When asked what makes Chillicothe different from other small towns, Mayor Michael Hughes does not hesitate.
“For such a small town, we offer so much for the citizens.”
Located 15 miles north of Peoria along the Illinois River, Chillicothe has a little over 6,000 residents. During his 12 years as an alderman, Mayor Hughes took part in initiatives to improve the town’s historic district, expand park offerings and build up small businesses. But he says he has to share the credit. The community members play the biggest part in making Chillicothe a destination.
The city has spent a decade building up riverfront and historic areas so it can draw residents and tourists. The Chillicothe Park District and Pearce Community Center offer year-round programming to physically engage visitors, while Chillicothe Players and the Chillicothe Library help residents explore the arts.
Chillicothe Players is currently in rehearsals for summer shows Beauty and the Beast Jr. and Gilligan’s Island. The library’s ongoing schedule has everything from game nights to craft events.
“We’ve had family come up and when we give them a tour of Chillicothe, they’re like, ‘How can such a small community do so many things?’” said Economic Development Director Amanda Beadles.
“The Chillicothe Library by itself could entertain [a family]. There’s music, art, book readings.”
“I don’t think your magazine’s big enough to put all this in,” Mayor Hughes jokes.
Chillicothe does have a lot going on. Visitors can immerse themselves in history at two different museums: the Rock Island Depot, which displays a 1929 Santa Fe caboose, and the Chillicothe Area History Museum, which features an exhibit honoring Zorro creator and Chillicothe High School graduate Johnston McCulley.
A few blocks from the museum is Chillicothe’s historic 2nd Street. The iconic art deco front of the Town Theater stands out as a beacon of nostalgia among quaint retail shops. The Optimist Club purchased the theater in 2009 and continues to run it today, using profits from $5 tickets and their newly offered subscription plans to fund scholarships and support local youth groups. First-run Hollywood movies are always on the marquee.
Steps from the theater, shoppers can find an eclectic collection of stores that offer resale shopping, unique gifts, and delicious sweets. Triple Dipple’s 80 flavors of artisan cheesecakes led them to be recognized by the Illinois Office of Tourism’s Illinois Made Program. Little Land of Candy n More’s fudge, sweets and old-fashioned soda shop make it a delight for young and old alike.
Beadles says that local merchants have been spearheading efforts to provide opportunities for locals and tourists alike. The merchants help arrange the popular Second Saturday Market where the retail businesses of 2nd Street, 4th Street, and Santa Fe turn shopping into a festive event with live music and special discounts.
“We have great merchants,” Mayor Hughes says. “None of this could happen without our merchants.”
Chamber of Commerce Facilitator Molly Bishop is quick to point out that those merchants include both Chillicothe and Lacon businesses, which run the gamut from financial planners to nonprofit organizations.
“What makes our chamber a little different is that we have about 15 to 20 nonprofits,” she said. “A lot of them are volunteers for the different things that we do.”
Bishop noted that Chamber members like The Picket Fence Foundation and Helping Hands Resale Shoppe provide quality shopping while giving back to the community. The Picket Fence Foundation uses its gift and garden center to provide jobs for adults with disabilities. Helping Hands Resale Shoppe turns donated goods into funds for local charities and ministries.
Beyond shopping, Chillicothe offers multiple leisure opportunities. Mayor Hughes enjoys Shore Acres Park, where visitors can hike trails or play on the pickleball courts. The opening of the Shore Acres Pool in June marks the start of summer for many Chillicothe families.
You can’t mention tourism in Chillicothe without the Memorial Day extravaganza Summer Camp, held at Three Sisters Park, which has been known to draw up to 20,000 people. The multi-day, multi-stage music festival just wrapped its 21st year with a variety of musical acts and field day competitions. Fun-seekers can catch up on Summer Camp activities all year via the Summer Camp blog and podcast.
June also brings the Chillicothe Carnival, one of several events hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s schedule starts in January with the Chillicothe Chocolate Tour. In the summer, the events move outdoors to include a golf outing and the HLC River Jaunt.
“HLC is the Henry, Lacon and Chillicothe River Jaunt. It’s a 16.4 mile jaunt with canoes and kayaks,” Bishop explains. “This is the 22nd year. We start in Henry Harbor…and it’s one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen because there’s over a hundred kayaks and canoes.”
The kayakers paddle four miles from Henry Harbor to the Lacon Marina for a break. After lunch, they get back in the water to travel to the finish line at Shore Acres Park.
A few weeks after HLC, the city pairs with other river communities for the Bridge to Bridge River Drive, a weekend event that connects Peoria Heights, Chillicothe, Lacon, and Spring Bay. Travelers crisscross over the McCluggage Bridge and Lacon Bridge to enjoy activities in each town. Last September, Chillicothe hosted a fishing tournament, a community games competition, and a craft fair as part of the event. Bishop says she is hoping to expand fun opportunities for the collaboration this year.
While the entertainment is excellent, Mayor Hughes hopes visitors take time to enjoy Chillicothe’s beautiful scenery. Sharp-eyed bird-watchers can catch sight of an eagle or white pelican at Chillicothe Bottoms Wildlife Sanctuary, where some 152 bird species have been identified. The city recently added two telescopes to the observation tower at Eagle Landing to help nature-lovers get closer to wildlife.
When asked how these improvements and collaborations benefit Chillicothe, Beadles said it’s all about creating an experience.
“When people are traveling, they want something memorable. They want an experience. We’ve got the businesses. We have the retail and the food. We’re setting up for some great things to come.”
To find out more about Chillicothe, visit www.cityofchillicotheil.org.
Laurie Pillman is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria.