Journey to Gurnee or Sealed with a Chris

Time for a travel tale of a different sort and you can get twice the bang for your buck as you can read my brother’s take on this story at his blog.

I have three brothers (Brian, Dan, and Jeff) and six weeks or so ago, my brother, Dan, texted out of the blue with a suggestion that the four of us take a road trip together.  He had suggested Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH, but that was a bit far for a weekend trip for 3 of us and would be tough to coordinate as we each live in different states and the nearest major airport to Sandusky was over an hour away.

Add that to the fact that timing would be delicate.  Most amusement parks close after Labor Day or have greatly reduced hours.  Add that to the fact that Jeff and I will be out of the country for most of September and that essentially left August unless tabled for another year.

Jeff’s husband, Scott, suggested a visit to Six Flags Great America in much closer Gurnee, IL might be a more viable option.  It took a bit of doing, but the 4 of us managed to clear our schedules at the end of August to make this trip.

Sadly, Dan had to bow out at the 11th hour due to illness, but he encouraged the three of us to continue the trip and kept in regular contact via text to enjoy things somewhat vicariously.

My older brother and I live almost equidistant from Gurnee, but he was kind enough to drive to Omaha so we could make the trip together.  He even agreed to my plan to take a more roundabout route as the initial route seemed to go through Chicago proper and I had little desire to battle that maniacal traffic or pay a series of potentially usurious tolls.  Furthermore, I wanted to split the trip down over 2 days so we wouldn’t be overly worn out for doing things after arriving in the Gurnee area.

Thursday night found us heading out on the road after a quick meal at Chick Fil A.  Animated conversation made the time go quickly and we pulled over shortly after midnight at a Sleep Inn in North Liberty, IA.

DSC01220

Brian photobombs my photo of Sleep Inn in North Liberty, IA.

I was wired and didn’t drift off to sleep until after 1am and slept rather fitfully.  Brian and I rose early and had breakfast in the hotel dining room.  It was adequate with the sausage links being tasty, but the biscuits were a little tough and needed a knife and fork to cut.  Brian ate 4 mini cinnamon rolls for his breakfast.

Shortly afterwards, we were back on the road.  My roundabout route took us through quite a few lovely small towns which I rather enjoyed.  We actually passed through Galena and I got to show Brian the B & B I had stayed at there, the former Bernadine’s Stillman Inn.

I actually made some notes of locales to visit for future journeys, but Brian got slightly annoyed due to a neverending stream of construction we went though in these small towns that slowed us down.

Eventually, we reached our destination, Springhill Suites in Waukegan, IL, but found that the exits leading to the hotel were blocked by more construction and it took nearly 30 minutes for Google Maps to suss out a route that finally allowed us to reach the hotel.

 

 

Springhill Suites was a pretty modern hotel and the rooms were quite nice, but not exactly suites in the strictest sense of the word.  They were actually expanded rooms, but did grant quite a bit of space.

We puttered around for a bit.  Brian and Jeff engaged in a pair of cribbage games while I watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  After Brian took Jeff in 2 straight games, we headed out to dinner and tried nearby Anastasia’s, a sports lounge.

You get pretty good value for your money as you get a good sized meal for your cash.  Jeff had a meatball sandwich while Brian supped on blackened cod and I had a gyro sandwich which really hit the spot.

After dinner, we engaged in one of my favorite activities:  mini golf!!  We visited Lighthouse Miniature Golf which was a little family owned course.  The grounds were lovingly maintained though a little refurbishment could be used here and there.  The course had a ton of character and very fun and challenging holes.

 

 

I ended up finishing in third, being unable to find my groove until closer to the end.  But I did manage to win the Ace Award with a pair of holes in one on the last two holes.  The hole in one on the 18th hole netted me a free game which I will be glad to use when I’m back in the area.  Someone mistook my calm poise and skill for ridiculous sloppy luck on that last hole, but what the hey.

With the links putted, we went back to the hotel and hooked up Brian’s Wii where we played a few rounds of Mario Party 9 before getting some shuteye to attack the park the next day.

Fortunately, all three of us are early risers, so we were able to get up and get some breakfast in the hotel dining room.  Again, the food was just so so.  The turkey sausage patties were pretty good and the biscuits and gravy were actually even tougher than the ones I had in Iowa and again needed a knife and fork to eat them.

As the park didn’t open until 10:30am, we even had time to squeeze in a round of Phase 10.  Now my brothers often curse my unbelievable luck in the game.  I do admit that I seem to have a penchant for obtaining wild cards, but I attribute it to the universe being nice to me because I’m pure of heart.  However, my brothers have actually labeled various winning hands as “Chrises” depending on the number of wilds in it. All the way from a regular Chris for three wilds to an Omega Chris if a winning hand ever has all 8 wilds.  Once again, I won the game and sealed it with a Chris.

 

 

It was a perfect day for parking as the weather was a glorious spring day without a whit of humidity.  Six Flags Great America is coaster crazy with a whopping 16 roller coasters to try.  The park wasn’t overly full and we usually didn’t have to wait very long for rides. Some of the rides even had single rider lines which we used to get on rides in a matter of minutes.  Highlights included American Eagle, a classic wooden coaster that has the herky jerky movement and the body rattling jolts of an old fashioned coaster; X-Flight, an inverted wing coaster that has some impressive barrel rolls and a 180 degree swoop through a narrow chasm; The Joker Crazy Coaster, a unique coaster that climbs 12 stories and flips you over several times; The Goliath, the world’s fastest and tallest wooden coaster with an initial job of 180 feet and inversions that were nearly loop the loops.  This was easily one of the best coasters I’ve ever ridden and was the only ride we hit twice.  Our final ride was Superman:  Ultimate Flight and the one we waited the longest for at 95 minutes due to its being a signature ride.  This is an inverted coaster, but the seats actually pull up and lock into place so the riders face parallel to the ground to simulate flying like Superman.  I freely admit that right before the first drop, I held up my arms in flying pose and said, “I’ve waited all my life to say this.  Up, up and awayyy!!!!”

