Publisher’s Note: Mt. Vernon, Illinois
By Vanessa Westmoreland
As we drove into Mount Vernon, Illinois, there were a number of small, quaint midwestern towns that came to mind. However, none quite compare to Mount Vernon which has a five star bed and breakfast, an accredited art museum, fine dining, flash fried out-of-this-world ribs and intriguing history. Above Larry Sidwell’s door at his Sidwell Friends Bed and Breakfast an inscription says, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Larry goes above and beyond this mission statement at his B & B where he has entertained guests from around the world in Mount Vernon over the last 10 years. It has all the amenities of a boutique hotel including a warmer for your bath towels and constantly stocked chocolates. The 1920s home which is fitted with modern renovations and design that were expertly picked by Larry himself is in pristine condition. His color choices for the walls of each room are brilliant and allow you to admire the carefully placed antique art with more attention. His sun porch turned library makes you anxious to “go home” to the B & B and relax with a magazine (or ten) and lose yourself in reading.
The three-guest-room home provides intimacy as Larry states, “I am able to give attention to my guests that larger bed and breakfasts cannot.” He is a master at hospitality and conversation. If you are staying overnight on a business trip or a weekend getaway with your spouse or family, you will feel right at home at Sidwell Bed and Breakfast (even with small children).
In the manicured yard, ivy and flowers adorn the back porch and various seating areas. The new fence and string lights above the patio are the perfect setting to sit and sip wine and devour chocolates. It is safe to stroll the neighborhoods at night. Larry says, “It has the benefits of a small town and it is close to a metropolitan area.” Larry explains, “Mount Vernon is the cross- roads of two interstates. It’s a halfway point between Memphis and Chicago and Nashville and Chicago. It’s a perfect stopping point for meeting family halfway and is a ‘one-tank trip’ to St Louis that is only an hour and 20 minutes away.” Every morning you will wake up to fine china and crystal laid upon a fresh and beautiful table cloth serving his homemade main course and protein for the day. It is accompanied by various selections of fresh fruit, cereals, juices, coffee and teas.
Larry said, “I used to tell my guests the town size, and then I stopped and had them guess. Many would routinely guess 30,000 or more after they experienced Mount Vernon and Cedar- hurst Center for the Arts.” 16,000 is the actual population. Larry explains, “The museum made Mount Vernon a cultural attraction and it’s unusual to have such a rich arts center for a town of this size.”The outdoor Goldman-Kuenz Sculpture Park at Cedarhurst boasts over 73 sculptures making it one of the largest in the midwest. Global visitors come to the nationally accredited museum. It has over 90 sprawling acres of beautiful woods and nature trails behind the lake.
Director of Development Hillary Esser said some of the most notable pieces are what the staff refer to as “Cedarhurst’s three leading ladies,” a reference to three large paintings created by notable impressionist artists Mary Cassatt, George Bellows, and Frederick Childe Hassam. Each depicts a female figure. “The ladies are our most valuable and prestigious paintings, but our horse sculpture “Kimball” is probably the community favorite,” Esser said. The larger-than-life horse made of car bumpers greets you in the front lawn, and Esser said the artwork was commissioned in 1994 by a former Trustee and named after an actual horse. The museum also boasts two “Dango” sculptures by renowned artist Jun Kaneko, on display in the museum courtyard, and two floating sculpture titled “Dancers” that float on the lake behind the museum. The Mitchells planned to build a museum to house their art collection for the benefit of the community and future generations. They have touched more children since their passing than they probably could have in their entire lifetime.
The Family Education Center, a fantastic hands-on interactive experience for kids, is located in one of the five galleries on the Cedarhurst campus. The Shrode Art Center at Cedarhurst offers a wide range of art classes for adults and children as young as 18 months. Their performing arts center is used for concerts of all variety, and to host a School Performing Arts Series, where up to 900 students often attend to experience the magic of live theater.
“The museum which opened in 1973, has grown and developed many programs over the last 45 years to encourage the community and visitors to the region to embrace the arts,” said Cedarhurst communications director Sarah Sledge. “Exhibitions and art competitions, music events, art classes, and the summer-long Thursday Night Live programs are just a few examples of how you can enjoy art in Mt. Vernon.” Our inclusive programming and community outreach has been knit together by our passionate staff,” Esser said. “We are proud to be helping build a creatively conscious community.”
In a separate interview, newly-elected Mayor John Lewis also added to this thought, “Opportunities are here; we are one of the largest manufacturing areas. Continental Tire employs 4,000 people with over 100 zip codes and we have the Walgreens distribution center and two hospitals. There is limited traffic, congestion, and plenty of fishing and hunting.” Assistant City Manager, Nathan McKenna, also chimed in, “Families can work, do things and live here.” Cedarhurst has lead the charge and has developed into a “community hub”. The Mitchell Museum Performance Hall and other venues at Cedar- hurst are often rented for community, business, and family events such as the annual Prayer Breakfast, corporate functions, and family reunions.
