Explore the Charming Little Towns
of Henry County in Western Illinois
HENRY COUNTY, ILL. – Driving through the rich farmland of rural Henry County in
western Illinois, you can easily imagine the agricultural vista stretches on forever. Corn
and soybeans are king here, and two giant ethanol plants attest that this is fertile land.
But dotting this scene are also the small towns and villages that tell the stories of the
land, which lies in the shadow of the Quad Cities, 2½ hours west of Chicago. Created in
1826, Henry County was named in honor of Revolutionary War firebrand Patrick Henry.
Before the Civil War, easterners in search of plentiful land and Northern European
immigrants came here to start life anew. Today, their descendants welcome you to
explore their heritage, enjoy their traditions and festivals and come back often.
Like so many communities on the Illinois prairie, Alpha was created as a railroad town in
1872, and settled primarily by workers of German and Swedish ancestry. The village
was named Alpha (the first letter of the Greek alphabet), because its founders believed
it would some day grow into a great city. Although it never fulfilled that prophecy, Alpha
today remains a picturesque village with stately old homes befitting the aspirations of
the early residents. Alpha annually hosts two big antique hunting events – Thrifty on 150
in May includes flea markets, yard sales, antiques, artwork and lots of great food in the
communities along U.S. Route 150, and Apple Anne’s Antique and Flea Market in July.
Andover is Henry County’s oldest community. Its roots stretch back to the building of a
mill at the crossroads of several wagon trails in 1836, but the town began to thrive with
the arrival of Swedish immigrants in 1849. Soon after arriving, Lars Paul Esbjörn, the
first Swedish Lutheran minister in the United States, and his flock built Jenny Lind
Chapel, which became the "mother church" of the Swedish Lutheran community. Built
with funding provided in part by the Swedish singer, Jenny Lind, the chapel remains a
big visitor draw today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn
about the town’s Swedish heritage, explore the Andover Historical Museum, and return
in June for Andover Colonial Days.
The village of Annawan owes its history to the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad,
which came to Henry County in 1853. Named after a Winnebago chief, it has been
mainly a farming community and for a while at the turn of the last century, a coal mining
town. Nearby Henry Lake replaces an old strip mining site. Annawan sits on historic
U.S. Route 6, the nation’s second longest highway stretching from Provincetown,
Mass., to Long Beach, Calif., and the vintage light posts on Main Street reflect this
heritage. Annawan is home to a 100-million gallon Ethanol plant and to Rolle Bolle
(pronounced roly boly), a unique bowling game that was brought here by Belgian
immigrants. In fact, the town hosts the World Rolle Bolle Tournament in July. Annawan
Fun Days is an annual summer kick-off party held the first weekend in June, with a
parade, rides, beer garden, live music and fireworks.
Atkinson is another town built on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad route
through Henry County. Named for its founder, Atkinson was settled primarily by Belgian
and Dutch immigrants, whose history is celebrated each fall during Atkinson Heritage
Days. Today, its pride and joy are a beautifully planted boulevard and award-winning
downtown park. With access to the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park, visitors to
Atkinson enjoy biking, fishing, horseback riding and boating all year long
Bishop Hill is Henry County’s crown jewel, a carefully preserved glimpse into a 19th
Century utopian community. In 1846, followers of a charismatic spiritual leader, Erik
Jansson, left Sweden and built a “new Jerusalem” on the prairie in their new country.
Their successful communal society, based on economic and religious principles,
flourished for 15 years, but disbanded when most of the men left to fight in the Civil
War. Today, Bishop Hill is a timeless country village where descendants of the original
colonists live and work to maintain a modern-day utopia through art, craftsmanship and
dedication to the traditions of their Swedish heritage.
In 2007, Midwest Living magazine named Bishop Hill one of its 100 best small town
getaways. Here you can sample authentic Swedish foods, browse the shops for
antiques, pottery, quilts, baskets and Swedish imports. Watch blacksmiths and broom
makers at work and stroll through five museums.
This State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark is chock-full of events and
celebrations all year long. Especially notable are: Midsommar, a celebration and music
festival on or near the summer solstice in June, Jordbruksdagarna, a Swedish styled fall
harvest festival in September and Julmarknad, Lucia Nights and Julotta, authentic
Swedish Christmas celebrations in late November and December.
Centrally located, Cambridge is the seat of Henry County government and the home of
the Henry County Fair each summer. Tour the imposing brick and stone Victorian
courthouse, a National Historic Landmark, and the Cambridge Heritage Village Park to
learn the county’s agricultural and immigrant history. For something out of the ordinary,
check out the Old, Odd & Unusual Museum. If you’ve never seen a tree growing out of
the bed of a truck or a dog-powered washing machine, then it’s time you did. And come
back in August, when Cambridge struts its community pride during its Main Street Fest
& Auto Show.
