There are little towns all across America that boast a claim to fame or historic event that puts them on the map of worthy visits. Some lucky towns have tireless and generous citizens who work to preserve the history through murals, museums, oddities and public sculptures. Benton Il is just such a town. Downtown, the citizens
have carved out museum at the intersection of a Robin Hood Gangster, a famous actor and a British musician.
The Franklin Co Jail museum is a funky place that commemorates the death of bootlegger Charlie Birger. Charlie was a bit of a Robin Hood styled outlaw and profoundly charismatic. He was jailed here in the one private cell “to keep him safe”–until he became the last person in Illinois to be hanged on the gallows (a recreated Gallows sits, rather morbidly, in the yard.) You will learn a lot of interesting things about prohibition in Southern Illinois and the families that run a jail.
It’s not just Gangster memorabilia, though. There are rooms filled with interesting artifacts and stories from civil war to Great Depression. The most visually interesting part of the museum is the jail area–preserved in its current state of decay and monitored by a machine that speaks when the energy in the room powers it up. (This jail has been investigated by professional ghost hunters many times and there have been many interesting happenings.)
The front Hallway boasts a letter from actor John Malkovich–his childhood lived in Benton. An upstairs room is a recreated radio broadcasting studio where George Harrison was interviewed while visiting his sister Louise (a Benton resident)–before the British Invasion propelled The Beatles into superstardom.
Across the street, you’ll see the garage museum. It’s interesting, too. (Note: call ahead because this museum is staffed by volunteers and I’ve heard the hours can be a little flexible though we had no problem on a Saturday in February.)
This trip was an impromptu Valentine’s outing, owing to an anomalously warm mid-seventies February weekend. We were headed for the Gun Creek Campground on Rend Lake because of its great reputation. Neglecting to realize Gun Creek is an Army Corps Campground (thus with a restricted camp season) we arrived to find it closed. Oops. Luckily, Wayne Fitzgerrell SP is just down the road on the other side of the lake and open all year. Our spot was right on the lake with no one around us. The quiet beauty of the waves washing in on the high breeze was a lovely way to spend a couple of Winter days. There had been deep December flooding in the area so there was plenty of driftwood for my pyro-Hub to play with. Not to worry, we were right on the beach so we weren’t worried about it getting out of control (I always pull out the collapsable bucket–just in case).
The days were warm and the night filled with cool colorful skies. The Egg was warm and cozy at night– with our little furnace taking off the chill before climbing under the eiderdown. Winter camping offers so many lovely moments. We don’t have running water (sink) when it’s cold but the porta -potty provides the necessary comforts of home (since campground plumbing is shut here in Winter.)
We brought stunt kites because the wind was so high. What a joy it was to run along the deserted beach and steer the soars and dives of the bright nylon kites. The rippling fabric is so loud in the dives it brings out a funny exuberance in our Bassador, who darts gleefully under the kites. Yes, winter camping is a joy unto itself when the roads are clear of snow.
I am always googling the town names around campgrounds with key words like “Museum” “Historical” “Ghost” or “Sculpture” because even a 2-3 day camping trip can be a real vacation when there is something to learn or savor or just enjoy a very special rural restaurant. Life is lived in moments and camping is a way to see the world while making moments count.
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2 thoughts on “Camping on Rend Lake Il, Gangster Ghosts and George Harrison”
We’ve stayed at Wayne Fitzgerrell SP a couple of times while going across the country. It’s beautiful, and we did go into the town but didn’t visit the museum. One of the times we were there, we had a horrendous thunderstorm with tornado warnings. We ended up in the concrete bathhouse with our dog and cat to wait out the storms – twice in one night!
The storms in the Midwest have been so much stronger in recent years. It’s good you played it safe but the pets would have come in my arms–tucked into a my coat if I had to! Lol. Next time we want to try Gun Creek. It gets great reviews–all the Army Corps do here–precisely metered out. I do seem to gravitate to the quirkier and more irregular parks, though. Safe travels.