To reach Nauvoo, escape Chicago on Route 80 heading west to Princeton. The 300-odd-mile drive should take no more than five hours, but add a few during the summer festival of road construction. All routes south and west from Princeton are equally indirect, so take your pick. If your appetite for Icarian history has been stimulated, you might want to stop at the library of Western Illinois University, at Macomb (follow Route 41 south from Galesburg), home of the largest collection of Icariana in the country. Hours for the collection are Monday through Friday 8 to 4:30 (Marla Vizdal, librarian; 309-298-2717). Lodging is cheap and basic at the university’s Olson Conference Center (rooms start at $24; 309-298-3500).
If you choose the more northerly route, stop at Monmouth, birthplace of Wyatt Earp and home for a year to that other famous lawman, Ronald Reagan. You can attend an OK Corral reenactment and tour Reagan’s boyhood home. Stop for lunch at the Filling Station III (420 N. Main; 309-734-7001); it offers friendly service and appealing photographs of old Monmouth. The burgers and salads are good, as is the one-pound fried catfish. They also offer a dish called Scored Carp, which is deep-fried, well, carp. After you.
Rule number one for visitors to western Illinois: eat before you go. Like the episode with the ersatz muffins, many of our encounters with solid food over several days oscillated between the comic and the bewildering. Don’t order anything with a French name or cheese sauce. The “catfish fingers” we ate at one place looked a lot like fingers but didn’t taste very much like catfish. A simple request for a hot dog “with everything” at Porter’s, 1450 Mulholland in Nauvoo (217-453-2315), sent the counterman into extreme anxiety. He retreated into the back to seek advice. Reappearing a minute later, he asked, “Now, what exactly do you mean by “everything’?” We settled on ketchup, mustard, and, after he had rooted around for several frantic moments in the refrigerator, some sliced onion. Porter’s also sells Moroni Mixers; if you’ve ever tasted a Dairy Queen Blizzard, you’ve already had one. Porter’s has several displays on the life of Mormon folk hero Orrin Porter Rockwell, the “Avenging Angel of Mormonism” and bodyguard to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, who seems to have committed quite a bit of mayhem in his day.
We did find the kind of solid, rib-sticking stuff we’d hoped for at Sloan’s Home Cooking on Mulholland (217-453-2432) on the road to the cemetery. Also known as “Elsie’s,” after the longtime proprietor, this diner was once a drive-in restaurant. There were four or five menu choices the evening we ate there, each accompanied by an array of side dishes. The pies really were homemade and there were plenty of ’em: blueberry, cherry, peach. A dozen or so scrubbed and ready coffeepots rested behind the counter, testifying to a robust breakfast trade.
Also in Nauvoo, try the fresh-baked items from the Nauvoo Mill and Bakery (1530 Mulholland; 217-453-6734), which mills its own wheat. It also sells a locally produced blue cheese, jars of pickles, jams, and relishes, and snacks of the gingersnap and apple-cider variety.
There are plenty of places to stay in Nauvoo, but the standout is Mississippi Memories, a bed and breakfast about a five-minute drive south of town on Route 96, along the river (rooms range from $45 to $65; 217-453-2771). If it’s available, book the ground-floor room with a terrace overlooking the Mississippi. All the rooms are spacious and comfortably furnished, and breakfast was ample and delicious. The proprietor, Marge Starr, has extensive knowledge of other lodging in the area. Smoking and alcoholic beverages are not allowed, but in this place abstemiousness pays off.
Campers can continue south on 96 to the Breezewood Campground. Open from May 15 to September 15, it features a swimming pool, hot showers, electric and water hookups, a lending library, a restaurant and store, and a notary public (sites start at $11; 217-453-6420). Less luxurious camping for tents, trailers, and motor homes is available at Nauvoo State Park, on 96 just south of town (sites are $7 and $10; 217-453-2512). In town on Mulholland both the Motel Nauvoo and the Hotel Nauvoo–under the same management–offer reasonably priced accommodations; the base rate is $38.15 for a double at the motel, $49.05 at the hotel (217-453-2219 and 217-453-2211, respectively). The motel is at 1610 Mulholland; the hotel is at the corner of Page and Mulholland, opposite the tourist office–which has a huge array of information on local attractions–and kitty-corner from the town’s best bar, Dottie’s Red Front (217-453-2284). Dottie’s also serves meals in a largely gingham-free environment.
