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Small-town downtowns coming back


Dispatch/Argus Photo By Todd Welvaert

Town squares are a part of the charm of small Midwestern communities. In the case of Erie, Illinois, however, the town has a triangle.

Town square. Perhaps no other two words fill the mind with as much imagery of small-town Midwest Americana.

A dusty street lined with picturesque and stately buildings buzzing with the daily hubbub of rural life, looking as if they were torn straight from the canvas of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The Quac-Cities area is blessed with several representatives of that nostalgic notion.

Although they have been fighting, and in some cases losing, a raging economic battle against the mega stores, many exist much as they did in the days of 5-cent sodas and 10-cent gas.

Whiteside County's Erie hosts one of the more peculiar town squares, or town triangle, as the case may be. Photos from the turn of the century show Erie's three-sided town square as an intersection of dirt paths with small business forming the town's distinctive triangle.

It exists now without much change, through recent efforts of local volunteers.

Erie's Woman's Club was able to raise funds and raise an attractive fountain in 1907. Ninety years later, the Erie Area Chamber of Commerce used similar community activism to bring the old triangle park back to new life.

Erie's mayor, Donovan Hannis, said the reason the village's square is a triangle is not completely clear. Some have claimed it's because it's an intersection of Indian trails and others claim it was formed by stage coach lines. Either way, it's the only town triangle around.

Port Byron can boast one of the most scenic of area main streets, with its business section stretching along side the the Mississippi River. A small gazebo in the center of the town's business area provides and excellent place to sit and watch the ebb and flow of both the river and daily life.

Albany's main street is very similar. Cut into the high Illinois bank jutting above the river, business owners share the pleasure of watching some of the area's most welcomed guests, the bald eagles, at work.

Aledo's Central Park may never be mistaken for the larger park of the same name in a much larger city -- but it still provides a pleasant place for a stroll on a summer day or a quick lunch out of the office. It's green presence is a soft reminder of a gentler, and most would argue, a better time

In a time many small-town downtowns are facing slow death, several local towns are working to nurse their downtowns back to life.

Cambridge was recently accepted into the state-sponsored Main Street program to help small towns rebuild and recover. The program offers suggestions and advice to local business owners free of charge. The program also offers the consulting services of a state architect to downtown business owners.

Main Street program manager Christine Yoerger said Cambridge is similar to many area towns in that it has taken some economic thumpings over the past few decades.

``Some of our downtown areas look rough, but there is a lot of community activism here and a lot of people who are willing to work hard to bring it back,'' Mrs. Yoerger said. ``We have quite a few good active businesses left and this town has always been a town where the people want to get involved.''

Other towns in our area involved in the Main Street effort include: Morrison, Prophetstown, Savanna, Cambridge and Galesburg. In all, 37 towns are involved in the program in Illinois.

-- By Todd Welvaert (February 9, 1998)

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