n Perry Farm and Exploration Station, www.btpd.org
n Kankakee County State Parks, dnr.state.il.us
n Kankakee County Museum, www.kankakeecountymuseum.com
n Kankakee County Fair, www.kankakeefair.org
n Reed’s Kankakee River Canoe Trips, www.reedscanoetrips.com
n Splash Valley Aquatic Park, www.splashvalley.comn OAK Orthopedic Sports Arena, www.oakorthoarena.comTen tips
I grew up about an hour south of Chicago on a farm near the greater Kankakee area, which includes Kankakee, Bradley and Bourbonnais. While Kankakee has had a bad rap—most notably being ranked one of the worst communities in which to live in 1999, spurring comedian David Letterman to give it two gazebos—it really is a great place to live. Since I moved away in 1993, I have had many opportunities to discover it all over again.
1 Perry Farm. Just down the street from Bears Camp lies Bourbonnais’ family gem. At Perry Farm, owned by the Bourbonnais Township Park District, families can discover a living history farm. Paths lead to genuine Indian caves and beautiful ravines on the Kankakee River.
On the grounds sits the Exploration Station, a hands-on children’s museum (best for kids up to age 8) featuring a castle, space center, post office, dentist office and a new 1950s soda shop.
2 State parks. If exploring nature is your family’s favorite pastime, don’t miss the state parks that surround the Kankakee River. Some of the most beautiful land in the area follows the banks of the river and its tributaries. Explore on foot or participate in many of the activities available such as riding bike trails, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding and camping. For information on hours of operation and trails, call (815) 933-1383.3 Eating local. Avoid the big chain restaurants and dig in to the local fare. For the best hometown food, try Blues Café. Located at 1190 West Station St. in Kankakee, families can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner in this great little diner. Its homemade pies are reason enough to drop in.
If your family is in the mood for an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet for lunch (available every day except Saturday), try Chicago Dough at 545 South Main St. in Bourbonnais. Not only does its buffet offer up every kind of pizza, pasta or salad you could want, but the service is always given with a big smile.
4 Historic food. If your family loves Dairy Queen, eating its famous soft serve across the street from Olivet Nazarene University does more than cool you down. It’s also a great chance to take a bite out of history. The first time Dairy Queen soft serve ice cream was served was at a small ice cream store in Kankakee called Sherb’s in 1938 when the owner, Sherwood "Sherb" Noble, introduced a new soft dairy concoction formulated by friend J.F. McCullough. More than 1,600 servings were sold in his all-you-can-eat 10-cent sale that August day. The success led Sherb to establish the first Dairy Queen store in Joliet, leading to the nearly 6,000 Dairy Queen shops around the world. 5 Kankakee County Museum. The exhibits in the main building chronicle the first century of the county, covering everything from immigration to railroads to the three Illinois governors who hailed from Kankakee. Two other structures on the grounds include the Dr. A.L. Small House and the Taylor Schoolhouse, an authentic one-room schoolhouse sure to amaze your kids.
6 Historical downtown Kankakee. If an outdoor walking historical tour is more your speed, drive to downtown Kankakee to view six architecturally significant churches built in the 1800s. In the center of the churches stands the Kankakee County Courthouse, a wonder of marble and stone with stained glass windows. When you visit, be sure to go inside and take a look at the rotunda’s hand-painted murals.
7 See a farm. While kids may complain that the ride to this southern city is flat and boring, encourage them to look at the rich agricultural history that surrounds them. Many farms in the area are still run by local families and if kids look hard enough, they will see cows, sheep, chickens, horses and many other animals. Take a peek at the fields and teach your kids the difference between corn and soybeans, which will both be nearing full height. While looking is encouraged, touching isn’t, so unless you know the landowner, I’d recommend looking from the road.
8 County fair. The best way to bring the farm experience to life is to attend the Kankakee County Fair at the local fairgrounds. Between July 30 and Aug. 3, your family can take in lawnmower racing, a championship rodeo, horse shows and chainsaw carving. Kids can see a wide variety of farm animals.
9 Reed’s Canoe Trips. If your kids are older than 3 and weigh more than 35 pounds, call Reed’s Kankakee River Canoe Trips. Your family can choose from three canoeing adventures. "On our trips you can enjoy the beauty of the river. It’s very relaxing," says co-owner Jim Reed.
It’s best to make reservations to explore this angle of the Kankakee area, as the tours tend to sell out quickly in the summer.
10 Chill out. July and August are the hottest months of the year, so if your family needs to cool off after watching the Bears practice, head to two local fun centers. The Kankakee Valley Park District’s Splash Valley Aquatic Park boasts three water slides, a lazy river, two zero-depth pools and four lap lanes. If staying indoors is more appealing, OAK Orthopedic Sports Arena offers public ice skating hours every day.
Michelle Sussman, who grew up 15 minutes southwest of Kankakee in Herscher, is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook.