Hellman Guest House offers Spectacular Hospitality and Valley Views
“Is this heaven?” No, it’s Galena, Illinois. Anyone who’s been to this Northwest Illinois village will forgive the confusion. And “real” fans of the movie Field of Dreams will forgive my flagrant plagiarism because they will know that there’s a wonderful connection between that great film and Galena, and I imagine they will happily allow for my use of that iconic phrase.
Carol and I had taken a couple day trips to Galena before we actually stayed overnight for the first time in October 2004. When our good friend and artist, Maureen Montgomery was visiting us from the UK that autumn, Carol suggested we take Mo to Galena because of the eclectic, artsy feel of the town. Carol did her usual thorough research for a place to stay while there and we consider ourselves very fortunate to have found the Hellman Guest House -- a place that’s become our “address” whenever we visit this “heaven on earth.” On that initial visit, we booked a couple rooms for a couple nights and on the first evening our hostess Rita Wadman set us up on the patio in the nicely maintained back garden with a nice fire and a bottle of wine -- portents of many future evenings at this remarkable bed and breakfast.
With some prompting, Rita joined us around the fire that evening and told us a bit of the history of this Victorian home built in 1895 by wealthy merchant, John Hellman. Rita and husband Bob had only recently taken ownership of Hellman House, the end of a long search for a potential bed and breakfast that they could manage. The Wadmans had visited Galena many times from their home in the Chicago suburb of Lisle and, like so many other visitors, they fell in love with the town and the townsfolk. When Hellman House became available, they began the process to acquire it.
Hellman House was one of the first homes in Galena built with central electricity, bridging the gap from the Victorian Age to modern America. The craftsmanship that shows through in the woodwork throughout the three-story home is as fine as any I’ve seen. The hand-carved detail and flawless joinery indicate that great care was given in the home’s construction. If, as I do, you admire that sort of attention to detail, a walk around Hellman House will give you plenty of opportunities to be impressed.
We first learned of the Field of Dreams/Galena connection on that first evening around the fire. And while I’d always felt a real affinity to the town, learning that Galena “played the role” of Chisholm, Minnesota in the film, that the actors had stayed in Galena while filming and that the baseball diamond in Dyersville, Iowa is still there and only a 40-minute drive from Hellman House, Galena became very special to me and has remained that way for years now.
We spent that next day finding all the recognizable buildings and features that were used in the film – something that was made very easy to do as the visitors center plays a feature that was a part of the 25th anniversary DVD of the film in which local historian, Steve Repp, takes you on a tour of the town, pointing out all the places used in the movie. As it turns out, we met Steve some years later and his knowledge of all things Galena is quite remarkable, especially for someone who has only lived in the town since the late 70’s.
Another local historian was Alfred (Alfie) Mueller who, til his death in 2004, was the foremost authority on Galena history. Mueller began collecting memorabelia and historic images of Galena and the surrounding area as a young man and continued to amass the collection the rest of his life. There are over 10,000 items in all, providing a rich photographic history of Galena, arguably an unprecedented archive, allowing a unique look back into the town’s past. Mueller’s collection of this material and its subsequent donation have, as Landmarks Illinois pointed out when they awarded Mueller their Stewardship Award, benefited “countless researchers, residents, and visitors to Galena …”
Nowadays, Steve gives evening tours of Galena on Fridays and Saturdays (Sundays in October) that include a lot of information on the town’s history and a little mystery as well, with a ghost story or two mixed in. “Galena is a unique town because it’s so well-preserved; it’s like an outdoor museum,” Steve told me. “If people could travel through time from the past, the buildings would look the same to them, just different names on the shops.”
