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Stained glass windows in former Livingston Hotel, Dwight

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Dwight, Illinois

getaway-chicago logo Silence haunts this once bustling arsenal of democracy. The cacophony of bombs and artillery shells being made is absent. Their fabricators mostly deceased by now and their anxieties about loved ones at war reside in yellowed letters. The Marys and Bills, the Marthas and Freds who toiled here through a succession of conflicts (WW II, Korea & Vietnam) are the ghosts of this place being swallowed by vegetation, now empty and ruined. This is the former Joilet Army Arsenal.

In 1939-40 about 24,000 acres of farmland and ancestral cemeteries south of Joliet was purchased by the Federal Government to build a bomb factory. World War II was still a year or so away, but preparations for the inevitable had to commence sooner, rather than later. Although isolationist sentiments were high, with the fall of Paris to the Nazis in June of 1940 the Roosevelt Administration sensed a coming war. The Arsenal’s Elwood Ordnance Plant for shells, bombs and mines and the Kankakee Ordnance Works for the production of TNT were separated by substantial distances (as were the buildings comprising each facility) for safety. Should one go, not all would.

midewin1On a hot, gusty day in ’07 the Getaway Guys first surveyed this vast expanse on foot and bike. Starting at the informative Welcome Center where they learned about the complicated, long-term U.S Department of Agriculture program to decontaminate and reseed most of Midewin with native tall grasses, Neil and Alan were anticipating hours spent exploring a Pompeii of the plains packed with contemporary history. What they found was both interesting and discouraging. Maps of mysterious Midewin are sketchy, roads disappear and signage is hard to find; but perseverance being a virtue, the Getaway Guys got an eye full despite being lost most of the time. Pedaling into a stiff wind (a prairie feature), Neil and Alan saw a variety of weed choked buildings falling into ruin and a number of Midewin’s iconic structures called igloos (half buried bomb storage bunkers). Further evidence of once throbbing activity within the Arsenal’s vast munitions making complex is difficult to find and comprehend. Surrounded by rusted cyclone fencing, all former assembly buildings are strictly off limits and can only be glimpsed from a distance. Not unlike Pompeii before hoards of tourists began to choke its ancient streets, Midewin (Native-American for “place of healing”) is shrouded in silence with only the wind and the call of birds audible. Reseeding will take years, so what visitors see is a lot of very tall grass, invasive vegetation and occasional groves of somewhat mutated trees unless they dig deeper and explore further.

Despite minor irritations, The Midewin Tall Grass Prairie (link) is a fascinating place. It is the largest restoration of its kind in the U.S. When the Guys visited in ‘07 it wasn’t really fully prepared for touring, but it’s free and teeming with interesting stuff for visitors with time and forebearance. Much is still classified as brown field and will require eventual clean up. midewin2When this happens the Guys hope accommodations will be made to preserve and identify some of the abandoned structures. They are memorials to the workers (many were women) who toiled in an extremely dangerous environment far from the battle lines of Europe and the Pacific, but were no less important to our war effort. If Midewin’s buildings can’t be preserved and viewed from a safe distance, something historically significant will be lost. Walking in a field of tall prairie grasses is similar to entering a cornfield. Unless a visitor is seven feet tall, he or she can’t see much. Biking is an advantage at Midewin. For a better view of what this former arsenal turned natural wonder is and was, a visitor may wish to hire an airplane (impractical for most folks). In the Welcome Center a great photo essay by Terry Evans with an introduction by Tony Hiss is available for purchase. Published in 1998 by The John Hopkins University Press, Disarming the Prairie is an outstanding resource guide to understanding and appreciating Midewin. With photographs shot on the ground and from the air, Ms. Evans has captured the eeriness of this once vital place. In addition to prairie restoration information at the Welcome Center, tours are being offered in 2009 to explain what the future holds for Midewin. Visit the website ( for more details.

