These days, St. Charles is often mistaken as just a suburb of Chicago. The reality of its beginnings is something far more interesting. To gain a better grasp of its history we spent a couple of days exploring the nooks and crannies of the city. With the Lincoln Highway running just to the south, it is a popular destination for visitors from the surrounding regions. Trains run daily from Chicago, ferrying urban dwellers to this upscale outpost. Today this urban playground has moved on from its early days, but there are still reminders of days gone by. To get a better grasp of the city’s unique history, we dropped by the St. Charles History Museum.
We want to thank the St. Charles Business Alliance for hosting our visit. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
Learning Local History
In the 1830s, the Fox River Valley was recovering from the Black Hawk War. When the government opened the land for settlement, it didn’t take long for this valley to draw attention. By 1840, St. Charles was incorporated. Getting to the village required a three-day journey from Chicago, as the Fox River was not favorable for navigation by large boats. Without a railroad, it left the town isolated. This was finally rectified when the Chicago Great Western Railway created a direct connection. The increased accessibility led to business growth, marking St. Charles as a relaxation destination for Chicago dwellers.
Illinois was spared from any major battles during the Civil War. St. Charles lay in the midst of abolitionist territory and therefore supported the Union. A few months after war was declared, a training facility for a cavalry regiment was created in the young township. Initiated by Colonel John Farnsworth, the 8th Illinois Cavalry would see action in notable battles. Their presence was noted in Fredericksburg, Antietam, Mechanicsville, and Gettysburg. The group also had the honor of being honor guards for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train. They escorted the fallen president to his final resting place in Springfield.
How do you become the pickle capital without producing any pickles? In the 1960s, St. Charles became home to Pickle Packers International. This promotional group touted the benefits of pickles around the world. Some of the promotions included pickle phones, greeting cards, and purses. While the organization would eventually relocate to Washington, the title of Pickle Capital stayed with St. Charles. It was even used as the subject of a question on Jeopardy.
While the St. Charles History Museum is smaller than some others we’ve visited, it is jam-packed with plenty of artifacts. As we continued to explore, we came across a display about one of the town’s most notable landmarks. Hotel Baker sits just down the road and across the Fox River. While the streetcar no longer runs along Main Street, we could imagine visitors hopping aboard to traverse this urban playground. What a fun way to navigate the rolling hills of Eastern Illinois.
With a grasp of St. Charles’s history under our belts, we headed off for our next stop. Our lodging during our visit had been arranged at Hotel Baker and we were anxious to see it with our own eyes. It was a short walk across the river to the front door of this historic hotel. Built in 1928, it was the home of Colonel Baker but also a stop for weary travelers. The site had previously been used by a mill, which was destroyed by fire. When the hotel opened its doors, it was filled with some unusual features. It had its own hydroelectric facility that supplied inexpensive power. This helped run a lighted dance floor, and a radio station in what would become the penthouse suite, in later years.
To prove that it was a world-class luxury hotel, they also included a 9-hole miniature golf course and a fishing pond. Travelers were treated to one of the most elaborate parking facilities. This included a Hudson car dealership with a service bay, car wash, and gas station. Inside the hotel, guests would find that each room was decorated in its own style, so no two stays would be the same. All of these features would set a visitor back $2.50 per night. That sounds to us like quite a deal, even for 1930. We were fortunate to get a room with a view overlooking the Fox River.
These days, Hotel Baker is highly regarded as a wedding destination. The historic vibe, along with amazing architecture, is the perfect backdrop for exchanging vows. In fact, during our two-night stay, we saw three ceremonies take place. It is kind of fun staying in a 53-room luxury hotel and being the only ones not in the wedding group. You can imagine it drew some surprised glances. Our exploration in St. Charles was showing us many sides of this urban playground. While many will visit for the relaxed, upscale vibe, there is also plenty of history to discover. It’s a good thing we planned three days, but even that would only scratch the surface. Have you ever visited St. Charles, Illinois?