Strolling the Beauty of Anderson Japanese Gardens

What:  Anderson Japanese Gardens

Where:  318 Spring Creek Road, Rockford, IL  (815) 229-9390

May 1 – October 31 (earlier or later as weather permits)
Indoor events year round

Garden Hours:
Monday through Friday, 9am – 6pm
Saturday 9am – 4pm
Sunday10am – 4pm

Adults $8
Seniors (62+) $7
Child $6
Children under 5 Free
Regular Admission for Garden Members is Always Free

Speaking of hidden gems, in the nation’s “third most miserable city” you’ll find the number one ranked Japanese garden in the U.S., according to Sukiya Living Magazine:  The Journal of Japanese Gardening. I’m talking about Anderson Japanese Gardens.


The Gardens are the brainchild of its namesake, businessman John R. Anderson (as far as I can tell, no relation to John B. Anderson who ran for President of the United States as an Independent in 1980, although he is also from Rockford).

John R. Anderson is CEO of Anderson Enterprises, and a Rockford booster, serving as one of the local leaders behind the Rock River Regional Transformation initiative, whose goal is to make Rockford and the surrounding region one of the top 25 most desirable places to live and work in the U.S. by the year 2025.


Raccoon Husband and Wife sculpture

Anderson had become enchanted with Japan through many visits and attempted to build a Japanese garden in his backyard. In 1978 he visited a Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon, and tracked down one of the garden’s designers, Hoichi Kurisu, and arranged for him to build a similar garden in Rockford. As their brochure states, “From groundbreaking to today, the placement of every rock, alignment of every tree, and layout of all paths has followed the careful planning and vision of Mr. Kurisu.” In 1998, John and his wife Linda Anderson donated the Gardens to the Rockford Rotary Charitable Association, and it now exists as a not-for-profit entity.


Raccoon Husband and Wife sculpture (I thought they were cats)

Charles and I were lucky enough to catch the last day the Gardens were open for the season. We soaked up the beauty of fall, undercut as it is with the bittersweet bite of winter to come (or in more prosaic terms, that pit of your stomach feeling that tells you stepping outside will soon have you cursing a blue streak, so get in your nature loving while you can).

The Gardens are a sprawling 14 acres full of panoramic scenes and lovingly rendered little details. The main areas to wander are the two large ponds.  To the East is the Pond Strolling Garden, which is based on formal 13th Century Japanese garden design. To the West is the Garden of Reflection, whch features many traditional Japanese garden elements intermixed with more modern touches, such as Carl Milles’ Angels sculptures.


Carl Milles’ Angels sculptures

There were beautiful curved bridges connecting the East and West ends of the Gardens, and plenty of koi in the ponds, the biggest I’d ever seen. There were lots of benches for quiet contemplation.  There were guest houses and tea houses (unfortunately, not open to the public), a visitor center and an event pavilion which hosts many special events, and can be rented out for weddings and private events.





I had no idea such a lovely place was such a short drive away and can’t wait to go back in the spring. Although the Gardens proper are now closed for the season (you’ll have to wait ’til May 1, 2015 to check it our yourself), the Gardens hosts a lot of year round indoor events. There are ongoing Tai Chi and Bujinkan (a form of martial arts) classes, and on December 10 and 12 (if you have $50), get into the season with a traditional candlelight Christmas dinner including carols sung by Kantorei, The Singing Boys of Rockford.


Long and Winding Road to Hidden Paradise

Who:  Hidden Paradise Alpaca farms

What:  Alpaca farm and gift shop

Where:  13716 N Division Ext, Granville, IL (815) 830-5290

Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-2pm
Saturdays 10am-3pm


We found it!