During their ’07 visit to Midewin the Guys also stopped Wilmington, Illinois, thinking it might be a good place for lunch and other stuff. They found a very old town in need of something to put it back on the map. Depressed (but not without a certain charm), Wilmington today looks like a place that last saw prosperity during World War II. It does have an authentic octagon house (hard to discern without counting the sides) and what appears to be fairly thriving antiquing strip along the Main Street. Alan (Mr. Contemporary) didn’t want to sully his image by entering any of same. Meanwhile, Neil (Mr. Gourmet) complained about the lack of swell dining. So on their second visit to Midewin in 2009 the Guys headed further south to Dwight, Illinois, where they had heard and read that the architecture and history were more interesting.

midewin3Founded in 1854 when the Chicago & Alton Railroad came through town (literally) and named for Henry Dwight, a big investor in the Chicago & Alton, Dwight was and is one of innumerable Midwest communities owing it’s existence to a couple of steel rails. This small community of 4500+ is cleaved by its former C & A tracks and has north and south sides with an impressive Romanesque railroad station (1891) by Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931) in the middle. Cobb’s train station now serves as The Dwight Historical Society, The Dwight Chamber of Commerce and an Amtrak station. A Chicago based architect, Cobb was also responsible for Chicago’s Newberry Library and midewin4the distinctive Chicago Varnish Company building (1895) on Kedzie, which is now Harry Caray’s Restaurant. South of the train station is the Bank of Dwight (1855), an early Illinois financial institution with an understated, classical marble façade and two very good murals by Oskar Carl Gross (1871-1963), an Austrian protégé of Louis Sullivan. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 (his Oak Park period) and north of the tracks is the First National Bank of Dwight, which steals much of its south side neighbor’s thunder because of its pedigree. Originally a dual use building used as a bank and a real estate office (a toxic mix today), the First National was restored and faithfully expanded in the 1960’s. Typical of the Guys, Alan favored the First National while Neil leaned toward the Bank of Dwight. Alan (the architect’s spouse) was surprised anyone could actually work in a FLW building!

midewin5A sleepy hamlet for its first 25 years, Dwight gained international fame when Leslie Keeley and John Oughton founded the Keeley Institute in 1879. Devoted to curing alcoholics, The Keeley Institute put Dwight on the map as thousands sought the cure. Pioneers in treating alcoholism as a disease (instead of bums lacking will power), Keeley and Oughton were way ahead of their time. Just west of the First National is the former Livingston Hotel (part of the Keeley Institute) which now serves as a State facility for the developmentally disabled. A large brick building with a classical facade, the Livingston isn’t overly noteworthy architecturally, but it harbors five stunning stained glass windows depicting the senses by an Ecole des Beaux Arts artist, Louis J. Millet (d. 1923). A short walk south of Cobb’s station four additional structures should be seen. Commonly described as Victorian, the rambling John Oughton House (now the Country Mansion Restaurant) doesn’t typify Victorian in so far as there are no turrets or other Charles Adams nuances. With more classical elements than gables and mysterious windows, this house was designed by G. Julianmidewin6 Barnes, a Joliet architect best known for his work in limestone. Behind the Oughton House is an unusually large and complex, Batavia, Illinois windmill (see Foxey New York, March 2009). On the National Register of Historic Places, the windmill is one of Dwight’s taller structures. Formerly a very large carriage house and constructed of brink is the Prairie Creek Public Library next door to the Oughton House. It’s an attractive and interesting example of adaptive re-use. Lastly across the street is the Keeley Building. With no discernible provenance, this vaguely modernist structure looks like something snatched from the World’s Fair of 1939 after it closed.

Slightly northeast of the First National Bank of Dwight is the Pioneer Gothic Church, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built as a Presbyterian church in 1857, this large, Gothic Revival, all wood structure has been restored and is quite impressive. In 1860 the future King of England (Edward VII) supposedly attended services here. As a born Presbyterian, Alan thought it unusual that a future head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith would attend services in a Presbyterian church. Just outside of downtown Dwight and on Historic 66 is Ambler’s Texaco Gas Station, another Dwight structure on the National Register. Built in 1933 and in continuous operation until 1999, it is now a Route 66 Visitor’s Center.

Midewin-Wilmington-Dwight is a day trip well worth making and a good opportunity for biking, nature watching and photography. Food is iffy, but edible and affordable. From Midewin’s 24,000 acres a portion has been carved out to create the Abraham midewin7Lincoln National Cemetery (a plus) and a recently built industrial park with ghastly warehouses (a big minus). In a deal with the devil and local politicians in need of jobs for constituents, the Federal Government allocated a portion for development. Meanwhile the ultimate fate of Midewin’s crumbling buildings on the Tallgrass Prairie site remains in play. Situated on acknowledged brown fields and clearly hazardous to explore, these silent testimonials to a conflict well won will probably be torn down. Hopefully not in their entirety. May 2009

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