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Fall Tour of Homes


The Fall Tour of Homes has come to an end after 55 years as one of Galena's premiere tourism events.

The members of the First Presbyterian Church voted at a special congregational meeting on Sunday, June 8, to discontinue the Tour "with celebration of what it has meant to the congregation and the community in the past, and with sadness for the future that will not be."

The decision was reluctantly made for a number of pragmatic reasons. The Fall Tour has always been a major undertaking that requires eight to ten months of planning and preparatory work. In recent years, that work has fallen to fewer and fewer individuals. At the same time, the trends on our attendance figures and our profits have been in a sizeable and steady decline, while the costs of running the event have continued to rise.

A few years ago, one of our members counted all the house and garden tours in a half-hour radius of Galena during the course of the year. She discovered that our event was simply one of 20, a total that our Tour records showed was beyond the saturation point. Comparing our dwindling profits with the Herculean efforts undergone to create those profits, it was clear that something had to change. Several different approaches to modify the Tour were attempted, all without a major impact on the bottom line. As a result, in recent years, the Fall Tour of Homes has been far more of a labor of love than a matter of hard-nosed economic logic.

The final decision to end the Tour was compelled by the fact that after talking with 20-25 homeowners this year, we still had signed only one house for this fall. Long ago, our goal had always been to sign all the houses by March or April so that the brochures could be printed and distributed by Memorial Day. And yet, as it has become harder and harder to find homeowners willing to show their houses to hundreds of strangers —understandably so—that deadline has slowly been pushed back to June and then July and even, last year, August. In recent years, we have had to talk to roughly 40 homeowners just to sign four houses. The uphill struggle we endured in attempting to sign houses this year offered a mini-paradigm of what the Tour has become. And so, with a mixture of both sadness and relief, we voted to end the Tour. For the members of our congregation, the "the last full weekend in September" will never be quite the same.

A Fond Look Back

The Fall Tour of Homes had its origins in the ashes of a fire that blazed through the church basement in 1950. The damage was extensive enough that the cost of repairs put a significant strain on the church budget. The Ladies' Guild wanted to help, but the amount required posed a serious challenge. They were used to selling blankets on time along with an occasional antique sale, but neither of those activities were likely to make much of a dent in those repair bills. And that's when inspiration struck.

About that time, two members of the Ladies Guild, Angeline Stauss and Gladys Ehrler, made a fateful trip to the deep south, where they spent a little time touring some of the beautiful antebellum mansions in the area around Natchez, Mississippi. When they returned, they were certain that Galena's mansions were every bit as beautiful as those they had seen on their trip. Filled with an almost evangelistic fervor for the wonders of Galena architecture, they convinced the Ladies Guild that the splendors of "the town that time forgot" could be just the thing they were looking for to help the church in its hour of need.

With enthusiasm and persuasive powers that proved to be irresistible, they rolled up their sleeves and created the first Fall Tour of Homes. It featured nine private residents, many of which were owned by the members of the Ladies Guild.

There was nothing like the Fall Tour anywhere in this part of the country, so no one could be quite sure how it would received by the public. It turned out to be a major success. More than 1,500 people gladly paid $3 a person to take a peek behind the lovely facades of Galena's state mansions. The church's fiscal crisis was averted and that could have been the end of that. Except for one thing, the idea was simply too good to let go.

The merchants on Main Street, the members of the church and even the everyday residents of Galena recognized the value in throwing an annual spotlight on the glories of the Galena community, a town that is home to the nation's largest concentration of eighteenth century architecture, not to mention being the site of some of the most noteworthy and amazing history from the tumultuous days of the settling of the frontier of the Old Northwest Territory. Therefore, a second Fall Tour was attempted in 1951, which proved to be an equal success to the first. The third Fall Tour kept pace and, by then, the Fall Tour tradition had become established in the lore of Galena.

Some local historians point to the Fall Tour as being one of the keys that opened the eyes of local residents to the treasures that lay within our city limits and that laid the groundwork for making Galena the major tourist attraction it would eventually become.

Changing Tour Traditions

Those early Fall Tours looked different from those of more recent times. The most obvious difference lay in how tour-goers would travel from home to home. On that first Tour and for several thereafter, the youth of the church would sit on the front steps of the church, waiting for carloads of tourists to arrive to begin the Tour. When a car pulled up, one of those young people would get into the car with the Tour-goers and direct them from house to house, waiting patiently while the guests visited each home, and then directing them on to the next destination.

