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Bald Bluff right for quiet retreat

SEATON -- Some summer nights after supper, retired farmer Frank ``Chick'' Olson drives to the top of Bald Bluff and enjoys quiet solitude.

The 70-year-old lights a bonfire, perches in a lawn chair and watches the setting sun cast its glow on the Yellow Banks Territory. At 700 feet above sea level, Mr. Olson can see miles and miles from one of the highest points in Illinois.

``I'll sit and watch the deer and coyotes, listen to the hoot owls,'' he said. ``I built a cabin up there in 1988.''

Many years ago, Mr. Olson and wife, Lavonne, bought the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River valley and 200 acres of farmground beneath. The Keithsburg couple captured the spot local residents heralded in 1882 as offering ``the finest view of the county, and is perhaps unsurpassed in the state,'' according to the book ``History of Henderson County.''

However, Mr. Olson doesn't dwell on the bluff's extensive historical significance. He leaves that to his brother, Fred, and sister-in-law, Lelia Olson, who have led tours to the spot nearly every summer for 17 years.

The history-loving Olsons can recite pages and pages of information about the area. They tell bluff visitors the legend of Sauk leader Blackhawk weeping as he bid farewell to the land from the hilltop after his tribe was banished to Iowa in 1832. They also tell about Capt. Abraham Lincoln leading 2,000 soldiers along nearby paths during the War of 1812.

Lavonne Olson, a former teacher, said research indicates Bald Bluff was formed 115,000 years ago when a glacier swept through, leaving debris as high as 150 feet as it retreated. The debris and windswept sand became the bluff, underlaid with limestone, she said.

The Sac and Fox tribes heavily traveled and camped in the area in the 1800s, using its sandy riverbanks as landmarks while traveling by canoe.

The tribes gave the name Oquawkiek, or ``Yellow Banks,'' to the small town now called Oquawka. Keithsburg was known as ``Middle Yellow Banks.''

Nearby New Boston, which Abe Lincoln surveyed and platted in 1834, was called ``Upper Yellow Banks,'' according to a booklet published by the Yellowbanks Heritage Association.

The Olsons live on a Seaton farm, their backyard stretching to the foot of Bald Bluff. Mrs. Olson said their home was included in the area considered a military tract after the War of 1812. The government declared veterans were entitled to parcels, which they inhabited or sold, drawing the first white settlers to the area.

As years passed, the bluff continued to be the land's centerpiece. Industry crept in, bringing trains and steamboats to the river valley. The serene bluff was a natural place to get away from the bustle.

The two Olson men can remember climbing the hill as young children, joining friends for picnics and reunions. The Depression of the 1930s forced many families -- like the Olsons -- to scavenge there for wild berries, mushrooms or meat, instead of spending money, Chick Olson said.

Back then, the top of the bluff was nearly bare of trees or vegetation, hence the name. But for some reason, as time goes by, Bald Bluff is becoming not so bald, the owner said.

``There wasn't near that much vegetation around there when I was a kid,'' Mr. Olson said. ``When I bought it, you couldn't even walk up there for all the trees and brush.''

For more information about visiting Bald Bluff and the Yellow Banks region during Henderson County Heritage Trail Days, call Fred and Lelia Olson at (309) 374-2405.

-- By Kay Yadon (February 2, 1998)

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