As the crow flies, Oregon, Ill. is about two hours west of Chicago. Perched on the Rock River, it is the Ogle County seat. Getting there is easy: Interstate 88 to U.S. 51 north and then Illinois 64 west or Illinois 64 west from St. Charles, where the road is excellent and more scenic.
Settled by John Phelps in 1838 and incorporated in 1873, Oregon has a name that comes from its early native-American inhabitants and means “River of the West.” Never populous, Oregon once had a furniture factory, a chair factory, a flour mill and a foundry, none of which exists today. Not unlike many aspiring Illinois communities, Oregon in the 21st century is not what its founders probably hoped for. It is somewhat sleepy and architecturally lacking, but it has an attractive Carnegie library with a surprising collection of art, a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps State Park (White Pines) with a lodge and cabins excellently preserved and a monumental sculpture by Lorado Taft in Lowden State Park. South of town on Route 2 is Castle Rock State Park, with stunning views and numerous hiking trails.
Between 1898 and 1936 the American sculptor Lorado Taft (1860-1936) established and inspired the Eagle’s Nest art colony adjacent to Lowden State Park. The colony disbanded six years after Mr. Taft’s death and was acquired by Northern Illinois University in 1951 as a summer campus dedicated to the cultural enrichment of high school students. While it was a summer retreat for Chicago artists and/or the faculty of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago (plus Taft students), Eagle’s Nest hosted painters and sculptors who produced a first-rate body of work, examples of which can be viewed in the Oregon Public Library.
Designed by the Chicago architects Allen and Irving Pond in 1908 with a proviso that space be dedicated to a permanent gallery exhibiting Eagle’s Nest artists, the Oregon Public Library was built in 1909 with funds provided by the Carnegie Corporation. The exhibition space opened in 1918.
Libraries of 1909 vintage are out of step with the information age, however; the Oregon Public Library is in need of either a new or an expanded facility. Regrettably, prospects for either are on indefinite hold.
In the meantime, its unique art gallery remains intact and is an absolute must-see. In addition to works by Lorado Taft, visitors can view works by Charles Francis Browne (1859-1920), Frank Virgil Dudley (1868-1957), John Thomas Nolf (1872-1955), Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944) and Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955). Also, there are two sculptures by prominent French sculptors Auguste Moreau (1834-1917) and Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875). Moreau may have spent a summer at the Eagle’s Nest. Barye didn’t.
Whatever the circumstances, the works of both are unique in Oregon, Ill.
About 10 miles from Oregon is White Pines State Park, an enchanting Civilian Conservation Corps park, complete with lodge, cabins and pavilions. One of seven Illinois State Parks containing CCC structures built by young men during the Great Depression, White Pines’ setting and history are standouts, and an Oregon visit should include this park. The cost of an overnight stay in an authentic CCC log cabin is remarkably modest.
Across the Rock River in Lowden State Park is Mr. Taft’s monumental sculpture of Black Hawk, a Sauk Indian leader who “terrorized” northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin during the Blackhawk War in 1832. Initially dedicated to Indians of the region, it became associated with Black Hawk himself. Made of reinforced concrete, it is a collaborative endeavor of student and teacher (Mr. Taft) completed about 1911. Close up or from the Rock River’s west bank, it is a grabber. Adjacent is the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony. Its original buildings of native stone and lumber, once occupied by resident members, are not open to the public because of safety concerns for its young attendees. This is unfortunate, because there is a terrific sculpture by Taft students worth seeing.
At the Ogle County Courthouse there is another Taft sculpture. “The Soldier’s Monument” (1916) in bronze and marble is remarkable for its composition, execution and location in Oregon, Ill. If art does not appeal but toy trains do, Conovor Square (antiques, etc.) has an atomic, working train layout worth a look-see on weekends.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.