When the calendar flips to October in western Illinois, Pike County turns over a new leaf for a constantly changing kaleidoscope of autumn colors
Pike County, Illinois, shaped roughly like a triangle by two of the Land of Lincoln’s biggest rivers, the Illinois and the Mississippi, is among the state’s loveliest and largest counties. It stretches across a rural landscape of rolling hills and sculpted knobs, wide fields of neatly furrowed corn and occasional small clusters of farm buildings. White-clapboard houses and red barns, many of which are emblazoned high up on one broad side with a bright quilt-square pattern, each one different, dot the scenery.
Fall transforms the landscape, richly green in spring and summer, into a tapestry of glowing color. Black walnut trees light the countryside briefly come autumn, but the leaves have barely turned yellow before they drop. However, the fat lime-green walnuts hang on awhile — these have a stronger flavor than the English variety but are worth collecting for cookies and cakes, if you have a way to shell them and don’t mind the messy black stains they leave on your hands.
Other trees put on more of a show, among them fiery red sumac and dogwood, maples and hickories that turn to dazzling yellow, sweet gums and Bradford pears that display every color of the rainbow except blue, and oaks of a dozen species change to as many shades of orange, bronze, rusted iron and burgundy. Like their Eastern cousins, Midwestern trees put on an annual display that rarely fails to dazzle.
Many locals believe autumn is a production too spectacular not to be shared, and from this has come the Pike County Fall Color Drive, an annual event since 1988, according to Kaye Iftner, director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. She explained that Gordon and Kay Samson of Pleasant Hill, one of the nearly two dozen small towns that dot the county, originated the idea as a good way to promote history, crafts and other wares during the peak fall foliage. Soon, nearly all of the county’s communities were on board.
The drive, which attracts upward of 30,000 visitors to Pike County, takes place October 18 and 19 this year. Twenty of the towns include welcome stations, where maps and information are available. A drawing was a new addition in 2011: Visitors who pick up an entry form and have it stamped at seven of the welcome stations can turn it in to take part in drawings for gift certificates from local merchants.
My husband, Guy, and I have taken the drive and feel that two days are not enough to see everything the 849-square-mile county has to offer. There is no designated route, so visitors map their own itineraries.
This time Guy and I cheated a little — we arrived a day early, as fall color required no setup, and some of the attractions, such as Ed Nolan’s Exotic Petting Zoo in quaint Nebo, already were. The area offers several campgrounds (see “Pike County Camping” on page 34), and we highly recommend parking the RV and driving your tow vehicle for the duration. The main roads, mostly two-lane, are all easily negotiable, but parking can be a problem.
Nolan, of nearby Carrollton, has brought his extensive petting zoo to town every year since the Fall Color Drive began, he told us, and on this occasion had 50 pygmy goats, a pair of camels, two bison heifers, a petite wallaby and several miniature Sicilian donkeys with perfect crosses on their backs, among other animals in a large enclosure. The following day, when we came for a second visit, Nolan had prepared dozens of small paper bags filled with carrot sticks and other treats for sale to feed the animals.
Tiny Nebo has another claim to fame: it was among the 75 stops (including 16 crash landings) made by the Vin Fiz Flyer, a Wright Brothers-designed biplane, on the first transcontinental flight across the United States.
In 1911 publisher William Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first aviator to make the coast-to-coast trip in either direction in less than 30 days. Calbraith Perry Rodgers, grandnephew of naval hero Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, took up the challenge and persuaded meat-packer J. Ogden Armour to sponsor the flight, naming the plane after Armour’s new grape soda, Vin Fiz.
With just 90 minutes of instruction from Orville Wright under his belt, Rodgers left New York on September 17, 1911, and on the 14th leg of the trip flew from Springfield, Illinois, to Nebo, an event the town celebrates with colorful billboards and an annual August festival.
