FARM TO FARM TABLE
Locavore brings the table to the farm in peaceful rural Kankakee County.
Revisiting Kankakee County
By: Frank Hosek
The holidays were over, decorations had been packed away for another year and the dark, gloomy walls of winter were slowly closing in on us. So much so that I was contemplating color swatches to repaint those offending walls.
This simply would not do. When middle-of-winter cabin fever strikes, and a Caribbean vacation simply isn’t in the cards it’s time to get out and discover or rediscover the local experiences.
So, on a day that the sun had broken through the winter’s clouds and the dregs of the last snow-fall were quickly melting, we headed out to reacquaint ourselves with Kankakee County.
While we stood and admired an intricately hand-crafted diorama of farm life from the 1930’s our docent, Janet Christenson, was warming to her subject, Earl D. Schoeffner. A life-long friend of Schoeffners, Janet enjoys providing the back story to the various exhibits spread out before us.
With a twinkle in her eye, Janet who is also a Trustee of the Earl D. Schoeffner Farm Museum, pointed out the various miniature scenes of daily life on the farm. I could not tear my eyes away from the antique farm toys that permeated the display. She then mentioned that entire display was housed on a 22’-wagon that Earl used to pull to various farm shows throughout the Midwest.
The Earl D. Schoeffner Farm Museum of Momence opened its doors in 2017. I’m a bit chagrined to admit that we had never been. It’s an oversight that was well worth correcting. Housed in a new building, the facade facing Dixie highway with its heavy wooden stable doors is original to the livery stable that stood on the site for over a century.
Schoeffner’s legacy, a life-long farmer and prolific collector, is the core of the museum. Depicting life in general and farming in particular from the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s, the various vignettes provide a glimpse of a by-gone era. Collections of ancient farm accoutrement, a complete 19th-century kitchen, and a bright red 1950’s Massey-Harris tractor are just a few of the highlights. When we were there, a new exhibit about the area’s original farmers, the Potawatomie Indians, featured authentic arrowheads, axes, ceremonial spearheads, pottery and many other original finds from the Momence area.
As we left, Janet reminded us that the Train Depot Museum was open also.
The old Depot and freight station in Momence was built in 1881, with the original three-room frame building still in daily use until December, 1960. Originally, the station was used by the Three I (Illinois, Indiana and Iowa) Railroad and inherited by the New York Central in the early 1900's. A freight station exclusively since 1936 when passenger service was dropped here, the depot was abandoned in 1960.
The compact depot, which is located next to active railroad tracks, was purchased by Bill and Phillis Munyon who had it beautifully restored. Today, a 5’x16’ model train layout is the centerpiece of the waiting room whose walls are lined with train memorabilia. The little trains running about are sure to bring out the child in everyone.
In a separate room we found a small tribute to the military with uniforms and pictures of local veterans.
Earlier that morning while we awaited the museum’s opening, we had started our day in Momence with an espresso at Off the Vine, a wine and espresso bar just a block away from the farm museum. As we munched on a scone, we talked to owners Debbie & Tony Lampley as they gave us an impromptu tour of the lower level which serves as a wine cellar, tasting room and event room available to rent. While we examined their selection of wines, Debbie mentioned that they were re-introducing live music to their week-ends.
Off the Vine is housed in a beautifully restored 1892 building, just one of the historic buildings that line the downtown area. The variety of well-maintained architectural styles provide a picturesque main street scene seldom seen in today’s throw-away world.
Upon leaving their shop, we crossed the street and discovered Duffy's Odds and Ends. An eclectic collection of vintage furniture, toys, collectibles and even Amish foodstuffs, Duffy’s provides a bit of a scavenger hunt as you poke through the various treasures seeking something that you don’t even know that you need.
Heading out of town for our next adventure, we stopped at Cranky Mike’s Popcorn for a snack to go. Housed in an 1893-built church, the smells emanating from inside can be said to be “heavenly”. A perennial at Kankakee’s Farmer’s Market, picking up a couple of bags of kettle corn and dill-flavored popcorn brought a bit of summer with it on a February afternoon.
Kathy and I were early arrivals at Splitting Targets located on West Ave. in Kankakee for the early afternoon experience of a new sport in Kankakee, axe throwing. I must say it is both intriguing and just a bit alarming flinging an axe 12 feet in hopes of imbedding it into a hunk of lumber.
