Days Gone By in Galesburg
If you’re looking for a local way to spend your Saturday, head to Galesburg. This small town, located in west-central Illinois, is home to a commercial district that encourages patrons to enjoy acclaimed dining and specialty shopping in the absence of franchises and chains.
The originality and entrepreneurial spirit in the Seminary Street Historic Commercial District remains its distinction today after more than 30 years in downtown Galesburg.
Nearly 30 local, independently owned shops, food venues and museums line the three-block district. A partially brick-lined street and coordinated awnings and paint schemes highlight buildings that were constructed from the 1880s to 1910, setting a unique tone to a district focused on dining and shopping in a historic setting.
“You can pick any of these businesses, and you find a couple or a family behind it that’s the driving force,” says Jay Matson, who founded the district with his wife, Mary, in the 1970s. In fact, they own the Calico Cat, the district’s original store, and the Packinghouse Dining Co. Their daughter now operates these businesses.
Though specialty districts like Seminary Street are more common today, the concept was innovative – even risky – at its start in the 1970s. In that decade, downtown Galesburg deteriorated because a regional mall opened across town and transformed shopping habits. The Matsons’ gift shop on Seminary Street either needed to move to the new mall or accept the downtown challenge.
“The challenge back then was that the street was deserted, and the buildings were in extreme disrepair,” Matson says, adding that a fire in one building left rubble even on the sidewalk. “The opportunity was that real estate values plummeted to the point where you could purchase.”
They stayed, found investors, bought old buildings, restored them and launched three restaurants as the district’s primary attraction. The Matsons’ strategy was food first, then shops, realizing that even they would be motivated to visit offbeat neighborhoods based on restaurant recommendations.
They warded off bankruptcy a few times, and Seminary Street soon became a model small district for downtown “main streets” throughout the United States. In the late 1970s, Galesburg was one of three communities chosen for the original National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Project. Media attention followed, including press from the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune.
Interest grew and entrepreneurs opened more restaurants, a bakery, coffee house and roastery, pub, historic antique mall, and more than 20 specialty shops that offer toys, salon services, gifts, artwork, floor covering, menswear, jewelry and more.
The district’s restaurants consistently are noted as favorites in local dining reviews. Innkeeper’s Coffee proves a standout at the district’s north end, and the health foods business is a successful niche at Uncle Billy’s Bakery and Cornucopia.
The area also includes the Galesburg Railroad Museum and Discovery Depot Children’s Museum, both within sight of the Amtrak depot. Loft apartments are available in the center of the district.
“We all work hard and work together, and I think that’s one thing that’s really important,” says Marj Edlen, owner and designer at From The Heart, a vendor shop featuring gifts and local artisans.
Edlen also designs heirloom teddy bears and Father Christmas figurines from vintage furs and clothing.
She has shipped more than 10,000 heirloom bears to all 50 states and nine foreign countries from her business home on Seminary Street.
Matson credits ingenuity like this, as well as the unity of the owners, for the success of the Seminary Street Historic Commercial District.
She explains, “The glue that holds it together is that we have a whole bunch of independent owner-operators working together.”