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Soldiers Monument by Lorado Taft

OREGON (Illinois)

getaway-chicago logo As the crow flies, Oregon, Illinois is about two hours west of Chicago (if you don't use highways). Perched on the Rock River, it is the Ogle County seat. Getting there is easy: Interstate 88 to U.S. 51 north and then Illinois 64 west or Illinois 64 west from St. Charles where the road is excellent and more scenic.

oregon2Settled by John Phelps in 1838 and incorporated in 1873, Oregon’s name comes from its early native-Americans and means “River of the West.” Never populous, Oregon once had a furniture factory, a chair factory, a flour mill and a foundry, none of which exist today. Not unlike many aspiring Illinois communities, in the 21st century Oregon isn’t what its founders probably hoped for. It is somewhat sleepy and architecturally lacking, but it has an attractive Carnegie library (below) with a surprising collection of art, a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps State Park (White Pines) oregon3with a lodge and cabins in an excellently preserved, and a monumental sculpture by Laredo Taft in Lowden State Park. South of town on Route 2 is Castle Rock State Park with stunning views and numerous hiking trails.

Between 1898 and 1936 the American sculptor, Larado Taft (1860-1936) established and inspired the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony adjacent oregon4to Lowden State Park. The colony disbanded six years after Taft’s death and was acquired by Northern Illinois University in 1951 as a summer campus dedicated to the cultural enrichment of high school students. While a summer retreat for Chicago artists and/or the faculty of the Art Institute and the University oregon5of Chicago (plus Taft students), Eagle's Nest painters and sculptors produced a first rate body of work, examples of which can be viewed in the Oregon Public Library. Designed by the Chicago architects, Allen and Irving Pond, in 1908 with a proviso that space be dedicated to a permanent gallery exhibiting Eagle’s Nest artists, the Oregon Public Library was built in 1909 with funds provided by the Carnegie Corporation. The exhibition space opened in 1918.

Libraries vintage 1909 don’t cut it in the information age however, and so the Oregon Public Library is in need of either a new or expanded facility. Regrettably, prospects for either are on indefinite hold due to financing and an erroneous belief that the Internet can fill the information age gap.

oregon6In the meantime, its unique art gallery remains intact and an absolute must see. In addition to works by Lorado Taft, visitors can view works by Charles Francis Browne (1859-1920), Frank Virgil Dudley (1868-1957), John Thomas Nolf (1872-1955), Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944) and Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955). Also, there are two sculptures by prominent French sculptors, Auguste Moreau (1834-1917) and Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875). Did Moreau spend a summer at the Eagle’s Nest? Barye didn’t. Whatever the circumstances, both works are unique in Oregon, Illinois.

oregon7About ten miles from Oregon is White Pines State Park, an enchanting Civilian Conservation Corps park, complete with lodge, cabins, and pavilions. oregon8One of seven Illinois State Parks containing CCC structures built by young men during the Great Depression, its setting and history are standouts and an Oregon visit should include this park. The cost of an overnight stay in an authentic CCC log cabin is remarkably modest.

Across the Rock River, back in Lowden State Park is Lorado Taft’s monumental sculpture of Black Hawk, a Sauk leader who “terrorized” northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin during the Blackhawk War in 1832.oregon9 Initially dedicated to regional native-Americans, it became associated with Black Hawk himself. Made of reinforced concrete, it is a collaborative student-teacher (Taft) endeavor completed about 1911. Close up or from the Rock River’s west bank, it’s a grabber. Adjacent is the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony with its original buildings of native stone and lumber once occupied by resident members (not open to the public due to safety concerns for its young attendees). This is unfortunate, because there is a terrific sculpture by Taft students woregon10orth seeing.

At the Ogle County Courthouse there is another Taft sculpture. The Soldier’s Monument (1916) in bronze and marble is remarkable in its composition, execution and just for being in Oregon, Illinois. If art isn’t your thing, but toy trains are, at Conovor Square (antiques, etc.) there is an atomic, working train layout worth a looksee on weekends. May 2011

About Lorado Taft (1860-1936):

With the name Lorado, was Taft born in Spain? Taft was born in innocuous Elmwood, Illinois in 1860 and earned a bachelor’s and master’s (1879-1880) in English Literature from the University of Illinois. Upon graduating, he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris until returning to Chicago in mid 1880's. According to the University of Illinois Library, he taught at the Art Institute from 1886 to 1907, at the University of Chicago from 1893 to 1900 (and 1909), explaining in part his ability to recruit students for his large projects. In addition to teaching sculpture, Taft was also an art historian, publishing a number of important works about sculpture.

About Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919):

Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland and came to the United States when 10 (1845). A cotton factory bobbin boy earning 20 cents a day, Carnegie’s math and penmanship skills and his mastery of telegraphy got him out of the thread business, and by 18 he was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s general superintendent’s secretary (1853). By 1860 Carnegie ran the Pittsburgh Division of the PRR and by 26 (1861) he was in charge of all eastern railroad and telegraph lines during the Civil War. His steel connection began with an investment in the iron bridges in 1862 and culminated with an empire rivaling Krupp of Germany. In 1901 Carnegie sold his interests to J.P. Morgan for a cool $500 million who merged Carnegie Steel with competitors to form the U.S. Steel Corporation. Before his death in 1919, Carnegie gave much of his fortune to the building of libraries in the United States. Of the 106 Carnegie libraries in Illinois a number have been demolished and others have been altered. The Oregon Public Library remains intact.



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