May/Jun 2000

Before You Go
Contact the Mount Vernon Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-252-5464, or visit the Web site www.southernillinois.com.
For information on the area, call the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, (618) 242-5725. Rend Lake tourist information is available by calling 1-800-792-8266.

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History, hogs and high art
Mount Vernon in south-central Illinois offers a unique mix of heritage, novelty and culture

By Gene Gorman

The Wheels Through Time Museum features more than 165 vintage motorcycles, mostly Harley-Davidsons. /Mount Vernon Convention & Visitors Bureau photo
Mount Vernon, Ill., could be the last place in America to get a good 25-cent haircut.

“With a $10 donation,” explains Jefferson County Historical Society President Jim Steffy. “Ed Karcher’s our barber. He does a real good job.”

Karcher and the historical society take their cuts in Puckett’s General Store. Puckett’s sits along a row of rebuilt, re-created and relocated buildings from the county’s past. The historical society started building the village–including a church, medical building, schoolhouse and the county’s first jail–in 1991.

“We’ve got a little overflow capacity,” Steffy says when asked if the jail’s two guestrooms figure in the county’s 1,290. “The Pot and Cot Bed & Breakfast of Jefferson County.”

Mount Vernon, Ill., a few miles south of the confluence of Interstates 64 and 57, looks like any other well-lit highway convenience stop. But like most treasures, Mount Vernon’s require some digging to find.

“Driving through Mount Vernon on the interstate, you really have no idea what’s here,” says Mary Ellen Futransky, director of the Mount Vernon Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The town of 17,000 has plenty of options for a day tour. With a little planning, it can also provide for an interesting, educational and eclectic long weekend. In the same town, you can visit a courthouse where Clara Barton set up an emergency hospital and a museum that includes a 1932 Harley-Davidson airplane and a photograph of Clark Gable with his mechanic.

For extended stays, travelers can visit Rend Lake, a 30-square-mile reservoir turned recreation complex fewer than 20 miles from Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon offers at least four main attractions with a few others, such as wineries and an outlet mall, that are emerging. Two of the sights–Cedarhurst and Wheels Through Time Museum of Vintage Motorcycling–shouldn’t be missed.

Cedarhurst, with its art museum, sculpture park, children’s gallery, concerts and nature trails, advertises itself as the leading cultural institution in southern Illinois. Visitors can leave a chamber music concert and stumble upon a gorilla made out of chrome car and truck bumpers. Cedarhurst Chamber Music will begin its 22nd season later this year with its annual fall series, followed by a spring series in 2001.

“We have to combine both the traditional with the new,” says Elizabeth Hinman, spokeswoman for Cedarhurst.

The center’s main event is the Cedarhurst Craft Fair, held the weekend after Labor Day. Organizers estimate the fair, which features more than 160 juried exhibitors, draws about 20,000 visitors. The fair runs Saturday and Sunday and includes a Friday night preview party for visitors to meet the artists and shop early.

Excluding some special events, admission to Cedarhurst is free. Donations are appreciated. The museum, sculpture park and grounds are open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sundays from 1–5 p.m. Cedarhurst is closed Mondays and holidays.

Get your motor runnin’

Dale Walksler fell in love at 17 and never let go. Thirty years later, his love has grown into Wheels Through Time, or the “Smithsonian of motorcycles,” as he calls it.

A few minutes with Walksler reveal the serious collector–he’s careful to refer to a one-of-a-kind as “the only one of its kind known”–and the playful kid that he is.

“You want to hear it?” he says as he hops on a Crocker, one of three known to exist, and kick starts its Richter rumbling engine. Many of the motorcycles look like bicycles with crude combustion engines.

The museum is heavy on Harleys but has several Indians on display, including a 1903, as well as some military motorcycles, and a black experimental car that looks part Bat Mobile and part Star Wars Land Cruiser.

“It’s really a collection of collections,” says Walksler.

Walksler had 167 machines at the end of last year and planned to have 175 by May. He sold the motorcycle shop in front of the museum and planned to use its showroom for his vintage cars when the shop’s new owners moved.

The museum is closed Sundays and holidays and opens Wednesdays by appointment. Hours are 9 a.m.–5 p.m. on other weekdays and 9 a.m.–4 p.m. on Saturdays. The museum was free, but Walksler planned to start charging admission this year.

History and your story

Abraham Lincoln once argued a case in the stately 1857 Appellate Courthouse. /Mount Vernon Convention & Visitors Bureau photo
For a different historical perspective, visitors to Mount Vernon should visit two places: the Fifth District Appellate Courthouse and the C.E. Brehm Memorial Library.

The three-story library devotes its first floor to its genealogy collection. The collection includes Census information for Illinois, Revolutionary War pension records, and the state’s Daughters of the American Revolution collection. Travelers tracing their family histories can get information on the travelers who came to southern Illinois before them, including former residents of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.

“It’s the migration trail, basically, is what we’re set up for,” says genealogy reference librarian Maggie Kirwan.

Travelers interested in a wider view of American history can visit the Appellate Courthouse, built about 1857 and still in use. Until 1896, the state Supreme Court consisted of three divisions, including the courthouse in Mount Vernon. The courthouse’s most famous case was a tax case, State of Illinois vs. Illinois Central Railroad.

One of the railroad’s main witnesses was George B. McClellan, who would become a general in the Union Army a few years later. The rail line’s lawyer was another important Civil War figure, Abraham Lincoln.

Let Mount Vernon and the surrounding area surprise you.

Gene Gorman is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.



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