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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.