As you travel south of Chicago along I-65 or US Highway 41, the landscape changes, the suburban sprawl falls away and gives rise to tallgrass prairie, farmland and heartwarming communities that dot the landscape. As the last county in the state to be organized, Newton County is still a little bit wild. Here you can experience the natural beauty evident at two state preserves, Willow Slough and LaSalle, as well as at a nationally recognized nature preserve, The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands. Take a break from the lush landscape and experience the local flavor at one of several family-owned restaurants. A little bit of green can still go home with you, too, from one of the area's local greenhouses.
The Slough, as many people call it, is near and dear to me. My grandfather worked at the Slough in the early 50s and 60s and my mother grew up in one of the homes set aside for Slough workers and their families. Grandpa Hanger was an avid hunter and loved the great outdoors. He wasn't alone in his appreciation of Willow Slough and the plethora of hunting and fishing options available to visitors. The Slough is composed of nearly 10,000 acres and includes ponds, marshy areas, sandy hills and oak forests. Wild turkey, quail, dove, woodcock, waterfowl, and of course, deer, are plentiful in the area. J.C. Murphy Lake, along with other ponds on the property, is home to bass, crappie, bluegill, redear, northern pike and channel catfish.
When I visit LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area I envision scenes from the film "The Everglades of the North." Haven't seen it? Watch it. I mean it, stop reading this post, sit yourself down, and watch this incredible film about what once was and still echoes through the river bends and twists of the Kankakee. In the mid-1800s, the area south of Chicago was home to one of the greatest collections of wildlife on the planet, a result of the grand marsh that spread to the north and south of the Kankakee River. But the Grand Marsh was drained in the late 1800s and into the twentieth century. There has been a renewal of attention on the Kankakee, especially with the completion of the documentary in 2012. It is still a destination for amazing hunting, fishing, wildlife observance and outdoor adventures.
Now I am not so much interested in hunting the local fauna, but the mushrooms...um, yes, please. Early spring is the perfect time to go mushroom hunting. I think morel mushrooms are gold and they're worth about as much. My mushroom hunting skills are not the best but have improved in the past few years, largely due to my wonderful and very patient and kind brother-in-law. Ron is mushroom crazy and has his secret spots that he might take you to if you are willing to run three miles through the wilderness dodging branches, roots, and mosquitoes the size of your fist. The reward is sweet though, and he's nice enough to share if he sees your bag looking a little light. LaSalle and Willow Slough are both excellent locations for mushroom hunting.
The 7,000 acres of restored tallgrass prairie is home to a variety of birds and wildflowers, making this a popular destination for eco-tourism. I personally love the trails and paths that meander through the landscape (the mosquitoes are less prevalent as well). My personal favorite is the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail. Although it's an uphill trek, the view is amazing and there's a lovely bench along the way. Be sure to grab a flyer before starting the trail to check off native plant species during your trek (this is a great challenge for kids because of the photos next to each plant).
If you're looking for a more dignified way to experience the wonderful spring weather and great outdoors take a little bit of green home with you. Newton County is also home to several greenhouses open to the public and for wholesale. You might have to put a little more effort into your flora search, but the prices are definitely worth it. Hours vary based on season, so be sure to check out the growers' web or Facebook pages for up-to-date information:
Drenth Growers - wholesale and retail
Gardner's Limited - wholesale and retail
Blooming Acres - open for wholesale only
Interested in re-entering civilization after your exploration? There are several unique restaurants in the area. These restaurants are family owned and their customer service goes above and beyond. Each establishment has a distinct atmosphere and flavor along with great food and drinks.
Old Colonial Inn, Kentland
The Old Colonial Inn first opened as the Kentland Hotel in 1894, the signature tower is a landmark on the Courthouse Square. Operating as a restaurant since 1964, the building was recently impeccably restored by its local owners (who are also just plain wonderful people). Stop for the food and drinks, stay to look at incredible photos, posters and guest log books from the past. Be sure to ask for Mike, he's the BEST tour guide! Dining hours are Thursday thru Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Earl's Dining and Catering, Brook
These cooks know their pork chops! But my personal favorite is the Pork Loin Sammich (and yes, I've spelled that correctly) with provolone cheese and a side of sweet potato wedges (no cinnamon and sugar please) and a tall glass of Killians. The prime rib is also amazing, but only available on Friday nights. Don't anticipate finding a place to park at 5 p.m., the local crowd will have already filled every spot and be waiting for the doors to open at 5:30. The best time to go in is after the early rush, at about 7 p.m. More parking is available in the alley behind the restaurant, go in the back door to feel like a real local. Dinner served Tuesday thru Thursday 5:30 - 8:30, Friday and Saturday 5:30 - 9:30.
The Farmhouse Restaurant at Fair Oaks Farms
The prices are a bit higher than some of the other fine dining establishments in the area, (especially for the drink menu) but I'm willing to pay a few extra bucks considering their menu options are so unique. I loved the espresso encrusted ribeye and delectable Brussels sprouts. In fact, the Brussels sprouts were so good, I immediately went home to try and see if I could match their recipe. The salmon and risotto is a delicious option as well (be prepared for a take-home box, though - my serving was huge). The jalapeno cornbread is mouthwatering but not too spicy.
What does this mean for the wandering traveler? They can experience a wide variety of activities and scenes in just a few miles. The tour of the area can last a few days or a few hours. There is no set agenda, just explore and take in the amazing journey less than two hours from Chicago. Newton County is still a little bit wild, slightly untamed, but welcoming and warm to visitors and locals alike. To find out more about recreation events in Newton County, connect with the Newton County Park Board at www.newtoncountyparkboard.com.