Galena, Illinois is the only place in the Midwest that I’m homesick for, and I didn’t even grow up there. Well, not really. We lived two hours east in a town I don’t miss one bit since it was pretty forgettable: flat farmland broken up by Walmarts and warehouses, a depressed downtown, strip mall sprawl. When one of our friends happened to stop through there on a road trip he was even less impressed. “You grew up here?” he asked, and I was embarrassed.
I’d much rather be able to say I grew up in Galena, just like my mom and my grandparents, and probably their parents before them. As a kid I went to Galena so much that I practically did grow up there. We’d go visit my grandparents, who still live in the same house they’ve lived in since my mom was young, and as soon as we got into town my sisters and I would go exploring. We’d walk down Franklin Street, turning up the alley by the Catholic church and peering into the windows of the abandoned brick building behind it. It was hard to believe that our mom had once gone to school there. It looked ancient and gothic, like something out of a Dickens novel.
From there, we’d continue up the steep hill, walking along streets that curved around ridges, with brick Victorian houses to our right and abrupt drop-offs and crumbling staircases to our left. We’d go to the school at the top of the hill where our grandpa had gone to kindergarten in the ’30s We’d walk down the Green Street stairs to Main Street—mainly to hit Kandy Kitchen, of course, but also to window shop. Sometimes we’d sneak into the Desoto House to see if it looked at all like it did when Lincoln gave a speech there. It didn’t, but I still liked it. In those days I thought that history was just a dry, stuffy course we had to take in school, but it was impossible not to be fascinated by the past while wandering around Galena. I learned to love history without even realizing it. I loved Galena’s history museum, with its stories of the town’s Civil War connections. It seemed like just about every other one of those brick houses up in the hills had been lived in by a Union General at some point. The museum celebrated them all, but only its most famous citizen, Ulysses S. Grant, got his own display.
Right now I’m still Civil War-obsessed. I’m still on book two of Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, but I’m also reading a Grant biography that my parents got me as a consolation gift for going to Shiloh without me. The section on Galena was short (Grant didn’t live there long) but as I read it I was on my phone, looking up the houses where Grant lived and the location of the leather goods store where he worked. I already knew about one of Grant’s houses, the one the city gifted to him after he helped win the war. It’s been a museum for years, and I may or may not have gone to it as a kid. If I did, I can’t remember. But I had no idea that the house Grant first lived in when he first came to Galena, back when he was struggling to make a living for his family, is still standing. And not only still standing, but just up the hill from the abandoned school where my sisters and I used to loiter. And not very far from where my mom grew up.
It’s been around six years since I’ve been to Galena. I’m hoping we’ll get to make a trip to Illinois later this year so I can show Drew Chicago and possibly my hometown, as embarrassing as it is. But mostly I want to see Galena. I want to visit my grandparents and take Drew around the town, hitting up all the old places and some Civil War sites too.
Photos of Galena taken in the ’60s by Marguerite Baker Johnson.