Photography Roadside America

McDonald’s Franchise Museum (demolished)

I grew up in Des Plaines, Illinois, so when a movie about Ray Kroc called The Founder (2016) came out, I’ll admit I watched eagerly for any mention of my former hometown. Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois and he opened his first McDonald’s franchise on Lee Street in Des Plaines in 1955.

I passed by the McDonald’s museum hundreds of times, but never visited (it was actually a replica built in 1985). Unfortunately, by the time the movie came out, the museum had closed and was slated for demolition. When I visited a few years ago, the old sign and part of the arches had already been removed. Demolition was completed in August 2018.

Mysterious America

Who Murdered Amy Warner?

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.

At approximately 10:20 a.m. on Tuesday, June 29, 1999, a friend of 23-year-old Amy Denise Warner became concerned that he hadn’t seen or heard from her since the previous day. He went to her home at 17 7th Street in Charleston, just north of Jefferson Elementary School. There he found Amy, a single mother and a manager at Elder-Beerman in the Cross County Mall in Mattoon, lying half-way on her couch in the living room, blood covering the floor.

Her two children, a 4-year-old girl and 7-month-old boy, were home but not physically harmed. Investigators said there was no sign of forced entry. Amy died from a stab-wound to her neck, and she had defensive wounds on her hands. Investigators estimated her time of death at around 12 hours before her body was discovered.

Amy, a 1993 graduate of Charleston High School, was well-liked, an avid reader, and quick to smile and laugh. She worked tirelessly to provide for her children. Who would do this to her, and why? Her friends and family, and the broader community, struggled to make sense of the senseless brutality.

Mysterious America Photography

Azariah Sweetin Home

Otherwise known as “the old stone house,” the remnants of this Greene County, Illinois manor were, at one time, part of a mansion built in 1848 by a stockman named Azariah Sweetin. Though nothing but a shell today, a grand ballroom once occupied the third floor, a ballroom that was the scene of murder. During a farewell gala for newly enlisted Union soldiers, two farmhands, Henson and Isham, got into an argument that ended with one thrusting a knife into the back of the other. The wounded man fell down by the fireplace and bled to death. According to legend, his blood seeped into the stone floor and formed an outline of his body. The stain could never be removed.

As the war raged, Azariah Sweetin didn’t want to take any chances, so he stuffed all his gold coins into jars and buried them around his property. Unfortunately, an equestrian accident in 1871 rendered him without any memory of where he had buried his money. After his death, his ranch was purchased by Cyrus Hartwell, who also lived there until he died. Treasure seekers soon tore the mansion apart, but no one has ever found Azariah’s gold. Storytellers say Azariah’s ghost—alongside snakes—now guards his lost loot.

Historic America

Coles County Ghost Towns: Hitesville, Farmington, and Curtisville

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.


James Hite, who immigrated from Kentucky to Coles County in 1831, created this village in Ashmore Township and named it after himself in April 1835. He was appointed postmaster on August 24, 1835. A stone marker at the location, however, says that Hitesville was founded in 1837.

Whatever the year of its establishment, at its peak it contained several shops and houses. The History of Coles County (1879) stated that the village was “swallowed up” by new villages that appeared when the Indianapolis & St. Louis Railroad was built. Ashmore, which was plotted in 1855, was the most likely culprit.

James Hite and some of his neighbors also built a nearby Presbyterian church. A man by the name of Reverend John Steele presided over the congregation until the building was sold when James Hite moved out of the area. The parishioners, many of whom were from the St. Omer area, then attended a different church. Hitesville lasted long enough to appear on a county map alongside St. Omer and Ashmore, but shortly after, both Hitesville and St. Omer ceased to exist.

Photography Roadside America

Jeannie’s Just Sew Shop

Unique sign for Jeannie’s Just Sew Shop, 114 W 2nd Street in Byron, Illinois.

Historic America Photography

Stories in Stone: Captains of Industry

Almost untouchable in life, today anyone can visit the final resting places of these wealthy and powerful figures.

America’s cemeteries are filled with rich and poor alike. In life, these wealthy industrialists were among the most powerful men alive. Yet today, their sometimes humble monuments can be found scattered among a sea of granite stones. A name and date carved into stone tells so little about the incredible lives they must have lived. Here are a few of their stories.

George Pullman (1831-1897)

Monument to George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) in Graceland Cemetery, at 4001 N. Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois, the city’s premier burial ground. George Pullman invented the Pullman sleeping car. He’s perhaps best well-known for the town he created for his factory workers in Illinois. When his workers went on strike in 1894, President Grover Cleveland intervened and sent several thousand troops to Chicago to break the strike. The violence left 30 dead. Pullman died in 1897 and he is buried in a lead-lined coffin sealed in cement to prevent desecration.

Historic America

The Manteno Madness

Manteno State Hospital was at one time the largest state mental hospital in Illinois, but its overcrowded corridors invited disaster. From typhoid epidemic to scandal, trace the tragic history of this forgotten asylum.

“It is not by confining one’s neighbor that one is convinced of one’s own sanity.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Novels (and the films based on them) such as The Snake Pit (1946), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), and even memoirs like Girl, Interrupted (1993) have permanently colored public perception of mental hospitals. Images of sadistic Nurse Ratched and torture disguised as treatment have horrified us for decades, but those of us who grew up after the closure of such facilities have no memory of the very real scandals that led to their condemnation.

At one time, Illinois had eleven state mental hospitals, located in Alton, Anna, Chicago, Dixon, East Moline, Elgin, Jacksonville, Kankakee, Lincoln, Manteno, and Peoria. Manteno State Hospital was the largest of these, and perhaps the one that attracted the most negative press. Ironically, hospitals like Manteno, with their “cottage system” of patient housing, were meant to correct the appalling conditions of what we now know as the classic “mad house” or “insane asylum” that Michel Foucault deconstructed in his influential book Madness and Civilization (1965).

Progressive hospitals like Manteno State proved not to be much better than their predecessors, and the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 began the long, slow process of de-institutionalization that eventually led to their closure.