Galena, Illinois: A Tour of 3 Historic Homes

While in Galena this Labor Day Weekend, my husband and I went on 3 historic house tours. We went to The Belvedere, Dowling House, and Ryan Mansion. We enjoyed parts of all of the tours, but here are summaries of what we observed…

The Belvedere is a huge mansion on the outskirts of downtown Galena. It is gorgeous from the outside and some of the furnishings inside are really lovely too. I think the “and Gardens” description of the mansion is a bit of an exaggeration on their part as they only have one, small garden that was less than a 1/6 acre in size. Not really what I would call “The Belvedere Mansion AND GARDENS”. I digress. I thought the host and hostesses of the venue were very nice and gave a nice tour and a lot of information. That being said, Matt and I were really thrown off by all of the “collectibles” in the house. When I go to a historic home, I want to see how the people who built the house lived in it, with their furniture (or similar) and their history/story told. There was a brief history lesson on the original home owner and then we learned that 95% of the furniture and other items were NOT the original owner’s items. The new, current owners collect memorabilia and antiques and display them all over the home. Non-period items included a grape Tiffany chandelier, statues from the Liberace collection, and paintings and a pair of the “famous” green drapes from Gone with the Wind. Not exactly impressive to me. I am sure many of their guests think this stuff is cool, but we rather learn about the history of the place than see movie/entertainer memorabilia. So, my suggestion if you are like me would be to visit this house and take photos of it from the sidewalk, but not spend money on the tour unless you want to see non-period, random items on display.

Dowling House
is a small, old stone building that only has 5 rooms total. It is the oldest stone structure in Illinois and the oldest home in Galena. We got a “discount” ticket to see both The Belvedere and Dowling House for $18 total, instead of paying full price for each. I would recommend doing that if you plan to see both. The little old lady that gave our tour at Dowling House was awesome. Totally educated on the house and the city of Galena and gives you a really great history lesson. We learned about the General Store that was held out of the downstairs of this home, as well as the pocket mining, the port of Galena, the tools used, the methods for preserving meat, etc. We also learned about tie-rods that are horizontal supports that are in many older homes. Now I know to look for them on the outside of old buildings! The tour was short (only about 30 minutes) but very educational and we enjoyed it. I would recommend checking it out!

Ryan Mansion
is a huge estate outside of town near Wal-mart and the large hotels. (Really, that is the best way to explain its locale.) They have tours and are also a Bed & Breakfast. We learned that they also own the B&B next to The Belvedere as well. Small world! The owners were awesome and we had no idea what was in store for us there. We were greeted at the door by a woman in costume and then she fetched the butler (her husband–we later learned they were the owners of the home). The Butler greeted us informally at first and then left the room and came back in character. It was crazy! But fun. He greeted us and made small talk about how is was “Katie’s coming out ball” that night and then took us around the downstairs explaining what things were. We totally played along with the charade and it was fun (and funny). At one point the Cook (his wife) came to get us and asked for help in the kitchen. When we got to the kitchen, she asked me to mix some ingredients to make corn pudding. I felt like it was real food, since I saw her boiling butter on the stove, so I took my mixing duties very seriously. We later learned that she was making real food for the B&B guests later that evening!  After I stirred the corn mixture, she told us we could go meet with Ms. Wright, who was on the 2nd floor of the home. She gave us tours of the bedrooms and then told us more about the 3rd floor, which is a ballroom currently under renovation. So, we did not get to see it. Boo! But we really liked talking to them. We found out that all 3 of them were related, 2 parents and their adult daughter and sometimes the grandkids join the fun too in costume. I would have LOVED that as a young child. And then hated it from 7th grade on (when I was “too cool” for everything)…anyways. We liked this tour best. Lots of history and you got to know the Ryan family (original home owners) and the current family. They had a lot of original pieces and period-accurate replicas. The outside and grounds also were quite nice. Over all, this was probably our favorite tour of the trip. Highly recommend. Bring your sense of humor and ad-libbing abilities.

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