Day trip: A green flying saucer, a giant pink elephant -- and a rabbit ranch

News-DemocratJuly 21, 2013 

It's one of those day trips that has something for everybody: Classic vehicles for Dad, Victorian mansion for Mom, Route 66 stop with rabbits for the kids, lakeside lunch for everybody and a bit of history thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and let's not forget the green flying saucer, giant pink elephant and ice cream -- and that's just one stop.

Traveling along winding county roads off Interstate 55, intrepid travelers can do a lazy loop from Belleville to Carlinville, with stops in between. You'll cover less than 200 miles round-trip. Another option is to avoid the interstate altogether. Illinois 4 will take you right to Carlinville, the northern most stop on this adventure.

This is a flexible day trip, so you can begin or end in any order, though some locations have set hours.

Another caveat: Get good directions and a good map. Traveling along back roads that have two and three names (depending on where they are), as well as portions of Old Route 66, can throw Google Maps, the navigator and the driver into a confusing tizzy. Generally, everything is easy to find, if you pay attention.

Stop 1

Henry's Ra66it Ranch, 1107 Historic U.S. 66/South Madison Street, Staunton. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays to Saturdays; henrysroute66.com; 217-635-5655.

Distance: Belleville to Staunton, about 48 miles. Take exit 33 off I-55 North.

Rich Henry's oddball gift shop and visitors center is about 10 minutes off I-55. The place sits on a wedge of Old Route 66 and looks like a vintage filling station, but Rich says it isn't so.

He put up the building in 1992 to store cars, then made it look like a Mobil station he worked in as a teen in St. Louis where he grew up. By 1995, he decided travelers needed to know more about the Mother Road, so he filled the shelves and glass cases with all kinds of Route 66 stuff: stickers, magnets, pins, maps, guide books. But the draw is the furry inhabitants.

"I've got 13 rescue rabbits," said Rich, as he stood surrounded by cages inside the shop. These are large bunnies, from caramel-colored to black and in between.

His daughter, Emily, got him stuck on rabbits, and he's a sucker for a sad story about an abandoned bunny.

Outside, he picks up hefty Little Red from a big caged run and poses with her. If you want a hare-y souvenir photo of your own, Rich will point out the 8-foot fake rabbit around the side of the building. He had it built with steps so tourists could pose next to it.

If you want to take a bunny home, you'll have to settle for a plush white toy with black spots. It's $10.66.

Stop 2

Country Classic Cars, 2149 E. Frontage Road, Staunton. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and to 3 p.m. Saturdays; 618-635-7056; countryclassiccars.com. Open to the public.

Distance: Three miles from Henry's Ra66it Ranch following Old Route 66. To avoid confusion (and it happens), it might be easier to go back the way you came and get on I-55 North. Country Classic Cars is easy to spot from the interstate. Take exit 41, turn right on Staunton Road and follow the signs.

You have to really love old cars to spend a lot of time here. Five giant outbuildings are filled with more than 500 vintage vehicles.

They all run and are for sale. You'll see everything from a 1921 Dodge Touring Car ($12,750) and a 1935 Plymouth Deluxe ($17,550) up to a 1968 Pontiac GTO ($14,750) and a 1989 Cadillac Hearse Victoria with "ice cold factory AC" for $4,950.

You'll find just a few foreign models, and a bit of dust. But every car has a sticker on it. Only one building is cooled/heated, so be prepared.

Country Classic Cars started as a weekend hobby for farmer/mechanic Russell Noel. Now he's got buyers calling him from around the world.

Standing next to a green 1941 Plymouth Business Coupe, an employee talked on the phone with a man from France who wanted directions from Chicago.

Out in the big parking lot, Bill Decker, of St. Louis, watched as the coupe was driven over to him. "Pretty nice," he said. He'd brought a couple guys to help him look it over.

"The mileage is OK (78,000)," he added before hopping behind the wheel to give it a test spin. Price: $12,550.

Stop 3

Carlinville: About 5,900 residents live in the town founded in 1828. It is the county seat of Macoupin County.

Distance: About 34 miles northwest of Country Classic Cars. Take exit 60 off I-55 North and follow signs for Carlinville and Illinois 108. Illinois 4 also runs right through the town.

You'll find three areas of interest here:

* Downtown square and courthouse

* Anderson Mansion and Museum, 920 W. Breckenridge St.; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays year-round and 1-5 p.m. Sundays in the summer. Free. Call 217-854-3099 or 854-5890 (Jim Frank) for group tours and to inquire about tours on days the site is not open. For more information, go to carlinvillechamber.com and click on Historic Carlinville.

