Elgin Tower Coal FurnaceWhirl and I had our 15th wedding anniversary this week on Thursday. As we were talking about what we might want to do to celebrate, the logistics of a mid-week anniversary complicated things. So we put off making a decision until the day was upon us. Whereupon we put it off again. “Let’s do something this weekend.”

And now it’s Saturday and we still don’t have anything planned. We’d tossed a few ideas around. Go out to dinner somewhere, go to a show, or a concert or a movie. (I remember at one point earlier in the year we’d talked about going to Lollapalooza for our anniversary, but tickets sold out before we could get our acts together.)

“What about Elgin?” Whirl suggested.

Elgin.

Now hold on a minute. Don’t give up on me just yet. You see, Elgin isn’t quite as bad an idea as it might appear on first look. When we took stock of ways we’ve commemorated our anniversary in the past, we realized we have had similar celebrations before. In 2005, the year I got hurt, we spent our anniversary in Springfield, Illinois. Another year we rented a car and headed generally north. We ended up spending the weekend in Cedarburg, Wisconsin and attended the Oazukee County Fair. A couple years before that we took a similar trip to Michigan– although that trip was in a Mustang convertible. And there’s always the year I was laid off on our anniversary and no new job lined up, so we spent the entire day away from the job search at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Several years we’ve just spent the day together the two of us exploring some part of the city– often somewhere along the lakefront.

Okay, maybe Elgin is still a bad idea. But it’s not an uncharacteristic idea. Not for us, anyway. And why I argue that it’s not a bad choice is because all of those other simple days together were really very fun. We have a lot of fun together when we do these simple things. We just hang out and see where the day takes us.

So today we took the Metra Milwaukee District West out to the end of the line in Elgin. Whirl wanted me to see the Elgin Tower where she had visited a possible nest site two years ago. But beyond that we didn’t have much in the way of plans. We didn’t need them.

Historic Downtown ElginWe took the 12:30 from Union Station and arrived in Elgin at 1:45. On the way out we’d picked out a couple of other things that would be worth exploring. There’s a downtown historic district and also a historic residential district with a number of Sears kit homes still extant. A walking tour along the Fox River– and if all else failed there’s the Grand Victoria Casino that I was pretty sure would be happy to take our money.

We never made it to the casino. We didn’t want to. Our first stop was the 15-story art deco Elgin Tower Building, originally the Home Banks Building, built in 1929 shortly before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Other than the assistant building manager we were the only ones there. He gave us a tour of several of the floors. On the twelfth floor we saw one of the peregrine falcons from the 2011 visit streak away off to the north. He excitedly showed us the Internet cafe now converted into the ETC Speakeasy in the newly renovated technology center inside the building. Our guide pointed out the new chairs, books and tables in the library before offering up my favorite moment: the active coal furnace in the basement.

Nothing quite says happy anniversary like riding a manual control elevator into the darkened basement of a 85-year old building to see a coal furnace.

We emerged unscathed, thanked our makeshift guide and headed out. Where we ran across the second surprise of the day an arts festival in historic downtown Elgin, Art & Soul on the Fox. Over 80 artists, and live music ran for several blocks in the downtown area. So we took our time and explored the various booths and stalls until we got hungry.

Elgin Historic HomeOur third pleasant surprise was Al’s Cafe. Right in the middle of the arts festival with lots of outdoor seating, delicious burgers, delicious beer and delicious homemade ice cream malts. I know this because I tried all three. In fact I was filled with nostalgia, given the time of year and the availability of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. This was a favorite summertime beer of mine when I lived in Tübingen. Historically, I have not had much luck finding it Stateside. Al’s Cafe had it. So I had it. And it was good.

Whirl picked up a fused Falcon Ridge lodi zinfindel wine bottle from Patricia Donnelly as a memento before we continued on our walking tour of the town. In another bit of serendipity, it turned out that Donnelly was an interested reader of Whirl’s Peregrine Falcon Journal. This came out when they discussed Whirl’s choice of bottles and talked about seeing one of the pair on the tower earlier that afternoon.

Afterwards, we took in some of the historic homes, learned about the floods and a bit of the history of Elgin. You may be aware of the Elgin Watch Company, a a major US watch maker from 1864 until its closure in 1968. But something you probably weren’t aware of– and certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve ever heard– is the freshwater pearl rush in Elgin in the early 1900s. At a time when the average daily wage was $2, a typical pearl taken from the clams in the Fox river were going for $25. And exceptional specimens might demand $100 to $150.

Maybe not the most exciting adventure, but it was a day full of a number of unexpected and pleasant little surprises. I got to spend it with my best friend, and we came home lightly sunburned and happy. And really, that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

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