Ask any local why they live in Galena, Illinois and chances are they’ll respond much like store owner Joe (a.k.a. Buzz the Drifter) Sprengelmeyer did on a recent trip we took to this picturesque town. We’re not lying when we say picturesque….this place really does look like a POSTCARD.  A postcard that hasn’t changed much since its lead ore boomtown days over 150 years ago.  Galena is one of the few places left in America that’s literally been untouched, with over 85 percent of its buildings landing on the National Historic Register.

Photo courtesy of www.platomadison.org
Photo courtesy of www.platomadison.org

Sprengelmeyer is the eclectic owner of the longest running antique store in Galena, La Belle Epoque (the “beautiful days” in French, or put simply “the good ol’ days”).  Mike Wolfe has been picking in his store for almost 20 years, and not much has changed (even in his store for that matter).  You’re likely to knock a few things over as you make your way through the aisles, but that’s how Sprengelmeyer likes it.  If you’re up for the hunt, you can spend hours rummaging through this ol’ gem.

Mike with La Belle Epoque antique store owner, Buzz Sprengelmeyer
Mike with La Belle Epoque antique store owner, Buzz Sprengelmeyer

Wander down just a few more blocks and you’ll come across two of our favorite places: The Old Blacksmith Shop and Cannova’s Pizzeria.  Though both don’t have much in common (besides their locale), a tour of this 118 year-old blacksmith shop on a stomach full of Italian food makes for a great afternoon.

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Volunteer blacksmith Dan Simon, working on a “mezzaluna” knife.
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Rich Tickner (Site Manager) hard at work and keeping the passion for blacksmithing alive

Though the walls of the shop are much like a museum, you’ll still find blacksmiths hard at work, forging iron in a shop that is fueled one-hundred percent by volunteer blacksmiths.  In 1858, Galena was home to almost thirty-five blacksmith shops.  The shop’s last owner – Willard Richardson ran it for over 50 years, as both a blacksmith and wheelwright.  Rich Tickner and his volunteer crew are here to keep it there….for at least another 118 years (if we’re LUCKY).

Did someone say pizza?  Yes, we all love pizza, but we especially love eating home-made pizza in a quaint little Italian restaurant at the edge of Galena’s Main Street.  If you’re in the mood for pizza, it’s gotta be at Cannova’s Pizzeria.  This family owned restaurant has been in business for over twenty years, and it’s a favorite spot for both locals and the Wolfe family to visit.

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After a fine afternoon of pizza and blacksmithing, if you’re able to walk up just one more flight of stairs (ha), you’ll find yourself at the Galena Historical Society & Museum, located on 211 S. Bench St. Not only is this place featured in one of my favorite childhood books of all time Ghosts of Galena, but it also has a HOLOGRAM of General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia. That’s right, a HOLOGRAM…the next best thing to meeting someone in real life, but even better, because when they turn the lights out (just like at the movies) you feel like you’re really living in the 1860s, and the president is casually having a conversation with his wife.

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My favorite part of the history museum is the miniature models. It’s basically like train sets for adults. They are currently finishing up an exact replica of what 1850s Galena would have looked like, and there are even movable steamboats. Take a look below at a photo taken of me in the very early stages of the project.

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(Yes, I’m planting trees…baby trees. They don’t give you oxygen, but this could be a Reading Rainbow episode one day.)

If miniatures and holograms aren’t really your thing, you won’t be disappointed by the real mine shaft that was uncovered after decades of being hidden away against the driftless hillside.

Things move fast in today’s world.  Very fast. You’re likely to spend much of your days stuck behind traffic, or behind a computer screen crunching number the ol’ TPS report way.  But if you get the chance, take a trip to the driftless hills of Galena, Illinois.  Walk slow, and if you’re really listening, you just might hear the faint sounds of a steamboat coming up the river bend.