The aim of this blog is to spotlight hidden gems of Northern Illinois. Speaking of, Charles heard an ad for Hidden Paradise Alpaca farm in Granville, Illinois on WLPO (LaSalle-Peru-Ottawa).  We almost got lost heading there. To look at a map, it’s a straight shot from Boggio’s Orchard, where we’d just come from (if you’re not heading from there, you can take Highway 39 from the east or Highway 180 from the west, get off at 71 and turn north at Division). When you’re actually there, Division takes odd turns and there are spots of unmarked/confusingly signed streets. One thing I’ve noticed about the Illinois Valley is that something can be right down the street and “feel” far because of all the curves around bodies of water. Being from Chicago, I’m accustomed to politics rather than nature determining the shape of a town.

So, eventually we found Hidden Paradise. We showed up on a day they weren’t actually open (it was Sunday and they’re open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays). We saw the sign at the end of the driveway and called, and they agreed to show us around anyway. It was so quiet I could hear the wind rustling through the dried out cornstalks as Charles called.

Some people dream of leaving the rat race in the city behind and raising alpacas, and our hosts Anna and Michael O’Sullivan did just that in 2008 when they opened Hidden Paradise. Former CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) workers, with Anna in charge of the signage on the el stops, they fell in love with the beauty of Starved Rock and the Illinois Valley region and decided to retire there. Michael, who walked us around the farm, said his wife suggested raising alpacas. He said he asked her, “What’s an alpaca?” He soon learned they’re very gentle South American creatures, similar to but about half the size of llamas, kept for their fleece.

I’d never seen an alpaca live and in person and wasn’t sure what to make of them at first. Their goofy faces reminded me of Muppets. It was hard to gauge their emotions, if they’d be friendly or wary of strangers. “The poker faces of the animal kingdom,” thought I. Mike told us they were peaceful, defenseless creatures. My research tells me they’re often kept with sheep herds as they’re tall and can see predators coming and chase them away. Their genus and species name is Vicugna pacos, as they’re derived from the wild vicuña, and pacos means “policeman.”


Would you trust this face?

There were no predators to chase off at Hidden Paradise, just plenty of grass to eat and roll around in (for the alpacas, but no judgment if that’s your thing). There were also dogs, rabbits, goats and cats kept in different sections of the farm. We met Anna as she was skirting the alpaca fleece. This involves running it through a sieve-like contraption to free it of dirt and dust, to be gathered in bags.  They send the bags to a co-op in Tennessee to be turned into products.


Anna Sullivan and friend skirting alpaca fleece


Want to start your own alpaca farm?

They also had a gift shop and we just had to thank them for showing us around on their day off. Charles got some alpaca socks that feel soft as a dream, warm for winter yet light as cotton. I got some alpaca fleece-wrapped soap (a natural exfoliant, I’m told) and a lovely multicolored scarf (more for fashion than warmth).

Hidden Paradise Alpaca farm was a welcoming, peaceful place to hang out with the animals, and maybe stock up on some Christmas presents if you know someone who’s been very, very good.


Donkey and mini horse


Friendly reminder about friendly cats

Reaping the Harvest at Boggio’s Orchard (Don’t Forget the Fudge)

Who:  Boggio’s Orchard and Produce

What:  Apple orchard, market store, family play area

Where:  12087 IL Hwy. 71, Granville, IL  (815) 339-2245

Monday-Saturday:  6-9am donuts and pastries; 9am-6pm market open
Sunday:  6-9am donuts and pastries; 9am-5pm market open


Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I remember idyllic fall Sundays at apple orchards, filling bushels to the brim with fresh apples right off the tree.  Now that it’s fall, my Facebook feed is full of friends taking their kids there.  The manfriend (okay, maybe if you’ve been reading this long we’re friends now and I should just tell you his name is Charles) told me Boggio’s was the best orchard that wasn’t too far of a drive.  So, on an unseasonably warm Sunday right before Halloween, we headed about an hour south and slightly west of DeKalb to tiny Putnam County, the smallest county in Illinois, to check it out.

