If you’ve long thought Rochester the last exit on the Lost Bridge Trail, the end of the line for your urban adventures on the fringes of Springfield, get off your bike and take a hike. There are rewards at the end of a journey to Rochester, and not just a mango smoothie with dark chocolate truffles at Cocoa Blue.
The Rochester Historical Preservation Society’s walking tour of this town’s architectural treasures invites close inspection, and autumn in Sangamon County has its own rewards.
First off, Rochester has a significant history of its own, and the walking tour brochure, which you’ll definitely need, sets the stage nicely for your perambulations. Walking Tour brochures are available at the Rochester Public Library, area businesses, and some Springfield tourist sites.
Although most of the sites on the tour take you up and down East Main Street, don’t skip the houses on the periphery. There are some real gems around the corner. But first you need to know this walking tour won’t get you across any thresholds. Rochester folks are warm and friendly enough, but this tour stops at the sidewalk; none of the homes are looking for visitors at this time of year.
The local preservationists who put this tour together recommend that you start your hike around historic Rochester at the old bank building, site of a legendary robbery in 1932. The bank building has its integrity, including a visible alarm box installed shortly after the robbery. The building now houses a coin shop – still peddling the pecuniary but not in any vaulted sense.
The stately residence immediately to the north of the bank, however, sets the tone for the rest of the walk. The Dr. Bell home, with its 18-inch-thick brick walls on the first floor, is a dwelling of substance. Here I should say something about the selection of the 29 buildings on the tour. All the buildings were photographed in 1918 by the Orange Judd Publishing Company, a vanity press from Chicago that cajoled communities into recording their economic glory in picture books, which, in Sangamon County history at that time, was considerable. Each home and building on the tour includes a photo from the Orange Judd publication and a more recent photo as well, so the casual walking tourist can take in the past and present in a glance. Cool and helpful.
While the Greek Revival/neo-classical Bell home is imposing, the Ira Twist house at 200 East Main is a bit more sprawling, due to its conversion into a funeral home in the last century. The brochure notes that this home might actually be the oldest in the community, for there are hand-hewn log sills and peg construction in the oldest portions of the house. There were no funerals at the time so I had to forgo greater investigation, and moved on to 214 East Main, where the 1901 house I intended to see (Dr. Cantrall’s) was undergoing extensive renovation, owing to an April fire that had left it uninhabitable. The construction crew, however, let me walk through the gutted house and I got see the skeleton, which by 21st century standards was, I dare say, shoddy. Now with new double headers to support the load-bearing walls, a new staircase, and reinforced ceilings, this house will be another Rochester showcase in three or four months.
At this point in the walk I have to mention the many large trees in this historic neighborhood. I saw a half-dozen ginormous catalpa trees, their strange fruit dangling beneath elephantine leaves, towering silver maples, a smoke tree and a few chinquapin oaks that provided shade to many of these time-weathered dwellings. On a warm August day they were welcome, and in October should put on a considerable show.
Soon I crossed the Black Branch, a slow-moving creek that once turned a grain mill and gave birth to a local distillery, according to the brochure. This was probably back in the day when Martin Van Buren was log-rolling in Rochester, and a local lawyer named Lincoln was stumping for his Whig allies.
The sidewalk abruptly ends at Oak Street, but the tour continues on for a couple more blocks. It should be noted that although there are many other potential sites on the tour, not all of the houses have been researched. I found myself looking at all the residences, wondering about their history and the long-gone folks who built and lived in them.
The Reverend Wright House, 601 E. Main, is a hefty Queen Anne-style showplace that was originally owned by Thomas Benton Wright, a Methodist minister and editor of the local newspaper The Rochester Weekly Item. He was also a racehorse owner, a degree or two more worldly than his daughter, Mary Wright Kingsley, a missionary who died in Malaysia in 1903.
The tour moves north a block to Mill Street, where another series of handsome homes invite a stroll. The Whiteside Homestead at 201 East Mill hasn’t changed much in 100 years, but needs a landscaper’s hand. The Harcourt House, with its tidy dormers, boasts 10-foot ceilings throughout the house and logs as floor joists.
Whatever you do, don’t neglect the two or three homes on West Main as you leave town. The C.L. Jones House at 341 West Main Street is a gorgeous property, both for its physical beauty and its well-maintained lawn. Built in 1905 by F.A. Chandler, this lovely Queen Anne was owned in recent memory by former Sangamon State University professor J. Michael Lennon. I fondly recall as his student having dinner once in the spacious dining room, my first experience with braised scallops in wine sauce. As Norman Mailer’s authorized biographer, Lennon once played host to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author in this house, which puts it on a short list of significant literary sites in Sangamon County.
The tour brochure concludes at the old Stone House which, after the elegance of the Gilded-Age homes, is a reminder of Rochester’s humble roots. Sadly, the site is devoid of those magnificent trees that grace the walking tour in town. But it’s a solid and substantial ending to an afternoon diversion at the end of the Lost Bridge Trail.
William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, enjoys a good mango smoothie and a French dark chocolate truffle at the end of a long day.