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56 Comments

56 thoughts on “Time Travel: Galena, Illinois”

  1. Dale Hudson

    Back in the early 70s we used to go to Galena two or three times every summer. We used to look for antiques and things that we could fix up for our just married household. Our favorite antique store for picking was a place called “Ra – Ho’s” on the main street. We always keep Galena in a warm spot in our hearts. Thank you for the blog.

  2. Jeff & Toni McDowell

    Thanks for the story, sure looks like a weekender trip for us, maybe next year we will see you there.. will sure love pizza, and history..
    Thanks again, Jeff
    our photo bucket is just a few of our wood projects we like to share …

  3. Melanie Patterson

    Wow!! I love this town and the fact that it is frozen in time. I have renovated my grandparents former home (a home stuck in time) and turned it into a unique vacation house rental that would fit right in on this block, calling it ‘The Good Ol’ Days House” and it opened in 2009. This is a cool town and am inspired by the charm and dedication that it has to keeping things like they were in the good ol’ days! May have to put this place on my ‘bucket list’.

  4. Betty Rhoads

    Thnx for the preview! Our family is considering having our five year reunion there next summer. We are originally from the Aurora/Oswego area, but are now scattered all over the USA.

  5. Crenden Keller

    Born and raised there. The home was built in the 1850’s and owned by my family from early1940’s to 1998. My parents owned one of the first antique shops and guest houses from the early 1960’s until we sold it in 1998. Located next to the Belvedere, the Colonial Guest House and Carriage House Antiques. Get back every once in a while for a day trip. Although I own a house built in 1992, the contents date back to the 1800’s. Looks like a museum. Being around all of that history rubbed off. The stories I could tell!

  6. Ronald Salemme

    Oh, and I forgot the most important thing; Galena is where we went on our honeymoon which was 30 years ago this last September; my wife just reminded me. So, it holds a special place for me.

  7. Wendy

    If you ever get back to southern NJ, you need to check out a few towns here. One is Bridgeton in Cumberland County. It has streets that remind me of the photo you have of Galena. Also home of the first and oldest zoo in New Jersey. Another good one is Rancocas Village in Burlington County. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t know it was there – honestly. It is a small village on a small street that runs parallel to Beverly-Rancocas Rd (which is the road that was built to bypass the village). Then, there’s Hammonton in Atlantic County more or less at the imaginary convergence of rts 322, 54, 206 and 30. They don’t actually come together, but if they did, this town is there. Finally, there is Mullica Hill in Gloucester County. They finally built a bypass for 322 which ran through the middle of town to keep the big trucks from damaging any more historic homes there. Many contain antiques shops, some restaurants, and most others are still residences. My HS alma mater was built on farmland just outside town in 1960. I know NJ isn’t exclusive in having these little enclaves, but I only recently discovered Rancocas and Hammonton and I think it’s great that they are fairly untouched by modernity.

  8. Patrick adamek

    My father has taken me and the family to Galena every year since we were very little to spend a few days there on summer break. The. It was off to Dubuque to stay at the Grand Harbor Hotel, but we always stopped back in Galena on the way home to stock up on cheese and deli meat, but I’m having trouble remembering the name of that deli, very close to the flood gates. I recommend you get some snacks there on your next visit!

  9. Oscar marquez

    Hey mike this is oscar I live in Lawrenceville ga 1/2 north Atlanta if you Guys ever come around here stop by I got few things for sale thanks see you around

  10. Suzanne Blum

    Galena is definitely a historic treat for the senses. Another historic town, not far from the Mississippi River that you may or may not have visited is Mineral Point, WI and Princeton, WI. One, an old Welsh mining town, and two, an old lumbering historic town. Charm galore in both.
    Thanks for sharing Galena and its charm.

  11. Sharon Upchurch

    When I first saw the picture of the town frozen in time I thought I was looking at Bisbee, Arizona. Can’t believe how much these two towns look alike.