* Sears catalog homes in the Standard Addition of town. For group tours, call Robert Cook at 217-556-5321.

Downtown -- For those who enjoy visiting historic towns and homes, Carlinville is a fortunate place to stop. The big downtown square has as its centerpiece a large, lovely gazebo, small garden and benches for seating. It is surrounded by buildings from the 1800s, including the Loomis House, built as a hotel in 1870 and looking every inch like it belongs on a movie set from that era. Today it houses several businesses. Try the nearby Refugee Coffeehouse for lunch or a snack. Both are on the east side of the square.

If you stand at the gazebo, you can see the gleaming dome of the Macoupin County Courthouse over the downtown rooftops. Walk a block east and you'll find it sitting quite spectacularly all on its own. Still in use, it was designed by architect Elijah E. Myers and built in 1870. Its size, said to be one of the biggest in the nation, and elegance had a purpose: The county hoped that it would make Carlinville a candidate for the location of the state capitol. We all know it didn't work.

Anderson Mansion and Museum -- The Macoupin County Historical Society has done itself proud, restoring over the past 40 years an 1883 Victorian lady, then creating a parklike setting in which she resides.

"We never asked for any grant money; we did this all on our own," Historical Society member Jim Frank said.

When you visit, you not only get to see the house, but can visit the nearby one-room 1875 schoolhouse, wash house, chapel and blacksmith shop. Because tours are run by mostly retired volunteers, hours are limited. But the Historical Society welcomes groups, from Scouts to seniors, with advanced notice. Spring and fall festivals (Sept. 21-22 this year) on the shady 30-acre property draw thousands, and the house is open then, too.

You'd never know the Anderson Mansion started life as a one-story residence built by John Anderson. As his family grew, so did the house. Up. The second story, the attic and tower were added in 1892. The 13-room home has a side porch that's almost as pretty as the front one. The large stained glass window at the top of the second-floor landing was purchased at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The mansion also has become a museum with exhibits that chronicle the development of Macoupin County, including displays of Victorian women's undergarments in one upstairs room and medical supplies on a summer porch. The kitchen has more than 100 mustache tea cups arrayed on a shelf around the room.

Jim Frank said the group moved the school and church here to the property they acquired to not only save the buildings -- "The school had been turned into a chicken coop" -- but also to draw visitors to one central location.

Weddings are held in the rustic chapel, which has curving rows of pews that seat 50. Big shade trees dot the landscape.

Recently a large display building was constructed to house vehicles and farm machinery collected by the Macoupin Agricultural Antique Association. A new genealogy center that seats 60 was built across from the mansion. Admission to use the depository and library there is $3.

Sears Catalog homes -- Robert Cook lives on quiet, tree-lined North Charles Street. Many of the two-story frame homes look similar to his. That's not surprising.

"This is the Whitehall," he said as he stood on the front steps. "It's one of eight styles of Sears homes on this block."

You could easily pass by a Sears catalog home and not know it. On Robert's street, porches have been added, facades muddled by renovations so the originals are a bit hard to see.

The precursor to prefabricated housing, a Sears home was a kit you could order out of the Sears Catalog. Building supplies were delivered by rail -- so living in a town with a railroad line running through it was a plus. Local labor built them.

In Carlinville, there are 152 Sears Catalog homes in a nine-block area called the Standard Addition. Only Elgin, a suburb of Chicago, has a larger collection of Sears homes in the country, with 210. But, they're not all in one place.

The Carlinville neighborhood got its name from Standard Oil of Indiana. The company came to town in 1917 to open two new coal mines. The sudden influx of hundreds of mine workers and their families created a temporary housing crisis. The quick solution was for the company to order from Sears and build 156 permanent homes. There were eight different models in the "modest" variety (five or six rooms on two floors) that were selected for Standard Addition, ranging in price from $3,000 to $4,000. All 156 were erected in one year. Over time, three burned down and one was moved out of town.

Robert and his late wife moved from East Alton to Carlinville in 1998 just to live in a Sears Catalog home.

"It was in terrible shape," but worth fixing up, he said, calling it a solid home and a piece of Americana worth saving.

He's made it his mission to educate visitors about Sears homes. He gives tours, by appointment, of his home. Plus, he'll be glad to give you directions so you can drive by others.

