Zion, Illinois: A City Founded by a Cult

About an hour north of Chicago and 10 minutes south of the state of Wisconsin lies a city called Zion.  If you were to drive through it, nothing particularly interesting would stand out to you.  In fact, the two times that I have been there, it appeared somewhat deserted.  However, it had an interesting beginning.

Shiloh House at 1300 Shiloh Blvd. Zion, IL 60099

Today, you can learn about Zion’s history at the Zion Historical Society, which is located in a 25-room mansion called Shiloh House. It was built in 1901, the year before Zion’s official incorporation.  This home belonged to John Alexander Dowie, the founder of Zion.  Dowie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, but moved to Australia early in his life.  Eventually, he became a preacher and started performing faith healings.  This led him on a missionary tour of the United States.  After working in San Francisco for a while, he eventually went to Chicago.  His fame rose at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he set up a station right outside the Fair and allegedly healed people.

After the Fair, Dowie decided to stay in Chicago, so with his many followers, he founded a church.  It eventually became known as the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, although it had nothing to do with Catholicism.  The church encountered a lot of opposition in Chicago, both from religious and city officials, so Dowie decided to start a theocratic society in a farm area north of Chicago, which he named Zion City.  People from all over the world, particularly Europe, came to join this new religious “utopia.”  If I remember correctly, my elderly tour guide told me that his grandparents came over from Scotland to join Dowie’s church.  Throughout my tour, the guide would occasionally share his childhood memories of growing up in Zion.

A bell used to call the people of Zion to prayer.

Dowie did not live in his city for long.  Zion was incorporated in 1902, but Dowie died of a stroke in 1907.  Afterwards, his friend, Wilbur Glenn Voliva, came over from Australia to replace him and continue implementing a theocratic society.  The rules in Zion included bans on alcohol, pork, tobacco, circuses, movies, silk stockings, and globes.  The latter ban was implemented by Voliva, who adamantly believed that the earth was flat.  By the mid 20th century, Zion’s inhabitants had become disillusioned with their theocratic government.  Eventually, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church evolved into a more mainstream Protestant denomination.  Today, it is Christ Community Church.

Zion’s original church burned down, and the building there today is called Christ Community Church, but its original name can still be found on this 1961 cornerstone.

Other than Washington D.C., Zion is the only U.S. city that was completely planned out prior to being built.  The church was built at the center of the city, and the streets branched off from there.  Zion’s streets are all named after Biblical places or names.

During my tour of Shiloh House, I not only learned about the history of Zion and Dowie, but also got to admire a beautiful Victorian-style mansion.  One object that especially stood out to me in the house was a Biblical high priest’s outfit displayed near the entrance. Apparently, Dowie frequently wore it.  Another interesting part of the house is near the top, where there is a display of different types of lace that were made in Zion.  When Dowie planned Zion, he made sure that there was employment for its citizens, so had businesses such as a lace factory built there.

Because Zion has such a strange and unique history, the Zion Historical Society is my favorite historical society that I have visited so far.  It is definitely worth a visit.

Sources and Further Reading

Best, Wallace. “Zion, IL.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1399.html (accessed October 17, 2020).

“Early History.” Zion Historical Society. http://zionhistoricalsociety.com/ (accessed October 17, 2020).

Pohlen, Jerome. Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000.

Wolfe, Stephanie. “John Alexander Dowie and Zion City, Illinois.” Faith in the City. http://publications.newberry.org/faith-in-the-city/essays/wolfe-dowie-zion-city (accessed October 17, 2020).

Ronald Reagan’s Birthplace and Boyhood Home

Although Illinois is known as the “Land of Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, not Illinois.  The motto “Land of Lincoln” came from the fact that Lincoln lived in Illinois for a significant portion of his life, and also became its senator.  Barack Obama also served as senator of Illinois.  However, Ronald Reagan was the only U.S. president actually born in Illinois.

Ronald Reagan was born in an apartment in rural Tampico, Illinois, which is about 2 hours west of Chicago.  It is maintained by the Tampico Historical Society, which provides tours for visitors.  On your tour, you not only see the apartment unit owned by Reagan’s parents, but also have a chance to see the recreated bank that would have been located below it when Reagan was a boy.  Reagan was born in Tampico on February 6, 1911, but did not live in his birthplace for long.  His father was an alcoholic, so the family’s income was unsteady, meaning that they moved around often. 

Ronald Reagan’s Birthplace is above the First National Bank, located at 111 S. Main St. Tampico, IL 61283.

Reagan’s family moved to Dixon, Illinois in 1920.  Dixon is about 30 minutes northeast of Tampico (about 1 hour and 40 minutes west of Chicago).  Even in Dixon, Reagan’s family did not stay in one home for long.  However, one of the homes that he lived in has become a historic site that provides tours for visitors.  Reagan lived there with his parents and older brother from 1920 to 1924.  After that, the family moved around to other parts of Dixon. 

The Reagan Boyhood Home became a historic site, because in 1980, when Reagan was running for president, the local mailman informed the city of Dixon that the home was for sale, and might be a profitable investment if Reagan won the presidency.  He was ultimately correct.

