Henry County, Ill. — Friday, March 23, Renaissance Hennepin, a project of the non-profit Friends of the Hennepin Canal, will host a dinner/theater capital campaign gala, “Unlocking the Journey,” at the Annawan Best Western Hotel & Banquet Center, 315 N. Canal St., in Annawan, Ill. Proceeds will support the Friends’ lock restoration project.
A cocktail hour with a cash bar will precede a buffet dinner at 6 p.m., prepared by L & J Hometown Markets & Catering. The Jansson 5, a Bishop Hill-based blues and jazz trio, will provide musical accompaniment. The group takes its name from Erik Jansson, the charismatic Swedish leader who founded the Henry County colony in 1846. Following dinner, Geneseo’s Richmond Hill Players will perform Dexter Brigham’s play The Locktender, and a silent auction will be ongoing throughout the evening.
Opened in 1907, northern Illinois’ Hennepin Canal provided a commercial shipping shortcut from the Illinois to the Mississippi River that shortened transportation of people and goods between Chicago and Rock Island by 419 miles. Along with a feeder branch from the Rock River, the Hennepin cut through five Illinois counties, and remained in use for 44 years.
Ruling it obsolete, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the canal in 1951. After years of decline, the State of Illinois purchased it, and created the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park. In 1977, the entire canal was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and today, this rustic, tree-lined waterway is a 104-mile-long linear jewel with an adjacent towpath that serves as a multi-use recreational trail.
The Friends was organized in 1998 to raise awareness of the canal and the need to preserve it. In 2010, the group inaugurated Renaissance Hennepin, with a goal to restore three of the locks creating a 50-mile-long portion of it as a navigable waterway once again.
“The Friends are planning an unforgettable event,” said Cathy Foes, executive director of the Henry County Tourism Bureau. “Communities along the canal and within Henry County are assisting in this destination development effort. Local chefs will serve the buffet. The Geneseo Historical Museum will display a bathing suit collection and historic Hennepin artifacts, and the silent auction will feature Hennepin Canal art, gift certificate packages from canal communities, and much more.”
Former State Sen. Todd Sieben said: “The Renaissance Hennepin Canal is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with. It will preserve and protect the Hennepin Canal for generations to come while creating an economically profitable waterway for canal cruising from Geneseo to Rock Falls and connecting to the Rock River. It will draw tourists from across the country and around the world.”
Gary Wagle, Friends president, said: “The lock restoration project is entirely funded by grants and private donations, so the public is encouraged to attend on March 23 and help support this exciting endeavor. The Hennepin is one of the best-kept secrets in the United States.” Paraphrasing the voice in Field of Dreams, Wagle added, “We believe that ‘if we build it, they will come.’ Our vision is for an entire tourist industry to blossom along this corridor.”
Tickets for “Unlocking the Journey” are $45 each, or $75 per couple, and may be purchased at www.friends-hennepin-canal.org, or by phoning the Richmond Hill Players box office at 309-999-2244. Major credit cards and PayPal are accepted. Rooms at the Annawan Best Western may be reserved for the night of March 23 for $69.99 single, and $79.99 double at (309) 935-6565. Be sure to tell them you are attending “Unlocking the Journey.”
For information about other historic sites and attractions in Henry County, plus additional suggestions for overnight accommodations, go to www.visithenrycounty.com, or phone the Henry County Tourism Bureau at 877-436-7926.
From the March 14-20, 2012, issue