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The Great River Road

Wedged between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, the rural peninsula of Calhoun County is one of the best-kept secrets in the state of Illinois. Cut off from the rest of the “Land of Lincoln” and connected to neighboring Missouri by ferry only, Calhoun County is a world of its own. A third of the state’s substantial peach crop is grown here on farms that have changed hands only a few times, if at all, since they were given out as land grants to veterans of the War of 1812; bypassing the summer farm stands, especially when the baseball-size plum-sweet tomatoes are in season, borders on criminal. A lucky few St. Louisians have weekend getaways here, too, alongside shacks and trailers that seem to accumulate debris like the Corps’ dams accumulate Mississippi mud.

In the town of Brussels (pop. 141), whose public phone booth is possibly the town’s sole civic improvement since the Coolidge administration, a few cafés and bars are evidence of its popularity with weekenders from St. Louis. The most popular haunt in Brussels is the venerable Wittmond Hotel Restaurant (618/883-2345, cash only), across from the water tower and post office at the heart of Brussels. The dining room here serves delicious, all-you-can-eat, family-style meals, popular on Sunday. It no longer rents rooms, but there’s still a timeless bar and an even more ancient-looking general store, complete with dusty old merchandise that looks like it dates back to when the enterprise opened in 1847.

Getting to and around Calhoun County is a bit of an adventure. The main access is from near Grafton, Illinois, across the Illinois River via the state-run, round-the-clock, and (best-of-all) free Brussels Ferry. There’s also a bridge at Hardin, 14 miles upstream. From the Missouri side north of St. Louis, the only access is via the privately operated Golden Eagle ferry (618/535-5759), which runs across the Mississippi River from a landing outside St. Charles to Golden Eagle, Illinois. A few of the ferries cease operation in the winter, but during summer they run more or less from dawn to midnight, and most sell local maps and can offer basic visitor information. Road signs in Calhoun County are almost nonexistent, but just driving or cycling around, getting lost and found, and lost and found again, is by far the best way to get a feel for this preserved-in-amber island in time.

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