Historic America

Middleburg Battlefield in Loudoun County, Virginia

Visit Civil War-era buildings and a brand-new historic park at the heart of this little-known cavalry battlefield.

The Battle of Middleburg was fought on June 17 and 19, 1863 between Union cavalry commanded by Col. Alfred N. Duffié and Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg and Confederate cavalry commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in Loudoun County, Virginia during the American Civil War. This inconclusive skirmish immediately followed the Battle of Aldie and was part of the Gettysburg Campaign. It resulted in approximately 250 total casualties.

On June 1, 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia slipped away from the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, and headed north to invade Pennsylvania. Lee entrusted his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, to screen his army’s movement from the enemy. Stuart’s cavalry fanned out across the Loudoun Valley in northern Virginia.

Mysterious America

Is the Marshall-Tycer House Haunted by a Cousin of Abraham Lincoln?

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

Dennis Friend Hanks (1799-1892), a distant cousin of Abraham Lincoln, once owned this property and a log cabin near the corner of Jackson Avenue and 2nd Street in Charleston. Hanks was a businessman who, among other things, was a cobbler and ran an inn and gristmill. He died at his daughter’s house in Paris, Illinois in 1892 after being hit by a wagon.

Col. Thomas Alexander Marshall, Jr. (1817-1873) was a lawyer, politician, and another Lincoln friend. He built a stately Italianate home on Hanks’ former property in 1853. During the 1960s and ‘70s, his house at 218 Jackson Avenue was widely reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Dennis Hanks.

In addition to playing host to Lincoln and his circle, it’s rumored the house was used to hide runaway slaves. Its basement contained a dungeon-like room with barred windows and what looked like 12 fasteners to hold shackles.

In 1965, Eastern Illinois University English professor Dr. Marie Neville Tycer (1920-1970) and her husband Forster purchased the home, renovated it, and opened it as the Tycer House Museum. They lived there for five years, furnished it with antiques, and allowed groups to tour the historic home.

Commentary Saudade

What Happened When I Tried to Start a Newspaper in Central Illinois

Freedom of the press is in serious trouble when a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers can so easily banish a news publication from store and library shelves.

In the summer of 2012, I briefly returned to Charleston, Illinois (where I had attended college) to help set up a monthly print newspaper. It failed spectacularly. The unexpected resistance I encountered taught me hard lessons about the limits of free speech and journalism.

Starting a newspaper is not easy. It takes hard work, travel, time, and financial resources. Still, it can be successful and rewarding with a receptive audience. Central Illinois is highly rural and conservative in temperament. Neighbors might be content to gossip on their front porches, but they’d rather not see the latest scandal plastered in the headlines.

For most of my life I had a naïve understanding of the role of the press. I imagined most newspapers shied away from controversy for any number of reasons, ranging from placating advertisers, adherence to a particular political or social agenda, or simply out of a lack of desire or resources to track down hard stories. I never thought pushback from self-appointed gatekeepers played a role.

Now I understand the blowback some of these news outlets face for reporting controversial events can be intense and make it difficult to conduct business.

Photography Roadside America

America’s Cup Coffee

Ghost sign for America’s Cup Coffee superimposed over a Coca-Cola sign on the side of Pat’s Lounge, 2019 Western Avenue in Mattoon, Illinois. America’s Cup Coffee was a brand of coffee grounds sold by Peoria wholesaler Oakford & Fahnestock.

Historic America Photography

Historic Cemeteries in the Midwest

These majestic rural cemeteries are a who’s-who of the Midwest’s historic and influential personalities.

From captains of industry, to former presidents, storied military figures, inventors, and artists, Midwestern cemeteries are filled with former residents who made outsized contributions to American history. Many of these cemeteries are considered historic in their own right, owing to their art and architecture.

Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois

Bohemian National Cemetery, at 5255 N. Pulaski Road in Chicago, Illinois, was created in 1877 by Chicago’s ethnic Czech community, and has since expanded to 126 acres. Approximately 120,000 of the city’s former residents are buried here, including victims of the SS Eastland shipwreck. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Historic America

Hagerstown Battlefield in Hagerstown, Maryland

A rare instance of Civil War urban combat raged in Hagerstown, as blue and gray troopers fought in the streets and cannon balls flew over the town square.

The first and second battles of Hagerstown were fought on July 6 and July 12, 1863 between Union cavalry commanded by Brig. Gens. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick and George A. Custer and Confederate cavalry commanded by Col. John Chambliss and Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson in Hagerstown, Maryland during the American Civil War. The first engagement was a Confederate victory, but Union forces ultimately prevailed in the second as the Army of Northern Virginia continued its retreat south following the Battle of Gettysburg.

After three bloody days of fighting around Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee retreated southwest toward the Potomac River and Virginia. The main army slowly settled into defensive works around Williamsport, Maryland, while a rearguard was stationed in Hagerstown and nearby Funkstown. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was tasked with keeping the Union army at bay while Confederate forces found passage across the swollen river.

Mysterious America

Maple Lake’s Tragic History

Most visitors to Maple Lake in southwest suburban Chicago come for recreation, some to witness unusual lights that emerge from its water at night, but few know of the lake’s violent past.

Every spring and summer, visitors by the hundreds of thousands descend on the southwestern corner of Cook County. They come to the Palos and Sag Valley Divisions of the Park District to ride horses, hike, and bicycle on the trails, or drop a fishing line into one of the dozen lakes and sloughs. Many grab a quick bite at the Ashbary Coffee House before heading south down Archer Avenue to 95th Street. There they enter Pulaski Woods under a canopy of maple trees and continue east until they reach Maple Lake, a man-made body of water roughly half a mile in width. With its wide, curving shores and tranquil waters, it is a deceptively peaceful place.

Over the years, Maple Lake has acquired a reputation for the unusual. A handful of visitors—those who stuck around after sundown—have reported seeing strange lights hovering over the lake. These lights, although they are the subject of speculation by every chronicler of Chicagoland folklore, are just the tip of the iceberg. Maple Lake has a grim history into which few have delved.