Rodgers reached California via a circuitous route, averaging 52 mph, in November (delayed by repair stops and hospital stays), too late to claim the prize but on time to claim a place in the history books. He was killed just days later when his plane hit a flock of seagulls. Today the Vin Fiz is on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Our second day in Pike County began at Pleasant Hill, population 960, which includes a small campground where vendors set up during the Fall Color Drive. A yard sale was under way at nearly every house in town, with long tables piled high with flea-market items and antiques, and customers flocking to examine the wares. Then it was on through tiny Martinsburg, established in 1836, toward county-seat Pittsfield.
South of town we stopped to admire a bright display of quilt patterns painted on large squares of plywood like those you see decorating barn walls. Artist Lauren Perez explained that the hexes she paints (“they bring good luck”) and her John Deere tractor designs are especially popular.
Just north of the Perez farm, we passed a yard filled with the most extensive and unusual array of decor we’d ever seen. Farm-owners George and Elizabeth Adrain welcome visitors to their over-the-top display and provide parking space, though they ask that no one stop if they’re away. Gardens bursting with fall-hued mums and marigolds are set with gazing balls, statues of animals, gnomes,
life-size concrete children, more than a dozen antique gas pumps and much more.
We then drove to Griggsville, founded nearly 180 years ago and known today as the Purple Martin Capital of the Nation. Road signs here are purple, and birdhouses — including dozens of avian “apartments” — dot the town of 1,300 to accommodate the bluish-black bird, North America’s largest swallow.
Since 2008, vendors have set up booths at Griggsville Fairgrounds during the drive, according to Sheila Slight, chairwoman of the local event. Across the road is an empty sprawling building that until 2007 was home to Nature House. Originally, TV antennas were made there, but from 1965 until the company was sold and moved to Chicago, it made birdhouses.
In 2009 Slight and others formed Citizen Assistance for Purple Martins to raise money for maintaining the town’s many birdhouses. The group also has begun holding a Purple Martin Festival in June, which takes place in the former Nature House.
We continued north to Perry, where nine farmers from Illinois, Missouri and elsewhere were demonstrating 1920s-era plowing using teams of horses or mules. We watched Jack Phillips of Perry, who heads the event, bump across the 3-acre cornfield on an antique sulky plow drawn by his two-mule team, cutting a reasonably straight furrow, a difficult task as stumps of harvested cornstalks had been left standing. He explained that “farmers of an earlier day would have harrowed the stalks to the ground after a freeze, then raked them into windrows and burned them to make spring plowing easier.”
Some impressive draft animals were on hand for demos, and especially intriguing were six smallish horses their owner, Donald Guthrie of Pittsfield, jokingly called “Belgian wannabes.” The horses, just 55 inches tall at the withers, are Haflingers, a breed developed a century or so ago in Austria and northern Italy from Tyrolean ponies “infused with the blood of Arabians and various European species,” Guthrie explained. The handsome equines, named for the town of Hafling, first appeared in the United States in 1955.
Elsewhere in Perry, which was founded in 1831 and originally called Booneville, we encountered other bits of history: a charming gingerbreadlike house built in 1936 by storekeeper Harry Read and the 1878 Gothic Revival Church of Christ built by Read’s ancestor John Read. Historian Kris Camphouse of Perry told us that the church, which replaced an earlier structure, is unusual in that it’s wood instead of stone. The rare board-and-batten church has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006, he added.
On to New Salem, a rural commu- nity of just 150 residents, where Underground Railroad Antiques occupies a brick building that was once a feed mill and also a stop on the historic “railroad” that helped escaping slaves from neighboring Missouri, said current owner Brad Gleckler. Among the many other items on display here are an early 19th-century wicker “viewing casket” and an 1870s buckboard driven by actor Beau Bridges in the 1969 film “Gaily, Gaily.”
Our last day of the drive began at Pearl, once home to 750 residents, many of whom worked at a flourishing button factory. Buttons were made from shells from the nearby Illinois River, Pearl resident Jane Brangenberg told us. After the factory closed, the town dwindled to just 200 residents. Nonetheless, they host a large flea market with produce and concession stands during the Fall Color Drive each year.
Just west of town off the Vin Fiz Highway (go south on 467th Street) is an elaborate pair of dressed-stone culverts with an unusual history. The first was built a century or so ago for the railroad, said Brangenberg, but the grade was too steep for trains and never used. The second similar culvert was then built nearby. They’re worth a visit, but the road is narrow and rough, so we recommend not taking your RV.
