When you hear someone say “Illinois,” your first thought is most likely “Chicago.” However, Illinois is home to much more than the Windy City. Located in western Illinois, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, you’ll find my charming and welcoming hometown of Quincy. With a rich history, Midwestern hospitality, and a thriving arts scene, Quincy is Illinois’s best-kept secret. 

History

The origins of Quincy date back to 1819, when John Wood of Moravia, New York, bought 160 acres of military land. While this land was initially called “Bluffs,” the name was changed to Quincy in 1825. 15 years later, Quincy was incorporated as a city. This town served as a refuge in 1838 for the Potawatomi tribe as the government forcibly relocated them from Indiana to Kansas. At the same time, Quincy also served as a refuge for the Mormons as they fled from persecution in Missouri.

The mid-1800s brought prosperity to this region as Quincy became a central transportation hub due to the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Quincy’s population grew from 7,000 in 1850 to 24,000 in 1870, making this city the second-largest in the state. 

 “This photograph, taken in 1862, shows at left the public square in which the Lincoln-Douglas debate took place. in Quincy, Illinois. Public domain.
This photograph, taken in 1862, shows at left the public square in which the Lincoln-Douglas debate took place. in Quincy, Illinois. Public domain.

In 1858, Quincy became the backdrop for the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate. Today, this site is known as Washington Park, located in the historic downtown area. You could spend an entire afternoon in the park, learning about the story of the debate, as well as admiring the Richardsonian Romanesque architecture surrounding the park.

John Wood, the founder of Quincy, became the governor of Illinois in 1860. The mansion that he built in Quincy in the late 1830s is still around today. Known as the John Wood Mansion, this historic home is open for tours.

Front of the John Wood mansion in Quincy. Photo is CC by 4.0 licensed.
Front of the John Wood mansion in Quincy. Photo is CC by 4.0 licensed.

Arts and culture

As a rural town, it may come as a surprise that Quincy has a vibrant arts scene. From art galleries to musical groups, Quincy’s artistic and cultural outlets abound.

Located in the East End Historic District, the Quincy Art Center is a non-profit art gallery with a permanent collection of over 400 works and a rotating selection of themed exhibits. The Art Center’s grounds are equally extensive; this museum is a converted carriage house on a large historical estate. 

opera-symphony-musical-instruments

Quincy also has a flourishing music community. The Quincy Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1947, usually presents five to six concerts a year, occasionally partnering with the Quincy Symphony Chorus. If you are more interested in theater, the Quincy Community Theater puts on an impressive amount of big-name plays and musicals every season.

While Quincy has plenty of notable cultural buildings, some of the most stately architecture includes the Quincy Museum and the Villa Katherine. The Quincy Museum, built in 1891, is home to beautifully restored interiors, 14-karat gold woodwork, exterior hand-carved ornamentation, and fascinating exhibits about the city. The Villa Katherine might be even more impressive; located on the bluffs overlooking the river, this Mediterranean-inspired castle is home to a reflecting pool harem, exquisite artistry, and rich history. 

Villa Kathrine sits on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, in Quincy, IL. This Moorish-style villa was built around 1900 and has been on the National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP) since December 8, 1978.  Photo is in the public domain.
Villa Kathrine sits on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, in Quincy, IL. This Moorish-style villa was built around 1900 and has been on the National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP) since December 8, 1978. Photo is in the public domain.

Outdoors

Because of Quincy‘s successful parks department, there are ample opportunities for outdoor recreational activities. Right between the Bayview Bridge and the Quincy Memorial Bridge on the riverfront, you will find Clat Adams Bicentennial Park. This scenic waterfront park is the best place to view the stunning nightly sunsets over the Mississippi River.

Quincy Memorial Bridge (background) and the Quincy Bayview Bridge over the Mississippi River. Photo by Angelika Lindner by CC 3.0
Quincy Memorial Bridge (background) and the Quincy Bayview Bridge over the Mississippi River. Photo by Angelika Lindner by CC 3.0

Another fantastic riverfront park is Indian Mounds Park, home to some of the most substantial Native American burial grounds in the United States. This park provides educational insight into the Potawatomi Nation and the Trail of Death. While you’re here, you can swim in the Indian Mounds Pool and catch different panoramic views of the Mississippi River.

There are also various landscapes and historical sites on Quinsippi Island, a large island on the Mississippi River. The island is home to a small village of log cabins, well-preserved from the era of Lincoln. Quinsippi also has many hiking trails and beaches (but I wouldn’t swim in the Muddy Mississippi if I were you!).

Small businesses

Strolling through Quincy’s downtown area, you will find several charming shops and boutiques, including For Home and Her, Jeni’s Boutique, and Yellow Kiss Boutique, which all specialize in women’s apparel. Shaker Hill, which specializes in home goods, has a unique collection of vintage items.

Downtown Quincy at State and 8th. These buildings are part of the South Side German Historic District. They have been on the NRHP since May 22, 1992. Photo is in public domain courtesy of Smallbones.
Downtown Quincy at State and 8th. These buildings are part of the South Side German Historic District. They have been on the NRHP since May 22, 1992. Photo is in public domain courtesy of Smallbones.

You can find another local shop, Gifts By Grawe, outside of the downtown area, on Maine Street. This homey boutique is a great place to find unique and handmade gifts.

Local cuisine

One of Quincy’s highlights is the vast number of local, family-owned restaurants with fantastic food. One of Quincy’s quirks involves serving pizza and Mexican food at the same restaurant, of which I’m a big fan. Local pizza-Mexican favorites include Gem City Restaurant and The Tower of Pizza and Mexican. The same family that owns these joints also owns Kelly’s Tavern and The Abbey. While I enjoy both of these eateries, I especially love Kelly’s. They offer a salad bar with locally-famous cheese soup and gigantic homemade cinnamon rolls. What else could you need?

Maid-Rite is another local staple that you won’t want to miss. When I first moved away from Quincy, I was shocked to learn that the rest of the world didn’t know what a “maid-rite” was. It turns out, this is a food that is exclusive to Quincy. With ground beef, onion, mustard, ketchup, and pickle on a bun, it may sound simple, but there’s only one place that makes it right: Maid-Rite.

Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich photo courtesy of Cindy Funk - CC 2.0.
Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich photo courtesy of Cindy Funk CC 2.0.

Besides restaurants, Quincy also abounds in local breweries and coffee shops. Initially founded in the mid-19th century by three German immigrants, Dicks Brother’s Brewery is a Quincy staple. Quincy Brewing Company is another successful competitor of Dicks Brother’s, but this joint only popped up in recent years. 

If you are in the mood for a great cup of coffee, check out Electric Fountain Brewing Company. This quiet downtown coffee shop features exposed brick, homey furniture, and amazing lattes.

Quincy’s official nickname is “Gem City,” originally coined because of the abundance of land, thriving agriculture, and many trees (perfect for building houses). Today, residents still refer to Quincy as the “Gem City,” and it’s easy to see why. With booming local businesses, a vibrant arts scene, and an impressive history, this town is full of Midwest gems.

The Richard F. Newcomb House has been on NRHP since June 3, 1982.  This mansion is considered the most impressive of all the impressive houses along Maine Street. Today it is a museum. Photo is in the public domain.
The Richard F. Newcomb House has been on NRHP since June 3, 1982. This mansion is considered the most impressive of all the impressive houses along Maine Street. Today it is a museum. Photo is in the public domain.

COVER: Taken from a riverfront park on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois. U.S. Highway 24 is routed along the bridge in the background.