Without a reservation but an idea as to where we were going we bounced our way down the Illinois highways. Bounced along because this state has the worst roads we’ve encounter so far. At one point a guy on a motorcycle pulled along side at a traffic light to tell me the door to the water heater was open and flapping around. I pulled over to check and found the vent screen was missing. I secured the door and blamed it on the Illinois DOT.
We were heading to Rend Lake near Benton, Illinois. We saw on the map that there was four Army Corp of Engineer campgrounds and a state park on the lake but we weren’t able to reserve a site because of our last minute decision. Apparently, a two day advance notice was required for reservations. Hoping for the best, we took a chance on a walk-up site. A walk-up site is available on a first-come, first-served bases.
Our first stop was Gun Creek Recreational Area on Rend Lake. There was a helpful lady at the check-in gate that gave us a map of available sites for the three nights we wanted to stay. We drove through the campground surveying our options when we found a beautiful site right on the water. “I can’t believe this site is available”, I said to grammi. It had a downhill incline but I was willing to deal with that for the view we would enjoy. Our search was over that quick. It wasn’t that difficult. I had visions of driving from one campground to another only to be assigned to a site behind the dumpster. But my fear was unfounded. We have a beautiful site with a fantastic view of the water.
Army Corp of Engineer (ACE) maintains many recreational areas at dams, reservoirs, and environmental protected areas across the country. This is the first ACE campground we’ve stayed at. We’ve heard how great the campgrounds are but we were still overwhelmed. If this facility is any indication of other ACE campgrounds, I foresee many more stays in our future. It is a great place to camp and it’s a good deal. With our senior pass, we pay half-price.
It took an act of congress to approve the project for the ACE to dam up the Big Muddy River creating a 13 mile long by 3 mile wide reservoir. Rend Lake reached its full pool in 1973 giving the area relief from water shortages during droughts as well as providing recreational opportunities. We found a visitor center, marinas, sand beaches, a golf course, geocaching, picnic areas and nature trails surrounding the lake. Judging from the number of boaters on the water, the fishing must be very good too.
Five miles to the south is the town of Benton, Illinois. On our visit there, we went to the Franklin County Historic Jail Museum. Standing behind a fence outside of this two story red brick building was an unusual sight. A wood gallows with a hangman’s noose slowly swinging in the breeze. We would learn more about this inside. As we went inside we paid a $4.00 per person admission fee. In the front room we watched a short introductory video telling the history of the county and the jailhouse. An interesting tidbit was the sheriff’s family lived in the front portion of the jail and the sheriff’s wife was required to cook for the prisoners. Depending on how full the jail was the wife would sometimes make more money than the sheriff.
We walked through the rooms in the museum, each with a theme. One was dedicated to famous people from Franklin County, another displayed memorabilia from Union Civil War General John A. Logan who went on to be a Senator from the area. Another room had DJ equipment and wood table and chairs from a local radio station where George Harrison from the Beatles was interviewed prior to becoming famous. He was visiting his sister who lived in the area. It was from this local radio stations equipment the first Beatles song was played in the U.S.
The main attraction and a predominant part of the museum’s display was about the gangster and bootlegger named Charlie Birger who was convicted of ordering the murder of Mayor Joe Adams. He was the last man to be publicly hanged in Illinois. The gallows we saw outside are a replica built on the exact location where this execution occurred.
There were jail cells on both the first and second floors. They appeared cold and dingy even on this hot summer day. The design was fascinating. The cells were small and none were against an outside wall. There were three separate locked doors leading out. It was not a place one would want to be.
This museum was definitely worth the stop. For a small fee you can spend a couple of hours reading through the many displays and learning about the rich history of this southern Illinois community.
We took an evening drive through the Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park located on the east side of Rend Lake. The campground was nice with many sites located on the water. There is a boat ramp nearby so many campers brought their boats to enjoy the water during their stay. Further down the shore are buildings setting vacant. It was disheartening to see what I imagine to be a beautiful large resort with restaurant, conference center, hotel rooms, boat docks and marina all boarded up. I wonder if the Illinois state budget crisis is the reason for its closure.
The wildlife in the park was abundant. We saw dozens of deer with spotted fawns, turkeys, pheasants, rabbits, squirrels and raccoons. We were amazed to see a mother raccoon with four small kits crossing the road in front of us. Two of the kits were snow white albinos. I wasn’t quick enough to get a good picture but was able to get a short video of them scurrying off into the forest. The white fur stood out brightly far off into the distance making it hard for them to hide and most likely easy targets for predators. Sadly, in the wild, most albinos raccoons don’t survive to adulthood.
It was a good stay at Rend Lake. It’s an area the residence of Illinois should feel fortunate to have and enjoy. The ACE does a great job managing and maintaining the area. I will keep this place in mind for the next time we pass through on our adventures.