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Entrance to Pere Marquette Lodge

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The Lodge’s restaurant has lovely stained-glass window panels, including this one of an eagle

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Part of the park, with view down to the Illinois River

We began our eagle-watching weekend on Friday night at the Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park, an ideal place to use as a base. Open all year. Reservations: call 618-786-2331, or www.PMLodge.net .Their slogan is “Come and stay, the natural way”. Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center, a few miles north of Grafton on Highway 100—the Great River Road—is on the edge of the state park by the same name. The 8000-acre park is set in the rolling bluffs and woods overlooking the scenic Illinois River.

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A picture of Pere Marquette in the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

Pere Marquette State Park was founded in 1932 under the name “Piasa Bluffs State Park’ (named for the legendary Piasa Bird, see later). The original purchase of 2,605 acres was made for $25,000, through a combination of local donations and state matching funds. By popular appeal, the name was changed to Pere Marquette State Park, reflecting Father Marquette’s connection with the early history of the area. Today the park encompasses 8,050 acres.

Father Jacques Marquette (the French Jesuit missionary-priest who came to North America to share his faith with the native people), with explorer-cartographer Louis Joliet, was the first European to enter what is now Illinois in 1673, where they met members of the Illini tribe. They were paddling down the Mississippi River on an expedition commissioned by the Governor of New France, trying to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. When the local people told them that this river emptied in the Gulf of Mexico, they turned back and went along the Illinois River, stopping at a point near what is now the state park. A large dolomite stone cross commemorates this landing close to the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

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Painting of Marquette and Joliet’s trip along the river

Marquette’s journal gives the first written description of the land that is now Illinois. Excerpt found at the Pere Marquette Visitor Center: “We have seen nothing like this river [the Illinois]…for the fertility of the land, its prairies, woods, wild cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parrots, and even beaver: its many small lakes and rivers. That on which we sail is wide, deep and still.”

But, the history of the park is much older than this. Throughout the hills, ravines, woods, and prairies of the fertile area along the Illinois River, Native American people hunted game, gathered food, and later made houses. Archeologists describe 6 Native American cultures from this region and have found fragments of pottery, spear points and planting tools. About 150 burial mounds are distributed throughout the park, most still unexcavated.

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piasa2A fascinating legend still survives from these early days. Early people painted 2 huge pictures on one of the bluffs of a creature called Piasa—part bird, with the face of a man, scales like a fish, horns like a deer and a long black tail. Marquette and Joliet saw these and were initially afraid. What was this creature and what was its significance? Supposedly it preyed on local Indian tribes, until it was killed by Illini Chieftain Owatoga, whose village was near Elsah. The original Bluff Picture was painted so Indians, passing on the river, could shoot poisoned arrows at the “Bird”, in memory of their deliverance. A modern painted Piasa Bird is maintained to this day on the bluffs about 20 miles south of the park close to Alton.

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The Lodge is a huge, sprawling structure

PMsignThe Lodge was originally built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) from 1933-1939, supposedly over a Native American village site. It opened for business in 1940 and was dedicated in 1941. The cost of construction was $352,912.00. Timbers of Douglas fir and western cedar from Oregon were used, along with limestone from the Grafton Quarry.

Recent expansions and renovations blend in with the native stone and rustic timbers of the original. The massive lodge building has 50 guest rooms, an indoor pool, game room, a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Mary Michelle Winery/bar, and gift shop.

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The Great Hall

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Kids love this game too

The focal point is a an enormous hall with vaulted ceiling called the Great Room Lobby, decorated with 4 very attractive hanging fabric collages/tapestries of a woods pattern—leaves, branches, creatures—and a mammoth stone fireplace (50 feet high and said to weigh 700 tons) with cheerful dancing flames (very welcome in the frigid cold). Couches, tables and chairs in original 1930s style are grouped around for visitors’ use and a large wooden floor chess board and chess set is well used, especially by kids. Many tables have other games on them too. Picture windows all along one side open to the Brussels Terrace, which gives a great view onto the Illinois River,

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Breakfast in the restaurant 

especially at sunrise and sunset. This is also a favored venue for weddings—and we watched one the Saturday evening we were there. The lodge also offers 22 stone guest cabin rooms, in 7 cabins, a short walk from the main building.

The Lodge overlooks the Illinois River and is just a short walk from the Pere Marquette Visitor Center, which has a lot of useful information about the park’s fauna and flora, the history of the area, and bald eagles.

A wonderful weekend.

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Fun Facts About Bald Eagles

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“See that eagle high in that tree?”

