Hanging Out In Rockford: On a clear day, you can see the Mississippi—part two

Editor’s note: Mike Leifheit continues to recover from angioplasty surgery. Last week’s article incorrectly stated Leifheit underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. The Rock River Times regrets the error. The following column was written before Leifheit’s surgery.

By Mike Leifheit


Jon Agustsson and I are driving to Savanna, Il., to look at antique back bars for the possible new restaurant on North Main. Jerry Gendreau, owner of Savanna antiques, has a couple I want to look at. I bought the back bar at the Irish Rose Rockton from him. I only paid $1,600 for it. It was covered with a big cowboy mural and several coats of paint. My friend Elmer J. Crowley stripped it for me. I was going to stain it dark, but E.J. talked me out of it. He kept telling me that I should leave it natural, and I kept arguing with him until I saw it, and then I knew he was right. Several coats of clear are all it got. The woods in it, from dark walnut to zebra, are amazing. It matched the walnut paneling my friend Woody gave me out of a building he was remodeling. What a lucky find.

Driving along Route 20, I think of all the times I have come to this part of the state. The earliest was when I was a Boy Scout in Troop 22, Lefty Reber’s troop. Lefty was our Scoutmaster and the best Scoutmaster an 11 year-old kid could have. He used to take us on countless camping trips, even in the winter. Troop 22 had a cabin in what is now Rock Cut State Park. It was high on a hill overlooking the creek they blocked to create Pierce Lake. You could still see the foundation of the old cabin the last time I went there. We used to hike a long way back from the cabin to where there was a huge natural amphitheater. That amphitheater is now part of the lake.

We would always go to the spring jamboree in Galena. We would hike the 20 or so miles from Galena to Apple River Canyon State Park and camp. I remember, as a kid, being ultra impressed by the rolling countryside that reminded me of Ireland. I remember the tires in our assistant Scoutmaster’s old car rubbing on the wheel wells as we swept the huge turns. I remember Lefty regaling us with tales of his adventures on the Mississippi. (He and a friend paddled their way all the way from Camp Lowden in Oregon to New Orleans. They left in the winter and arrived in the spring. We thought this the ultimate adventure.)

My friend E.J. (the same Elmer of stripping the bar fame) is responsible for many memories too. It was through him that I got to know a lot of the people in this part of the world. He owned River City Distributing and sold a lot of imported beer to the tourist destinations in Galena and Savanna. I used to take a day off now and then and accompany him on his route. Among the people he introduced me to were Scott and Christine Lawlor of the Galena Winery and Tom Kristiansen, who owned the Farmer’s Home hotel. (Also, interestingly, I met Jon’s sister, the same Jon who rides next to me now. She had an import store that featured authentic Irish goods. What a small world!) One of my favorite places in Galena was the Kingston Inn, owned by a guy named Jeff. Jeff moved his business to Savanna. I think that was one of the first times I went there.

But now we are in Savanna, and we seek Jerry at his second venture, the Iron Horse Social Club. We pull up and park across the street. Dozens of Harleys line the curb. We walk in to what is really a museum. There are more than 120 feet of antique bars and countless antique and unusual motorcycles. I want to take time to look more slowly, but Jerry takes us on a whirlwind tour. It is really too much to take in quickly. Jerry has had this bar open for about one and a half years. The antique store down the street has been his for 18. What a wonderful ride this would be from Rockford for all you weekend Harley adventurers–it is only about an hour and 15 minutes.

He takes us upstairs to another whole floor of much the same thing. People are lined up to get tattoos from the three tattoo artists. Then we pile in my van to go back up to the road to where he has the bars stored. As we drive back north, we get glimpses of this most beautiful part of the Mississippi. When we get there, he shows us two bars, one deco bar that I am not interested in, and another older one that he has committed to someone, but may again become available. That one suits my fancy, and I tell him so. He says to call him about it when I get serious. I tell him that I have to sell my restaurant in Rockton first before anything. We drive back to the Iron Horse to have a drink.

At the Iron Horse, we sit and converse. I can’t get over this guy’s energy. He always seems to have some new project. My friend Jon is in antique heaven. Jon tells Jerry about his antique house, and they indulge in heavy antique talk. Jerry tries to feed us buffalo burgers, but it is too soon after our lunch at Schiro’s. Then Jon and I decide we need to get going. Jerry is sorry to see us go. I think he was genuinely enjoying our company. I know I was enjoying his.

Back in Rockford, our slow Friday has turned out to be a not so slow Friday after all. The place is buzzing and full of life. But I am too tired to hang out. I climb the ship’s ladder to my apartment, where Eric Olson is installing a new bathroom floor. The entire place is cover with dust. I look out at the flag above the Faust Landmark. It is still blowing south bringing the cool summer weather that has been such a blessing. Between the earthquakes and the cool weather at night, it has been like living in San Francisco. Now if they would only open our street.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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