This blog may be called The Southerly, but from the moment we started it I knew we’d be posting about a few of the places we travel to outside the South. And from the start I knew I had to post about Galena, the tiny town in Illinois where my family comes from and where I first began to love history.
Today, Galena is a tourist town. A lovingly preserved (85% of the city is located within the regulated historic district), postcard-perfect town, with a bustling red brick main street, a winding river, and Italianate mansions and church steeples terraced up into the hills above. Most people go to Galena to escape from the city or to immerse themselves in 19th century history, but my family always went to visit my grandparents, who still live in the same house they’ve lived in since my mom was young.
Galena was–and is–a small town, and my sisters and I were always free to explore on our own. We’d walk down Franklin Street, turning up the alley by the Catholic church and peering into the windows of the abandoned brick building behind it. It was hard to believe that our mom had once gone to school there. It looked ancient and gothic, like something out of a Dickens novel.
From there, we’d continue up the steep hill, walking along streets that curved around ridges, with brick Victorian houses to our right and abrupt drop-offs and crumbling staircases to our left. We’d go to the school at the top of the hill where our grandpa had gone to kindergarten in the ’30s We’d walk down the Green Street stairs to Main Street—mainly to hit Kandy Kitchen, of course, but also to window shop. Sometimes we’d sneak into the Desoto House to see if it looked at all like it did when Lincoln gave a speech there. It didn’t, but I still liked it. In those days I thought that history was just a dry, stuffy course we had to take in school, but it was impossible not to be fascinated by the past while wandering around Galena. I learned to love history without even realizing it. I loved Galena’s history museum, with its stories of the town’s Civil War connections. It seemed like just about every other one of those brick houses up in the hills had been lived in by a Union General at some point. The museum celebrated them all, but only its most famous citizen, Ulysses S. Grant, got his own display.
I can’t remember if I ever visited the U.S. Grant Home as a kid. My mom said that I did, but I could never recall what it looked like inside, and when I finally did get the chance to visit recently nothing really seemed all that familiar to me. Which might be for the best. Even though when I was young I had a vague interest in the Civil War (thanks mainly to my parents for taking us on a family vacation to Gettysburg and for watching the Ken Burns series when it first aired on PBS), I wouldn’t have been nearly as interested in Grant’s home as I was when I went a few weeks ago. Standing in the same room where Grant once stood, complete with the family’s original furniture, wouldn’t have meant as much to me when I was a kid. This time, it was one of the highlights of my trip back home to the Midwest.