What better way to close the night than with more mini-golf.  So we were off to Aloha Falls in nearby Libertyville.

 

 

Aloha Falls was the course I had originally wanted to play, but we were stunned to learn that it is only open on the weekends and only until about 8pm.  The course’s signature Waterfall Course is listed as the 8th toughest in the USA and the clubhouse holds some classic board games and video game systems to play.

This is one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever played with extremely lovely and difficult holes.  It lives up to its rep as a tough course, but I played one of the best games of my life ending 3 under par on the front nine which allowed me to race toward a fairly easy victory for the night.  Though this is very much a quality course, all 3 of us liked Lighthouse more due to its character.

We were starving after the game as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we stopped at a Chili’s near the hotel for dinner.  I packed away one of the biggest meals in recent memory with a Chili’s chili burger and I also scarfed a fair number of the chips and salsa Jeff got as a free appetizer.

With full stomachs, we returned to the hotel where we played a last round of Mario Party in which fate stole my victory at the last moment.  Then it was to bed as Brian wanted to leave very early in the morning to get back home.

At 7:40am, Brian and I bade good-bye to Jeff and headed back home.  Brian wanted to take the most direct route so it was all interstate for us.  Truthfully, it would not have been so bad using this route on the way to Waukegan as it skirted around Chicago, but it did take us through 5 tolls so my route did save us a bit of dough.

Though we were short a Musketeer, it was still an enjoyable trip and it was nice to bond with my most of my siblings.  If the stars align, maybe Cedar Point can be done next year.

Until the next time, happy travels!!

Peaceful Solitude: Beiderbecke Inn

DSC00508

Today the road brought me to Davenport, IA.

I had just completed my first full stage production in nearly 6 years and I needed a weekend to wind down from it.  How to do just that?  Of course!  Road trip!!

I decided a return trip to Algonquin, IL would fit the bill just nicely.  I could get a little gaming in at the Underground Retrocade and enjoy the comfort and hospitality of Victorian Rose Garden Bed and Breakfast again.

But I needed something for that first night.  A little research led to the discovery of Beiderbecke Inn of Davenport, IA owned by Pam and Dennis LaRoque and the deal was sealed.

Getting out of town was a bit of an adventure.  When I awoke Friday morning, I glanced out the window to check the weather and found Omaha was in the throes of a winter storm.  Luckily the accumulation only amounted to an inch, but the way it was blowing around made it seem a lot worse and cut the visibility down to nearly zero.  A view of weather reports showed me that the storm was localized to the metro area so once I got past Council Bluffs I would be OK, provided that things tapered off by 11am which, mercifully, they did.

It was a little slow going getting out of the city and then my low pressure signal came on.  I rolled my eyes and pulled off to a Casey’s in Council Bluffs to pump up my tires.

After that it was pretty smooth sailing.  My MP3 was pulling up some great long unheard tunes and the driving was smooth after Council Bluffs.  My schedule was thrown off a bit by the slower driving I needed before I escaped winter’s fury so I ended up stopping for lunch later than I anticipated.

DSC00484

Iowa’s Best Burger Cafe. Don’t be deceived by the appearance as they serve a great burger.

On several occasions I had passed a little gas station/café in Kellogg, IA called Iowa’s Best Burger Café which allegedly served the best burgers in the state and I decided to put that to the test.

The place serves a mighty mean burger.  I had a ¼ hamburger with the works and it really hit the spot.  Juicy, charbroiled, and just flat out good.  A side of crinkle fries completed the meal and it does come with a beverage, too, albeit no refills.  So if you’re hungry and you are close to Kellogg, IA, this place is definitely worth a visit.

From there, it was back on the road until I reached Beiderbecke Inn.

The inn is located in Davenport’s historic neighborhood and had been the dream home of Charles and Louise Beiderbecke who made their fortune selling groceries and coal wholesale.  Their home is built near the bank of the Mississippi and has a beautiful view of the river.

Beiderbecke Inn is a Victorian mansion and a classic B & B.  Stepping inside made me feel as if I was transported to the inn of The Boscombe Valley Mystery of the Sherlock Holmes tales.  I was greeted by Pam and I met her grandchildren (both official and unofficial) as they practiced a dance routine in the massive greeting hall.  The bottom floor includes the hall, dining room, library, den, and billiards room.

After paying for my stay, I met Dennis and was led to the Victorian Room which had the two things I needed for a bitterly cold night:  a fire and a Jacuzzi tub. I heaved a contented sigh and set up for the night.

Due to the lateness of my lunch and the cold outside, I decided to stay indoors for the night.  I thumbed through the impressive DVD library and selected Maverick.  I then finished a novel, started the electric fire, and drew a hot bath.

The bath felt great as the gentle jets soothed my weary body and reactivated my tired mind.  I stayed in the tub until I soaked up all of the hot water.  Then I went through my nighttime ritual and got under the covers to watch the movie, but didn’t get very far before I conked out.

