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Garfield Inn Museum

E-I-E-I-O!
Garfield Farm and St. Charles

getaway-chicago logo There’s a wealth of history and interesting stuff to see along the Fox River between Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles, Illinois. The Getaway Guys knew this and talked about the many possibilities for at least one, if not two destinations for getaway-chicago.com. But, deciding how to slice or dice the possibilities turned out to be as complicated as deciding which planet to go to: Mars or Venus! Alan favored the southern end of the Fox, Neil thought the northern end more inviting and they both thought the middle a little too too for the discriminating tastes of their readership. They decided the Batavia end had a story worth telling (later) and the St. Charles end had a lot going for it sooner rather than later (some arm twisting here by Neil).

stcharles1In addition to a cornucopia of interesting Fox stuff in the  aforementioned communities, there’s a little known historical jewel further west, in a place called La Fox. It’s not flashy and a visitor may depart with authentic animal matter stuck under foot, but the risk of take home farm essence is worth it. The Getaway Guys had a ball visiting the Garfield Farm and Inn Museum (www.garfieldfarm.org), a pretty much intact 1840’s, 370 acre, functioning farm and former tavern/inn that somehow survived subdivision, demolition or drastic “improvements.” Suburban creep is getting close (horrific commercial sprawl on Randall Road), but maybe the present nosedive in home building will keep it at bay for the foreseeable future.

Far from their roots in Vermont, Timothy and Harriet Garfield in 1841 staked their well being and the future of their children’s happiness on a piece of land about 10 miles west of St. Charles, Illinois. There they grew wheat for a burgeoning world wide grain market and, to make ends meet, took in teamsters hauling agricultural products to Chicago. To accommodate the teamsters the Garfields built the present brick structure known as the Inn in 1846. Three years later in 1849 the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad made animal transport obsolete and the teamster-customers of the Garfields began their descent into folklore. stcharles2In 1977, the third generation owner of this miraculously preserved piece of Illinois history, Elva Ruth Garfield donated not only much of the land and its buildings (mostly intact) to the Garfield Heritage Society, but also an artifact collection of over 2,000 items once in the possession of her family. As a business serving the needs of transients when running water was unheard of, the Inn at the Garfield Farm Museum is a far cry from some quaint 21st century bed and breakfast with a cute name. Life on the frontier before the Civil War wasn’t a bed of roses, but the small rough hewn Tap Room on the first floor and the Ball Room on the second bare witness to a human proclivity for fun.

stcharles3The Getaway Guys were in total agreement about the Garfield Farm Museum. Both thought it remarkable and a unique experience not far from Chicago. With historic, rare breeds of barnyard animals under foot and oxen (strong and/or dumb as) standing around, the Farm is a different species of museum; the artifacts move and make noises! For adults and children alike, the Garfield Farm Museum is a must see: on display (in living color) are farm animals last seen in the 19th century. Also on display is the miraculously preserved Garfield Homestead and Inn, an authentic dwelling with early 19th century furnishings.  There’s also an heirloom vegetable garden and native prairie preserve.  Garfield’s the kind of place where dudes like Alan and Neil are reminded of the vicissitudes of their own ancestors, a not uninteresting or dull trip into the past.

The Guys also took in the fascinating St. Charles Heritage Center (www.stcmuseum.org) at 215 East Main Street; it is an extremely worthwhile and important link in understand-ing not only the history of St. Charles, Illinois, but also the outlying countryside and how it was dependent on river towns like St. Charles for survival. Today St. Charles (www.visitstcharles.com) hardly looks like a “river” town. It’s a nice, genteel joint with interesting architecture and businesses accommodating the “carriage trade”: a place where city dwellers can come for a pleasant lunch and do some exploring of antique shops and other establishments owned by purveyors of interesting things.

St. Charles is also the former home of one of America’s most flamboyant multi-millionaires, John Gates, a.k.a. “Bet-A-Million” Gates, the barbed wire mogul. His heirs, the Baker-Norris families built or endowed a number of St. Charles’s distinctive architectural landmarks. An outstanding example is what may be the most unusual looking municipal building in Illinois. Designed by R. Harold Zook and D. Coder Taylor and dedicated in 1940, stcharles4the St. Charles Municipal Building, on Main just east of the river, is an almost pristine example of Art Deco Modernism in granite and marble.

To round out their day on their initial visit to the Garfield Farm Museum and St. Charles, the Guys had a late afternoon coffee and desert at a serious bibliophile’s book store/café called Townhouse (www.townhousebooks.com), located at 105 North 2nd Avenue. On their second sojourn to the Garfield Inn and Museum, they had time for a delicious Townhouse lunch and time, too, for some bookstore browsing in this great 19th century adaptive use building. 

The Garfield Farm Museum defies categorization. Even the otherwise loquacious and/or flip Getaway Guys were left with penetrating thoughts about packing it in for an uncertain existence far away from familiar surrounding, such as the Garfields did when they began their long trek from Vermont to Illinois. The Garfields may not have struck it rich like Bet-a Million Gates, but they survived and their progeny did, too. The St. Charles Heritage Center with its fascinating collection of St. Charles ephemera helps to illustrate in part the story of pioneer farm families like the Garfields.     March 2008

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