ILLINOIS: TRIP 4A (From 1939 WPA American Guide Series, Illinois Edition)
Driving through North Central Illinois on I-39 or I-88 can be pretty uneventful. Just like in most of middle America, highways through these parts skirt around cities, zip over rivers and slice through farm fields. The big green exit signs display names of the “biggest small” towns such as Byron, Dixon, and Rochelle, IL. When you use these exits, most often before seeing anything else, you stumble upon typical fast food chains and gas stations; most highway travelers never even make it to the towns that the highway exit is marked for. The reality is that if you want something more than a value meal from a drive-through or a very questionable convenience store hot dog, you actually have to navigate past these modern day distractions and make your way down the state road until your find yourself in the actual town that these roads were built for.
It is in these towns that you may find a little family restaurant or the town bar—the establishments that use to be the hub of these towns, the towns that were the home of so many proud families. Unfortunately now that the super highway exit ramps spit cars into the parking lot of the first McDonald’s off the the highway, these towns no longer see the benefits of the American traveler.
On my recent journey to explore Trip 4A from the 1939 WPA American Guide Series Illinois edition—called “Rockford, IL to Dixon, IL via Byron, Oregon and Grand Detour”—I found myself on Illinois Route 2 (now designated as a “Blue Star Memorial Highway”). As the road wound through rural Illinois, I felt the appreciation for a time when people actually traveled through towns instead of around them. It is on Trip 4A that you see the scenic views of the Rock River and pass through the epicenter of the historic Black Hawk War. As you stumble upon small town after small town and you take the time to stop at a drive-in for a root beer float, you realize that life moves way too fast on America’s modern day highways. These history-rich and beautiful sites are simply skirted around and zipped by at 75mph as if they aren’t even there.
State 2, the Black Hawk Trail, between Rockford and Dixon is a route of historical interest and scenic beauty. The road and the region, popularly known as the Black Hawk Country, are named for the proud war chief of the Sauk and Fox, who, upon his exile from the State in 1833, said of this valley: “Rock River was a beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did.”
—Illinois, A Descriptive and Historical Guide (WPA, 1939)
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Dan Caruso is a Guide to Illinois and Wisconsin. He grew up in Wisconsin and moved to Chicago to get his masters degree in architecture. He currently works as a project manager for a small local architecture firm, is trying to break into real estate, and wishes he was a photographer. You can see Dan’s photographs on flickr and his tumblr page, jonnyoptimo.tumblr.com. He also likes to keep his trigger finger loose on Instagram.