The next morning, it was time for breakfast.  Waiting at the table were goblets of orange juice, milk, and water along with a dish of berries (strawberries, I think) mixed with a cream that made them oh, so sweet and tasty.  The main course was an omelet stuffed with peppers, onions, and bacon which served as great fuel for the road.

If you’re in the Davenport, IA and want to stay in a classic B & B, Beiderbecke Inn is definitely the inn for you.  And, as we’re close to the holiday season, I’m told the inn looks particularly nice at Christmas.  Hint.  Hint.

Until the next time, happy travels.

I Never Promised You a Victorian Rose Garden: Algonquin, IL and Victorian Rose Garden B & B

013

Today the road has brought me to Algonquin, IL.

A trip to this region had been steadily growing in my mind for the past few months.  I had actually been in this area back in 2015 when I stopped in the village of West Dundee, IL en route to a review of Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.

I had been talking about the locale with a friend and started to reminisce about the fun I had in West Dundee.  The vintage arcade.  The lovely meal at The Village Squire.  The awesome elegance of The Mansion.  I began to get the itch to revisit the place.

I tried to convince several of my friends to go, but one had just got back from a trip while another was getting ready to take a small family trip and the other simply wasn’t interested in going.  I really didn’t want to go alone. . .unless I could stay at a B & B.

I contacted The Mansion to find out if they had any available rooms towards the end of August, but was out of luck.  Acting on an idle thought, I did a search on B & Bs around the West Dundee area and found one for the Victorian Rose Garden in Algonquin.  Then I checked to see how far Algonquin was from West Dundee.  Hmm, only 4 miles.  Did they have any rooms available?  Yes, they did.  I immediately booked the Presidential Chamber for what I would dub the Decompression Trip.

After the end of a hard month which included beginning rehearsals for my first full scale production in almost 6 years, I was ready for a trip.

Unlike my other trips where I take a day off to make the drive, I actually began this one after work on Friday.  The plan was to drive to the Iowa City region where I would stop to rest for the night before finishing the journey the next day.

I had thought to drive just slightly past Iowa City and find a decent place outside the hubbub of a major city, but fate decided to call my bluff as I had difficulty finding any inn, let alone a decent one.  I ended up driving nearly an hour longer than I planned and ultimately stopped in Walcott, IA, home of the world’s largest truck stop.

As I hoped the world’s largest truck stop held a pair of hotels, one of which was a Comfort Inn (bada book bada boom!).  It was a tiny hotel (only 3 floors), but I got a room on the top floor which I prefer on the rare occasions I stay at a hotel.  For an extra $5, I was able to get a king bed and I heaved a contented sigh as my eyes alighted on a small, but comfortable room.

I still needed to eat, but, as the hour was late, I stopped at a nearby Arby’s for a sandwich before returning to the hotel for a bath and a good night’s sleep.

And it truly was a good night’s sleep.  I awoke truly well rested and even had the benefit of having a hot breakfast at the hotel where I enjoyed a pair of sausage links with a biscuit and gravy and some apple juice before heading off on the road again.

Driving the extra hour ended up being a good decision as it not only got me closer to my destination, but helped me stay on my schedule as this route was still doing construction as they were back in 2015 which slowed me down a bit.

About 1pm, I had arrived in West Dundee and immediately made a beeline for the Underground Retrocade.  For those of you reading my blog for the first time, the Underground Retrocade is a vintage arcade where you pay $15 and get unlimited play for the day.   Some new games had been added since I had last visited including. . .a Dragon’s Lair cabinet!!

008.jpg

Dragon’s Lair. The greatest video game of all time.

Dragon’s Lair is my all time favorite video game and revolutionized the industry when it came out in 1983.  It was the first interactive animated movie and told the tale of a brave, if slightly clumsy, knight named Dirk the Daring trying to rescue Princess Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe.  Make the right move at the right time and you get one step closer to the dragon’s lair.  Make the wrong move and Dirk meets an untimely demise.

This was not the original game.  Rather, it was the officially licensed 2002 Limited Edition reproduction of which only 400 discs were made.  This version included the deleted opening scene on the drawbridge as well as some slightly different timing and moves.  The cabinet also included the original prototype version which has a slew of deleted scenes as well as the games Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp.  I didn’t reach the lair, but had fun playing.

I more than got my money’s worth as I played pinball versions of Ghostbusters and Doctor Who.  I also served drinks in Tapper, fought Bluto and the Sea Hag in Popeye, and conquered Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp, Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, and Altered Beast as well as dabbled with Crystal Castles, Rampage World Tour, Fix it Felix, Jr., and Track & Field.

About 3:30pm I headed for the village of Algonquin.  As I arrived, I was shocked to see the massive amount of construction being done in the little village, but easily worked my way around it until I found the Victorian Rose Garden, owned and operated by Sherry Brewer.

I rang the doorbell of the inn and glanced around the neighborhood.  As I turned back to the door, Sherry’s smiling face had suddenly materialized in the window and the surprise nearly gave me a heart attack.

While my pumper reset itself, Sherry let me into the inn, led me to the Presidential Chamber, and gave me the nickel tour.  I put my normal explorations on hold as I headed for worship at St Margaret Mary.  This was a very nice and quaint church which holds a Polish service at the second Saturday night service.

It was a moving event which brought back memories of going to church back home in Fort Dodge as we sang hymns that I haven’t sung since my childhood.

After worship, I headed to the Colonial Café and I was starved.