Ronald Reagan’s Boyhood Home at 816 S. Hennepin Ave. Dixon, IL 61021

For both of Reagan’s tours, you learn a lot about Reagan’s life, and how his job as a radio sportscaster eventually led to his career as a Hollywood actor.  Although never becoming a well-renowned actor, his first wife (married 1940-49), Jane Wyman, was an Academy Award winner for the 1948 film Johnny Belinda.  Reagan eventually entered the political arena, and served as a Republican President of the United States from 1981 to 1989.

Admission to the Reagan Boyhood Home has a fee, however, admission to his Birthplace site is free.  My favorite part about the Boyhood Home was that when Reagan visited it after it became a museum, he pulled out a loose brick that was right outside the fireplace hearth, to show that he used to hide his money from his brother under there.  My tour guide then proceeded to pull up the loose brick.  As for the Birthplace site, my favorite part was when the tour guide explained that when Reagan visited there after his presidency, he went through the window of his apartment into the apartment next door, to recreate how his mother used to hand him over to his neighbor through the window when she needed someone to babysit him.  After telling me this story, my tour guide then permitted me to go through the window and recreate this incident.

The Dixon Public Library even has a plaque about Reagan.

If you decide to visit Reagan’s Boyhood Home, try to also stop by his Birthplace site, since they are only 30 minutes apart from each other.  Be sure to check the visitor hours for both locations, especially since they are not open during the colder months.  If you drive to Dixon and Tampico from Chicago using Interstate 88, you may notice signs that say “Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway,” in honor of Reagan. 

P.S. The John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Illinois is only 10 minutes away from Reagan’s Boyhood Home, so may also be worth visiting if you are in the area.  Admission is free.  I wrote about that site here: https://arkeh.travel.blog/2019/08/11/john-deere-company/

Sources and Further Reading

McClelland, Edward. “How Reagan’s Childhood Home Gave Up on Reaganism.” Politico. November 23. 2019. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2019/11/23/ronald-reagan-childhood-home-072935 (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Ronald Reagan Birthplace.” Tampico Historical Society. https://www.tampicohistoricalsociety.com/R_Reagan_Birthplace_Museum.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home. https://reaganhome.org/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

DeKalb, Illinois and Barbed Wire

Most people may not know it, but Illinois has made an important contribution to barbed wire history.  Although different people had been working on barbed wire during the mid-nineteenth century, it was not until 1874 that developments really skyrocketed in DeKalb, Illinois.

According to my tour guide at the Joseph F. Glidden Homestead in DeKalb, Illinois, when three DeKalb farmers visited a local fair, each man was individually inspired to perfect a fence that was on display there.  The fence at the fair was wooden with metal spikes sticking out of it.  Its purpose was to keep cattle away from the crops.  At first, the three men started working on a better fence, unbeknownst to the other, but once they learned about each other, competition began.

One of the farmers was Joseph F. Glidden.  He was from New Hampshire, but made his way west to Illinois, which was then frontier land.  The other farmer was Jacob Haish, an immigrant from Germany.  The third, who was also the youngest, was from New York and named Isaac L. Ellwood.  According to my tour guide, Ellwood’s wife told him that Glidden’s wire was better than his, so he ended up partnering with Glidden, and did the promoting for him. Glidden ended up receiving the patent for his wire in 1874, and created a machine that allowed it to be made quickly.  Despite Glidden’s official recognition as the creator of the barbed wire design we use today, until his death, Haish continued to contest him.

This photo was taken at the Ellwood mansion, and depicts Glidden, Ellwood, and Haish, respectively, as well as the spiky wooden fence that inspired the men to create barbed wire.

Today, you can have tours of both Glidden’s and Ellwood’s homes, which are where you can also learn about the history of barbed wire.  Unfortunately, Haish’s mansion was eventually torn down, so it is no longer standing.  However, you can see furniture from his mansion in the Ellwood Mansion visitor center’s museum. 

The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead is located next to Northern Illinois University, which is a state school.  This is no coincidence, since Glidden donated his land for the creation of the school.  Haish ended up donating money to create the university’s library, as well as to create the DeKalb Public Library.  Ellwood also contributed money to start the university, and built the university president’s house.

The Glidden Homestead is only open for tours on Tuesdays and approximately one Sunday a month.  The tour guide is a knowledgeable historian, who spends a lot of time discussing the history of barbed wire, in addition to the history of Glidden himself.  Although the home was undoubtedly surrounded by farmland in the past, it is now along a busy street, so is easy to miss when getting to it.  Here is the home’s website: http://www.gliddenhomestead.org/index.html

The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead at 921 W. Lincoln Hwy, DeKalb, IL 60115

Ellwood’s mansion is not too far away from Glidden’s, and also offers tours.  However, the tours are offered more regularly than they are at Glidden’s home.  Additionally, the tours have a stronger focus on the home itself, because it is a significantly larger one than Glidden’s.  According to my Glidden Homestead tour guide, this is not because Glidden made less money from his barbed wire patent, but because Glidden used his money to work on tinkering with other inventions, rather than on using the money for himself. Here is the website for Ellwood’s mansion: http://www.ellwoodhouse.org

The Isaac L. Ellwood mansion at 509 N. 1st St, DeKalb, IL 60115

I am not sure if all of the tour guides for the Ellwood mansion do this, but my tour guide also took my tour group inside a mini playhouse that Ellwood’s kids used.  Built in 1891, it was like walking inside a little dollhouse.