Stop 4

Beaver Dam State Park -- Fishing, picnicking, hiking and tent and trailer camping are available. A lake and a restaurant with deck are added attractions. Beaver Dam Cafe, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, to 8 p.m. Fridays; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, to 7 p.m. Sundays; 217-854-6688. The park's full-time ranger is Dennis Armour, 217-854-8020.

Distance -- About 10 miles southwest of Carlinville. Or, about 60 miles (about 90 minutes) from Belleville using I-255.

Beaver Dam State Park's 750 acres are tucked away on a winding Macoupin County road.

"It's kind of a hidden treasure," said Girard resident Ron Wichern, who was lunching with his wife Becky at the Beaver Dam Cafe.

Situated in a woodland of oak and hickory trees, it was named for a beaver dam that created its lake; the beavers are all but gone now.

But there is one bear: Stop at the entrance to the park and get your photo take next to a vintage Smokey Bear sign.

You can hike about 8 miles of trails that encircle the lake, lead past the marsh and extend through various wooded areas in the park.

Over the years, the 59-acre lake has been stocked with large-mouth bass, bluegill, sunfish and channel catfish. Use the docks and boat launch for free. Only electric trolling motors allowed.

Even if you don't plan to spend the day, stop by for a meal at the restaurant. Eat inside with a view of the lake, or get closer on the covered deck. If you go now, you might still see hummingbirds zipping in and out as they drink from the feeders put up by campers.

The menu includes breakfast, lunch and dinner specials. After you polish off a pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries ($7.30), take a walk around the lake's shoreline. It's about 2 miles.

Stop 5

Mother Jones monument, Union Miners Cemetery, Mount Olive.

Distance: About 25 miles from Beaver Dam State Park via several sections of Old Route 66 and a bit of Ilinois 4. It will take about 45 minutes. But you've probably seen the signs on I-55N. From Belleville, it's about 53 miles on the interstate, an hour's drive to exit 44, toward Mount Olive/Benld and Illinois 138.

Union Miners Cemetery holds a bloody history. Because of labor unrest in Illinois in the late 1800s, many town and church cemeteries wouldn't bury coal miners who could be linked to sometimes violent labor strikes. The Union Miners Cemetery was founded in 1898 so there would be a place for those men and women.

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones asked to be buried there. Passing the I-55 sign, you may have wondered who she was. Jones was an activist in labor and union politics both in Illinois and throughout the United States and Canada. She fought for unions for miners so that they could be guaranteed decent and safe working conditions. She died in 1930 at age 93.

The Union Miners Cemetery erected a monument to her, and seven miners. They were killed in 1898 during "the Battle of Virden," during which a train filled with strike breakers and security guards pulled into the town near the mine's stockade. When United Mine Workers tried to surround the train and turn it back, the guards opened fire. Seven miners and four guards were killed. Dozens were injured.

The names of the slain miners are inscribed on bronze plaques around the monument.

Stop 6

Pink Elephant Antique Mall, 908 Veterans Memorial Drive, Livingston. Easily seen from I-55; take exit 37 toward Livingston/New Douglas. You also can reach it from Illinois 4. 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; 618-637-2366.

Distance: From Mount Olive, it's 10 miles heading south.

It's time for ice cream, antique shopping and a chance to say you've seen a flying sauce. Sort of.

Pink Elephant owner Dave Hammond collects big cool stuff. What else can you say about a giant pink elephant, a 20-foot surfer in blue swim trunks holding an ice cream cone, a giant ice cream cone that houses the Twistee Treat and a very rare piece of mobile architecture. All are parked on display for I-55 drivers to gawk at.

If anything should make you stop here, besides ice cream, it's the Futuro, also called the Futuro House. It's a round, prefabricated house designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968 to be a modern way to build mobile living space -- something that could be taken anywhere. Fewer than 100 were ever built. How did one land in the Land of Lincoln? This one was exhibited at Illinois State Fairs in the 1970s before Hammond found it a couple years ago in serious disrepair near Springfield Airport, bought it and began renovations. Most recently, it's gotten a coat of green paint. The interior is empty. No jet packs or robots inside.

Seated not far from the Futuro was Sr. Airman Logan Jokisch, 22, and SIUE student Raya Cloninger, 21. They were finishing ice cream treats from Twistee Treat, another building Hammond saved.

"I've been here before," said Logan, stationed at Scott Air Force Base. "But I've never brought her here."

Raya, who lives in Edwardsville, said they had the day off and were just enjoying the weather.

"This has been fun; it's a very interesting place."

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