Cedarhurst’s Executive Director Sharon Bradham served on the task force credited with developing Mt. Vernon’s current motto “Creativity Redefined”. Bradham explained, “The arts and creativity are vital to all facets of our culture. From education to healing, to technology and innovation, creativity is at the core. Mt. Vernon is fortunate to have the leadership, resources, and focus toward the arts for growing our community and improving our quality of life.” Travel Buddy learned more about the children of Mount Vernon and the opportunities for them there when we met Councilman, Donte Moore. When asked his mission, Moore explained, “Number one I want to be a role model for underprivileged kids (since he was one growing up there), the second reason is to promote Mount Vernon and the third reason is to explain to kids that they don’t have to leave Mount Vernon to be successful.” This is certainly true, because the town has so much to offer. Angela Schrum, the director of the Mount Vernon Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “We are a festival arts city and we have a lot of family activities.” For a full listing of events visit www.enjoymtvernon.com. When visiting, you will quickly learn that the Mount Vernon CVB is very hospitable. Stop by their office at 200 Potomac Blvd for a free gift during your visit. Almost every month of the year, she and her staff, including marketing executive, Grace McDowell, put on a festival for their cherished city. 2019 is a huge milestone for Mount Vernon as they celebrate their bicentennial all year long!
There are many wonderful restaurants to try as well. Here are our favorites: The first on our list is RARE Chop House, a fine dining restaurant nestled into Mount Vernon’s downtown.
This cool spot boasts a bench made out of railroad wheels and a wine cellar that holds over 1,000 wines from all around the world. Soon after it opened five years ago, it won the Illinois Office of Tourism’s “Enjoy Illinois: Delicious Destination” Award and saw immediate success. Everyone from government officials and basketball players dine there, and also a lot of locals and tourists too. It’s not a stuffy place and kids are more than welcome. The private rooms are adorned with beautiful art pieces–mouse trap art installation was a favorite. The prime rib was mouth watering and enjoyed after the seared yellowfin tuna appetizer. Live music is usually played on Saturdays. Ask for Andrew to serve you.
A wonderful addition to Mount Vernon is The Farmhouse Bakery that opened in early 2018 and serves donuts and cinnamon rolls the size of your head. If those don’t make you salivate, then their homemade cobblers, pies, breads, and cookies will. The local Mennonites, who also own the restaurant, make homemade breakfast, lunch and dinner too. Try the pork loin sandwich!
Dave Stidham opened his first location of A Fine Swine in 2016 and
now has two locations and hopes to build a third soon. His newest location in Mount Vernon opened in the summer of 2018 and it is usually packed around lunch and dinner. Dave grew up around Memphis Barbecue and was encouraged by his sons to open his own restaurant. A Fine Swine gives Memphis a run for their money and is so mouth watering that we met a Memphis resident who stops through Mount Vernon anytime he is close by to sink his teeth into A Fine Swine’s award winning barbecue. They’ve earned countless awards on all stages including multiple grand championships! Our favorite dishes included daily made flash fried or “dirty ribs” and apple baked beans with brisket that are to die for.
Tour the Appellate Court House which is a rich piece of history and is the oldest courthouse in the state of Illinois. It covers 38 counties and is still in operation today! Tours are available if you call ahead of time. It was construct- ed in 1857 as the southern division of the Illinois State Supreme Court; Abraham Lincoln successfully argued a famous tax case in 1859. It is the last court house still in operation as a functioning courthouse where Abraham Lincoln tried a case. In 1888, Clara Barton used the building as a hospital. Lincoln’s nine foot bronze sculpture watches over the original Supreme Court building of Illinois from the front lawn. A plaque from an 11-year-old girl is behind the statue and explains how she wrote to Lincoln urging him to grow a beard because he would look more “Presidential.” He replied within four days that he would consider but there were no promises. Within one month he started growing a beard. The nearly 200-year-old building showcases original black wrought iron on the outside stairs to the front entrance. The doors stand at 10-feet-tall and four feet wide. All of the doors and walls are several inches thick. The clerk lived there until the 60s with his family and the paneling and decor are still marked with the 60s design left behind. There is a chef on staff who cooks daily for the judges who sit around a family style wooden table and dine on fine china and silver.
Bedrooms are available for judges doing business there and many stay in them to this day. The law library holds books upon books of appeals from the 1800s to present day, including the trial that Lincoln argued which is on display. The blue and gold on the walls in the courthouse are ornate and immediately transport you into a time long ago. The seal behind the judge’s stand says, “Seal of Illinois Aug 26th, 1818.” If only the walls could talk. Of everyone whom we met and asked, “What makes Mount Vernon the special place that it is?” over and over we were told “the people.” Councilman Donte Moore said, “I was in the Marine Corp and the guys in bootcamp told me I made Mount Vernon sound like a fairytale place. If you want to know your neighbors and government by first name, come see what Mount Vernon has to offer.”If you want more history, travel 30 miles north to Salem, Illinois. This small town of 8,000 is known for William Jennings Bryan who was born there in 1860 and campaigned to be the President of the United States not once or twice but three times. Although he lost in 1896, 1900 and 1908, there is a statue saluting his perseverance inside his memorial garden and park in downtown Salem. The statue originally stood in D.C. and was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt on May 3, 1934. It was created by famed sculptor of Mt Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum. Another event of significance occurred at the Salem American Legion with the writing and signing of the United States Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. That significant piece of legislation, was designed by a group of American Legion members meeting at the Salem American Legion, the Luther B. Beasley Post 128 then located in the block east of the Courthouse.