We continued to Milton, population 300, where a flea market occupies the town square park, and across the road the Farm Implement Museum presents a jumble of antique tractors, plows, steam engines and every other old-time farming device you can think of.
Then it was on to Detroit, which resident Bryan McAllister said was a “thriving community with filling stations, fruit markets, a post office, a grade school, beauty shops and more until Interstate 72 came through to the north.” Now just 83 folks call Detroit home, but they nonetheless celebrate the drive in grand style with a large flea market, a doll display and a host of fair foods for sale.
Just north of town is Bethel Methodist Church, built in 1846 and in use until 1933, says Pike County Daughters of the American Revolution member Alice Cripes of Griggsville. During the drive, re-enactors from the War of 1812, the Winnebago and Black Hawk War, the Civil War and World War II are here in uniform, and the town displays artifacts from the various wars. Cripes leads small groups through the historic graveyard where stones mark the graves of several War of 1812 and Civil War veterans.
As in other years, we hopscotched around the county, visiting a history museum in Kinderhook, a farm market in New Hartford and an antique mall in Summer Hill, among others. To wrap up the drive, we returned to Pittsfield which, with 4,500 residents, is the largest town in the county.
For an hour or more, we roamed the courthouse grounds where dozens of vendors in stalls offered antiques, jewelry, food and a host of other items for sale. After picking up a brochure and map at the Pike County Visitor Center at 224 W. Washington Street, we took the 13-site Abe Lincoln Talking House Driving Tour.
Kudos to the Pike County folks who developed the tour, as it’s clever and well done. At each site — the Milton Hay House, Scanland House, Shastid House and others — you tune your radio to the FM station on the sign out front to hear the history of the home, the long-ago occupants and their connection to Lincoln, who had numerous friends in Pittsfield. Many of the stories are serious, involving Lincoln’s senatorial campaign and quest for the presidency, but others are amusing, depicting him as an inveterate raconteur.
Once, while Lincoln regaled Mayor Scanland and friends with stories at a local drugstore, Mrs. Scanland waited at home, seething, as her turkey dinner grew cold. Later, she chastised the future president, calling him “the laziest man there ever was, good for nothing but telling stories.”
On another occasion, dining at the Shastid home, Lincoln was so preoccupied with storytelling, he absentmindedly gobbled up all six pigeons Mrs. Shastid had prepared, prompting her son to cry out, “Mr. Lincoln, you’re nothing but an old hog!”
Such anecdotes may take Lincoln out of his usual context, but they also keep the tour light and entertaining. We found it the perfect way to end the weekend.
Pike County Camping
Three campgrounds accommodate RVers in Pike County, from a pair of municipal parks to one full-fledged resort. Reservations are recommended during the Pike County Fall Color Drive, the third weekend of October each year.
Pine Lakes Resort
Part of the Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park chain, Pine Lakes Resort (pictured above) welcomes RVers with 30- and 50-amp campsites starting at $37 per night. Guests can swim, fish and go boating on the 40-acre lake. A pool, snack bar and arcade make this a family-friendly destination, along with the well-stocked camp store, two bathhouses with coin-operated showers, free Wi-Fi hotspots and a jumping pillow.
877-808-7463 | www.pinelakesresort.com
Pittsfield City Lake Campground
Two miles east of town, Pittsfield’s 480-acre recreational park has hiking trails, picnic spots, playgrounds and ball courts, all nestled up to its namesake lake, a local boating and fishing haven. Campsites offering 20-, 30- and 50-amp hookups rent for $12 a night, and restrooms with showers are nearby.
217-285-4484 | www.pittsfieldil.org
Jerome Martin Campground
Owned and managed by the village of Pleasant Hill, Jerome C. Martin Sr. Memorial Campground has 30- and 50-amp RV sites with full hookups for $12 to $16 per night. There’s a restroom, dump station and one handicap-accessible campsite. Reservations aren’t required except during the Pike County Fall Color Drive.