The sign was a bit hard to spot from the direction we were heading, but we could see the parked cars and rows of fresh pumpkins.  I didn’t realize there were so many different hues of pumpkin—they had Jack-o’-lantern orange, yellow, and pale ivory pumpkins lined up in rows like Legos.  We headed inside to the market shop and checked out all the apple products and paraphernalia.  We made sure to get some apple cider donuts; Charles was afraid they might be out.  They also had fresh fudge made on site, and I have to say it was about the best fudge I’d ever tasted.  Good enough to prompt strange cravings a year from now, I reckon. They happily handed out free samples and we left our consumption at that.  I especially liked the tiger butter, a mix of peanut butter and vanilla.


We chatted with the people behind the counter a bit and they told us Boggio’s had formerly been in Hennepin but moved to Granville in 1992 under new ownership. The cashiers explained that the wooden contraptions on the wall were apple seeders.  I heard it as “cedars,” but they explained that they were designed to remove seeds from apples meant for processing.  I tried to Google more information about them and found a bunch of stuff about Apple computers.  Maybe it goes by a fancier and less prosaic name I’m not aware of?


Apple seeders

We had a lot of driving in the 815 to pack into the day, so we didn’t stay that long.  Charles was ready to go after we bought a few small things but I insisted on checking out what was behind the store and wandered around snapping pics.  He really missed out, as there was a guy singing and playing guitar, a corn maze, a petting zoo, and kiddie hot rod rides.  I didn’t see anyone picking apples, and they only seemed to have a few small rows of trees, though the website says it’s a u-pick-em joint.  Maybe there’s another section I missed.


To do list


Kiddie hot rods

Boggio’s was a great place to take kids with plenty for them to do.  For adults just passing through, it’s a great way to enjoy the fall weather before winter clamps down and stock up on some gifts and treats for yourself.  We were lucky and got there on one of the last really warm weekends, complete with ladybugs crawling all over us and seeping into the car.


Pleading critter

Princeton, Illinois Homestead Festival and Lovejoy Homestead Tour


Lovejoy Homestead, exterior

On Saturday, September 13, I traveled to Princeton, Illinois, for its 43rd annual Homestead Festival.  The festival is named for Princeton’s Lovejoy Homestead, a stop on the historic Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th Century slaves escaping to freedom in the North.  The Homestead is one of five Underground Railroad stops in Illinois.  (Click here for the National Park Service’s interactive map of the Underground Railroad).  The festival commemorates the 1971 restoration of the homestead.

Saturday’s Festival activities started off with the Underground Railroad 5K race at 7 a.m. and rounded out with ‘80s tribute band Hairbanger’s Ball playing ‘til 12:30 a.m.  Other events throughout the day included tours of the high school and library, barbecue courtesy of the Bureau County 4-H Clubs, a blues concert with James Armstrong, and a celebration of Princeton-born screen actor Richard Widmark, including a screening of his biography with a moderated discussion afterward.


Bureau County 4-H Clubs BBQ sandwich

My friend and I mostly wandered the booths at the Beta Sigma Phi Arts and Crafts show.  There was a wide range of offerings, including beautiful handmade wooden furniture, a small (as in, one booth) farmer’s market, a children’s author selling books and associated toys, as well as the best caramel popcorn I’ve ever had (sorry, Garrett’s; though to be fair, you’re a distant memory).  It was fresh, with coating light enough that you could still appreciate the natural popcorn texture.


Produce booth, Beta Sigma Phi Arts and Crafts show

We also checked out the Homestead Festival Parade.  My friend warned we should get seats early, and the fest’s website says, “Parade starts at 1:30 but the lawn chairs start to appear on Friday!”  Being accustomed to city-sized parades, the setup seemed rather spacious to me, with plenty of room for everyone.  It was small enough that parade marchers passing out leaflets handed them directly to individual crowd members.  Lasting about an hour and a half, there was the usual parade fare of local businesses and politicians, local school marching bands, as well as Chicago’s South Shore Drill Team.  Going along with the home/homecoming theme, there were an impressive array of Princeton High School graduation class floats; I spotted at least six, ranging from the ‘60s up to 2009.