Much of this information is set out at the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

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FUN FACTS ABOUT BALD EAGLES

—The term “bald” refers to the old English word “balde” meaning ‘white’, rather than ‘without feathers’. Adult birds (4-5 years old) have a distinctive white head and tail, and dark brown bodies.

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—Young birds vary in color from solid dark brown to mottled brown and white plumage.

—Adult beaks and eyes are bright yellow. The hooked beaks are used for tearing flesh.

—Eyesight is very keen, up to 5 times better than human vision. They can see a rabbit about two miles away, for example. They have both monocular and binocular vision.

—eagles are one of the largest birds of prey in the world; they are 3 to 3.5 feet tall, with a 6.5 to 8-foot wingspan.

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—Eagles mate for life and usually go back to the same nest, which they keep adding to. Some nests end up around 10ft wide, weighing hundreds of pounds.

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Part of a nest in the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

—Females weigh up to 15lbs, males 8.5-9lbs.

—They eat fish mainly, but sometimes also eat ducks and geese. They can also be scavengers on dead or injured wildlife, such as ducks or deer, especially in winter. They also pirate food from other eagles or other birds.

—Their powerful 2-inch talons are used to take prey.

—They lay 1-3 eggs, which take 35 days to hatch. In 75 days the eaglet is almost full grown and ready to fly.

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—The main predator is the raccoon, which takes eagle eggs.

—Eagles fly 20-40 mph in normal flight, but can reach speeds of 100 mph while diving. They can fly up to 300 miles per day when migrating!!

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—The average age is about 15 years, but they can live up to 30 years in the wild, and to 50 years in captivity.

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During the Bald Eagle Days festival in Alton, Illinois, you can even pat a costumed eagle!

 

 

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Liberty, a rescue bald eagle, on show at Alton Visitor Center

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The Illinois River was mostly frozen over in early January 2018

WINTERING BALD EAGLES ON THE MISSISSIPPI and ILLINOIS RIVERS

A privilege and a thrill to watch the US national bird

Don’t forget your binoculars!

Eager to see an eagle? Well, you can watch our national bird, the Bald Eagle, soaring on six-foot wings, diving down at 100 mph to snatch a fish from the water’s surface, or perching on a tree branch. And Midwest residents don’t have to travel to Alaska (or Florida) to do that. Bald eagle sightings have increased along the Mississippi River this winter, on locks and dams in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Just one hour north of St Louis is a great spot to see large numbers of these magnificent birds in winter, which we recently did in spite of the extreme cold.

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P2040054.JPGAround Alton and Grafton, Illinois, is an area bounded by two rivers, the Illinois River and the Mississippi, with a third, the Missouri River, a few miles south. (In the native language of the then-local Illini tribe, ‘grafton’ means “gathering of waters’). State Parks and Wildlife Management Areas, Federal lands, and Nature Conservancy areas along these rivers recognize the importance of this area. Cliffs, bluffs, woods, wetlands, bottomlands and prairies provide a paradise for a wide variety of flora and fauna. This area is on the N-S bird migratory flyway, so it’s frequented by many migrating birds at different times of the year.

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P2050074.JPGFor most people, the most famous visitor is the bald eagle, which is attracted here by large bodies of water with adequate food supplies and large land areas with minimal human disturbance. This is the second largest wintering ground for eagles flying from their nesting places in the Great Lakes States and Canada (the largest is in N. California and S. Oregon) and the chances of seeing eagles improve as the number of bald eagles continues to increase as a result of improving numbers. As our guide joked, “This is the eagles’ Florida”.

The bald eagle was on the Endangered Species List: Their numbers were down to as few as 417 nesting pairs in the 1960s, because of loss of habitat and widespread use of harmful pesticides, especially DDT. Banning DDT and increased habitat protection under federal law have led to a significant increase in the number of nesting bald eagles, so in 1995 the eagle’s status was downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’.

It is thought that this area supports an estimated winter population of 2500-3000 eagles, and the birds are spotted daily. The wintering eagles use large trees on the river banks for daytime perches, as food is readily available in the open water, especially near dams (they enjoy the fish that are confused/thrown up by the locks and ferries), but they prefer large trees in the nearby sheltered valleys and ravines for night roosts.

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Woodlands in Pere Marquette State Park

mapThe 15-mile scenic Great River Road between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park is very accessible to eagle-watching enthusiasts. Here the road runs along the base of limestone bluffs that rise almost 200 feet above the Mississippi River. Early French explorers (such as Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet) called these ramparts “broken castles” and the scenery alone makes the drive worthwhile.

