GALESBURG, Ill. — Inside the Dove Tail Arts gallery, owner Bernie Hamilton uses a step stool to get to an upper shelf and take down one of her prized possessions. It's a particularly heavy piece cast of red clay and definitely not for sale.
At first glance, it's simply a brick, prompting a visitor to ask, "What's so special about that?" Given an opening, Hamilton launches into a tale linking the brick — a Purington Paver — with the renaissance of her city's downtown.
Across its face, the name "Galesburg" is spelled out in raised letters. For workers at the Purington Brick Co., whose paving stones once lined the streets of cities from Chicago to Paris to Bombay, this particular product was a point of pride; they were made right here.
The first bricks were produced in 1849 in the village of East Galesburg on land that had been owned by Knox College. As payment for the land, the trustees accepted a supply of bricks sufficient to erect two buildings.
Both the school and the city, which is named for the college's founder, George Washington Gale, are celebrating their 175th anniversaries this year. It's an ideal time to visit this western Illinois community of 32,000 and witness its unique fusion of past and present.
Students still attend classes in Old Main, a building revered as the place where, in 1858,
It was here, as the two men campaigned for the U.S. Senate, that Lincoln eloquently spoke in support of abolition.
"I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil," he said.
A bell still rings each morning to signal the start of the school day. It's perched in a tower atop Old Main, outside of which signs share the story of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is made of that old bartered brick.
Just a few blocks away, recycled Purington Pavers line the street in the attractive Seminary Street Historic District, where once-derelict buildings have been converted into a cheery collection of shops and restaurants.
"Most downtowns are struggling," said Judy Guenseth of the city's convention and visitors bureau. "But if you go to downtown Galesburg, you'll find that most of the shops are local," not chains.
One such place is Hamilton's art gallery.
"We have over 150 artists from all over the country, from one coast to the other," she said.
Among them are 12 local artists. When prodded, Hamilton modestly shares that they include daughter Abbie, a photographer; son Logan, a potter; and husband Clay, a woodworker. Not an artist herself, Hamilton sticks to running the place.
Just across Seminary Street, next to the large clock, visitors are delighted to discover another gem: the Landmark Cafe & Creperie.
There's truly a taste of France here, with regional favorites from Brittany on the menu. As a main course,
Seasonally, the street is closed off one evening a month for First Friday, a celebration of the arts, featuring live music and food vendors. (The last for the year is this Friday.)
"It's just a cool little community along these brick streets," Hamilton mused. "Even sweeping the sidewalk in the morning and seeing the other merchants out, it's just lovely."
Those famous bricks also line a pathway leading to what's probably Galesburg's most-famous site: the birthplace of writer Carl Sandburg.
It was in a whitewashed cottage at 331 E. Third St. that the two-time
As an adult, Sandburg spent many years in Chicago. He described the raw metropolis in one of his poems.
Hog Butcher for the World,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
Sandburg grew up in a 20-by-22-foot three-room home, which now looks much like it did during his boyhood. Behind the house is Quotation Walk, where some of the prairie poet's most famous lines are etched in stone. The walk leads to Remembrance Rock, a boulder beneath which are buried the ashes of Sandburg and his wife.
It's a tranquil setting where visitors are moved by Sandburg's words on the flagstones and the plaque placed beside the rock: "…for it could be a place to come and remember."