By Gwenn Eyer, innkeeper at Jacksonville's Blessings on State Bed and Breakfast
Jacksonville is a historic town of 20,000 located outside Chicago. I mean, waaaay outside Chicago. Some people even say we’re in the South!
Actually, to get here, just start in the middle of the state in Springfield, and drive west about 30 minutes. You’ll find a gracious community rich in historical treasures with sporting events, locally-owned restaurants and shops, thriving arts, education and culture, all wrapped in Midwestern hospitality.
As the innkeeper at Blessings on State Bed & Breakfast, Jacksonville’s only bed and breakfast inn, it’s my sworn duty to know my community. (I don’t actually get sworn in, but you know what I mean!)
During my 11 years living in Jacksonville I’ve gotten to know this wonderful community pretty well. I’ve attended art openings at the historic David Strawn Art Gallery and toured our historic sites from Woodlawn Farm, an early agricultural center and Underground Railroad site, to the gracious Governor Duncan Mansion, the only existing governor’s mansion outside Springfield. I’ve attended sporting events from D3 college football games, to car, boat and go-kart races. I’ve explored our terrific local restaurants, attended seasonal special events and shopped my way through town.
Like any good concierge, I have to know what places are like before I recommend them, right? So after making many friends and strategic partnerships throughout the area, I’ve got some insider tips that will enhance your stay as you visit my adopted hometown.
Illinois is celebrating its 200th year and Jacksonville is almost the same age. Settlers began arriving around 1818, and Jacksonville was officially laid out and identified as the county seat in 1825. Visiting here really is like stepping back in time.
Since Governor Duncan and Abraham Lincoln were contemporaries, I sometimes wonder if Lincoln once enjoyed visiting the Governor Duncan Mansion as much as I enjoy it today. It’s said that Mrs. Duncan was a tiny woman that the Governor could lift up to sit on the mantel. I just wonder what she looked like standing next to Abraham Lincoln!
At first glance, Jacksonville is filled with historic architecture and the streets are filled with old mansions. Not Rockefeller mansions, exactly, but vintage mansions just the same. The awesome kind you dream of living in when you’re reading classic literature.
A good bit of our town is listed in the National Historic District. Many of the homes date back into the 1800s and are very well kept. Our old beauty is now Blessings on State Bed & Breakfast, the vintage mansion you can actually come spend the night in! One old Italianate home, the Augustus Ayers Mansion, is currently undergoing a period restoration to become another Bed & Breakfast.
Just one little disclaimer before I really get rolling: I love history and I’m especially partial to these old mansions and other vintage architecture. I’m sitting on my beautiful 130-year-old wraparound front porch as I write.
The Jacksonville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau offers three walking tours that take you along tree-lined streets through Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods to learn about the gracious homes where the old-time movers and shakers lived, including the huge mansion just down the street where the pie bakery once opened its doors to the public at 5:30 in the morning. Let them eat… pie!
The Colonial Inn may have gone out of business a hundred years ago, but thankfully, we’ve got great locally owned bakeries that use only the freshest ingredients to bake pies, cakes, pastries and artisan breads, and one is even housed in a vintage building downtown.
Insider Tip: If unfilled chocolate iced long johns are your favorite, you have to get to SafeCo early in the morning to get your pick! However, if you have to settle, let me recommend their Snail, a combination danish and puff pastry. The first time Saif, the owner there, asked me if I’d tried a snail I thought he’d lost his mind! Au contraire. Let me tell you—SafeCo Snails are a great option!
Need a cup of coffee to go with your pastry? Soap Co. Coffee House has you covered! Located next to Our Town Books, a terrific book shop, Soap Co. offers an interesting spot to gather with friends. Depending on the day, you may experience poetry night, listen to a local band, or view a pop-up art show. The building owner recently uncovered a vintage marble column in front of this historic building on the east side of downtown’s Central Park. Why is a coffee house called Soap Co? There’s a story there… be sure to ask Nicole!
We’ve got the basics from Steak 'n Shake, to Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee’s and a multitude of pizza places, including our own locally-owned authentic Italian Leo’s Pizza–Jacksonville is a college town, after all! Choose seating at the hibachi grill at Fujiyama Japanese Steak House and the chefs will keep you entertained throwing utensils and lighting things on fire!
Insider Tip: Although cauliflower pizza crusts may not be authentic Italian, Leo’s serves a good one!
Insider Tip #2: Nearby Springfield is known for a sandwich called a Horseshoe, or the more petite version called the Pony Shoe. Start with bread like Texas toast, add your choice of meat, top with french fries and smother with cheese sauce! These are an off-menu item at our local Steak 'n Shake. You’re welcome.
I’m especially partial to our locally-owned restaurants. From Norma’s, with their over-the-top servings of biscuits and gravy, to Muggsy’s, with their outdoor courtyard seating, to Lonzerotti’s Italia, we’ve got you covered! Our locally-owned restaurants and pubs offer varied menus, great food, house specials and the opportunity to dine in historic locations.