In winter, many Eagle Events are planned (such as Bald Eagle Days from Pere Marquette State Park Visitors Center: reservations required) or you can plan eagle-viewing yourself with the aid of a pamphlet, “The Eagle Watchers Guide”, which you can pick up at the Alton Visitors Center, Pere Marquette Visitor Center, or the National Great Rivers Museum. Or more information at www.visitalton.com 

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Like wolves and lions, eagles have captured people’s imaginations over the centuries. The Native American Indians revered the eagle as a messenger of the gods and, as your eye is drawn ever upward to admire its graceful soaring, you can understand why, and realize that actually legend is not a match for the reality (eagles have been tracked flying as high as 30,000 feet and because they fly so high is why the Indians thought they were delivering messages to the gods). Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey as the national bird, but the eagle was chosen in 1782 because it’s a true American species (the only other endemic eagle in North America is the golden eagle) As we watch this magnificent bird, we’re very glad the turkey wasn’t chosen!

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Pere Marquette Visitor Center

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Liberty, a rescue eagle is 26 years old and very comfortable with crowds of people

Start at the Visitors’ Center in Pere Marquette State Park, a few miles beyond Grafton on Highway 100, the Great River Road (You can also begin at the Alton Visitor Center, which doesn’t have as many displays but did have a live rescue eagle on display this January). They have good displays on the flora and fauna and natural history of this area and lots of information on eagles, including an informative movie. (See Fun Facts about Bald Eagles in the next article). The Center offers its own Bald Eagle Days program on some days in the season, which you need to sign up for when there, or call 618-786-3323. We took part in this one Sunday, and it was excellent. A State Park interpreter leads the program, driving some people around in a van while others follow in their own vehicles.

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We also saw trumpeter swans

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Our guide, Scott, sets up a ‘scope and points out eagles and their nests

frozenriver3But, to do a viewing trip yourself, drive north from Pere Marquette about 8 miles on 100 to Fuller Lake Wildlife Management Area. Stop and look around at the trees along both sides of the river, and you may see eagles resting on the branches. Turn and retrace your steps past the park, keeping your eagle eyes open! You may see other cars stopped, which probably means they’ve spotted something, and if there’s a place to pull off the road, you can do the same. Just before Grafton is the free Brussels ferry over the Illinois River. It’s fun to drive your car onto the ferry and cross over to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, where you may see bald eagles, pelicans, white geese or trumpeter swans. Cross back (the ferry runs 24/7, every 10-15 minutes so long as the river is not ice-bound) and drive along the Mississippi, watching out for the birds, past Alton to the National Great Rivers Museum at the site of Melvin Price Locks and Dam. You can often see eagles in flight and feeding around this massive structure, or resting in the trees along the river. This January, for the first time in our experience, we saw that the Illinois River was mostly frozen over. Quite amazing to see that!

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So much ice!

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Casey, a red-shouldered hawk

On the opposite side of the river (drive over the big bridge at Alton and turn left) is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka the Audubon Center), one of the best locations for eagle viewing. They (in conjunction with the Alton Visitor Center) were hosting the Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival the day were were there, with fun activities for kids and a live red-shouldered hawk on display. It was also fascinating to see an artist carving an ice sculpture of an eagle from a huge block of ice at the Alton Visitor Center and to see some other finished ice sculptures there and at the Audubon Center. The weather was so cold that the sculptures didn’t melt even a little bit out in the weak sunshine!

 

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SStrmmarketPere Marquette Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park has rooms in the Lodge or cabins in the grounds. For reservations call 618-786-2331or visit www.PMLodge.net . I’ll write more about Pere Marquette, the PM State Park and PM Lodge in a later post.

Other lodging options are listed at www.VisitAlton.com . Many restaurants in Grafton and Alton provide tasty lunch breaks. We really liked State Street Market in Alton.

NOTE: An alternative site in Illinois for eagle viewing is Starved Rock State Park on the upper Illinois River, much closer to Chicago.

Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 be a good year for all.

We’ll soon be off on our next adventures, so I wanted to finish my mini-series on Fort McHenry in Baltimore (bit delayed I know, sorry!)

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armisteadplaque copyPart 4: Plaques and statues at Fort McHenry

Dotted around the fort are a number of plaques and statues that also continue the story of the fort and the people involved with it.

The first that caught our eye was an imposing statue of George Armstead, the Commander at Fort Henry who was instrumental in warding off the British. He was also the one who commissioned the famous flag.

Another was a plaque to Francis Scott Key. In 1914, as part of the National Star-Spangled Banner Centennial Celebration, the city of Baltimore dedicated the Francis Scott Key Tablet. Designed by Hans Schuler, originally from Germany, the bronze shield depicts and American flag and myrtle (symbol of love and immortality) surrounding a portrait of Key.

