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Illinois’ Mississippi River Valley: Galena, Illinois

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine


Powered by lead mines, Galena, Ill., was once a boomtown, the busiest Mississippi River port between St. Louis, Mo., and St. Paul, Minn. By the late 1850s, the northwestern Illinois town boasted a population of 14,000. In 1860, Ulysses S. Grant made Galena his home, moving there to work in the leather goods store owned by his father. But then severe erosion and siltation closed the Galena River to shipping, the Civil War broke out and Galena began its reluctant decline.

Galena never regained its industrial impact, but has since found salvation in a Main Street lined with boutique shops, art galleries and gourmet food stores. These treasures are housed in the restored pre-Civil War buildings the town was once too poor to tear down. Tourism is now Galena’s chief commodity, one aided by a burgeoning wine industry and the recent resurrection of the town’s beer brewing roots.

Galena’s Main Street

Housed in historic pre-Civil War buildings, Galena’s Main Street boasts dozens of boutiques and restaurants.

It was the many opportunities to swirl, smell, sip and savor that first drew us to Galena, but upon arrival it was impossible to ignore the wealth of history and architectural treasures contained in this small riverside town.

The hard-surfacing of U.S. Highway 20 (originally named U.S. Grant Highway) in the mid 1920s made Galena accessible to visitors, and it’s still a main road for more than 1 million tourists who travel to Galena each year. We made our temporary home at Palace Campgrounds, a 50-acre wooded campground set back off Highway 20, just two miles northwest of downtown. Founded in 1848, Palace is the oldest campground in Illinois but it’s been continually updated to offer plenty of modern comforts. Reservations are recommended to snag one of 74 RV sites – 22 with full hookups – and Palace can accommodate big rigs up to 45 feet in length. A heated swimming pool, 18-hole mini-golf course and playground with basketball court add to the fun. Palace also offers a dump station and coin laundry facilities, and is a stone’s throw from Walmart.

Latin for lead sulfide, Galena was once part of a region producing more than 80 percent of the nation’s lead. The early 1800s brought another type of production to the town, this one in liquid form. With nine breweries, Galena quickly became a prominent brewing town until Prohibition did its work and left just one brewery in its wake. Galena Brewing Company closed its doors in 1938 but its spirit – and name – lives on.

Galena Cellars

Galena Cellars offers tours of its wine-making facilities.

When Warren and Kathy Bell decided to open their own downtown brewery on Main Street they chose to pay homage by giving it the same name as the last brewery in Galena. The reincarnated Galena Brewing Company celebrated its second anniversary earlier this summer, and its beers are already winning World Beer Cup awards.

Warren spoke of Miner’s Treasure (an amber ale) and Uly’s Dark (an oatmeal stout) with affection as he gave a tour of the brewery, which boasts six flagship beers and an additional seasonal offering (an Oktoberfest brew is coming). Grain, hops, water and yeast are the only ingredients, and the brewery doesn’t pasteurize or filter its beers, a move that helps give these small batches their big flavor. Tours are offered every day for $5, a cost that includes your choice of a 16-ounce beer; the Uptown Brown and Fever River ales get two thumbs up. Don’t forget to try something off this brew pub’s full menu. We loved the goat cheese puffs and delectable stuffed mushrooms.

The next two days brought the tasting of more than 30 locally produced wines as we wound our way through the rolling hills of the Mississippi River valley, uncovering an unexpectedly scenic landscape along the way.

Nestled among the river bluffs are acre after acre of twisting grape vines, providing fruit for the labor of Massbach Ridge, Rocky Waters, Galena Cellars, Stone Cliff and Park Farm wineries. The oldest of these, Galena Cellars, was founded in 1985 by the Lawlor family and today produces 40 wine varieties from 22 different specialty grapes. Following an informative tour ($5) of the wine cellar, barrel room and bottling room, during which we learned that the area’s rocky, not-too-fertile soil is ideal for growing grapes, we hit the tasting room.

Rocky Waters’ vineyard

A view of Rocky Waters’ vineyard from the winery’s second story wraparound porch shows rows of grape vines nestled among the trees.

After tickling our palates with six wine samples for $3, we called it a tie between the luscious Muscat Canelli white and semi-dry Illinois Traminette, then took a seat on the wraparound porch and relaxed with an expansive view of the lush, 25-acre country vineyard.

While Galena Cellars is located just seven miles north of downtown, visits to Massbach Ridge and Rocky Waters require about 30 minutes of drive time, something we didn’t mind as we enjoyed the incredible scenery. We recommend visiting Massbach Ridge first, then hitting Rocky Waters, as both are located southeast of Galena. Gravel back roads are part of the journey, and while smaller motorhomes should be able to navigate the twists, turns and occasional hills, we recommend taking your dinghy vehicle. Galena Cellars and Massbach Ridge each have a convenient Main Street tasting room if you prefer to do your sampling downtown, but all the wineries have ample parking space for those who decide to pilot their RV.

It was at Massbach Ridge that we discovered Daffodil White, a smooth and sweet wine with a light peach finish. One sip was all it took to discover why the Daffodil is Massbach’s most popular wine. Seven grape varieties are grown on Peggy Harmston’s 18 acres, and after tasting five wines for $3 I left with a bottle of Daffodil White ($17) and Massbach Stomp ($10), a semi-sweet Concord wine. Massbach will host its own grape stomping event Saturday, Sept. 29.

