The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

April 29, 2012

History permeates Galena at every turn


On a recent visit to Galena, I stayed at the Desoto House, the oldest operating hotel in the state. The desk clerk assured me the staircase in the attractive lobby was the same one Presidents Grant and Lincoln had once ascended.

Abe wasn’t president when he stayed there in July 1856, but the speech he delivered from the balcony of the hotel on July 23 might have been a campaign speech for that office. He spoke on disunion and noted it would never be allowed by the Union. A local newspaper reported, “Hon. Abraham Lincoln hits the nail on the head every time, and in this instance he has driven it entirely out of sight.”

Grant hadn’t arrived in Galena when Abe made that speech; he had left the army and was in Missouri living on a farm that had been a wedding gift from his wife Julia Dent’s father. The farm was not a success and the future president supported his wife and four children by cutting and delivering firewood to people. When he met a former acquaintance he had known in the army, he related he was “solving the problem of poverty.”

It was May 1860 when Grant moved back to Galena and went to work for his father, Jesse, as a clerk in his hardware store at a salary of $600 per year. Jesse Grant was a successful businessman and owned a tannery and a number of retail stores.

Galena was one of the larger cities in Illinois in the 1850s, with a population of nearly 12,000. The lead mines had sparked the growth of the city. In the 1840s they supplied most of the nation’s needs for lead. The city was named for the lead bearing mineral, galena.

U. S. Grant’s career as a clerk in the hardware store was brief. Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, and the Civil War began the following spring. From Galena’s population, Grant and eight other men would become generals as a result of the Civil War. Some appointments would be made after the war was over, but Grant and others earned their stars during the conflict.

Galena today looks much as it did in Grant’s time. Hundreds of buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, and an estimated 85 percent of the town has been declared a National Historic District. Grant’s modest Italianate style home still stands overlooking the cemetery. It was a gift given to the Grant family in 1865 by a group of Republicans who purchased it for $2,500. More than 80,000 people per year visit the home of the former president.

Walking about the village is akin to stepping back in time. Main Street has been named one of the most attractive streets in America. It is lined with well-preserved Federal-style storefronts. They host a variety of shops and restaurants that serve the more than 1 million visitors who come to the village each year. Tucked into a building at 201 N. Main is the Log Cabin Greek Steakhouse. Sue and I had dinner at the restaurant that has been in operation since the 1930s.

The owner of the Log Cabin is an American success story. Frank Rigopoulos immigrated to Ellis Island from Greece when he was 17n years old in 1954. His first job in his new country was as a dish washer in a restaurant. He continued to work in the food business, learned the trade, and saved his money. In 1975 he purchased the Log Cabin, and the fine establishment is still operated by him and his family.

The desk clerk at Desoto House remarked guests from every state and many foreign nations make their way to Galena annually. This was illustrated by license plates on the cars in their parking garage. Among others there were vehicles from California, Arizona, Nevada, and Maryland. A sign over the door to the garage announced it was Desoto House Parking since 1855.

Perhaps that’s where Abe Lincoln parked his horse when he electioneered there in 1856.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.