Local preschool’s “barrels of fun” float


Local drill team (not the South Shore Drill Team; they showed up later when camera phone was out of juice)


Little candy catcher

After the parade, we stopped at the Lovejoy Homestead.  They’d had a busy day with the festival going on, and we’d arrived when they only had about an hour left.  The actual building is the small, single family home once occupied by the abolitionist, Reverend Owen Lovejoy, his wife Eunice, and their nine children (six of their own and three from her previous marriage).  A paid staff member in each room gave a history of the room’s setup and how daily life was carried out there.

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A Quick Bite of the Sandwich Fair; Gene’s


On Saturday, September 6th, I made it to next to last day of the Sandwich Fair.  No, it’s not an ode to the joys of bread-bookended meats and cheeses, it’s a step into another world (at least for this ex-city girl). Running for five days straight right around Labor Day, the Sandwich Fair is the pride and joy of Sandwich, Illinois, which stretches out over DeKalb, Kendall, and LaSalle Counties. Sandwich is about a half hour drive south of my starting point, DeKalb. Admission was $9.00, and parking was free.

Unlike other temporary fairs that shoehorn booths and rides into otherwise occupied space, shutting down village streets and redirecting traffic, the Sandwich Fair is a permanent fixture on the landscape.  It’s been running strong since 1888 when the Sandwich Fair Association purchased the land where it sits.  (Click here for a map of the grounds).


Petting zoo chick and friend

My friends and I were hungry on arrival and quickly made our way to the pulled pork sandwiches and sugary lemon shake-ups.  Thus sated, we meandered around the livestock pens.  (Pro tip:  Though the animals on display are champs, they’re still animals – watch your step and plan ahead with shoes you don’t mind getting dirty.  While we’re on the subject of bodily functions, though they had portable toilets to accommodate the crowds, I was pleasantly surprised that they not only had real bathrooms, but bathroom attendants).


Friendly bathroom attendant

It was a lovely end of summer day petting fuzzy animals, checking out a steel drum band, a pig raffle, a baking competition (all the goodies were just for show behind glass, though), and a photography exhibit.  I felt like we barely scratched the surface of everything the fair had to offer.  Saturday’s big attraction was the NTPA sanctioned tractor pull.  Early in the day, my bones rattled at the wall of sound that was the 12:30 show, but I was unable to talk my crew into staying for the 6:30 show at the end of the long, hot day.  It also required extra admission cost – $10 for the grandstand seats and $20 for reserved and “hot seats.”  Maybe next year.  For more information on the tractor pulls, see the official Sandwich Fair website or check out a sneak peek on YouTube.  There were carnival rides and bands as well, with the day before featuring country star Easton Corbin.


Kids learning farm work with Maggie the Milking Cow

Lunch was reasonably priced ($3.00 pulled pork sandwiches?  Yes, please).  We were quite pleasantly surprised that parking was free.  The parking lot was a breeze getting in, with plenty of attendants gesturing guests into neat rows.  It was quite an ordeal getting out, though.  Everyone was forced to exit in one direction, with people from rows ahead of you constantly braiding into the exit traffic.  We were stuck there a good 40 minutes.  Forewarned is forearmed:  Fill up the gas tank, pack some drinks, snacks, and music.  Focus on the gentle, fuzzy lamb you made friends with mere hours ago.


Photography exhibit

We capped off the day in Sandwich at Gene’s (125 S. Main Street), where I was introduced to the glory of the beef roll, which I’m told is a LaSalle County specialty.  It’s like that old Chicago standby, the roast beef sandwich, but instead of a drippy (but delicious) mess of a sandwich roll, it’s wrapped in a freshly made pita, and eaten with a fork and knife.  When I say “pita,” don’t think of those sad little grocery store wedges for scooping up hummus.  Freshly made pita is a hot, bubbly, pillowy blanket of perfection.  In addition to beef, several sandwiches get the roll treatment; other options include turkey, gyro, and even a vegetarian lover’s roll.  I may have to investigate this roll phenomenon in future entries.