014

Colonial Cafe

I actually felt the need for a small appetizer so I opened the meal with a small cup of cheddar cheese chowder which had an interesting, but tasty, flavor especially with a dash of pepper.  My main course was a Smokehouse BBQ burger which was hearty and juicy and really hit the spot.  While I ate, I read The House of Brass by Ellery Queen and met an elderly gentleman who liked the fact that I was reading a book as opposed to being glued to a cell phone.

After dinner I headed back to the inn, where I had some chocolate chocolate chip cookies and a cold glass of milk.

With that dessert, Sherry turned down my bed and left me to my devices.  I went around the inn taking pictures (the last set I will take with this camera as it’s falling apart).  The house has an understated elegance not unlike visiting Grandma’s house with a music room, gorgeous dining room, and a living room that is almost like stepping back in time.  It contains an old-fashioned barber’s chair along with a cupboard of shaving mugs, an old-fashioned gumball machine loaded with marbles, and a rocking horse.

The Presidential Chamber, where I stayed, boasts a very comfy king sized bed as well as some nice easy chairs, a fireplace, a mounted flatscreen TV, and a bathroom with a clawfoot tub and shower and even a bidet.  After a long day of driving and activities, I was more than content to simply put my feet up for the night and write and post pictures before drifting off to the land of Nod.

I slept all the way through the night.  When I woke up, I got a shower and a shave and was ready for a good meal.

And that is exactly what I got along with some lovely company in the form of Mike and Sue of Ohio and Tone and Yvonne of Stockholm, Sweden.  For breakfast there was water, orange juice, and coffee along with an appetizer of fresh fruit, cinnamon scones, and banana nut bread.  The main entrée was French Toast croissants with Granny Smith apples, scrambled eggs with home-grown vegetables, and thick slices of bacon along with a heaping side of conversation which Sherry joined in on.

All too soon the conversation and the meal had to come to an end.  In hindsight, I wish I had another day to spend here for there are still activities to partake of, but I suspect I will be back again, hopefully with friends to really expand on the fun.

But if you’re in the Algonquin region, spend a night with Sherry at Victorian Rose Garden B & B.  It’s a inn as pretty as it sounds with fabulous food and company and quite a bit to do in the region as well as being a hop, skip, and a jump from Chicago.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 3-4: Historical Jaunts

When I awoke in the morning, I was ready for some more of Norma’s fine home cooking.  Today’s morning repast was a dish of oranges, blueberries, and strawberries, French Toast, bacon, and scrambled eggs.  Once again I enjoyed a blissful breakfast while continuing to read my Sherlock Holmes mystery and keeping myself up to date with the daily news.

044

I was dedicating today to the exploration of several historic sites around the area.  The first two were in or just outside of Petersburg and they were the grave of Ann Rutledge at Oakland Cemetery and Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site.

Ann Rutledge is widely considered to be the first love of Abraham Lincoln.  Nobody is entirely certain of the extent of their relationship.  What is known is that Lincoln was devastated after her death.  So hard did he take it that a friend of his took away his pocketknife because he was afraid Lincoln would hurt himself.

046

Ann Rutledge’s Tombstone

Lincoln had lived in New Salem for about six years.  It was considered a turning point in his life because he was a little lost when he first arrived, but discovered his calling to politics while in this town.  When he left town to pursue this calling, the town folded up shortly afterwards.  It was almost as if it had come into existence solely to inspire the future president.

The site is not without some features of interest with an exhibit hall that tells of Lincoln’s time in New Salem and holding some of his surveying equipment, but the village is a pretty good reproduction of the actual town and a few of the buildings are original.  Still I thought the site lacked a certain oomph and I quickly made my way through it.

From there, I returned to Springfield where I visited the Dana-Thomas House, a construction of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright designed the house for Susan Lawrence Dana.  She had been the daughter of the mayor of Springfield and when her father and husband perished in rapid succession, she opted to use her $3 million inheritance (modern day equivalent nearly $80 million) to have the family home completely redesigned.  She wanted a place that could serve as a home, a place for the arts, and a place for entertaining people.

069

Dana-Thomas House

The house is actually a marvel in architecture, but I was disappointed that pictures inside the house were disallowed.  It featured stain glass windows with a butterfly motif, murals with a sumac motif, a bowling alley, a ballroom, an intercom system, and even a doorbell alert system due to the numerous doors of the estate.  It is free (donations encouraged) and certainly worth a look around.

Afterwards I visited the tomb of one of the greatest men in the history of our country (possibly even in general history).  The mausoleum is certainly an awesome sight.  In front is a giant bust of Lincoln and people often touch its nose for good luck.  The path to the tomb is peppered with statues of Lincoln along with various quotations of his.  His tombstone is massive and there was a certain weightiness to knowing that the man who saved our country lay 10 feet under my feet.  Across from Lincoln’s tombstone lay the remains of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their sons.  The fourth is buried in Arlington, VA at the request of his wife.

I certainly felt humbled as I left the tomb and returned to Branson House to begin writing my articles.  At 4:10 it was time for church.

047

St Peter Catholic Church

I attended services at St Peter Catholic Church and went through a rather speedy service (it was finished in 40 minutes and that included a full contingent of hymns).  Even with the quicker than normal service, I did get a rather fascinating sermon from either a deacon or a visiting priest.  It was a very humble homily talking about how nobodies are still somebodies in the eyes of God.  The speaker was quite honest about feeling like a nobody in his youth until he realized the simple truth.