  12. Steve Hutson

    I live in East Tennessee, and work for a company who’s corporate headquarters are in Naperville, IL. I have traveled to corporate multiple times and have had the pleasure of visiting some areas close to Naperville, but now I want to definitely visit Galena. This town looks so inviting with maybe an East Tennessee vibe. One town that I have visited close to Naperville is Geneva, IL. Geneva also had a small town feel, but did have more modern conveniences intertwined within the area. Thanks for the spotlighting Galena, I’m going to put it on my “places to visit” list…and I definitely look forward to the Italian cuisine.

  13. Brian

    Great place bisbee and mineral point when cornish mining finished 1870 1880 thousands cornish miners left cornwall travelled vast distances by boat train taking to dig for copper tin they were sought after also go to tombstone they’d a historic house were one family lived coming from redruth Cornwall uk the house has not caaned when the parents died the son kept everything not moving a thing they say neighbours of doc holiday way Earp many more see the film tombstone great town see the graveyards the names above and more also post cards of redruth were they lived a saying weres theirs a hole mine watch out for a cornish miner they linked both towns in 1990 many came home very well off My home in Cornwall is portreath they shipped two thirds off the worlds copper from here theirs still the tramway were ore takin from mines then shipped to South Wales to be crushed do go if you contact me will show you round brian copsey

  14. debbie

    You would love our little historic town. Berkeley Springs, wv in the eastern panhandle of wv…lots of quaint shope. Town known for its warm springs too. Very artsy.

  15. tom

    enjoy looking at lovely architecture. lovely to see Mike involved in restorations and historical ideas. Character of the past is unique and timeless, modern architecture is often uninspiring.

    1. Jan Kelty

      My husband passed away about 2 years ago but before that went there for 25 plus years 2 times a
      year we loved it there we always met up with my brother bob and sister in law . its the best small town
      talk about going back in time what a great place I will always remember our time there with loving
      memories you all keep picking
      we always did!

      1. David

        Went there about 30 odd years back,it was a real outback town then.It might have caught up with the times by now.On the other hand,I hope it hasn’t!

  16. Nancy Talbert

    Thanks so much for the info on Galena. I visited there several years ago and truly enjoyed the history and the
    fabulous shops! If you are ever in the area, Galena is a must see!

  17. Paula D

    You made me miss my hometown which is right across the river in Iowa, Dubuque. I have been to Galena many times and still have some family living there. Every time going back home Galena is a must see and we always find some placae new to check out. Great stories and pictures. Thank you so much for sharing!

  18. Ron Hahne

    I lived in that area for over 20 years. For the rival high school teams..Galena was called the “river rats”. Can’t remember there actual names. Galena was a place for Chicago people to come. In nearby Scales Mound, the “highest point” in Illinois is located there.

    1. Crenden Keller

      The high school mascot is the Pirates. They tried to change it to the Generals, because of the 9 generals from the Civil War from Galena including Grant, but it never happened. “We were Pirates, not Generals.” Charles Mound, near Scales Mound is the highest point in Illinois.

  19. Angela Moore

    Love the town of Galena…it is absolutely Beautiful….I would love to visit. ..been through Illinois a 100 times….but maybe not close to Galena. It’s kinda like the town I’m from…. Thomasville,N C. It hasn’t changed since I was a kid…we were known for the Famous Furniture Co. THOMASVILLE FURNITURE. …the furniture Co originally started here as Finches…The Finch family started it ..and we’ll a few years ago it unfortunately went to China…..Put hundreds out of business in our small town….There are so many buildings in Thomasville just setting empty…they’re like big Dinosaurs now….Fortunately none of my family worked for Thomasville Furniture. .My husband Joe and I have been Pickers from the mid 70s…love lots of old things.. whish we had the money to do it now….we would love nothing better than combing the roads picking, like you guys…We could be the CAROLINA PICKERS….LOL…..We just absolutely love watching your TV program. .. Watching you find the good stuff is so exciting , we just flip sometime watching ya’ll ind the Mother load…lol
    Please keep on picking…so we can keep watching. ..
    Thank you for sharing your love for the art of picking…
    Sincerely, Angela Moore.

