No McDonalds. No Walmart. No Starbucks. No big box home center or national hotel chain.
What Eureka, Illinois doesn’t have defines this Woodford County village as much as what it does have: A hospital, a four-year college, a hardware store, a grocery store, two florists, two coffee shops, good local schools, a grand old courthouse and a sense of contentment with its small-town sensibilities.
Whether by choice or chance — maybe a little of both — Eureka seems to have eschewed many of the national franchises and retailers in favor of local, home-grown commerce. In the view of local leaders, that makes all the difference in the character of the place. “Smallness” is a point of pride that reflects the independence of the people who call Eureka home.
“We pride ourselves with having everything a person might need right here in town,” said first-term Mayor Eric Lind. “A person, realistically, doesn’t have to leave Eureka.”
That self-sufficiency, for the most part, is by design, Lind said. It’s not that the village of 5,000 plus doesn’t want growth or the fast-food options of its neighbors — to be fair, they do have a Pizza Hut, Hardee’s and Subway, Casey’s and Huck’s convenience stores and a Dollar General — people just love the “size and feel of Eureka as it is,” said the mayor.
“It’s a balance of nice, attainable growth, while keeping the small community that people enjoy.”
HISTORY RUNS DEEP
After nearly 200 years, Eureka has proven it can control its destiny. A small settlement called Walnut Grove sprang up here along Walnut Creek in the early 1800s. Woodford County was organized in 1841 after Thomas Bullock arrived in 1835 from his birthplace in Woodford County, Kentucky. There was another Walnut Grove, so the settlement was renamed Eureka and incorporated in 1859. The county seat in Metamora moved to Eureka in 1894.
Sparking Eureka’s early growth were Kentucky abolitionists affiliated with the fundamentalist Disciples of Christ denomination. They founded Eureka College, the very first college in Illinois. Burrus Dickinson Hall, the oldest building on campus, was built in 1858 after the Illinois Legislature chartered the school in 1855.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Jaimie McFarlin is the president of the Eureka Business Association (EBA), a group of “community-minded volunteers” who collaborate to promote the business community and the virtues of local living.
“We really try to get folks to understand that they need to support our local businesses because they support our daily life,” said McFarlin.
The EBA sponsors events and raises awareness through the Market on the Courthouse Lawn in June, an annual 4th of July Parade, Taste of Eureka and a Christmas Stroll the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“We do what we can to keep businesses open here in town,” McFarlin said. That includes EBA Gift Checks which can be purchased locally and used like cash at participating businesses. Those gift checks during COVID helped keep people and dollars in the community.
FOR THE GREATER GOOD
Much of Eureka’s commerce takes place on the north-south axis of Illinois Route 117 (Main Street) and the east-west axis of U.S. Route 24 (Center Street). The two highways intersect in the heart of the downtown business district at one of only two community stoplights.
The stately old county courthouse towers over the city center, where a faith-based, charitable mindset runs through a handful of the downtown retailers. Eureka Et Cetera Shop and the Store Next Door (McFarlin manages both) are thrift shops that donate their profits to the Mennonite Central Committee for global relief efforts. Just down the street, Maurie’s Sweet Shop is run by the Association for the Developmentally Disabled of Woodford County (ADDWC).
Also on Main Street is the Home and Farm Artisan Market, a faith-focused seller of handmade and vintage décor, apparel, jewelry and furniture. It’s been open 24/7 since the early days of the pandemic, with shoppers trusted to pay for items electronically.
Two coffee shops beckon residents, police officers and commuters. The newest, Faire Coffee, is in the former City Hall building, which also was a bank once upon a time. The new City Hall and Police Headquarters is across the street.
Caleri’s Café and Bakery is around the corner on Main Street. A sunny morning in late July found “resident writer” Daniel Doty there hard at work writing his second novel.
(His first, Legacy of a Frozen Scream, is for sale at amazon.com/author/danieldoty.)
“I enjoy Eureka a lot,” said the retired minister and recent transplant to Eureka.
PAST IS PRESENT
The Woodford County Historical Society houses an eclectic collection of objects and documents at a storefront on Main Street. Also of historic interest is The Cannery, a multi-purpose event venue that has risen from the derelict Libby’s canning factory north of the courthouse.
Parts of the complex were built in 1895 and once produced canned pumpkin and other vegetables. The factory closed in 1960 when Libby’s moved pumpkin production to Morton. Renovated to a modern industrial chic, the facility now offers space for weddings, business meetings, banquets and weekly Taco Tuesdays at the Grove Bar.
Schools factor into the fabric of community life. District 140 includes grade schools in Goodfield, Congerville and Eureka, and a middle school and high school in Eureka for children from all three towns. This summer has seen remodeling and expansion at Davenport School in Eureka and installation of artificial turf at the high school football field.
Duane Schroeder, who recently retired after 29 years as Eureka’s State Farm Insurance agent, sees local schools as a quality-of-life benefit. “Your children go to school with the same children they go to Sunday school with.”
Schroeder admits that bigger cities “have their advantages” and he’s willing to drive 30 minutes to get them.
Another gem of Eureka’s lifestyle is Eureka Lake, a 30-acre body of water surrounded by a well-manicured, tree-shaded park. Year round, and especially during the summer, the lake is the outdoor home for everything from fireworks and a 5K run to fishing, kayaking, picnics and cycling or walking the paved trail encircling its waters. The lake hosts disc golfers from across the country at the Ledgestone Open and Disc Golf World Championships.
Lake Road has the honorary title Ben Zobrist Way, a tip of the baseball cap to the hometown boy and former Chicago Cub who was named MVP of the 2016 World Series.
THE REAGAN CONNECTION
Since the 1970s — and especially since the national election in 1980 — no one gets out of Eureka without at least a passing glimpse of another major local hero, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Big green signs point the way on I-74, while more subtle Ronald Reagan Trail signs mark a self-guided route from the 40th president’s birthplace in Tampico, Illinois, to Eureka College, his alma mater, Class of 1932.
These days, the Ronald Reagan Museum in the Donald B. Cerf Center contains more than 10,000 items from his time as a student and his movie and political careers. Also on campus is the Reagan Peace Garden, which features a sizable chunk of the Berlin Wall and quotes from Reagan’s 1982 commencement address at the college.
Back at the courthouse, the four-faced clock chimes on the hour and half-hour. Several years back the clock and bell were in serious disrepair, but the county and the people of Eureka rallied to save them. They ended up preserving a piece of what’s good and admirable about Eureka for generations to come. .
“There’s a lot of heart here in Eureka,” said McFarlin. “Those who know it, know it.”