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Illinois copyAs mentioned before, when we walked back to catch the bus, we noted metal plaques set into the sidewalk along the edge of the entrance road, with the names of US states. We discovered that there is one for each state, commemorating when the state entered the union. We couldn’t find them all, but did find Illinois! Significant for us, as Illinois will celebrate its 200th year in the union in 2018.

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orpheuscloseWe also detoured to a grassy area to look at a huge statue we’d noticed when we came into the park. It is called Orpheus, the Hero of Music and Poetry. In 1916 the Fine Arts Commission sponsored a national competition for a statue to honor Francis Scott Key and the defenders who protected Baltimore during the War of 1812. It chose “Orpheus” by Charles Niehaus. America’s involvement in WW1 delayed the completion of the statue. It was dedicated on Flag Day June 14, 1922 and was originally placed in the middle of the entrance road, where it was the centerpiece for the annual commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore. It was moved to the current location in 1962. The statue and the surrounding grove of flowering crabapple trees is one way of showing how the fort changed from an active military base to a place of reflection and commemoration.

 

 

 

 

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View of fort and park from entrance

 

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The fort has many canons of varying ages

We’ve had so much other wonderful travel this year that I never did get round to finishing the story of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. It is an interesting story and we did enjoy our morning visiting the fort in the summer. So, to rectify that, here come parts 3, and 4.

Part 3: Brief History of the Fort:

In a way, the history is more impressive than the actual structures we see today, as they are more symbolic than grand now.

Although the United States won its independence from Britain in 1783, the threat of foreign invasion remained. To protect the young republic, the federal government launched an ambitious program of building forts near America’s primary cities along the East Coast. Fort McHenry was one of those forts.

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1878

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One of the informative boards in the fort

Completed in 1805 and named after the Secretary of War, James McHenry, the new fort had five points or “bastions”, which had a star shape, accommodations for over 150 soldiers, and a line of heavy artillery aimed downriver. The fort is strategically placed at the end of a point dividing different branches of the Patapsco River, a perfect spot for protecting the city of Baltimore.

The first flag to fly over the newly-constructed ramparts was a 15-star, 15-stripe banner, reflecting the recently added states of Vermont and Kentucky.

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Entrance to inner fort

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Part of the inner fort, and a flag that always flies

The fort saw serious action when it was attacked by the British in September 1814, but repulsed the British onslaught (see earlier post https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/fort-mchenry-and-the-star-spangled-banner/ ).

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Board about Lt Allen Fay, at the time of the 1814 war. Interesting facts about amounts of rations (click photo to make it bigger)

 

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Statue of Lt Allen Fay

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Rod M and a Rodman canon

The fort never again came under enemy fire, but it continued as an active military post for the next 100 years. In 1829 the earthen walls were reinforced with granite blocks and a brick wall was added to shore up the parapets. During the Civil War it was used as a temporary prison for captured Confederate soldiers, southern sympathizers, and political prisoners.

In 1866 the enormous Rodman Canons were installed, the heaviest ever at the fort. However, they were only ever used for ceremonies.

During WW1, the US Army built over 100 buildings around the star fort. It was one of the rodmanlargest military hospitals in the country and housed 3,000 wounded soldiers from the battlefields of France. Over 1,000 staff worked in this facility. From 1917 until 1923, US Army General Hospital No. 2 was located here to serve WW1 veterans. It was especially known as a surgical center and great advances in neurosurgery and reconstructive surgery took place here. It was also one of the first medical centers to reintegrate disabled soldiers into civilian life by offering special classes in typing, knitting, metal work, automotive repair and other trades.

In 1925 Congress made Fort McHenry a national park; 14 years later it was re-designated a national monument and historic shrine, the only park in US to have this double distinction.

Next is Part 4 on plaques and statues in the fort park.

 

 

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ourpercyPOINSETTIA: THE AMERICAN CHRISTMAS FLOWER

Most flowers, herbs, and plants used at Christmas are associated with very ancient celebrations. In those years before blooms could be airlifted to brighten our bleak mid-winters, the presence of a colorful , growing plant in dark December seemed miraculous, and therefore many stories and tales grew up around these plants. Think of holly (Christ Thorn), ivy (ivy clings, as people should cling to a religion) and mistletoe (used by the Druids as a plant with good luck powers, and as a sign of love in Norse mythology).

But the poinsettia is a much newer addition, the New World’s contribution to Christmas.