When services ended, I decided to eat dinner.  I was weary after the multiple round trip visits to Springfield and decided to eat in town.  I visited Los Rancheros which proved to be an excellent choice.  I chose the Rancheros Burrito which came with a side of Spanish rice and refried beans.

087

With another relaxing meal under my belt, I decided tonight would be a good night to write, organize photos, and just put my feet up in general.  And I did just that before calling it a night.

After a hot shower and shave, the next morning, I was greeted with a breakfast of cinnamon rolls, oranges and cream, and egg bake filled with cheese, sausages, and onions.  I ended up having a great conversation with John about my adventures and he gave me a little history on the town.

001

Alas, the time had come for me to head for home.  But if you’re in the neighborhood, give Branson House Bed and Breakfast a visit.  It’s nice and comfortable in a quiet little town and you can experience a lot of history in the area, especially in Springfield.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 1-2: Experiencing Lincoln & Cotton Patchful

027

Sometimes fate gives you a chance at redemption.

As my regular readers may remember, about a year ago I was in Arlington, TX in order to review Cotton Patch Gospel for the Repertory Company Theatre when a series of unfortunate circumstances exploded that attempt.  If you need a refresher or just need to read the story for the first time, click here.  A few months ago I found that the show would be playing in the much, much closer venue of Springfield, IL at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.  I got in touch with their executive and artistic director, Gus Gordon, and arranged a media ticket to review the show and looked forward to a trip to Illinois’ capital city in early March.

My journey did not start with the normal sense of joy that I usually have with these road trips.  Part of it was just general antsyness about wanting to get to Illinois.  The other part was my irritation at being unceremoniously turned away from an event I was asked to be part of on the previous night.

A rest stop in Hannibal, MO served to restore much of my good humor.  After lunching at Wendy’s, I found myself in a decidedly better frame of mind and the rest of the drive felt like my normal road experiences.

A few hours later, I found myself in Petersburg (about 20 miles outside of Springfield) and my home away from home:  Branson House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Norma and John Stiltz.  John also happens to be the mayor of Petersburg.

Branson House is an Eastlake Victorian home built in 1876 by Nathaniel Branson for his wife, Frances.  The house boasts 7 marble fireplaces and, believe it or not, an elevator.  When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by Norma who gave me the nickel tour of the home before leading me to Uncle Billy’s Retreat, my room for the next few nights.  And, yes, of course I used the elevator.  It would have been impolite not to have used it.

Uncle Billy’s Retreat was a most comfortable room, indeed.  It boasted a large iron framed king bed with an electric fireplace, sitting chair & footstool, and a day bed in the corner.  After doing my usual reconnaissance, I relaxed for a bit before heading over to Springfield to get some dinner and locate the Hoogland.

Downtown Springfield does require a little getting used to as the roads are a criss cross of one way streets, but after I went back and forth a couple of times, I found myself expertly navigating the streets.  Within a short time, I arrived at D & J’s Café for a little old fashioned comfort food.

Any lingering frustrations to the start of my day vanished with that meal.  I enjoyed a patty melt with bacon which was apparently just what the doctor ordered.  A side of crinkle fries and a Mountain Dew helped to complete the cure as I chewed merrily away and completed a rereading of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Upon returning to the inn, I organized some photos and then hit the sack.

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed.  I headed to my bathroom and took a long hot shower before heading downstairs to breakfast.  Norma had prepared some wonderfully thick pancakes with a dish of kiwi, blueberries, and strawberries, plus an egg pizza with cheese and chives.  I’m not usually a fan of strawberries, but these were quite delectable and I savored every mouthful of my meal while reading Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, the latest novel from my favorite Holmesian pastiche writer, Larry Millet.  I also formally met John who graciously brought me the local paper.

001

Pancakes, fruit, and egg pizza

With the inner man restored, I headed to Springfield to indulge in a bit of history.  Springfield was the home of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln and his tomb, museum, and library are all located in downtown Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is well worth a visit for a very interactive study of the life of Mr. Lincoln.  I’ve always had a great deal of admiration and respect for Honest Abe, but I was stunned to find out how much I didn’t know about him.

002

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

His formal schooling lasted less than a year and he was a self-taught reader and lawyer.  I was even more shocked to find out that he began his presidency as our most hated leader.  Let that one sink in.  It was a particularly contentious election with 4 candidates.  Lincoln managed to win a decisive Electoral College victory thanks to the northern states (he actually didn’t make the ballot in many southern states), but only had 40% of the popular vote.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It also seemed like he could do no right as anything and everything he did brought hatred and vitriol upon him.  I was genuinely shocked to see the numerous hateful articles and political cartoons written and drawn about Lincoln.  History, of course, has vindicated him.

The museum is split into several sections.  One is dedicated to his life before the White House, another to his presidency and the Civil War, another to the Library next door, another to rare family treasures, but the best section is an interactive movie theatre that briefly describes Lincoln’s life.  The film showed me that Lincoln had an interesting duality in personality.  Despite being a popular wit and storyteller, Lincoln was also plagued by doubt and melancholy.  I also learned that Lincoln may very well have been near death even without the aid of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet.

Two busts of Lincoln done after he won the presidency each time show the ravage that leading during the Civil War wrought on him.  Underweight to begin with, Lincoln was almost skeletal going into his second term.  One noted sculptor thought the second bust was a death mask.  Studies of pictures of Lincoln after his first term seem to support the theory that he may not have been long for the world.