High ceilings, impressive woodwork, and exposed bricks add to the ambiance in our pubs around the downtown Central Park. Lonzo’s, as we locals lovingly call it, is located in a restored train depot built in 1906, and in addition to their fabulous can’t-stop-eating-them bread sticks and entrees prepared with locally-sourced ingredients, I love the ambiance. (Are you sensing a theme, here?)
Insider Tip: Be sure to stop at our local grocer to take home bottles of Lonzerotti’s house Italian dressing. I swear one of my friends drives 300 miles to visit just so she can take six bottles home with her!
Insider Tip: #2: If you’re staying at Blessings on State Bed & Breakfast, let the innkeeper make your dinner reservation at Lonzerotti’s. We’ve established a partnership with Lonzo’s to get the best seating and they’ll typically comp your appetizer or dessert!
Two Jacksonville schools of higher education, Illinois College and McMurray College, date back to the 1800s, so you can probably imagine what the architecture looks like. Close your eyes for a minute and picture an historic brick church in Vermont or Massachusetts. Can you see the red brick structure with its tall white steeple? The lush green grass and the winding walkways? You’re here! Now open your eyes. Picture what these campuses look like in the fall with the beautiful Midwestern colors and in the winter covered in snow.
Many events are held on the 1829-era Illinois College campus, including Jacksonville Symphony concerts. As for MacMurray College, originally The Illinois Female Academy—I can’t tell you how many weddings are conducted at the stunning Annie Merner Chapel on their campus! Spend some time walking around these historic campuses, beautiful in any season.
Insider Tip: McMurray is located just a short walk from Lonzerotti’s, so you can just stroll down the block for an after-dinner walk. Who needs hiking trails when you can stroll around stunning college campuses?
Oh, you need hiking trails? Well, we’ve got them! If you’re a serious hiker or a biker, we’re all set for you, too. There are designated recreation trails for hiking, biking, and running on city property operated by the Morgan County Audubon Society. Trails are updated regularly and maintained by a group of avid mountain bikers from in and around Jacksonville.
Insider Tip: These Recreation Trails are in a flood plain, so just as when driving, exercise caution during periods of heavy rain. Go to their Recreation Trails Facebook page to check current conditions.
Whether you’re a hiker, a biker or a Sunday driver, take your time to savor the experience of time travel as you pass by our historic homes with all their own stories to tell. Who knows? You may be walking where Abraham Lincoln once walked! Several local landmarks are highlighted in our Looking for Lincoln Wayside Exhibits.
Some of our old homes were even on the Underground Railroad, which, as my young assistant innkeeper daughter used to tell people, “was neither underground or a railroad.” Jacksonville was a hub for the Railroad in the mid-1800s, sheltering hundreds on their journey to freedom. The showpiece, Woodlawn Farm, is open for tours during the summer.
Insider Tip: It’s been rumored that an Underground Railroad and Abolition Museum is being planned for one floor of the historic 1859 Congregational United Church of Christ in Jacksonville. The historic church is still being used for services and is also being developed into a music school and performance hall.
Insider Tip: #2: Borrow a CD from the Bed & Breakfast or the Convention and Visitors Bureau and listen to period vignettes as you tour the Looking for Lincoln Wayside Exhibits.
Insider Tip: #3: Have your National Park Service passport stamped at Tanner Hall on the Illinois College Campus.
Stop in at City Park on a sunny summer afternoon and take a ride on our Big Eli® wheel! The first Big Eli® Wheel debuted in Jacksonville’s Central Park on May 23, 1900! (See, I told you there’s history here!) Jacksonville’s own Eli Bridge company still manufactures these fabulous wheels, Scramblers® and other fair rides.
Insider Tip: Local organizations and businesses offer Sunday afternoon Eli Wheel rides at no cost! Due to my fear of heights, my ride may have been the shortest one in the history of the Bed Eli® Wheel, but I’ve ridden it!
Our Bed & Breakfast brings people to Jacksonville even when they have no other reason to be here, no family ties, no wedding, nothing. As an innkeeper, I’m excited to say that I have no problem making recommendations on terrific things to do and wonderful places to go. From restaurants and shops, to sporting events, historic sites and special events, Jacksonville is a destination for all seasons. Check the calendar and start planning your visit! Here are some of my favorite suggestions for our guests:
Whether you’re dressed up or dressed down, boating out on the lake or stepping back in time inside a historic venue like the Governor Duncan Mansion, reading a book on the front porch or biking the trails, there are many ways to experience historic Jacksonville! Come see us!
Ready to run to Jacksonville? When you're there, don’t forget to share your stories, your snaps, and your top tips with us on the Enjoy Illinois Facebook page. Hashtag #EnjoyIllinois and we’ll all be inspired by your adventures!