites/dickson/), about an hour southwest of Peoria,  was a popular tourist destination.  Today, despite an excellent museum and interruptive center, the Mounds are half forgotten.  Alan, the more scientific Getaway Guy, grooved on the place, while Neil (the part Native American) found it interesting and informative.  Both Guys thought this Illinois State Museum, celebrating Native American culture long before the arrival of white settlers, an excellent choice for a trip.

dickson1The mounds in question (there are many Native-American mounds in the mid-section of the U.S.) are named for Don Dickson, a chiropractor from Lewistown, Illinois, who first excavated this ancient burial site on his family farm not far from the Illinois River in 1927.  Whether he knew “his” mound (they’re big and not readably recognizable as being man made) was a burial site or not, is a good question.  Whatever the answer may be, within a year or two Don Dickson had a full fledged tourist attraction with up to 40,000 paying visitors per year.  What folks came to see may seem odd or macabre by today’s standards, but back when tourists flocked to attractions like Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Cave City in Kentucky, almost anything ballyhooed along America’s primitive highway and byways pulled them in.  Dickson had a potential bonanza, but to his credit he went about his excavations in a methodical and scientific manner, often having archeologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois working at the site and documenting their discoveries.

As the Depression deepened and later World War II commenced, the tourists and their dollars ceased to arrive at the Dickson Mounds or in Lewistown and Havana, Illinois, the two towns most affected economically by folks coming to see the excavations.  In 1945 the Dickson family sold the site to the State of Illinois, but continued to administer it until 1965 when it was transferred to the Illinois State Museum.  In 1972 the present museum building opened and for the next 20 years the site attracted a steady stream of visitors.  People from far and wide came to see the ongoing excavation of Native American skeletal remains, some dating back perhaps 900 years.  Along with the discovery of innumerable artifacts, both sacred and ordinary, archeologists went about their painstaking work while visitors watched.

dickson2As a result of protests by Native American groups and their sympathizers, in 1992 excavations ceased and the site was sealed.  Despite a major renovation between September 1993 and September 1994 and the addition of new exhibits, annual attendance has never rebounded.  The Getaway Guys were there on a beautiful Saturday in June at about mid-day and maybe ten people (including the Guys) were viewing the exhibits.  The Guys left the Mounds enlightened, but sad because an outstanding source of fascinating information along with a plethora of stunning artifacts is sitting on a hill in central Illinois ignored and almost forgotten.  Ironically, the dickson3Mounds excavations were closed through the efforts of activists representing Native American tribes, but the ancient inhabitants of the area and other sites from the Mississippian period aren’t classified as members of any recorded Native American tribe.  In other words, nobody knows who these people were and tribes as we know them today didn’t exist.  Unless an accommodation can be reached about further scientific investigation, those for and against additional exploration won’t know who built the mounds or how they may have influenced the development of Native American tribal life as it is now known.

On the bright side, attendance is improving.  The restoration of the Illinois River flood plain (know as Emiquon) by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revitalizing the Museum, along with public demonstrations of archaeological field work during summer months.  As work on the Emiquon progresses, the Museum will mount exhibits about the rich history of the river valley and the importance of sustaining biological diversity.  State and federal funding is, of course, always problematic.

From the Loop, the Dickson Mounds are about 350 miles (round trip). Once a traveler breaks out of the congestion and highway construction around Chicago, the distance one way isn’t as horrible as it sounds, especially on Interstates.  Round trip could be a one-day challenge, however.  Unfortunately there is not much else to do in this neck of the woods unless you’re an Alan and just like driving (or preferably biking) through beautiful scenery.  Located on the attractive Illinois River, Havana, Illinois (less than 5 miles away) seems to be trying to do something to revitalize an otherwise moribund down town.  But at 10:30 on a Saturday morning, the Guys couldn’t find a place to buy a cup of coffee, much less ham and eggs for Neil.  For lunch the Guys thought they’d try Lewistown (less than 5 miles away in the opposite direction), but it was more deserted than Havana.  Interestingly, Lewistown is the hometown of the well-known poet Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950), author of Spoon River Anthology, a series of monologues in free verse.  Published in 1915, his most famous work didn’t do anything to burnish his image in Lewistown because he chose to make fun of its citizens.  Ninety-three years later,dickson4 little in once prosperous Lewistown, Illinois remains. The County courthouse is still there, but the farm based economic engine that once made places like Havana and Lewistown flourish, seems to be low on fuel.  As the Illinois State Museum at Dickson Mounds becomes increasingly involved with Emiquon and more people become aware of the importance of the work now underway, the communities of Havana and Lewistown may flourish again.  The Guys hope so.

(P.S. Alan isn’t the only Getaway Guy who likes beautiful scenery and he has been known to enjoy ham and eggs, too.)

Looking for gas two cents cheaper than that in Havana, Al (el Cheapo) and Neil (cholesterol Cogbill) cruised into Peoria, Illinois on fumes.  Heading home, the Guys followed IL 78 to US 24 into this pleasantly revitalized city on the Illinois River.  Neil hadn’t been to Peoria before and Alan hadn’t visited since sometime during the last millennium.  Starving, they had a late lunch (with a beer or two for Alan, a near-beer or two for Neil) at Kelleher’s, 619 SW Water Street.  Kelleher’s, a former stable for the Peoria Fire Department, and other inviting eateries and attractions now occupy a riverside landscape previously adorned with industrial detritus.  A few blocks away the restored Pere Marquette Hotel has reasonable rates for a combo weekender and visit to the Dickson Mounds.     September 2008

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