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Renew Yourself: Visit the Heartland

11 September 2000

By Catherine Poe

It’s a day only Lady Luck could conjure. Azure skies, low humidity, balmy breezes. The day literally beckons you outside. Dad wants a round of golf. Mom is thinking about gardens. And the kids...they just want something fun to do. Surprisingly, such a place exists. Just 40 minutes outside of Chicago in the town of Wheaton sprawls Cantigny, the former estate of the late Colonel Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The Colonel named his estate after the town of Cantigny, France, which he and the men of the U.S. Army’s First Division liberated from the Germans in the First World War. Today the divergent realms of war’s hell and peacetime’s serenity share the same grounds, inviting us to explore another time.

For those of you who like to tee off almost as much as you enjoy the clack of dice, Cantigny touts its 27-hole layout, which offers both 18- and 9-hole courses, all in a country setting of towering old trees and quiet lakes and streams. Golf Digest rated it among the "Top 25 Public Courses" in America. There is also a practice facility, six composition clay tennis courts and a full-service clubhouse, answering almost every need of the weekend athlete.

THE FACE OF WAR

For me, the First Division Museum is the main attraction, as it may be for you and your kids. A new, interactive museum, it involves everyone with its recreations of bunker life in World War I to the mural depicting the quick retribution of American forces in the Gulf War. Using a self-guided tour map, I was immediately swept back into the history of the First World War as I wandered through a bombed-out French farmhouse and onto the streets of a recreated Cantigny, awash with the debris of war. As I descended into a trench outside of town and scurried under a French Schneider tank suspended precariously above me, the incessant booming of the cannons and white flashes of light against the night sky brought home the actuality of war.

For a brief moment, I could imagine what it must have been like for our great-grandfathers to have lived underground in these trenches, coping with the terrors of the Great War. The entire museum is set up to give us this type of unsentimental encounter so we can experience first hand the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, the poignant words of a war correspondent at the front, or a twisting jungle trail through Vietnam. While the museum celebrates the heroism of the men of the First Division, nicknamed the Big Red One, it never glorifies war. Like the movie Saving Private Ryan, the museum does not shy away from war’s gritty realities.

Outside the museum stands Tank Park with the actual tanks used in WWII, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Children are encouraged to scramble up and examine these behemoths, and more than one adult has been seen hoisting himself aboard, posing next to the gunner’s nest. I must admit I was sorely tempted myself. This is one museum that kids, no matter what their ages, don’t want to leave.

HOUSE AND GARDENS

For a striking contrast, cross the great grounds, through lush gardens and past the fountains, to the McCormick Mansion. Forty-five minute guided tours show off the Georgian-style house, a restored 1870s mansion, including secret panels in the parlor and one of the first ice cube making machines. A brief film at the beginning of the tour puts the Colonel’s life and times into perspective, as well as illuminating the role the Chicago Tribune played in the history of this country. What is most surprising is that for a home that housed a multimillionaire, it is relatively modest and would have probably been only a wing in George Vanderbilt’s house, the Biltmore. However, it is still worth a look since it gives an inside glimpse of life at the turn of this fast-vanishing century.

Cantigny’s ten acres of formal gardens invite a stroll through its rose beds while highlighting one of the largest annual displays in the Midwest. There is even an Idea Garden aimed at both adults and kids, demonstrating unique and creative gardening projects from grape arbors to a children’s vegetable patch. Like many people, I brought a picnic lunch and made Cantigny an all-day affair, especially since I was there on Sundays when free afternoon concerts are the main course. Others headed back to the Fareways Restaurant’s famous buffet brunch and then to an afternoon of golf.

Except for January, when Cantigny is closed, the great estate has something for everybody from Revolutionary War reenactments to orchid exhibitions to car shows, such as the one staged by the Jaguar Association. Yet Cantigny’s greatest draw is its natural beauty, whether you sit by a garden fountain or tee off. The stress just melts away, especially if you have had a hard day’s night at the Grand Victoria tables.

