Discover Decatur for some summer fun
By Mary Bohlen Photos by Brent Bohlen
Decatur gets a bad rap. Some travelers think of it as a place to pass on their way to Champaign-Urbana. Others know when they get close because of the distinctive soybean processing smell. Parts of the city, like plenty of others, need some restoration.
But travelers who take the time to get off I-72 and spend the day will discover plenty to see and do indoors, outdoors or spanning both. "We have a treasure trove of small things you can experience and enjoy," says Teri Hammel, executive director of the Decatur Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Hammel points to a variety of museums, Lake Decatur and the opening of a new outdoor amphitheater as worthy of your visit. Several big summer and fall events are back.
If you have children or grandchildren to take along, you will find even more gems in the Soy City, including a zoo, children's museum and nature center.
The Hieronymus Mueller Museum and the Staley Museum pay tribute to two of Decatur's most illustrious families. Mueller, an inventor extraordinaire, held 500 patents, and his company's museum tells visitors about his contributions.
Mueller products are everywhere. You no doubt have stepped on a manhole cover or seen a fire hydrant with Mueller's name on them. Perhaps you have quenched your thirst at a Mueller bubbler fountain, developed to combat the 1918 influenza spread. You also can thank Mueller for inventing a water tapper to ease connecting a city's water supply to individual houses and businesses. The device, with only minor changes, continues as the standard today.
Two blocks away, the Staley Museum educates visitors on the A.E. Staley family and the company's importance to manufacturing and agricultural circles, especially the production of corn starch and corn syrup and the processing of soybeans. Family artifacts and company history abound in the mansion where Staleys lived from 1909-1951.
The mansions of two more distinguished citizens, Governor Richard Oglesby and James Millikin, offer tours by appointment and provide glimpses into 19th century living.
Other Decatur museums include the African-American Cultural and Genealogical Society of Illinois Museum, the Chevrolet Hall of Fame Museum and the Macon County History Museum. Some museums have limited entrance times so it is best to call ahead.
If you are looking for a place to entertain grandchildren, head to Scovill Park near Lake Decatur to the Children's Museum of Illinois, ranked as one of the top 25 children's museums in the country. Its hands-on approach especially appeals to ages 2-12.
Scovill's zoo and playground are good places to run off childhood energy or pretend you are a kid again. The zoo has 400 animals representing six continents, a carousel full of hand-carved endangered species and a train that takes visitors on a one-mile narrated tour. The carousel, train and playground are ADA-accessible.
Also on the lakeshore is one of the city's newest bragging-rights attractions, the Devon Lakeshore Amphitheater in Nelson Park. The 3,200-seat venue offers open-air entertainment of all stripes, including bands, comedians and movies. For this summer's schedule, go to www.devonamphitheater.com.
Nelson Park houses the fairly new Overlook Adventure Park with a mini-golf course, water park, playground and ropes course.
Rock Springs nature center and conservation area on the outskirts of town offers hiking trails, fishing, art and nature displays and the Homestead Prairie Farm. The farm and restored buildings represent the Illinois prairie in 1860.
In another nod to history, Decatur has several statues and 16 wayside exhibits related to Abraham Lincoln's time in the area. Ten miles west of the city is the Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park and Memorial, site of the family's first home in Illinois.
Downtown the city's iconic Transfer House is undergoing renovation to become an event venue with window graphics that will help tell the building's history. Originally a place for streetcar riders to transfer lines, it became a popular spot for bands and speeches by dignitaries before turning into a bus terminal.
In 1962 the city moved the building to Central Park but it fell into disrepair for a time. "Instead of being a big empty shell, it will be a focus on history and more useable," says Hammel.
A few blocks away are Merchant and North Water streets, home to several restaurants and unique shops. A free trolley takes visitors throughout the historic downtown. Also downtown is Decatur's main post office with its Depression-era murals, considered some of the best examples of post office art in the state.
The Decatur Celebration, usually an annual event, is canceled for this year, but Hammel says several other major events are on tap. The 75th annual air show happens at the Decatur Airport Aug. 14-15, and the Farm Progress Show, which rotates locations, is back Aug. 31-Sept. 2. Art lovers can flock to Central Park for a Sept.17-19 show.
For more information on Decatur, go to www.decaturcvb.com.
Mary Bohlen, a Springfield travel writer, discovered lots of Decatur gems while researching this story.