When I think “quick weekend getaway,” I often neglect everything across the Mississippi River. That’s a mistake, because for years it meant I overlooked the historic hamlet of Elsah, Illinois, on the Great River Road. A friend and I visited briefly in July. Within five minutes, I found myself plotting to come back for a whole weekend.
Located about 35 miles north of St. Louis below some limestone bluffs, Elsah — population 60 — is barely a dot on the map. It emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century after the village’s founder, James Semple, offered free lots to all those who agreed to build their homes with rock from his nearby quarry. Many of those homes still stand today, along with a former gas station designed by renowned Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck.
Despite its small size, Elsah boasts two B&Bs that have recently received good marks on social media from the LGBTQ crowd: the Maple Leaf Cottage Inn (12 Selma Street, 618-374-1684) and the Green Tree Inn (15 Mill Street, 618-374-2821). Our time was limited, so we focused on the latter.
The Green Tree Inn is a quiet enclave by the creek that runs through the village. Each room has its own full bathroom and plenty of space for luggage. (A pet-friendly room allows guests to bring their fur babies to stay the night.) On the house’s upper deck, a long screened-in porch offers a view of the garden. If you wish to relax on ground level, there’s a cozy yard with a fire pit and benches. The Green Tree Inn will loan you bicycles and has a small garage for guests who’ve come by motorcycle.
Gary and Connie Davis acquired this property a few years back, and they seem like they couldn’t be happier. Connie will cook your complimentary breakfast. She says the customers vary widely: One morning, an Amish family shared a table with a group of kids with dyed hair and piercings. The Davises only have two rules, no matter who you are or what your personal beliefs may be: “Respect our property, and respect our guests.”
Connie even gave us a quick walking tour of Elsah. The first stop on our walk was Farley’s Music Hall (37 Mill Street, 618-374-1059), a multipurpose building now used for parties, wedding receptions and Contra dances, which she described as a mixture of folk dancing and “making new friends set to music.” After the flood of 1993, Davis explained, the sheetrock covering the interior walls was destroyed. But that led to the discovery underneath of smooth blonde wood with hand-painted patterns dating back to 1885, when the building was constructed.
We also stopped by the Elsah General Store (22 LaSalle Street, 618-556-0709), which was everything I’d hoped it would be. Picture Oleson’s Mercantile from Little House on the Prairie. Blair and Dory Smith re-opened the store a few years ago to meet the need for a town grocery. They stock all the basics, plus some St. Louis specialities such as Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, Dogtown Pizza and Kakao chocolate. They also offer an extensive list of local pure cane sugar sodas, including Dog n’ Suds root beer and Excel sodas. If you drop by on a Wednesday morning, you might spot locals chatting away over Danishes and coffee during their weekly meet-up.
All of this is just a short drive (or bike ride) away from the great hiking opportunities at Pere Marquette State Park, which has twelve miles of marked trails.
If a nice glass of chardonnay is more your speed, keep in mind Elsah is a dry village, but the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus (300 West Main, Grafton, IL 62037, 618-786-3001) is only five miles down the road, where you can sip on reds, whites or a tasting flight of their signature beers.
Melinda Cooper is a musician and frequent contributor to the Riverfront Times. You may contact her at [email protected]