An abandoned munitions plant on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie site.

Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Silence haunts this once bustling arsenal of democracy.

World War II was still more than a year away but increasingly inevitable. So, along with family farms and ancestral burial grounds, the federal government purchased approximately 24,000 acres just south of Joliet for the manufacture of munitions. 

With the fall of Paris in June of 1940 and with England under siege, America sensed it was going to war and there was no time to dilly-dally.  Thus, out of this parcel of rich farmland emerged the Elwood Ordnance Plant to build bombs, shells and mines and the Kankakee Ordnance Plant to produce TNT, the two separated by substantial distances in case one should go up in smoke.

Now both facilities are closed, and most of their acreage is being returned to nature.  On a hot and gusty day in ’07, the Getaway Guys surveyed Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on foot and bike. At the informative Welcome Center of this Department of Agriculture/U.S. Forest Service project, they learned about the long-term efforts under way to restore the land to its original state prior to the arrival of settlers in the early 19th century. As illustrated and described in the Welcome Center, this is no small endeavor and federal dollars are scarce.

While the center is easy to find (I 55 south to exit 241, then east to IL 53, then north), maps for the rest of Midewin are sketchy, existing roads are disappearing and signage is hard to find. But perseverance being a virtue, the Guys got an eyeful despite being lost most of the time. Pedaling into stiff gusts of wind (a feature of the prairie), Neil and Alan saw numerous crumbling, weed-choked factory buildings falling into ruin and innumerable low-lying bomb storage bunkers, called igloos. 

Evidence of this complex, once urgently needed to win a global conflict, is now shrouded in mysterious silence, with only the wind and the call of birds audible.  These derelict structures are a memorial to the home-front warriors (many of whom were women) who worked hard and at great personal risk. Meanwhile, the restoration of the Illinois prairie proceeds slowly but surely, and demonstration plots help the visitor chart its progress.

During their initial visit to Midewin the Guys visited Wilmington, Ill., too. Thinking it might be an interesting community for lunch and exploring, they found a familiar rural Illinois phenomenon of prosperity vanished. Not without a certain charm and a number of antique-shopping opportunities along its main drag, Wilmington may have seen better days as a stop along historic Route 66. Still, it is worth exploring.

Founded in 1854 and named for Henry Dwight, Dwight, Ill., is also along Route 66 and not too far southwest of Midewin.  On a return trip this year, the Guys headed to this small community of 4,500-plus residents.  Cleaved by the Chicago & Alton Railroad tracks, Dwight has a north and a south side.

In the middle there is an impressive Romanesque railroad station (1891) by Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931) that now serves as the Dwight Historical Society, the Dwight Chamber of Commerce and an Amtrak station. A Chicago-based architect, Mr. Cobb was also responsible for the Newberry Library and the Chicago Varnish Company building on Kedzie, which is now Harry Caray’s Restaurant. Just north of Cobb’s railroad station is the Bank of Dwight (1855), an early Illinois financial institution with an understated, classical marble facade and two very good murals by Oskar Carl Gross (1871-1963), an Austrian protégé of Louis Sullivan. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1907 (his Oak Park period) and located on the south side, the First National Bank of Dwight steals much of its north side neighbor’s thunder because of its pedigree. Originally a dual-use bank and real estate structure (a present-day toxic mix), the First National was restored and tastefully expanded in the 1960s. Neil favored the First National while Alan liked the Bank of Dwight: An architect’s spouse, Alan was surprised anyone could actually work in a FLW building.

A sleepy hamlet for its first 25 years, Dwight achieved some degree of world-wide fame when Leslie Keeley and John Oughton founded the Keeley Institute in 1879. Devoted to curing alcoholism, the Keeley Institute put Dwight on the map as thousands sought the cure. Pioneers in treating alcoholism as a disease (as opposed to the idea that alcoholics are bums lacking will power), Mr. Keeley and Mr. Oughton were way ahead of their time.

Just west of the First National Bank of Dwight is the former Livingston Hotel (part of the old Keeley Institute), which now serves as a state facility for the developmentally disabled. A large brick building with classical columns, the former Livingston is not overly noteworthy architecturally, but it harbors five stunning stained glass windows depicting the senses by an Ecole des Beaux Arts artist, Louis J. Millet (d. 1923). Slightly south of Dwight’s train station are four additional noteworthy Dwight structures: John R. Oughton’s rambling Victorian mansion (now the Country Mansion Restaurant); an unusual Batavia, Ill., windmill; a large carriage house (now the Prairie Creek Public Library); and the odd Keeley Institute Building with its modernist-classical facade.

Midewin-Wilmington-Dwight is a daytrip worth making and a good opportunity for biking, nature-watching and photography. Food is iffy, but edible and affordable. Of Midewin’s 24,000 acres a portion is reserved for the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and, in a deal with the devil, some is “preserved” in the form of an industrial park with ghastly warehouses. The ultimate fate of Midewin’s crumbling arsenal buildings is still in question. Situated on acknowledged brown fields and clearly hazardous to explore, the buildings will probably be torn down, a tragic net loss, in the Guys’ opinion.

Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, that offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.