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

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

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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.”

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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.

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Anna Sullivan and friend skirting alpaca fleece

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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.

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Donkey and mini horse

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Friendly reminder about friendly cats

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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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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To do list

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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.

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Pleading critter

Ditching Homework at Book Mouse

Who:  Book Mouse

What:  Independent book store

Where:  722 LaSalle Street, Ottawa, IL  (815) 433-7323

When:
Monday-Saturday, 10am-6:30pm
Sunday, noon-4pm

Book Mouse is an adorable independent book store in downtown Ottawa, Illinois, the “land of two rivers,” where the Fox River meets the Illinois River.  Book Mouse is celebrating its 21st birthday this Halloween, so it’ll be old enough to drink.

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Exterior

A circuitous route led me there.  Last summer I met a new manfriend from the Illinois Valley region, 60 miles from DeKalb.  Turning the commute into fun road trips was my new hobby and the impetus for this blog.

This is why downtown Ottawa was my choice of locale one day for a coffee shop to hunker down and be productive in. I spotted Book Mouse across the street and decided to investigate. I was drawn to its cute sign and display window chockfull of upcoming event announcements. My mom’s birthday was coming up, so I stopped in and got her the latest from one of her favorite authors (A Sudden Light by Garth Stein), chatted with the employees and snapped a few pics.

I had a brief phone chat with the owner, Eileen Fesco. She’s owned the store for the past eight and a half years. The next big event she’s looking forward to is nearly 600 trick or treaters heading through the downtown area, an event she started around 2006.

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Interior

“We do quite a few community events,” she said. “I just got back from doing two read-alouds at two Head Start programs. We do school book fairs, also. We go to the schools and set up on all these tables hundreds of books for them to shop.” Other events for shoppers include Toddler Time storytelling and a monthly Poetry and Pizza night (“We provide the pizza, they provide the poetry”). “We’ll do author dinners at a local restaurant. Buy a ticket and you’ll get a book, a dinner, and an author chat.” These are held at Hank’s. “They have a wonderful ambience. They have a nice side room that’s big enough and quiet enough to have an author talk.” You can find a list of their upcoming events here.

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Ghostbusting in the 815

Some bookstores offer e-book purchases. Fesco said they tried this for about six years before deciding it just wasn’t profitable. “It was costing us a couple thousand dollars a year to offer the service and we made like $150.00 on it for the whole year. We decided to go back to the basics. We’re your full service book store with knowledgeable book sellers, and we will order any book you want. I’d say special orders account for about 30 percent of our business. We typically get the orders in the next day, and you don’t have to pay any shipping.”

When I asked Fesco what accounted for her store’s longevity, she said, “This is just a reading area. People are big advocates of reading. That’s, I think, the big reason that we are still around, because lots and lots of stores have closed. Also the high level of teen reading, and I attribute that to the teens I have working in the store. Usually I find my employees [because they’re patrons] just hanging out in the store reading books.”

I missed them on my visit, but apparently Book Mouse has a resident cat named Sonny as well as some degus, which are like a smaller cousin to the chinchilla. “We always have some critters in here. It’s like a kid magnet. They’ll be going by the store and say, ‘Can we see Sonny the kitty?’”

Like most Illinois Valley towns, Fesco cites the scenery as a big draw to the area. “We’re close to Starved Rock. That’s the main reason that people visit the area. It’s on the way to and back from Starved Rock between Chicago and here. We’re one of the biggest downtowns and we have lots of restaurants. Lots of hotel rooms. Unless you’re staying right at Starved Rock, this is the place to stay inexpensively, and they have pools.” Ottawa is also home to the first Lincoln-Douglas debate.

“Before I bought the store,” Fesco said, “I interviewed a lot of book stores in the area and in Wisconsin, and that’s one thing they said—‘Make yourself valuable to the community.’ So we make sure that we participate in community events any way we can, donate to charities, help the schools—basically, we make ourselves valuable to the community. We have a very welcoming store, it smells nice, with pretty music and animals and knowledgeable booksellers.  If you walk into Walmart, you’re lucky even trying to find someone who knows where the book section is.  Here, if we don’t have it, we will find it for you, and we will get it for you quick.  It’s customer service, nice ambience, and making yourselves valuable to the community.”

Burn Your Tongue Off, Shake Some Quarters Loose at South Moon BBQ

Who:  South Moon BBQ

What:  Restaurant/”Mullet Room” emporium

Where:  100 E. Lincoln Hwy. (Route 30), Hinckley, IL, (815) 286-9227

When:
Monday-Tuesday, CLOSED
Wednesday-Thursday, 11am-8pm
Friday-Saturday, 11am-9pm
Sunday 11am-8pm

SouthMoonBBQLogo

South Moon BBQ in Hinckley, Illinois was on my radar from my story on Star Worlds Arcade (they were a sponsor of Star Worlds’ 30th anniversary party and Star Worlds’ owner supplies their games).  After flash mobbing and briefly attending the Star Worlds anniversary party (it got pretty crowded), my manfriend and I were hungry and wanted some air.  We punched South Moon’s address into the GPS and headed about 20 minutes south to Hinckley.