In case you were wondering, there is local opposition to the strong Mormon presence. It’s embodied in Colleen Ralson, director of the Christian Visitors’ Center (1340 Mulholland; 217-453-2372). Ralson’s mission is to debunk most of the central tenets of Mormonism, including the claim that Mormons can also be Christians. Jesus or Joseph: you must choose. Tracts on this theme are stacked throughout the center’s sizable storefront. A hot topic these days is the similarity between Joseph Smith and David Koresh.
Lillian Snyder’s ancestor Emile Baxter founded Baxter Vineyards in 1857; it’s reputed to be the oldest in Illinois. Descendants still operate the winery (2010 E. Parley; 217-453-2528), down the road from the Icarian Living History Museum (2205 E. Parley; 217-453-2437 or 217-453-6730). This is the inaugural year for the Maid of Iowa, a riverboat offering sightseeing, brunch, dinner, and dance cruises (no gambling) on the Mississippi between Nauvoo and Fort Madison, Iowa (tickets are $5 to $15; 800-457-4386 or 319-372-9953). Severe high water delayed the maiden voyage, scheduled for April, but regular service should be under way by early or mid-June. Visitors later in the summer might want to catch City of Joseph: The Outdoor Musical of Historic Nauvoo, running for a week starting July 30. Admission is free. Call the Latter-Day Saints Visitors’ Center for details (217-453-2237). The annual Grape Festival happens the Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday before Labor Day. Activities include a marriage ceremony between an actual bottle of wine and an actual piece of cheese. It’s adapted from an ancient ceremony of Roquefort, France. Call the Civic Center at 217-453-2587 if you don’t believe me.
The Mormon pilgrimage continues at Carthage: the pious or simply curious won’t want to pass up a visit to the jail where Hyrum and Joseph met their maker. Carthage is about an hour southeast of Nauvoo if you hurry, which would be missing the point. The drive south along the Mississippi to Hamilton is beautiful, with plenty of scenic turnoffs from which to observe river traffic. If you pass through Hamilton on a weekday between 7 AM and 4 PM stop at Dadant and Sons (51 S. Second; 217-847-3324). Descendants of an Icarian family, the Dadants sell beekeeping supplies, beeswax candles, T-shirts, and other apiary paraphernalia. Beekeeping was very big among the Icarians. Dadant’s is just west of 96 on Route 136, the road to Keokuk. From Dadant’s, head back east to the Old Carthage Jail Museum (217-357-2989), easy to find if you follow the signs on Route 136. Now owned by the Mormons, the jail offers a brief hagiographic video on the life of the prophet and a surprisingly appealing tour of the jail itself. The Mormon craving for bronze statuary is in strong evidence there. Lunch in Carthage should include a tasty pork tenderloin sandwich at the Towne House Restaurant (65 S. Adams, opposite the courthouse; 217-357-3373).
We made our return trip north along the lush, rolling landscape of the Illinois River, stopping for the night at McNutt Guest House in Havana on the river’s eastern bank (409 W. Main; 309-543-2255). Book one of the upstairs rooms with a private bath and sitting room. No smoking (except in the kitchen). This stretch of the Illinois River is somewhat industrialized, but the town is a good jumping-off point for the numerous natural areas that follow the river to the north and south. Ten miles north, the 4,500-acre Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge (309-535-2290) is a major flyway stop for Canada, blue, and snow geese and several kinds of ducks. Bald eagles begin arriving at the refuge in late fall, remaining until the spring thaw. Bird-watchers and hikers might also want to check out the Rice Lake Conservation Area, about 20 miles north of Havana on the western bank (309-647-9184). Fishing opportunities abound throughout surrounding Mason County; call 309-543-3316 or 217-632-3841 for information.
In Havana Boggs Family Dining, at 240 E. Dearborn (the street coming off the bridge), has an outstanding breakfast of fresh eggs, spicy pork sausage, and baking-powder biscuits served with pepper gravy (309-543-3754). The most interesting bar in Havana during my stay was Poor Richard’s, with a very good jukebox and a padded oval reminiscent of the bar in the late Croydon Hotel. The place recently changed hands–it’s now called the R and K Dining Company–but the new owners say they haven’t changed the decor in the bar, and the attached restaurant still serves up a respectable fried catfish (116 W. Market, 309-543-6294). Alas, there’s no carp on the menu.