Galesburg, then and now


by  William A. Franckey


In every town, in every city there are stories to tell, of people, struggle, and life. Galesburg, Illinois is no different. Many points of interest are easy to find. Local city maps and brochures guide us to this place or that. Like many communities, permanent markers and street signs notify us of the importance of a place and time. A plaque may signal that just beyond there is historical significance. Galesburg has a great record of struggle and historical significance, but many times people simply don’t have the luxury of historical perspective.

Galesburg is one such American town that has constantly found itself in precarious situations as it watched and participated in American history. Too big to be a small town and too small to qualify as a great American city, Galesburg yielded to political and economic pressures that changed the look of this Midwestern town, located only 40 miles east of the Mississippi River. 

The inhabitants of Galesburg were forced to deal with the daily chores of life and living in earlier times, as this proved an all consuming effort to survive. Starting as a log city, the town was surveyed, developed and prospered under the umbrella of pious hard work and giant elm trees.

Even today, Galesburg citizens who grow from child to adult and raise families are amazed to find out small trivia facts about their town. Recognizable names constantly surface in any discussion about Galesburg and Knox County. Where else could a Charles Walgreen, George Washington Ferris or a Carl Sandburg be born? Why, did you know the Marx Brothers played cards in Galesburg and between shows, decided to put an “o” behind their names and thus became known to the world as Groucho, Chico and Harpo. 

A couple of years ago a carnival was placed on Depot Street for the annual Railroad Days celebration. This area was the infamous area known as Five Points, a place between Knox College and the BNSF tracks. This was where the eyes of the nation watched the events of the great CB&Q Railroad Strike of 1888 and where little houses still stand on “Scab Alley,” now known as Cottage Avenue. Abraham Lincoln in earlier days could be found waiting at the little red depot where church services were also held, all within eye and ear shot of the taverns of Five Points. In 1884, Galesburg’s new brick depot opened, and on that day Galesburg happily forgot Five Points. Roughly one hundred and 18 years later, life again flourished at the end of S. Prairie Street, if only a carnival. Seems like no one noticed. Not long ago an old brick building, known as Hilgenberg Plumbing and Heating, was razed. Originally it was known to the area as the Bancroft House and also the American House. Stephen Douglas stopped there after leaving his train on his way to debate Lincoln. This was the last building of Five Points to exist. Today there is only a small plaque at Five Points. One wonders if anybody looks at it.      

One is hard pressed today to find the Galesburg of old otherwise known as the City of Brick Streets. The brick streets are paved over, many great homes have been razed, and our old library is gone. As technology and industry developed, demands were placed on the town for space, and location became a premium. Galesburg experienced devastating fires and a city government that fostered urban renewal that slowly altered the landscape of the town. For the returning war veterans of the World War II, grand old homes were cut up into multiple apartments. The carriage houses were indiscriminately razed, and for the next fifty years the little brick buildings around Galesburg’s downtown fell to the wrecking ball. Some argue that when we lost these little alcoves and side street structures, the fabric of Galesburg was lost. Maybe so. The little taverns on the square and old hotels, one by one, caught fire or was demolished with nary a thought save an assured assumption that we were doing the right thing in eliminating the broken-down eyesores. Just a few years ago, people cheered as the vacant New Arlington Hotel across from the depot collapsed on itself as the fire department poured on streams of water in the illuminated dark.

In 2006, Galesburg again experienced a devastating fire that changed an entire block of our downtown business district. Imposing buildings, forgotten in the race to build new shopping areas around malls and superstores, still succumb to “progress,” and many areas of Galesburg will never bounce back, ever. Certain sections of downtown have passed the point of critical mass, if you will. Downtown historic Galesburg is like a fine old lady that has taken some very hard hits and continues to take some hard hits.

A four-story corner bank and surrounding support buildings have given way to an interchangeable bank-gas station building, with its smaller surrounding structures leveled into parking lots. The new bank on Main Street is very nice but it's no John Kennedy. It simply did not replace the building that stood before. Why were not the store fronts left intact and used as giant window displays? The parking lots could have coexisted with the original building fronts, but maybe this exposes something more insidious. Maybe there is something bred deep into our city that's worse than ignorance. Maybe the word is indifference, pure and simple.  Maybe this is a bit harsh, but darned if we don’t wonder about it. Here is the interesting thing, the loss of OT Johnson's touched a nerve. City blocks like this are not replaced. Memories like this will not happen again. So what's the difference between that loss and the loss of our side street shops? Nothing. OT Johnson's has only allowed us to focus on ourselves in a way that the slow decline of the last 50 years did not.

Small human scale shops have resurfaced downtown in a wonderful way. There are areas of downtown that make one want to visit Cherry Street or Seminary Street. A children's’ museum and a Galesburg railroad history museum have become solid reality. Old homes are continually being restored, and neighborhoods are on the verge of bouncing back from decay. Heck, we even support a film festival in Galesburg at a real Rapp and Rapp theater. Want to know one of the best things about the ‘Burg? The morning Zephyr. In what other city can one step on a passenger train in the a.m., at a decent time and still get to Chicago for breakfast at Lou Mitchell's?

Galesburg has now landed the golden goose, thanks to Mr. Bondi and others behind the scenes. The Railroad Hall of Fame is a real thing, and if you don’t think a “Hall of Fame” is real, just try standing in line at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next time you pass through Ohio. Those lines are very real. I agree with some that we can’t depend on one big thing to make our little world a sudden utopia, but its time to embrace our historical legacy here in the ‘Burg. As a natural resource, it is as valid as our old neighborhoods or the black Illinois loam. In the past, I have talked about these very concerns and found that a few city aldermen (sorry, alderpersons) talked the talk but don’t believe in historic Galesburg. They deal in the hard reality of budgets, money, problems and deals. Council voting happens with the best of intentions, but can we now tolerate any limited vision for Galesburg? For some, historical Galesburg has no value in the real world of big dollars and cents. Sure, to a few, it's wonderful that we have Sandburg’s home, and it brings some money into Galesburg, as well as RR Days and the Stearmans. But maybe it's time for all of us to get on board. No longer can we ignore our heritage and past. We should do all we can to develop attractions of a forgotten Five Points, Log City, Sandburg’s neighborhood or a Ferris Wheel. Though it may be too much to hope that a Boone's Alley will re-materialize, let's watch closely what the city does with the new OT Johnson’s space. Lets watch real close......

Boulder Colorado recreated old-looking structures to match their town, so it's possible for us to create some options. It is quite conceivable that Galesburg could experience tens of thousands of additional tourists, if not more, each year. It's time to think outside the box. It's time to prepare ourselves for the Hall of Fame, and we need to do it with some imagination. Maybe the OT Johnson space could become a park or a band shell for outside summer concerts, Ravinia style. Anything but another asphalt parking lot, please God, not another parking lot.