Check out these unique destinations that reflect the genuine character of our region.
Ellwood House Museum
309 N. First St., DeKalb, (815) 756-4609, ellwoodhouse.org.
This mansion is a result of “the fence that tamed the West” – barbed wire. It was built in 1879 by New Yorker Isaac Ellwood, who followed relatives to DeKalb in 1855 and opened a hardware store in 1859.
There, he tinkered with his own designs for inexpensive, flexible fencing before buying a half-interest in local farmer Joseph Glidden’s barbed wire patent. The partners prospered and Ellwood became one of the richest men in Illinois.
When he built the estate, it was on 1,000 acres and included farmland and pasture for Ellwood’s stock of Percheron draft horses. It’s now 8.5 acres, with a carriage house, playhouse, red brick house built in 1905 for Ellwood’s wife Harriet, a stone silo that supplied the estate’s water, and a woods.
The three-story home was renovated twice, its architecture reflecting three periods: Victorian, Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts. It features a mansard roof, gables and Gothic columns in the Victorian style; a portico, carriage entrance and shell motifs from the Colonial Revival update; and from a 1911 makeover, an outdoor patio and sunroom wing reminiscent of Arts & Crafts.
Furnishings and keepsakes are original to when the family lived there. Paid guided tours are offered twice a day, Tues.-Fri., and three times on weekends. Public events, like art fairs and ice cream socials, are held annually.
Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket
645 Joliet Road, Willowbrook, (630) 325-0780, chickenbasket.com
T his unassuming little roadside eatery began as a gas station along historic Route 66 in what was then Hinsdale. Since then, it’s become famous for location and its chicken, featured on TV shows such as Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
In 1938, station owner Irv Kolarik had gas pumps, two car repair bays and a small lunch counter. When two local farm wives offered to teach him their fried chicken recipe if he promised to buy their chickens, he agreed.
The chicken was so popular that he quickly converted the repair areas into dining rooms; by the mid-1940s, he purchased the lot next door and built the Chicken Shack, which opened in 1946.
Positioned along the original Route 66, it was a natural stop for travelers heading to and from Chicago; Blue Bird Coach Lines made it an official bus stop on its route. A cocktail lounge was added in 1956, with live entertainment on weekends.
In the early 1960s, the interstate highway system not only bypassed the restaurant but made it almost impossible to get to, and it almost closed.
It was rescued in 1963 by Chicago businessman Dell Rhea, whose hospitality industry savvy and reputation drew customers back. After Dell’s death in 1992, son Patrick and wife Grace took over and still run the restaurant. Today, it stands as a monument along the Mother Road and has been inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame.
Its official slogan: “Get Your Chicks on Route 66.” Hours: Sun-Thur 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat to 10 p.m. The Blue Rooster Lounge is open later.
Bellevue Place Apartments (formerly Bellevue Nursing & Rest Home)
333 S. Jefferson St., Batavia
Now an upscale apartment building in an affluent neighborhood of Batavia, in 1875 it was the sanitarium where Mary Todd Lincoln, 56-year-old widow of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, was committed by her son Robert after being legally declared insane in a Chicago courtroom.
Constructed in 1854 of locally quarried limestone, the building began life as Batavia Institute, a private academy which operated for 10 years. Purchased in 1867 by Dr. Richard Patterson, it became Bellevue Nursing & Rest Home for women. Patterson was one of six physicians who assisted Robert, a Chicago attorney, with his mother’s involuntary commitment.
Before coming to Washington, the Lincolns had two sons: Robert, the oldest, and Eddie, who died in 1850. As First Lady, Mary endured the death of her youngest son, Willie, and witnessed the murder of her husband in 1865. In 1871, shortly after arriving in Chicago from a European trip with his mother, Tad died suddenly.
While living with Robert, Mary consulted with psychics, exhibited extreme paranoia, and suffered from intense migraines, insomnia and acute anxiety. Acquaintances testified at the trial about her erratic behavior.
If not for her financial situation, Mary would have been committed to the State Hospital for the Insane, but instead was sent to the nicer Bellevue. Even so, patients here were drugged and at times physically restrained.
She secured her release in just four months and went to live with her sister in Springfield. On June 15, 1876, Mary was declared legally sane.
The sanitarium closed in 1965 and was used sporadically until it was converted into apartments in 1980. The building is private property and not open for public viewing, but visitors may stroll the grounds and view the plaque noting Mary’s stay.