After my moving and enlightening education, I took a walk down to the Hoogland to get a picture of it.  On my walk, I passed the old and current state capitols and also met a homeless guy who needed a sympathetic ear.  He was quite philosophical and well versed on our current state of politics.  I ended up giving him $5 so he could get a sandwich.

I got my picture of the Hoogland, then returned to my car where I drove back to Branson House to relax a bit before dinner.

At 4:30, I got cleaned up and into my suit for the evening’s activities.  I drove back to Springfield, hoping to eat at the Chesapeake Seafood House, but it was jammed to the rafters.  It would have taken 45 minutes just to seat me.  Luckily, I remembered passing a restaurant called Alexander’s Steakhouse as I entered town, so I rushed back then, where I was able to be seated immediately.

I think I ended up getting the better deal as Alexander’s had one of the best salad bars I have enjoyed.  They also brought me a perfectly chargrilled Atlantic salmon with some hand cut Idaho steak fries.  After a tasty dinner, I hopped over to the Hoogland.

038

Hoogland Center for the Arts

It was a magical night of theatre.  The Hoogland is actually home to several theatres and I met Gus Gordon who was a warm and friendly guy.  I also met Ken Bradbury, the director of Cotton Patch Gospel whose expression of “I’ll be damned” still brings a smile to my face when he found out I had traveled from Omaha to review his show.  And the show was excellent.  You can read my review here.

With bluegrass music playing in my head, I returned to the inn to write my review and get a good night’s rest.

Wonderfully Worshipful ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Flies with the Angels

He was laid in an apple crate in Gainesville, GA, baptized in the Chattahoochee River, and lynched for the sins of humanity.  If you think this story sounds awfully familiar, you’d be right.  It is the story of Jesus presented in a countrified fashion in Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz based on works by Clarence Jordan with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin.  It is currently playing in the LRS Theatre at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

While lesser known than some of its contemporaries, I’ve long considered Cotton Patch Gospel to be the best of the Gospel musicals.  Tonight’s production only served to strengthen that belief as Ken Bradbury and his cast and musicians came out with all guns a blazing in the best iteration of this show I have seen in a truly magical night of theatre.

Bradbury carries an unusually heavy load in this show as he served as director, musical director, played several instruments, and essayed a couple of roles too.  His direction is exceptionally sharp with strong staging that makes use of the entire performance space, sometimes even the entire theatre.  He has also led his 2 primary actors to unbelievably nuanced and gripping performances.

His musical direction is virtually flawless as he and his band (Carrie Carls, Barry Cloyd, Rob Killam, Mark Mathewson, and Danny McLaughlin) brought Harry Chapin’s score to bright and colorful life.  Bradbury is also an exceptional actor in his own right, projecting subtle menace as Herod as he calmly orders the bombing of an orphanage in an attempt to kill Jesus and milks a pregnant pause to fullest effect as the oily Governor Pilate.

The band not only supplies the music, but they also sing a great deal of the tunes and become characters in the story at various points.  Rob Killam is cool and smooth with the stand up bass while Mark Mathewson brings a lot of fun with the mandolin.  Danny McLaughlin is not only a great guitar player, but is an incredibly energetic performer whether he was hoofing it across the water before nearly drowning as Simon “Rock” Johnson or raining fire and brimstone on sinners as John the Baptizer.  Though his intentions were pretty spot-on, McLaughlin does need to tighten his internal cues a bit.

I thought the work of Carrie Carls and Barry Cloyd was truly something special.  Ms Carls has a very wide singing range, being a natural soprano who can easily go alto on a moment’s notice.  She was quite adept at picking out the emotional beats of a song, particularly shining as a grieving mother who cannot accept the death of her baby in Mama is Here and bringing a soft jubilance in Jubilation.

Cloyd is a master of the banjo and also shows some good comedic chops of his own as he wrestles with a fish when Jesus tells him he’ll catch a big one if he casts with his left hand.  But his lower tenor voice is his greatest asset best utilized in the melancholic Are We Ready? and the wistful You Are Still My Boy.

As essential as the band and music are to the story, this musical also needs top notch actors to drive the narrative and this show has that needed quality in the forms of Nathan Carls and Greg Floyd.  Both men brought a passion, energy, and animation to their roles that kept me hooked from start to finish and made them astoundingly fun to watch.

Nathan Carls is outstanding as Matthew.  As the play’s narrator, Carls carries the bulk of the show’s dialogue, skillfully navigating its numerous beats.  At one moment he does a little soft shoe because he’s excited about going to Atlanta, in the next he’s the rigid taxman meeting Jesus for the first time, the next heartbreakingly devastated as he relates the story of Jesus’ lynching.  And his expressions. . .so clean and clear.  His disgust at singing Spitball and the aching sadness in his face as he slams a chair to the ground to indicate Jesus’ lynching were highlights of the night.  Carls also possesses a fine tenor voice best featured in the hopeful When I Look Up and the spritely We’re Gonna Love it While it Lasts.

Greg Floyd is an absolutely remarkable Jesus.  He brings an innocence and purity crucial for the Son of God to the role and yet he still manages to exude a quiet confidence and authority that shows he is Lord.  Floyd is also able to capture the heavier moments of Jesus’ mission with equal aplomb.  Some of the play’s best moments occur when his beautiful high tenor voice musically asks, “What does Atlanta mean to me?” in Goin to Atlanta and his haunting request to God that he be able to accomplish his Father’s mission without suffering his vicious death during the Agony in the Rock Garden.