That system helped tourists avoid getting lost in the sometimes arcane patchwork design of Galena's city streets, but it did require one major tune-up from the women of the Ladies Guild soon after it put into place. You see, the youth were regularly offered tips by Tour-goers and, being enterprising souls, they quickly noticed that the people who drove the fancy cars were much more likely to give large tips than those who drove economy cars. And so they began to fight over who had to help with certain cars and who got to help with others. When the Ladies Guild members became aware of this form of economic discrimination, they put an immediate stop to it and in no uncertain terms!

For their part, the merchants of Main Street offered their windows to the Ladies Guild, who filled them with impressive antique displays of every imaginable kind—furniture, pottery, period clothing, glassware, and accessories. From the moment a visitor entered the downtown area, the festive atmosphere made it abundantly clear that something special going on.

Other churches pitched in by providing food sales, both to make money and to meet the heightened demand in a small town that, in those days, didn't have the wealth of restaurants it enjoys today.

The police and fire departments volunteered their time to direct traffic during the peak hours of the Fall Tour rush and many local individuals volunteered to drive tourists in their own cars for those tourists who didn't have other means of transportation. Later, the Tour would hire buses to drive groups of tourists to the various homes, but when problems cropped up in maneuvering those buses through the hills and the occasionally-cramped eighteenth century streets, it was determined that 15-passenger vans were a more practical form of transportation.

The Fall Tour and the Galena Community

Clearly, from the beginning, the Fall Tour of Homes was a community affair and that never changed. For decades, it was an event far too big for the members of the First Presbyterian Church to handle alone. In fact, it could never have survived for five and a half decades without the help of veritable armies of volunteers throughout the community, who were willing to give their time in order to write publicity, serve as chair houses, give tours, drive vans, take tickets and on and on.

All that, of course, is above and beyond that wonderful corps of people who provided the heart of the Fall Tour by generously opening their private homes to public inspection year after year. Yes, we would always offer to compensate them financially and most of them accepted that, although some would privately turn the money back over to us. However, all were compensated with more than mere money. All of them were able to bask in the glow of the sincere compliments they received over their houses and all of them had the knowledge that they were helping the larger community.

You see, many years ago the Fall Tour ceased being about raising money for the First Presbyterian Church's internal needs and instead became an opportunity for the church to raise funds for charitable organizations in the community. Although no comprehensive list was ever kept of the organizations who were the beneficiaries of the Fall Tour profits, among those who have received Tour funds in recent years are CHOICES, the Dubuque Rescue Mission, the Galena Food Pantry, the Riverview Center, and the Son Shine Center. Although our budget will no longer be supplemented by Fall Tour income, the First Presbyterian Church pledges that it will continue to financially support a variety of area charities. In that respect, nothing will change.

For Everything, There is a Season

Comedian Buddy Hackett was once on the Tonight Show when he said to then-host Johnny Carson, "Ask me what's the secret of comedy." So Carson dutifully started to say, "What's the secret of..." at which point Hackett yelled, "TIMING!"

An anonymous ancient writer expressed a similar sentiment from a much broader perspective with these famous words, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven..." (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

The Fall Tour of Homes was born in 1950, which was a very different time from today. Pete Peterson describes it this way, "If your memory is a bit vague about that year, or if you don't go back that far, Harry Truman was President, cigarettes cost about a quarter a pack, and you could gas up your car for 29 cents a gallon."

1950 was long before either Sputnik or Elvis got us "all shook up." The Beatles and the social radicalism of the '60s were in the distant future and the technologically-driven miracles of the modern world were simply unimaginable.

The Fall Tour of Homes was a wonderful innovation in its day that made a major impact on the shape of the First Presbyterian congregation and, perhaps even more importantly, on the shape of the Galena community.

But timing is everything and it has become clear that the time of the Fall Tour has passed. So we celebrate it for what it once offered and we take our leave of it.

What will the future hold for the First Presbyterian Church in its ministry to this community? We like to think that we still have that same innovative spirit that led to the creative of the Fall Tour of Homes in the first place, so we are pondering several other possibilities for 21st century fund raisers. Which, if any, we will choose, only God can tell. But, in the meantime, there is only one more thing left to say:

Thanks for the memories, one and all.


For a more in-depth history of the Fall Tour of Homes, click here (PDF).
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