  20. steve sembrat

    Galena is a great piece of history. Found it by accident on our way from” Fields of Dreams” in Dyerville Iowa.

    But folks, if you are ever back in Western Pennsylvania picking, stop in our little town of Saxonburg,Pa. Time has definitely stood still here. Founded in 1831 by John Roebling, yes the man who invented wire rope and built the Brooklyn bridge along with his son Washington. Every building dates from the period on Main Street.

    Saxonburg is a town of “Northern Exposure “fame. we have so many characters here, we all blend in together as one happy family. I have found my “Cicely Alaska” right here in my back yard. Oh ya, talk about antiques ,you ain’t seen nuthin yet!!!!

    Go EAST young men!!!!!

    1. Luke Flynn

      I never get tired of seeing these old towns and thinking about all the people who have walked these streets over all the years. All the conversations, all the happy holidays, the young kids running down the sidewalks, all the elderly who have seen the their town grow and change. And then I reflect on what you guys do to help preserve and bring back to life those precious artifacts that speak to those past times of a once youthful town and and its landmarks of change. I watch your show every week with an excitement that never grows old. I love seeing American history through the sights and sounds of the artifacts that you are able to rescue from a silent dormancy back into the light of the world once again for all to see and enjoy. Thank you for what you do and why you do it.

  21. Gail Sas

    We used to live in Illinois many years ago but never visited Galena. I love the beautiful photo of all those old buildings.

    This time of year I wonder if you and Frank have ever gone to Salem, MA. I love Halloween and the fall season! I lived in CT too and never got to Salem! While we are grounded in California now, we hope to explore towns father north.

    Love your show!
    Gail Sas

  22. Karen Davies

    I’m one of the loyal fans of your show & really enjoyed this post. As I was looking @ it; I thought of Mineral Point. My folks went to school there, & I was born in Dodgeville, which is 7 mi. away. The main st., High St., has remarkable character. I read others comment about it, & agree it is a very historic town worth visiting! (You’ve already been informed of a lot of the comments I would have written.)

  23. Penny True

    from that blacksmith shop I got an over a hundred year old chaise. I did refurbish it. But my husband’s grandmother got it out of there. It had hay for the padding. It did belong to her mother. My husband’s grandfather worked there.

  24. Richard Gaskill

    My Grandfather was a minister in Galena Illinois and in his parish was U S Grant who of course became president . Grandfather was Charles Everts Morse. We are also related to the inventor of The Morse Code. Charles married my Grandmother and after the Civil war they moved back to Orford NH and Charles was the minister of a church in Bradford VT. I believe Charles died there in about 1910 . Grandma and sister Hattie then ran a B&B in Orford NH up until about 1953. She had a 1929 Franklin auto from 1930-1953. It was sold in her estate but 45 years later and 7 owners later I found the car again in New Jersey, ended up going there and bought the car back again and we have it in Michigan. 1997 to the present. Grandma is up there laughing like crazy that I got her car back after all these years.

    Dg.

  25. Tony

    Been to Galena many times over the years and I never get tired of visiting there. You are right, it seems to be frozen in time. If you go, stay at the DeSoto house hotel right there in town. It’s the oldest operating hotel on Illinois.

  26. Nancy

    Wow. Grew up in galena and lived there for 52 yrs. What a beautiful small town that has stood the test of time as the second choice of destination in the state of Illinois next to Chicago. It ranks first to me. I love my hometown.

  27. Cora pigatti

    I love this town! My grandparents and father was born there. We would go visit Galena every weekend. I still get there at least once a year. My sisters and I would go there for our “sister’s weekend”. But we would always have to climb the long stairs next to the funeral home on Bench st. Great town!!

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