South Moon is easy to spot on the corner of Sycamore Street and Lincoln Highway.  I mean Lincoln Highway as in Route 30.  Coming from DeKalb, I know Lincoln Highway as Route 38 that takes you to the NIU campus.  Apparently it starts at U.S. 30 to the east and the route between DeKalb and Hinckley is smack dab where Lincoln Highway shifts to Route 38.

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So—fun facts!  You’re here to hear about the barbecue, though.  You order at the counter and the food is brought out to you.  We decided to split “The Chuck,” which is every meat they have on one bun.  It was as ridiculously huge as it sounds, maybe seven inches high.  Obviously not conducive to eating sandwich style, we picked and poked with forks and knives.  The meats included a bratwurst, brisket, pulled pork, pork chop, and chicken.

We availed ourselves of the many different sauces available on the side, which were also for sale to take home—Sweet St. Louis, Sweet Heat, Carolina Thin, Bad-Ass Brat Sauce and “Nitro.”  The last one we had to ask for and got an, “Okay, if you think you can take it” from the waitress.  Their website calls it Nitro, but I remember asking for ghost pepper sauce and the waitress knowing what we were talking about.  At over 1,000,000 Scoville heat units, the ghost pepper, also known as Bhut Jolokia, is the third hottest pepper in the world.  It was only knocked to number two in 2012 and number three in 2013.

My guess is it’s called ghost pepper because it haunts you and stays with you.  It took maybe five big gulps of ice water to calm my tongue down again.  When I say gulps, I mean I let the ice water just hang out in my mouth for a good minute or so before swallowing.

As far as the taste, I liked the pulled pork the best; hard to mess with slow-cooked pork.  The bratwurst was good, too.  Hate to say it, but the chicken and pork chop were a bit dry, though there’s plenty of sauce to go around.  Maybe “The Chuck” is a bit too ambitious and tries to be everything to everyone. I’d probably do the pulled pork sandwich on a return trip.  On the side we tried the fried potato salad smothered in a vinegar-y mustard sauce, which was quite good; I’m a fan of an assertive vinegar taste.  I’m curious to try their mac and cheese.  They had a great selection of craft beers, though we didn’t try any.

MulletRoom

The space was very large and inviting, with indoor picnic tables, kitschy memorabilia on the walls, ‘80s music playing (I remember Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”).  My manfriend geeked out about the pinball as soon as we walked in, although the two up front were vintage games either out of order or out of commission.  As promised, there was a game room a.k.a. “The Mullet Room” in the back.  I assumed “The Mullet Room” was an under the breath kind of in-joke, but there was a sign saying “Welcome to The Mullet Room” right there on the wall.  We played “The Simpsons” game which involves endless punching and jumping to save something for Maggie.  There was a good selection of roughly 15-20 games including two pool tables.  It was a spacious room and you paid with quarters rather than tokens.  We didn’t stay too long as my manfriend used his ghost pepper trauma as an excuse to get ice cream at Dairy Joy down the street.

SouthMoonGameRoom

The Mullet Room in all its glory

It wasn’t the best barbecue I’ve had but decent and definitely an inviting and comfortable atmosphere.  It’s a fun, spacious (yet not cavernous) place for a big group with lots of tasty beers to sample and games to play, only about 20 minutes south of DeKalb.

Checking the Map

ForkInRoad

A Drive in the 815 is roughly a month old.  Where are we headed?  What would you, dear readers, like to see more of in the future?  Here, I’ll get us started:

  • More frequent updates. I have a hectic schedule, but then, who doesn’t?  I’ll aim for two a week but be happy with one.
  • Freshen up the layout a bit. I’d like to have thumbnail views of my posts.  That way readers can pick and choose what to read rather than being thrown right into the latest post.
  • More local business profiles. Get in touch if you’d like your business profiled here.  I know that as a DeKalbian and diehard music lover, I’m interested to investigate who’s picking up the live music slack around here in light of Otto’s January, 2014 (temporary?) closing
  • More links to other blogs/community building.
  • Get further familiarized with photography/camera settings.

Star Worlds Arcade

StarWorlds

Who:  Star Worlds Arcade

What:  Retro video games and pinball

Where:  1234 E. Lincoln Hwy. (Rte. 38), DeKalb, IL, (815) 787-4599

When:
Hours of operation:
Tuesday-Thursday, 3pm-10pm
Friday, 3pm-11pm
Saturday 11am-11pm
Sunday 12noon-8pm

What’s New:
Fall FunFest 30th anniversary party October 4, 2014:
4pm photo shoot (free)
5pm-11pm – $25 includes all you can play video games and dinner

If you’re a gamer in the DeKalb area, chances are Star Worlds Arcade is no hidden gem but an old favorite.  You might have caught the 2011 documentary short  about the place (and if not, you can order it through the link).

