Dear County Agent Guy

Historic Galena

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Galena: (gә lē’nә) noun. Primary ore of lead: a lustrous blue-gray crystalline mineral that consists mainly of lead sulfide and is the main source of lead.

Another definition of galena is “a history-drenched town located in the northwestern corner of Illinois.”

My wife and I visited Galena some years ago and discovered that it’s a place where, historically speaking, many historical people once lived.

Named for the ore that brought much wealth to the town, Galena seems frozen in time. It simply oozes history, mostly from its plethora of Victorian buildings. The lead ore has long since played out, so Galena now mines a rich vein of tourists.

Galena’s most famous citizen was Ulysses S. Grant. A former soldier who had gone from job to job and had embarked upon a series of failed businesses, Grant landed in Galena in 1860 and became a clerk in his father’s leather shop. When the Civil War erupted, Grant volunteered his services, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Galena produced a total of nine Civil War generals. One wonders if close proximity to the stuff that bullets are made of exerted some sort of metaphysical force.

There’s no escaping Grant in Galena. His image seems to be everywhere, prompting one to impulsively think “$50 bill” several times per hour.

This is all part of a fiendish plot to subliminally acclimate tourists to the exorbitant costs of being tourists. It seemed as if we couldn’t visit any of the quaint Victorian shops lining Galena’s Main Street without leaving $50 behind.

This was illustrated by a couple my wife and I passed as we strolled down Main Street. The other husband, who was carrying armloads of shopping bags, exclaimed to his wife, “Did you see anything in there that you didn’t like?”

From a guy’s point of view, many of Galena’s shops offered stuff that’s pretty much useless. Can we live without these cute ceramic figurines? I bet so. Are we the sort of people who buy artsy prints? Not really. There was even a business called The Bead Shop. Need I say more?

Scattered diabolically among these unessential shops were a few that actually featured very interesting items. Look, there’s Jamie’s Wine Studio. It must be time to do more wine tasting. And is that the aroma of broiling steak? Let’s duck into this restaurant for a quick bite. After all, it’s been an hour since I had my last steak, which was approximately the size of a yearling steer.

There are lots of other things to do in Galena besides eating or shopping or sampling wine. Many of these things involve visiting historical museums, most of which are housed in historical buildings.

We visited several museums, each boasting items of Grant memorabilia. In one, we viewed the general’s cavalry hat and saddle; another displayed his left boot in a glass case. The town of Galena has Grant covered from head to toe, although I wonder how the museum obtained that boot and if the general had to go around semi-barefooted.

Speaking of museums, my wife and I stayed at the historic DeSoto House Hotel. The DeSoto was named for the first European to see the Mississippi, a man who seems to have had a penchant for long, double-lettered words.

The DeSoto has hosted numerous historical figures. An aspiring politician named Abraham Lincoln gave a speech from its balcony in 1856, as did Stephen Douglas in 1858. In 1868, Grant used the DeSoto as his presidential campaign headquarters. Slumber offered no respite from thinking about Grant.

My wife and I paused from our hectic touring to enjoy a cold beverage in the DeSoto’s taproom. I could easily imagine Mark Twain — yes, he had also stayed there — leaning against the bar, his right foot alighted on the brass rail, a cloud of cheroot smoke lazily circling his head.

After resting a bit, it was back to shopping. Various items displayed in storefronts elicited such comments as “cute!” or “neat!” or “ooh, how cool!”

In one particular store, as my wife and the lady proprietor chatted, I opined that all this shopping was more than any normal guy could bear. My wife turned to the shopkeeper and said, “Do you know what we did yesterday? We spent the whole day touring a John Deere tractor factory.”

A deathly silence fell over the room as a dozen female eyeballs bored into me. Someone hissed, “You owe this lady a whole lot of shopping, mister.”

She was right, of course. So, we shopped and shopped until I shattered my personal record for shopping, and that was definitely a historical event.

Jerry Nelson is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at jerry.n@dairystar.com.

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