By Celeste Huttes
No one knows what caused a glacier to stop in the heart of Illinois thousands of years ago, depositing a massive mound of dirt and rock. But those who stop here today discover that history blooms on Elkhart Hill.
About 17 miles northeast of Springfield, Elkhart Hill rises unexpectedly from the flat prairie to an elevation of 777 feet above sea level. Nestled at the foot of the 600-acre hill is the tiny village of Elkhart.
The town was founded in 1855, but its roots date back to 1819, when settler Richard Latham built a home at the foot of Elkhart Hill, along an ancient American Indian trail.
Elkhart once attracted some of Illinois’ early movers and shakers, including a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who would stay in the area while traveling the rural circuit. Two of Lincoln’s close friends, Illinois Gov. Richard Oglesby and John Dean Gillett (“Cattle King of the World”), settled in Elkhart.
“For a village this size, we’ve had more than our fair share of interesting subjects,” says Gillette Ransom of the Elkhart Historical Society (and direct descendant of John Dean Gillett).
Along with interesting human history, Elkhart Hill is home to natural history, unique plant life and virgin woodland. The Elkhart Historical Society is committed to preserving and sharing both.
Among the society’s most popular events are the wildflower walks held every spring on private land still owned by the Gillett family. Led by botanist Bill McClain, the nature strolls spotlight a dazzling display of diverse wildflowers, culminating with a blanket of Virginia Bluebells.
The organization also hosts an annual bird walk where birdwatchers can spot as many as 40 species of migratory birds.
A fall historical tour highlights the hill’s manmade treasures, including the John Dean Gillett Mansion, two historic cemeteries, an Illinois landmark bridge and the St. John the Baptist Chapel, the state’s only privately owned church.
History is also well preserved in Elkhart’s delightfully dainty downtown. Friendly shopkeepers offer unique gifts and antiques in carefully restored buildings dating to the late 1800s, while cafés and bakeries introduce old family recipes to new generations.
The quaintness continues at the town library. Built in 1904, the library features original wood bookshelves and reading tables, and a story as interesting as its architecture. In 1888, Lemira Gillett (wife of John Dean) promised to build a library if the town would stay “dry” for three years.
“It’s a little gem,” says Dr. Margaret “Peggy” Lee, village trustee. “It’s like stepping back in time.”
Thanks to its location on historic Route 66, visitors from near and far have been enchanted by Elkhart.
Road warriors often stop for a made-from-scratch lunch in the whimsical Wild Hare Café, located in a building that was once the town bank.
“I think they’re looking for the authentic, rural America,” says café owner Andrea Niehaus. And this village by the hill delivers authentic charm. As Niehaus says, “Elkhart is like a page from a Norman Rockwell calendar.”
5 Ways to Experience Elkhart
- Shop and dine in historic downtown Elkhart (but not on Mondays when shops are closed).
- Take an art class at Dragonfly Art Studio or a cooking class at Central Illinois Events.
- Spend a weekend at The Brick House, the guesthouse on the Old Gillett Farm.
- Enjoy an “Enchanted Evening” of music and wine on the sprawling lawn of Cro’Hurst Mansion or an interesting dinner and lecture.
- Discover the latest Elkhart events online at www.elkharthistoricalsociety.org and www.elkhartillinois.us.