This is the 1891 children’s playhouse on the grounds of Ellwood’s mansion.

Located approximately 60 miles west of Chicago, DeKalb is worth a visit if you want to learn more about the history of barbed wire.  For what may have seemed like a small, practical invention for farmers, it certainly caught on internationally, and took on many uses.

Sources and Further Reading

Ellwood House Museum. http://www.ellwoodhouse.org/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

John F. Glidden Homestead and Historical Center. http://www.gliddenhomestead.org/homestead/history.html (accessed October 26, 2019).

5 Historically Noteworthy Homes in the Chicago Area

Even though museums, libraries, archives, etc. are currently closed throughout the majority of the world because of the Coronavirus, there are other ways to still visit historic places.  Here are 5 historically noteworthy homes that are never open to the public anyway, but that you can drive and see from the outside if you are in the Chicago area. By no means is this a comprehensive list.

1. Michael Jordan’s Home

2700 Point Dr., Highland Park, IL 60035

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, lived in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago, when he played basketball for the Chicago Bulls.  He lived there from 1995 to 2006.  Since 2012, his house has been on the market.  It was originally on the market for $29 million.  However, the price has been reduced, so if you have $14,855,000, you can try purchasing it.  The home includes an indoor basketball court, gym, and swimming pool.  If not, you can at least drive past the home and admire the gate, which still has the number 23 on it (Michael Jordan’s jersey number).  Unfortunately, you will not have much success catching a glimpse of the house, because it is hidden behind evergreen trees. As of March, 2020, the home is currently listed on Zillow: https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2700-Point-Dr-Highland-Park-IL-60035/4902463_zpid/

2. Home Alone House

671 Lincoln Ave., Winnetka, IL 60093

The 1990 film Home Alone has now become a Christmas classic.  Except for the upstairs scenes, which were recreated in a gymnasium, a home in Winnetka, Illinois (another northern suburb of Chicago), was the set for a large portion of the film.  It is now a private home, and the only one in the neighborhood with a “No Trespassing” sign.  You can see other parts of Winnetka in the film, as well as buildings from the neighboring suburbs of Wilmette and Highland Park.  This is because the film’s writer and producer, John Hughes, grew up in Northbrook, Illinois, which is nearby, making him familiar with Chicago’s suburbs.  Hughes used the northern Chicago suburbs as settings for several of his other films as well, such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).  Hughes is buried in the northern suburb of Lake Forest.

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald-Inspired Home

210 South Ridge Rd., Lake Forest, IL 60045

Speaking of Lake Forest, there is an interesting home located there.  In 1915 and 1916, the future American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald visited Lake Forest.  He had a love interested who lived there, Ginerva King, the daughter of a wealthy family.  Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, Ginerva married someone else.  However, many speculate that she helped inspire parts of the plot for his first book, This Side of Paradise (1920), as well as for his most famous book, The Great Gatsby (1925).  After being abandoned for years, new owners are currently attempting to restore this mansion to its former glory.

4. Marx Brothers Home

4512 S. King Dr. (Grand Blvd. when they lived there), Chicago, IL 60653

Many may not know it, but the early twentieth century comedians, the Marx Brothers, lived in Chicago for a time.  However, it was in the 1910s, before they became famous through their movies.  The entire family lived there, not just the three most famous brothers, known as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo.  This Jewish family lived in what was then a Jewish neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, as can be attested by the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church near their home, which used to be a synagogue.

5. Barack Obama’s Home

5046 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60615

Former President Barack Obama taught law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.  Then, in 2005, he purchased a home not far from the University.  That was also when he began to become more involved in politics.  The Obamas still own their Chicago home, although they are not there often.  A blockade still keeps cars away from his street, and a sign is posted in the front warning people that the Secret Service has the home under surveillance.

Sources and Further Reading

Holst, Amber. “A Presidential Neighborhood: The Obama Family Home in Hyde Park.” Enjoy Illinois, June 8, 2018. https://www.enjoyillinois.com/travel-illinois/obama-home-chicago-hyde-park/ (accessed October 30, 2019).

“The ‘Home Alone’ House for Sale in Winnetka, Illinois.” Hooked on Houses. https://hookedonhouses.net/2011/05/08/real-home-alone-house-winnetka-illinois/ (accessed October 30, 2019).

Klocksin, Scott. “Airball: Why is Michael Jordan’s Estate in Highland Park not Selling?” The Real Deal, May 3, 2018. https://therealdeal.com/chicago/2018/05/03/airball-michael-jordans-unsellable-highland-park-estate/ (accessed October 30, 2019).

Rodkin, Dennis. “Buyers Plan to Make ‘Gatsby’ House Great Again.” Crain’s Chicago Business, September 18, 2018. https://www.chicagobusiness.com/residential-real-estate/buyers-plan-make-gatsby-house-great-again (accessed October 30, 2019).