While hefting the 5-pound axe, I watched as John power-screwed a new center-board onto the 4’X4’ target. I asked him how often he had to replace the boards. “Once a week for the center boards,” he replied, “monthly for the others”. That reassured me that many of the razor-sharp hatchets were finding their mark. However, gouges in the supporting wall were testimony of an occasional errant throw.
After brief review of the rules, 10 throws with scoring determined by which ring your axe lands in, John gave us both much appreciated tips on throwing. With my hand even with my ear, I brought my arm forward, releasing my grip just as the axe came parallel to the floor and watched it tumble threw the air and, surprisingly, bury the head into one of the inner rings of the target. It was certainly smile inducing. Subsequent throws met with varying degrees of success but with great enthusiasm.
As the lanes filled around us with families and groups of friends, it was obvious that most were rather new to the sport also. However, laughter and shrieks of delight seemed to indicate that they would not be novices long.
Stepping into the Kankakee County Museum, our next stop, is like discovering a beloved sweater at the back of the closet. Slipping it on brings back memories that, although not necessarily forgotten, have not been embraced for some time.
Every time I walk the halls of the museum I seem to stumble onto some little tidbit of local history that I had not seen before.
Located on the grounds of Governor Small Memorial Park, you can see the ships’ wheel of the U.S.S. Kankakee which operated during WWII, read about the 3 local gentlemen who reached the highest office of the state; Governor, discover the importance of the river to local economy, or one of my favorites, the George Gray Barnard gallery with its more than 20 sculptures and plaster casts. Barnard was a renowned sculptor of the 19th & early 20th centuries who grew up in Kankakee.
In addition to the museum itself you can explore Dr. A.L. Small’s home and a one room school house. Before we left, we walked the Column Garden admiring its stark winter dress.
Afterwards we sought out something to quench our thirst.
Walking through the doors of Knack Brewery on a winter’s afternoon, we were embraced by the yeasty warmth of a morning brew session. The aged, quaint building’s bright & colorful interior attempts to create an airy feeling of its compact tap-room. Emily greets each newcomer with an engaging smile that quickly puts everyone at ease. As the stools and tables filled, relaxed conversation and quiet laughter became a comfortable background.
Opened in April of 2022, Knack is the vision of Matt & Emily Strysik. The north end of the building is dominated by a diminutive array of brewery equipment where Matt creates the collection of custom draughts that are offered from behind the counter. As we slid onto our stools, Matt explained that his creations are heavily dependent on Emily’s comfortable taste palette which keeps him from becoming over-zealous with his experimentations. As he spoke, he poured us a couple of pints, one of Thrilla, a kolsch style beer which has become a best-seller, and Lucent Gloom, a delightful brown ale.
The following day extended the surprising sunshine that had started the week-end as we headed out again.
There was a time when I could while away an afternoon by slipping a vinyl record out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and dropping the needle. After fiddling with the knobs on my Panasonic receiver, I would sit cross-legged on the floor and read the liner notes of the album from cover-to-cover while rockin’ to the tunes. I was reminded of that as we walked into Ross’s Rock-N-Roll Emporium in Bradley.
A long-time staple of Kankakee County, originally known as Chicago Records, it has always been a place to find record albums (both new & used), CD, tapes and T-shirts. Today, its expansive interior is so much more. The music still thrives here but now you can fulfill your skateboarding needs, contemplate whether-or-not a snake terrarium is in your future or maybe that leather jacket you’ve always craved.
On this day Kathy discovered several ancient Three Dog Night albums to replace ones that I had loaned to her many years prior that had mysteriously disappeared. It was a great find, now if I could just locate that old turn-table.
With the sun high in the sky, we headed to the county’s gem, the Kankakee River State Park. It was little surprising and very much gratifying that several like-minded adventurers had the same idea. As we walked one of several trails throughout the park, we encountered many hikers and, in several instances, their canine companions.
We crossed the green pedestrian suspension bridge, bouncing across its approximately 75 feet as it hovered some 70’ feet above Rock Creek. Making our way down the slopes to the river, we watched several geese settle upon its sparkling waters. Nearby a couple skipped stones across the placid waters.
The park consists of approximately 4,000 acres on both sides of the river with several miles of trails to take the edge off the blues of winter. The area was still inhabited by Native Americans as late as the 1830’s. Most had left the area by the end of the decade, except for Chief Shaw-waw-nas-see, whose grave is commemorated by a boulder along the nature trail at Rock Creek.
We did not have to go far to escape our cabin fever. Stepping out our front door, we simply had to revisit an old friend, Kankakee County.
Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy. He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers and travel magazines.