Cantigny, only an hour from Elgin and Grand Victoria, can be easily reached by taking I-88 (East-West Tollway) West out of Chicago to Route 53 south to Warrenville Road. Turn right and follow it for ten miles. Turn right onto Winfield Road and go four miles to the entrance of Cantigny. (For those playing golf, turn at the Cantigny Golf sign.) Admission to the grounds is free, but parking is $5 per car. The estate is open from February through December from 9 AM to sunset, but for exact dates and times visit Cantigny’s Web site at http://www.xnet.com/~cantigny/ or call (630) 668-5161. Cantigny Golf Course is open Tuesday through Sunday, but call (630)-668-8463 for reservations. The Fareways Restaurant also suggests reservations: (630)-260-8194.

FOLLOW THE FOX

If you want a quick excursion, say an afternoon and dinner out, I would suggest you follow the river, the Fox River. Since the Grand Victoria Casino is docked on the Fox in Elgin, it’s not hard to meander along Route 31 downstream to the quaint town of St. Charles. Unlike Elgin, which is still struggling with its renaissance, St. Charles has restored its Victorian residences and shops with such loving care that today it’s an antiques seeker’s Mecca. Whether it’s rare books or a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired chair, St. Charles is the place to start your search. While there are pricey, high-end items, the real delight is exploring the stores’ cellars and turning up a gem at true basement prices.

Maybe your find won’t get you on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, but with 100 dealers in town, St. Charles is a good place to celebrate your winning streak without going broke. Plus there is the nationally famous antique flea market on the first weekend of each month that attracts antique dealers on the scent of a bargain. If you’re there early, you can beat them to it. While good restaurants abound in St. Charles and other towns along the Fox River, including one that was once a church, my favorite place is outside of town, hidden down by the river, the Hideaway. This was once Al Capone’s place, a speakeasy with a brothel upstairs, card sharks downstairs, and a river landing out front so that bootleg booze could make its way up and down Illinois without hassles from G-men.

The Hideaway is tricky to get to, so it is best to call for directions (847-741-1244). After all, it’s not called Hideaway for nothing. Today it specializes in thick steaks and welcomes families. The upstairs has long been closed. But the imprint of the Twenties and rum runners still lingers, which is why folks from Chicago drive an hour and a half for a huge slab of sirloin at a great price. Sipping my coffee after dinner, I couldn’t help but wonder what Al Capone would have made of the Grand Victoria just upstream from his old haunts. The Fox River is as big a lure as it was in his day.

FLOATING CASINO

The casino, which is a 1,200-passenger replica of a paddle wheeler, cruises the Fox River at least eight times a day. Berthed in Elgin, once the home of America’s most famous wristwatch, the floating casino is only 40 miles northwest of Chicago, an easy drive just off I-90. The cruise is free, but you must reserve your spot with a credit card (708-888-1000). Its reasonably priced buffets at breakfast, lunch and dinner make it a major draw in the Midwest. Of course, video keno and poker, blackjack, craps, roulette, and Caribbean stud poker also make it a magnet. Or maybe it is that it is the Illinois Gaming Board found that the Grand Victoria’s returns on its slots were quite good, 94.3% (May 1995).

Naturally motels flourish around Elgin and the values are usually quite good, from Budgetel Inn (847-931-4800) at $69 for two to the Hampton Inn (847-931-4800) at $76. For the B&B aficionados, the Wheaton Inn (630-690-2600), not far from Cantigny, has fireplaces in some of its rooms and complimentary evening beverages to help unwind the day, with rates that start at $99 for two.

For those of you who have only visited Chicago or changed planes at O’Hare, you need to head just west of the city to the real Heartland, where the farms meet the malls, where golf courses encroach on vast estates, where Victoriana again blossoms, and where ghosts of gangsters must shake their heads at the change in landscape. For anyone wanting to understand the dynamics of America, this is the place to visit.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.