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Note the small green flowers in the center

In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett of South Carolina, a diplomat who was the first American minister to Mexico, was intrigued with the brilliant red “flowers” topping spindly shrubs all over the country. (The “flowers” are actually brightly-colored bracts, or specialized leaves, which attract pollinating insects to the hidden, tiny green flowers). The local people called them “flame flowers” or “flowers of the Holy Night” because they were used as decorations in Mexican Nativity processions. These flowers, native to Mexico, were known even to the Aztecs, who regarded them as a gift from the gods and called them Cuetlaxochitl.

Dr. Poinsett was an enthusiastic botanist and he sent cuttings home for his greenhouse and to share with friends. They belong to the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. The botanical name for poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima (in Latin pulchra means ‘beautiful’, so this means ‘most beautiful’).

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Light yellow

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Coral with cream edges

About a hundred years later, Paul Ecke of California saw these plants and began to cultivate, interbreed, and experiment with them. The Ecke family built up a thriving business, which supplies thousands of growers around the world with cuttings that produce millions of holiday plants each year.

We can now enjoy red, pink, white, yellow, and marbled colors to brighten the holiday season. Pointsettias can range from miniatures in pots, to 10 to 15 feet tall trees in tropical and sub-tropical countries, like Mexico. I remember tall poinsettia trees in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when we were growing up.

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Trees–hard to imagine when we buy our pots here!

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Shrubs

Pointsettias are not poisonous to people, but some people have a skin reaction to the milky sap. Also it’s best to keep pets from eating them, as the leaves can cause gastric reactions.

December 12 is Poinsettia Day, to mark the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851. Interestingly, in Mexico December 12 is the Dia de la Vergen (Day of the Virgin Mother) and on that day pointsettias are also displayed.

On one of our Christmas CDs we have a quirly song called “Percy the Puny Pointsettia” by Elmo and Patsy, so now our family tends to call all our poinsettia plants Percy! But, mostly they are not puny, and in fact one of our daughter’s Percys stayed alive for about 3 years in a pot in her house. A fun new tradition!

 

Where to Eat in Chicago: The Berghoff

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beerA Chicago Institution

Downtown Chicago has so many places to eat that it’s difficult to know where to choose. One of our favorites is The Berghoff. We’ve often been to The Berghoff and like it for many reasons: it’s well placed between Union Station, and Millennium Park and the Art Institute, where we usually arrive and go to visit; it’s close to Club Quarters, where we usually stay, and to the Willis Tower; but, more than location, it has atmosphere and very good food. It also has an interesting history, as it’s been an iconic Chicago dining experience since 1898 and is one of the nation’s oldest family-run businesses. It started with Hermann Joseph Berghoff, who immigrated in 1870 from Germany. For a history of the restaurant see here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Berghoff_(restaurant) .

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insideIt’s also known for being the place with the first liquor license in Chicago after Prohibition was lifted, proudly known as Chicago Liquor License “Number One”. The license hangs behind the bar and they boast that there’s not a drink that they haven’t served. They also make their own beers, in many styles, some of which are famous.

The Berghoff Restaurant is up a few stairs from the entrance and the Berghoff Café, which offers lighter fare, is a few steps down.

The restaurant is pretty big, so they seem to easily accommodate most people, in the bar section or the dining section. The interior is very attractive, with big wooden beams, wood paneling, lots of framed old photos on the walls, and some stained-glass windows. We’ve been here as a couple, I’ve been with my sister, and also as part of a group, and the wait staff do very well either way.

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Vera

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Sole dish

We’ve always been happy with the menu and the service here, and the prices are reasonable for Chicago. The menu is a mix of traditional (old-style from Germany/Bavaria) and more modern, and all the dishes sound great.

Some of the ones we’ve chosen at various times were stuffed sole and free-range lamb chops with salad. Delicious. Of course, with 2 Berghoff Heffeweizen beers.

 

 

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Near the bar

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Game Sausage Plate

VandVOne time we were there in December and they had two musicians in the bar playing live music. We were seated very close to the bar in the dining section, so could hear them very clearly above the general chatter of diners. Very nice. That time Rod had the Game Sausage Plate (3 sausages—duck, venison, pork—with spatzle) and I had the halibut special. Both were very good. On other occasions we’ve had the stuffed sole—also delicious.

Note too the great way they serve the selection of breads.

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Lamb chops dish

Definitely recommended if you are ever in Chicago and looking for a place to eat, no matter the season.

Address: 17 W. Adams

Daily 11am-9pm, closed on Sundays

https://www.theberghoff.com

 

 

 

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