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
The Ellwood House Museum not only provides a glimpse inside Isaac Ellwood’s life, it shows the evolution of barbed wire in America.
Ellwood followed his brothers to DeKalb in 1855 and opened a local hardware store in 1859. Aware that his farmer customers sought durable fencing for their land, Ellwood began to tinker with new products.
Elsewhere in DeKalb, Joseph Glidden was working on what would become known as barbed wire fencing. In 1874, Ellwood paid Glidden for a half-stake in the patent.
“The two of them went into business together to start making wire,” says Brian Reis, executive director of the Ellwood House. “The barbed wire industry was huge for DeKalb and it made DeKalb.”
With his newfound fortune, Ellwood and his wife, Harriet, established an estate on 1,000 acres that included farmland and pasture for their stock of Percheron draft horses. The magnificent home was designed by Chicago’s George O. Garnsey and built in 1879.
The three-story home was renovated twice, but its architecture reflects three periods: Victorian, Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts. The mansion 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 an outdoor patio and sunroom wing built in the Arts & Crafts style.
Today, the estate sits on 8.5 acres and includes a carriage house/visitor center, lush gardens, a museum house built for Harriet’s collection of travel souvenirs, and a water tower that once supplied water for the estate.
The visitor center features a barbed wire gallery, carriage gallery, special exhibits gallery and a gift shop.
Currently owned by the DeKalb Park District, the grounds are open to the public and are available for social events.
The visitor center is open March 1 through November, with tours available Tues.-Sat. at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and Sun. at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Red Oak Nature Center
2343 S. River St., Batavia, (630) 897-1808, foxvalleyparkdistrict.org
Located on the edge of the Fox River south of downtown Batavia, this nature center is surrounded by 40 acres of forest and wildlife habitat where families can learn about nature.
“Almost everything at Red Oak is meant to be educational,” says Jeff Long, public affairs and communications manager for Fox Valley Park District, which maintains the property. “Kids don’t realize they are learning new things. They’re too busy having fun.”
Inside the wildlife room, kids can discover many animals that live in our region. There’s 500-gallon turtle and fish habitat and recently added displays of live frogs, salamanders and snakes, among other critters.
The observation deck, located right behind the nature center, overlooks the Fox River and provides glimpses of river wildlife, migratory birds, and the wooded shorelines and islands.
Red Oak Nature Center is also home to a handful of hiking trails and a portion of the Fox River Trail recreation path, which passes from Elgin toward Aurora.
Follow the Fox River Trail to the The Cave at river’s edge, and go spelunking.
“It’s the only cave in the western suburbs,” Long says. “The cave itself is 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide at the entrance.”
The nature center is open year-round. Trails are open sunrise to sunset.
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Quilted Barns Program
Various Locations, McHenry County, (815) 923-2267, mchenrycountyhistory.org/quilted-barns-program
Driving along the scenic rural roads of McHenry County, you may have done a double take. Yes, that is a quilt pattern on that barn.
These colorful displays pay homage to the traditions of quilting design and the disappearing American barn, and they’ve been on display locally since 2000. Other Midwestern states, including Iowa and Ohio, have created similar art displays.
The barn quilt begins with two 4-by-8 foot sheets of plywood that are painted in a quilt pattern and mounted on the barn. Common quilting patterns, such as “Log Cabin,” and “Flying Geese,” are often replicated on the square.
“We currently have about 45 barns participating in the effort scattered around the county in visible locations,” says Kurt Begalka, administrator with the McHenry County Historical Society, which oversees the local quilted barn program. “Our barns are located in close proximity to each other. They are diverse, historic structures that will be enhanced by the use of art and quilt designs.”
The owners of barns and other rural structures are invited to hang their own display, as are local groups such as quilt clubs, 4-H clubs, Scout troops, artists, churches and civic clubs.
Discover McHenry County’s barn quilts for yourself, and learn about their backstories, on an interactive map available at the historical society’s website. Many of these barn quilts are located on private property, where visitors may not be welcomed.
Contact the McHenry County Historical Society for more information.