As a casual gamer new to the area, I’d been meaning to check it out for some time.  I’d pass it often on its fairly isolated (though less than a mile east of NIU) stretch of Route 38, especially last summer as I headed back and forth to the city, slowly retrieving the last of the boxes from my old apartment.

I finally checked out Star Worlds with a new friend recently.  The arcade is on the small side, giving off a cozy basement feel.  Every inch of the place is filled with love for video games, with paraphernalia everywhere such as Pac Man drapes and board game versions of video games (who knew that was a thing?  Not me).  I didn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place as a woman and casual gamer (though, admittedly, my new friend yammered on about pinball like he was getting paid for it).

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Pinball Wizards welcome

I spoke with Star Worlds owner Patrick O’Malley, who was so friendly and excited about the place you’d think he just opened it and could barely believe it.  In fact, they’re coming up on their 30th anniversary. Asking him what he did before Star Worlds, he said “Nothing; I was 12 years old.”  A native of Maple Park, IL (a further jog east down Route 38), he started collecting video games at a young age.  His house was the hangout for all his friends.  “Finally, my parents said, ‘Look, we love your friends, but get them out of here.’”  It wasn’t a business in a cute, air quote kind of way, but an officially licensed one (in his parents’ names ‘til he turned 16).

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Owner Patrick O’Malley with new Japanese arrival Pop’n Music

You might wonder how a small niche business stays afloat in this day and age, and the answer is having fingers in many pies.  “In the arcade, we have 40 games, but overall we have over 600 machines now.  I supply other restaurants and bowling alleys and bars.  We do have a warehouse, because with that many machines, you know there’s stuff that’s gonna be coming in that you’re looking for parts for and stuff like that.”  Starting out in Maple Park, the business moved to DeKalb 10 years ago to be closer to the college town spots he supplies.

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Wall to wall video love

Games are rotated near weekly, and he gets a particularly robust crop in the fall when summer attractions they supply such as Wisconsin Dells have closed for the season and head back to Route 38.  O’Malley also keeps repairs the games for Star Worlds as well as other locations.  “Oh yeah, I would never be in business if I had to pay someone to fix this stuff,” he said.  With all the crop rotation, a few old favorites can always be found there, however.  “The original Pac Man that my parents’ friends gave me as a graduation present when I opened the arcade when I was a kid, I keep that one there.  That Burger Time will never go anywhere, that’s my mom’s favorite game.  If I get rid of it, she’ll kill me.”

O’Malley said his current favorite games are the newer music based ones such as Dance Dance Revolution.  He was particularly excited about Pop’n Music, a Guitar Hero-esque Japanese game where you choose a song and hit the notes as they fall from the sky.  “We have the only one in Illinois.  Some of our friends actually had it imported; it took like three months to come over on the slow boat from Japan.”

Star Worlds’ 30th anniversary is actually January 11th, 2015 (it’s near my birthday, so I asked the specific date).  “It’s January, so we could have a blizzard going on [then],” O’Malley said, “so I’m having an event on October 4th at 4:00.  I’m trying to get as many people, like a flash mob, out in front of Star Worlds for a huge picture together.  There is no charge for that whatsoever.  What we’re doing to kind of give everyone a chance to have something cool for coming out is, when everyone checks into this picture they’ll get a coupon.  At the end, once this picture is taken and we’re done with it, we’re gonna draw one lucky winner and they’ll win a $200 birthday party at the arcade here.  Then at 5:00 we have the rest of our event, Star Worlds Fall FunFest.  That’s a $25 ticketed event that we only have a limited amount of space for.  Everything will be on free play that night for the guests along with dinner and tournaments.”  Party is sponsored by South Moon BBQ (where O’Malley also supplies games), Pita Pete’s, Billy Mitchell’s Hot Sauce, and Video Game Scoreboard.

Fall FunFest will also feature “special gaming celebrities,” including Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, an organization that tracks video game world records.  O’Malley considers Walter Day a friend and mentor.  “He’s taught me a lot.  He has always just given me opportunities.  He kept on giving me opportunities and I was just like, ‘Okay, this is not what I planned,’ but I’m someone that, in 30 years of business, as in life, I look at it as, opportunities do only come across often once in life and if you don’t take them, I don’t want to be someone that’s gonna regret not taking an opportunity.”

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Video game hall of fame!

Mr. Day was featured in the movie King of Kong:  A Fistful of Quarters.  Day’s current venture is a set of baseball card-type video game hall of fame cards, 18 of which are affiliated with Star Worlds.  Cards for three of Star Worlds’ high scorers will be unveiled at the FunFest.

Princeton, Illinois Homestead Festival and Lovejoy Homestead Tour

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Local preschool’s “barrels of fun” float

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

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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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