Colona sits on the Green River at the point where the river and the Hennepin Canal flow
into the Rock River. Once a military outpost, the town features a replica of Fort Obie,
and an annual fall rendezvous highlighting frontier life. Hennepin Canal Parkway State
Park flows from one end of town to the other, and together with the Green Rock
Memorial Bike Path, offers fishing, hiking, biking and snowmobiling in winter. Don’t
forget to stop for a tasting at Colona’s award-winning Lavender Crest Winery.
Established in 1854, Galva was named for a Swedish seaport, and today more than 80
per cent of its residents claim Scandinavian ancestry. For a town of less than 3,000
people, it has a high ratio of green space with three large parks. Visitors are greeted at
the town’s east entrance by a new 100-million gallon capacity ethanol plant. Galva is full
of beautiful homes, and one park is surrounded by Queen Anne mansions, making a
drive around the north side a special treat. Don’t forget to stop at Jacobson’s Bakery
downtown for authentic Swedish rye bread and rusks. The shop is not tended; you
leave money for your purchases in a tin box. Pamper yourself with a stay in Galva
Mansion. Originally a banker’s home, today it’s a beautiful B&B on a three-acre estate.
Return on Independence Day for Galva’s renowned Freedom Fest, whose gigantic
fireworks finale regularly attracts visitors from far and near.
In the late 1830’s, eight Presbyterian and Congregationalist families from Genessee,
N.Y. started a religious colony in the “far west.” For its first decade, Geneseo was
governed with strict religious principles, banning all intoxicating beverages. Visit the
Geneseo Historical Museum to learn about abolitionists in early Geneseo, and how the
town became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Just north of town is the
Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park. Be sure to come back in September for the
annual Antique Engine & Tractor Association’ Working Farm Show, where you’ll see
demonstrations of corn picking, combines, plowing, wood carving, corn shelling, quilting,
threshing and more.
Legend has it that Belgian settlers in this northeast corner of Henry County named their
villiage Hooppole because of the tall hickory trees from which local coopers made barrel
hoops. Today, this tiny town is noted for two very large things. Just outside of Hooppole
at St. Mary of the Fields Holy Shrine, you’ll find a giant rosary on the lawn built with rolle
bolle balls, a testament to the town’s Belgian heritage. And on the Saturday before
Independence Day, Hooppole hosts a huge party just for families. No kid leaves
Hooppole Fun Day without a prize! The day is packed with old fashioned games,
parade, frog jumping contest, foot races, pie auction, cake walk and more. For adults,
there’s a tractor pull and rolle bolle tournaments. In the evening, a potluck supper is
capped off with a street dance enjoyed by all.
With about 13,000 citizens, Kewanee is Henry County’s largest community and
shopping hub. Begun in the 1830’s as Wethersfield, most of the residents moved two
miles north 20 years later to Kewanee, the new whistle stop on the Chicago, Rock
Island & Pacific Railroad. Today, dozens of fast freights roar though town and Amtrak
makes fours stops daily. Given the name of the Winnebago word for “prairie chicken,”
Kewanee quickly grew as a manufacturing center, known worldwide for Kewanee
boilers made here for more than a century. Kewanee's downtown shopping district is
home to Good's Furniture, the Midwest’s largest furniture retailer housed in 12
connecting historic buildings. Once dubbed the “Hog Capital of the World,” the city holds
its Hog Days Celebration throughout Labor Day weekend. Be sure to visit the Woodland
Palace in Francis Park. The home was built by Fred Francis in 1889 and contains a
primitive air conditioning system, yet everything in the house was powered by a single
Orion is just minutes from the Quad Cities on Illinois Rte. 150. Settled in 1841 by
Easterners who were attracted by Henry County’s abundant and rich farm soil, it today
retains a charming 19th century Main Street. Orion’s 1913 Central Park Bandshell is the
community’s centerpiece and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Each
summer, it is the scene of a popular musical concert series.
Osco is a tiny unincorporated farming community northwest of Cambridge. It was
founded in 1870 by Israel Crocker, who arrived in 1838 and introduced the first sheep
into Henry County.
Woodhull was originally known as Heathland, and the first family to settle here kept a
post office in their home for the stage coach which passed by once a week. In 1857,
Maxwell Woodhull came here from New York City, surveyed the town and renamed it
after himself. A railroad running from Galva to New Boston on the Mississippi River
arrived in 1869 and by the fall and winter of 1871-1872, more broom corn was shipped
from Woodhull than any other town in the United States.
One way to feel the heartbeat of a community is to sample the home-style cooking in its
cafes and to check out its festivals and events. For everything you need to plan your
visit, go to www.visithenrycounty.com, or phone the Henry County Tourism Bureau at
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WEBSTER’S UNABRIDGED, INC.
PO Box 311, Galena IL 61036-0311