Massbach, like each winery we visited, invites you to bring your own food and enjoy a meal on its outdoor patio. We did exactly that, lingering over our lunch as we gazed across the succession of sun-soaked vine rows that seemed to converge in the distance.

Rocky Waters Tasting Room

The home of Rocky Waters owners Jared and Phyllis Spahn also houses the winery’s tasting room.

The views of Illinois wine country reached their peak at Rocky Waters, where an impressive log cabin-style home with attached tasting room rests high above Jared and Phyllis Spahn’s sweeping 25-acre vineyard. A wraparound porch overlooks miles of undulating farmland and row after row of grape vines, which Phyllis said provide all the fruit for Rocky Waters’ 14 wines. You’ll find that vineyard owners often run their tasting rooms, and Phyllis insisted we try all 14 varieties.

The Highland Blush with its soft finish and hint of pear earned a 10 from me, and as we sipped Phyllis regaled us with stories, like how cows trampled more than 3,000 new vines one year while a fence was down. Vineyard owners are talkative – and supremely knowledgeable – and happy to share their expertise with visitors.

To get the most out of your Galena area visit, a trip across the Mississippi River to Dubuque, Iowa, is well worth it. There you’ll find Park Farm and Stone Cliff wineries, along with stunning views courtesy of Eagle Point State Park. The park’s 164 acres overlook the mighty Mississippi, and it lived up to its name during our visit as several eagles circled overhead, hanging in the sky like winged kites.

But before you cross the river, make time for a walk through Gramercy Park in East Dubuque, where you’ll encounter the Dunleith Mounds built by Hopewell Native Americans around A.D. 350 and discovered in 1857. One of the mounds, excavated in 1885, contained 11 human skeletons, while others held pipes, pots, tools and weapons. A wooded trail winds through the park, affording views of the mounds and the Mississippi with the Dubuque skyline on the other side.

Upon arrival at Park Farm Winery, located 15 miles west of Dubuque, we were transported to Italy courtesy of owners Dave and Elizabeth Cushman’s hilltop chateau and tasting room. The winery opened in 2001 and has since become known for Picket Fence, its Vidal Blanc white wine, a Mid-American Wine Competition gold medal winner. After our tasting ($3 for five wines), we took advantage of Park Farm’s wood-fired pizza oven and savored tasty slices while sitting outside on the raised deck, a picturesque countryside view in front of us.

Our wine trail ended at Stone Cliff Winery, housed within the Dubuque Star Brewery building, whose history dates back to 1898. Situated along the Mississippi Riverwalk, Stone Cliff boasts 11 wines, our favorite being Red Fox, a semi-sweet offering perfectly smooth for the sipping. All the wineries we visited are open year-round; check their websites for fall and winter hours.

Ulysses S. Grant Home

This Italianate-style brick house was given to Ulysses S. Grant upon his return to Galena as a Civil War hero in 1865.

Long before the emergence of its vineyards, Galena’s identity hinged on one man: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Just one year after settling in Galena with his wife, Julia, and four children, the Civil War broke out and Grant left to join the Army. Four years later, after engineering the Union victory at Vicksburg and after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant’s troops at Appomattox, he came home a war hero.

The Grant home, an Italianate-style brick house resting atop the Bouthillier Street summit, was purchased by 13 local Republicans and presented to the general upon his triumphant return in August 1865. Following his 1868 election as the 18th U.S. president, Grant visited his Galena home occasionally, and in 1904 his children gave the house to the City of Galena; it was deeded to the State of Illinois in 1931.

Open for public tours since 1905, the Grant home underwent a thorough restoration in 1955. Ninety percent of its furnishings are original. Guided tours, available Wednesday through Sunday, take guests through the parlor (notice Julia’s sizeable Bible), formal living room with gifts from Grant’s 1877 world tour, dining room, kitchen and upstairs through the five bedrooms. See treasured family portraits, the 1868 Chickering piano and handcrafted toys belonging to Jesse, Frederick, Ellen and Ulysses Jr.

After touring the grounds, head downhill to the Old Train Depot (also home to the visitor center), which offers all-day RV parking. Then stroll through Grant Park before trekking across the pedestrian bridge and back in time to downtown Galena. Main Street weaves a web of history intertwined with tourist favorites like Galena River Wine and Cheese (stop in for a taste of the aged balsamic vinegars), Galena’s Kandy Kitchen, Poopsie’s boutique and Red’s Antiques.

Once you’ve sampled the dozens of sauces, dips, spreads, jellies and jams at Galena Canning Company, climb the 251 steps leading to Bench Street and the old Galena high school for a top-notch, tree-fringed view of the town. Historic and architecturally alluring buildings, including the 1843 Jo Daviess County Courthouse, 1855 William Ryan House and 1894 Galena Public Library, dominate Bench Street and are worth the climb.

Galena Map

Galena Wine Tour Map

Galena is a Mississippi River valley gem, one that will envelop you in the swells of its landscape and surprise your senses with myriad delights. Whether you come for the wine, the shopping, the history or all three, this Midwest riverside town is here to satisfy.

For More Information

Galena Brewing Company

Galena Cellars Vineyard

Massbach Ridge Winery

Palace Campgrounds

Park Farm Winery

Rocky Waters Vineyard

Stone Cliff Winery

Ulysses S. Grant Home

IllinoisRV Travel Destinations

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