This production also rates strong praise for its technical quality.  Steven Varble’s beautifully simple set evokes the sense of a rural setting with its outline of a ranch house, windmill, and crates. Gene Hinckley’s lights greatly added to the emotional tone of the show with their vibrant colors.

I thought a beat here and there could have been struck differently and the pacing needed some fine tuning at a couple of points, but these minor quibbles were easily overlooked in the overall quality of the play.  My biggest disappointment is that a show this good only gets a 2 week run.  With that being said, I would recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because when the word starts getting out, this show is going to start selling out.

Cotton Patch Gospel runs at the LRS Theatre in the Hoogland Center for the Arts through March 12.  Showtimes are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors and can be obtained by calling 217-523-2787 or visiting www.hcfta.org.  The Hoogland Center for the Arts is located at 420 S 6th St in Springfield, IL.

A Grand Holiday Experience: Grand Anne, Keokuk, and Nauvoo

034

Hello readers and Merry Christmas!

It’s December which means it’s time for another holiday B & B review.  To be honest, I was not sure I was going to be able to do a holiday review this year due to the timing of the family Christmas gatherings, but I managed to get lucky when I checked out the reservations site for the Grand Anne of Keokuk, IA and found they were wide open for the month of December.  I quickly snagged a room and prepared for another Christmas jaunt.

Keokuk is noted for being the southernmost city in the state of Iowa.  So southern is the city that the states of Illinois and Missouri are mere minutes away.  It also has quite a bit of history nestled in its environs.  Howard Hughes’ grandfather, Rupert, was the mayor of this town once upon a time and, at one point, Keokuk had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Keokuk was notable to me for one reason.  When I was a strapping lad the town of Palmer, IA was an unstoppable powerhouse in high school basketball having gone undefeated for 4 years.  Keokuk’s basketball team ended up being the giant slayer as they stopped Palmer in that year’s state tournament and Palmer BB was never quite the same again.

But I digress.  It was a frozen Friday that I began my journey.  I was very excited as I could make the drive using nothing but one highway so I figured the road would take me through a lot of small towns.  I was surprisingly wrong on this score as I did go through a few small towns, but far fewer than one would expect for a nearly 5 ½ hour drive.

I arrived in Keokuk a little earlier than expected and looked for something to do until I could check in.  As I traveled towards the inn, I spied a little salon called Laura’s Hair Company and decided to stop for a haircut as I had left town before getting a much needed trim.

Laura was a very interesting barber who knew quite a bit about the town, even sharing the story of an allegedly haunted house on Grand Avenue where Grand Anne was located.  She also gave me the best haircut I’ve had in years, trimming my hair to absolutely perfect length.

After the relaxing haircut, I popped in at the local library (nicely stocked for a small town) and skimmed a novel until I could check in at Grand Anne.

The Grand Anne, owned by Kent and Cassie Barrett with caretaking done by Rick and Cretia Hesse, is the very picture that pops into your head when you think about B & Bs.  It’s a 22 room Grand Anne mansion designed by George F. Barber who built his fortune designing mail order homes.  He would send people the plans for the house with sheets of graph paper and ask for a rough sketch of any changes to be made to be drawn on the graph paper and mailed back to him.  He would then draw the changes to scale and go back and forth until the people buying the home were satisfied.  At that point, the buyers could either build the homes themselves or Barber would sell them the materials and rent out the help to build the home.  For a fun bit of trivia, Barber had no formal training in architecture, yet 2,000 buildings he designed are still standing today.

Barber designed the Grand Anne for Clyde Royal Joy, a managing director of SF Baker and Company, a pharmaceutical firm, in 1897 for the astonishing price of $12,500 (modern day equivalent of nearly $360,000).  The house is worth much more than the modern day equivalency as Joy spared no expense on the home.  To give you an idea of its modern day value, the wood used in the parlor costs more than $12,500 today.

When I arrived at the inn, I found a piece of paper and a key for my room sticking to the front door.  I walked into the foyer and instantly felt at home.  The Grand Anne is easily one of my favorite inns that I’ve stayed at as it is a classic B & B, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since the Victorian Villa.  I headed upstairs to Clyde’s Retreat, the one time master bedroom and my base of operations.  It’s one of the most spacious rooms I’ve had with some very comfortable chairs and a plushy bed.  All I needed was a fireplace and a sidekick and I’ve would have felt like Sherlock Holmes.

After unpacking my gear, I wandered around the mansion, enjoying the Christmas trees and decorations, especially a Christmas village located on the Steinway piano in the music room.  I then donned my coat and took a walk around Grand Avenue.

Grand Avenue was once the Millionaire’s Row of the city as that is where the expensive and ritzy homes were built.  I later learned that a 72 room mansion once filled the six blocks next to Grand Anne costing an eye popping $1 million back in 1887 (modern day equivalent of $25 million!!).  Regrettably, that home only lasted for 30 years and not a trace of it exists.

It was still mighty cold outside so I headed back to Grand Anne to warm up for a bit before heading out to dinner.  I decided to give the Hawkeye Restaurant a try.  This eatery is known for a pork tenderloin sandwich that was deemed best in the country by USA Today.  If I could have preserved one I’d have taken it back to Omaha as that is my pop’s favorite sandwich.

The restaurant is quite popular as it was jammed to the rafters when I arrived.  I managed to get seated in the lounge where I ordered jerk chicken with a cup of their “World Famous” Wisconsin cheese soup and a side of fries.  The soup was remarkable.  It had a bit of a kick to it and truly was the best cup of Wisconsin cheese soup I had ever tasted.  The fries were crisp and the chicken was served on a bed of rice with fried jalapenos.  It was pretty good, but I expected a lot more spice for a Caribbean dish.  It had the hint of authentic jerk chicken, but needed to go a bit further with it.

After the meal, I decided to drive around the town to see what they might have for lighting displays and was surprised to see that very few homes actually set up anything on the outside.  I drove to the farthest end of Grand Avenue and then saw the mother of all lighting displays.

The display was in a place called Rand City Park and it was called the City of Christmas.  I drove through the park in awe of the incredible display which was sponsored by many of the local businesses.  I saw Biblical displays, winter displays, and a section dedicated to the beloved Christmas specials of my childhood.  Definitely worth a visit if you are in Keokuk around Christmas.

035

City of Christmas

Once I had traveled through the City of Christmas, I returned to my room where I watched a DVD and then curled up in my cushiony queen bed and slept the night away under the soft glow of my Christmas tree.

The Grand Anne is famed for its 4 course gourmet breakfasts and I was very much looking forward to it the next morning.  At 8:30 I went downstairs to the dining room where I enjoyed Cretia’s fine cooking which included a freshly squeezed special orange juice blend of the inn’s, a lemon muffin, grapes & yogurt, and chili egg bake with baked bacon.  I had fellow guests this time and spent a rather enjoyable few hours sharing conversation.  Afterwards we went up to the Billiards Room on the mansion’s first floor where we learned we all had the same level of skill in pool.  That is to say, we all stunk.  But it was still fun to play.

When the game was done, I bundled up, hopped into my car, and drove to nearby Nauvoo, IL.

Nauvoo is a Mormon settlement built by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints, and his followers.  When they first arrived, it was a malaria ridden swamp land and they built it up to a bustling community of 50,000, the second largest city in Illinois at one point before the assassination of Joseph Smith ended up scattering the Church of Christ.  Today the town only has a population of 1,100 but it does an impressive job of preserving its history.

I stopped in the Joseph Smith Visitors Center where I paid for a tour of Old Nauvoo.  My tour guide was Don who was a fount of knowledge about the history of the area as he showed me around the old homes of Joseph Smith and told me about the history of the area.  One thing I learned it aside from the history was that those old homes were built to last.  The old homes kept the cold outside without virtue of any of our modern conveniences.

The tour ended in the Red Brick Store which sells books, old fashioned candies, and even a famed “home brewed” root beer.  The quotes are because it’s actually made in Ohio, but it is quite tasty nonetheless.  After my tour I drove to the top of the city to look at the rebuilt Mormon Temple before returning to Keokuk.  Nauvoo also has year round wagon rides and nightly shows.  In the summer there’s quite a bit more to do, so if I’m in the region again during that season, I’ll be sure to give it another visit.

I returned to the inn and relaxed for about an hour before heading to worship services at the Church of All Saints.  This church was like stepping into a time warp as the inside reminded me of Sacred Heart, a church I sometimes attended back in Fort Dodge, IA with a priest that reminded me of my favorite pastor, Father Richard Kielbasa AKA Father K AKA The Rock.  Yep.  Before Dwayne Johnson, the original Rock was Father K and they both shared the same charisma.

Originally, I had planned to go back to Nauvoo to eat the buffet dinner at the famed Hotel Nauvoo, but discovered they stopped serving for the season in mid-November.  Instead I visited Beef, Bread, and Brew in Keokuk.  It’s a small, quiet restaurant known for its weekend buffets (seafood on Friday, Prime Rib on Saturday, and a Grand Buffet on Sunday).  I opted for a filet mignon with a side of lattice fries and included a trip to the soup and salad bar.  I tried a cup of their Wisconsin cheese soup, but it was just OK.  It needed to be a little hotter and lacked the zip of the previous night’s soup.  The salad was excellent as was the filet mignon which was cooked to perfection and was nice and juicy.

When dinner was done, it was back to the inn where Rick gave us a 2.5 tour of the mansion.  He was a great storyteller and knew every intimate detail of the house and quite a bit about the town’s history.  He has quite a few interesting stories including the “Story of the Bullet Hole”.  One amusing story I’ll share is that of the golf ball riddled door.  The inn’s second owner was Judge Huiskamp who was an avid golfer (also a good friend of Bing Crosby who often came to Keokuk to play golf with the judge).  Back in the day, the third floor was a ballroom and the judge set up a net to practice his hitting.  He never missed the net, but his children often did pelting the walls and door of the now Tower Suite with golf balls.  The door to the Tower Suite is the original and is just riddled with golf ball divots.

When the tour was done, I returned to my home to begin writing, but a stuck e key curtailed that so I decided to call it a night.

I slept right through the night.  When I awoke the next day, I checked my e key and found it to be working again so I drew a relaxing bath before heading downstairs to breakfast.

The first courses were similar to the previous day’s though the fruit was kiwi and the muffin was cherry.  The main entrée was a delicious egg soufflé with cheddar cheese, chives, and mushrooms with some more baked bacon. Once more I engaged in pleasant conversation until it was time to get back to work and head for home.

018

Egg souffle with baked bacon

Another splendid visitation is in the books.  The Grand Anne was truly a grand experience and I highly suggest a visit if you find yourself in town.  You’ll experience a classic bed and breakfast with some truly superb meals and can take a dive into history at the same time.  Have a blessed and happy Christmas!