Exploring Lebanon, full of surprises

Follow Charles Dickens to McKendree and the Mermaid House

click to enlarge Exploring Lebanon, full of surprises
Photo by Mary Bohlen
Period furnishings abound in Lebanon’s Mermaid House Inn, where Charles Dickens once stayed. It was built in 1830 by a retired sea captain who claimed to have seen mermaids. Wooden pegs hold hand-hewn oak beams in place and most of the floors are original.

When you travel to Lebanon to experience its history and culture, you don't need a passport or plane reservations – that is if you head to the town 86 miles south of Springfield, not the Middle East.

Like its namesake, Lebanon, Illinois, long has drawn travelers. Since its founding in 1814, the town of 4,250 on a popular route to St. Louis has had countless guests, including Charles Dickens, who stayed at the Mermaid House Inn in 1842.

Built by a retired sea captain who claimed to have seen mermaids in the ocean, the Mermaid House is open now only on special occasions or by appointment. But Lebanon offers lots of other treasures such as historic sites, a restored trolley, an art gallery/shop featuring the work of 85 regional artists, unique stores lining brick-paved St. Louis Street, interesting restaurants and the McKendree University campus.

click to enlarge Exploring Lebanon, full of surprises
Photo by Mary Bohlen
The Mermaid House Inn, built in 1830, still stands in Lebanon.

The Chamber of Commerce sponsors events nearly every weekend from April to December, and a local playhouse and McKendree's Hett Center for the Arts ensure plenty of entertainment options. Some popular upcoming events are a fall festival on Oct. 7, car cruise on Oct. 14 and Victorian Holiday on Nov. 17 and 18.

One annual gathering is Witches' Night Out on Oct. 29, which started as an adult women's event for early Christmas shopping and has evolved into a family dress-up night. "If you are into Halloween, this is your event," says Carrie Christ of the Chamber of Commerce.

Greg Peterson of the Lebanon Historical Society says it is unclear why the town was named for the country but suggests founders picked the foreign name just as other towns in southern Illinois such as Vienna and Cairo did. Peterson also explains that Dickens arrived from St. Louis by stagecoach and later wrote about Lebanon in his book American Notes.

The Mermaid House is not the only historical structure worth a look. Some residents have restored a trolley similar to one that ran from Lebanon to St. Louis while others are raising money to create a town museum in the old newspaper office.

One old home on St. Louis Street is the Tiadaghton House, built in 1912 by a doctor to serve as his office and home. Today it houses art from 85 artists and antiques collected by owners Jim and Holly Lovell.

Holly says she had always wanted to run a store while traveling the world for Jim's 28-year military career. She collected items from many countries and didn't want a "boring antique store." The couple carefully planned their post-retirement retail life and settled on Lebanon after falling in love with the area.

Exploring Lebanon, full of surprises
Photo by Mary Bohlen
Lebanon history buffs are raising money to open a community museum in the town’s former newspaper office. The building still has several linotype machines, original wooden shelving and other artifacts.

Previous owners had just refurnished the house to period so, with its 11 rooms and hallways, it was a natural fit for different art forms. "We tried to have every medium we could come up with," Holly says, adding they seek to collect real art and not crafty items.

The art includes paintings, woodwork, pottery, jewelry, cards, quilts, soap and even handcrafted candy. Two artists are in residence on many days. Jim loves collecting antiques, so has scattered some throughout the building and concentrated more in the coach house out back.

The Lovells say they get customers from all over and lots of repeat ones. Mike Wolf from the TV show "American Pickers" has visited six times. The Tiadaghton House celebrated its 10th anniversary in early September, making it the longest running of any retail store in town, according to the Lovells.

Another unique shop on St. Louis Street is Minerva's, where owner Donelle Gress urges customers to "discover your inner goddess." Started eight years ago, Minerva's offers women's clothing from throughout the United States and Europe and custom-made jewelry. Her weekly live Facebook sessions draw people nationwide.

"Fashion has been my passion forever," Gress says, and named her shop for the goddess of creativity, commerce and wisdom.

click to enlarge Exploring Lebanon, full of surprises
Photo by Mary Bohlen
Visitors to Lebanon, Illinois, can step inside a restored trolley not far from downtown. Trolleys ran between the town and St. Louis.

Other stores sell antiques, books and gifts. Popular downtown restaurants include the Gasthaus, the Lantern, and Grit and Tonic, a speakeasy-type bar that opens only on Friday and Saturday nights in a nondescript storefront reminiscent of Prohibition places. Unfortunately, a popular soda shop has closed.

Also on the brick street is the Looking Glass Playhouse, the local theater company that offers productions September through May. Fall offerings include Grease and Murder on the Orient Express. Dickens' A Christmas Carol is an annual event in December in a nod to Lebanon's famous visitor.

Other entertainment options are available at McKendree University, one of the oldest colleges in Illinois. The Hett Center for the Arts opened in 2006 for theater and music performances, replacing an old gym. "This was a quantum leap in terms of space, technology and audience space," Director Michelle Radke Magnussen says of the 479-seat venue.

click to enlarge Exploring Lebanon, full of surprises
Photo by Mary Bohlen
Holly Lovell, co-owner of the Tiadaghton House in Lebanon, shows one of the rooms in her art gallery/shop. Housed in a restored 1902 home, the Tiadaghton features the work of 85 regional artists.

In addition to student theater, music and dance performances, the Hett hosts 10 outside touring companies a year. Fall offerings include the Wee Heavies Celtic a capella group on Oct. 6, the Fabulous Thunderbirds blues and rock band on Oct. 20, the Music of Billy Joel and Elton John on Nov. 10 and Give 'Em Hell, Harry! with Clifton Truman Daniel, the late president's grandson, on Nov. 17.

Magnussen says the annual free performance by the USAF Band of Mid-America from nearby Scott Air Force Base will pack the place for shows Dec. 8 and 9 – one more reason to hit the road instead of the skies to visit Lebanon.

For more information about Lebanon, go to 


Mary Bohlen, a Springfield resident and former UIS journalism professor, enjoys traveling to hidden gems and writing about them.


Mary Bohlen

Mary Bohlen is a retired journalism professor who is a regular contributor to Illinois Times. She specializes in writing about interesting places in Illinois and nearby states worthy of day or weekend trips.

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