The Hellman Guest House provides a perfect home base for exploring historic Galena. The four guest rooms, the Master bedroom and three bedrooms named after the Hellman children, each offer an authentic Victorian atmosphere. In the morning, the aroma of early coffee wafts through the house and beckons you downstairs to breakfast. Rita’s morning repasts are exquisite, some of the best we’ve had. Depending on the number of guests, Rita offers flexible breakfast times – a nice touch for those of us who like a serious morning walk on the Galena River Trail. We like to have coffee on the wrap-around front porch before breakfast. The view from the porch, high above Main Street, gives a full perspective of the river valley and must look very similar to what the Hellman family would have seen as they relaxed on a cool summer evening in the 1890’s. It’s the history, which you can’t help but feel at Hellman House that draws you in. The modern conveniences that are expected at a top-of-the-line bed and breakfast these days are all there, but they’re blended so perfectly with a sense of the past. “I strive to keep (the house) authentic but comfortable and homey,” Rita says. A lot of people who visit Galena are interested in Civil War history but, according to Rita, Galena really came into its own after the war. “We’re focused more on the Victorian era here,” Rita adds. “The view and the Victorian period architecture and furniture pieces are big draws to Hellman House.” And folks are drawn from everywhere. A quick read through the guest book will quickly prove that. Rita is amazed when she thinks about how people find Galena and Hellman Guest House from all over the world.
I’m very glad we found it. In all our travels, Hellman House is the only bed and breakfast that we have gone back to year after year. For us, Galena is a perfect weekend getaway with all the elements we count on when looking for a relaxing, enjoyable holiday. The magic of the Field of Dreams connection, the great little shops, the excellent dining options and the warm hospitality we receive at Hellman House will likely keep us coming back to Galena for years to come. Maybe this is heaven.
For more information, availability and rates on the four guest rooms at Hellman House, check out their website at Hellman Guest House or contact Rita at 815-777-3638. Tell her Dan and Carol sent you!
For more information on Galena and area activities, follow this link: Galena. For info on The Galena River Trail, follow this one: Galena River Trail
The Galena Library and The Galena History Museum are both well worth a visit. For information take a look at these sites: Galena Library and Galena History Museum
The Field of Dreams – “If you build it, he will come.”
When W.P. Kinsella wrote Shoeless Joe in 1982 and Phil Alden Robinson turned the novel into the film, Field of Dreams seven years later, neither man could have known that over two decades later, people would still be visiting that magical baseball field in Dyersville, Iowa. Field of Dreams was among my all-time favorite films long before I actually visited the field in 2004. And finding out that Galena served as Chisholm, Minnesota in the movie, transported Galena into my favorite weekend getaway and prompted many subsequent visits -- and that’s very likely to continue.
Walking in Doc Graham’s footsteps, visiting his office and standing at the corner of Green and Main -- the shot of Chisholm’s centennial banner when Ray and Terrence Mann first get to town, well, for me, these things are as magical as anything I’ve experienced as an adult. And I get that every time I go to Galena and every time I run the bases at the field. I’ve visited Dyersville with good friends and close family. My sisters and I did a Galena weekend in September 2005 and we did the Field of Dreams trip as well, running the bases, disappearing into the cornfield and “having a catch.” I never had the opportunity to visit the field with my dad, but we did watch the movie together once. Not sure if it was because of that, but I did tell my dad that I loved him lots of times before he passed away in 2006. I think of Dad every time I’m in Galena and Dyersville -- a big part of the magic, as you can imagine.
The field is open April through November and admission is free. They do ask for donations as the upkeep of a “baseball diamond in the middle of rich farmland” is quite costly. Bring a ball, bat and glove with you and you can capture the magic, too. In fact, go on a weekend and you can sometimes even get in a real game. Also, on the fourth Sunday of each month they're open, you can actually see "ghosts" come out of the cornfield and interact with visitors. People come back to see that year after year. If you like baseball, the movie or if you even if you just love your dad, “go the distance” and spend a day at the Field of Dreams Movie Site. Check out their website at Field of Dreams Movie Site.
Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery
Not surprisingly, the fact that Galena has a very nice winery has not gone unnoticed by Carol and me. We’ve visited the tasting room and gift shop on Main Street many times and spent some happy hours at the winery a few miles north of town as well. I love how the Lawlor family blends locally grown grapes with varietals from California, Oregon and Washington State to create, in my opinion, the best wines produced in Illinois. Follow this link to read a great feature that Carol did on the winery: Galena Cellars Feature
Ulysses S. Grant Mansion
On our most recent visit to Galena, Carol and I visited the Ulysses S. Grant Mansion. The former president has a large presence in Galena and is of course, the town’s most famous former resident. After graduating from the United States Military Academy, the young Grant began his military career fighting in the Mexican American War. He retired from the service in 1854 and came home to Galena to work in his father’s tannery. He lived in a modest home just down High Street from Hellman House, which is now a private residence.
After the Civil War broke out, Grant returned to the military in 1861 and rose to command the Union Army. After the war and upon his return home to Galena, he found that a group of local businessmen had purchased a large house on Bouthillier Street with the intention of giving it to the general in appreciation of his service.
Grant and his family lived in the house until he was elected the 18th President of the United States in 1868 and of course, moved to Washington. He returned to Galena from time to time as president and stayed in the home, visiting his children who had remained there. Some years after Grant's death in 1885, the children donated the house to the city of Galena on the condition that it be maintained as a memorial to their father. The State of Illinois now owns the house and it has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
We highly recommend the 15-minute tour of the mansion, given by the folks there in period garb. We learned that the house contains 90 percent of the furniture and fittings that were present when the Grant family lived there. Much of the tour is self-guided and there’s a lot of information on the house and the family. On the morning of our visit, we walked to the mansion from Hellman House through Grant Park, no doubt retracing the footsteps of this legendary general. You can feel the history in Galena at every turn and it’s a big part of the town’s appeal. The Grant Mansion is a must-see.
So many choices, so little time -- never so true as when looking for a place to have a bite to eat in Galena. We’ve had a chance to try quite a few and here are some of our favorites:
Green Street Tavern - This is where Carol and I had our first lunch in Galena and it remains one of our favorite spots. Located in the historic DeSoto House Hotel, Green Street Tavern is one of the longest standing eateries in Galena. They have a great lunch menu…check it out at Green Street Tavern
Frank O'Dowd's Irish Pub - This is the only place we’ve tried in Galena that isn’t downtown and within easy walking distance of Hellman House. It sits a little less than a mile southeast of town on Route 20 and is a part of the Irish Cottage Hotel. You can walk to it, however, and Carol and I have done so. It’s a bit of a circuitous route through Grant Park and past St. Michael’s Cemetery but it can be done. They have some great pub food including fish and chips and shepherd’s pie, great beer selections and traditional entertainment year-round. Check it out at Frank O'Dowd's
Vinny Vanucchi's - We’ve dined here many times and it remains our favorite place in Galena. The family recipes and great wine list make this one of Galena’s most popular spots. Try Papa John’s Shells. Excellent! Here’s the Vinny’s website: Vinny Vanucchi's
Fried Green Tomatoes - Arguably the most famous restaurant in Galena, FGT boasts a great wine list and a diverse dinner menu. Our first time there, we tried the namesake starter, something I suppose everyone should do. I remember having a great Barolo with that meal as well. Their menus and other information can be found at Fried Green Tomatoes
One Eleven Main - On our most recent visit to Galena, we tried a new restaurant called One Eleven Main. We were told by Rita and others that though it had only been around a couple years, it had become one of the towns most popular dining spots. After our initial visit, I can see why. The locally grown produce, the unique entrée selections, the great wine list and impeccable service will bring us back to One Eleven Main again. Info on this fine restaurant can be accessed at One Eleven Main
Note: There are many other cafés, diners, restaurants and pubs in and around Galena and we’re sure they’re all great as well. As I said, so many options, so little time.
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