Fall's vibrant colors may be fleeting, but interest in seeing the Illinois countryside at its colorful best endures.
A pair of long-standing central Illinois fall color drives prove the point.
The Spoon River Scenic Drive in Fulton County enters its 44th year this October, while the Pike County Color Drive will take to the back roads for the 23rd time.
"It's been going on for a long time," says Kaye Iftner, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. "It's an idea someone brought back from vacation and thought we should try here."
Spoon River or Pike County?
The Spoon River Scenic Drive covers about 100 miles up and down the Spoon River Valley.
The Pike County drive doesn't have a specific route, instead allowing visitors to make their own way to various events and destinations.Both allow communities to showcase local businesses, food, artisans and entertainers.
People come from as far away as California.
Iftner says the Pike County drive draws people from Chicago to St. Louis.
"We have 25,000 to 30,000 people come through during the course of the weekend," she says. "One couple from California was planning a vacation and decided they'd never been to the Midwest before.
"So they flew to St. Louis, rented a van and came up for the color drive," Iftner says. "They had to ship all the stuff they bought back to California. You just never know where visitors are going to come from."
So many people come for the drive that other events, like family gatherings and class reunions, get scheduled for the same weekend.The Spoon River drive is such a big draw it's hard to get a firm number.
"We always say over four days, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000," says Esther Keefauver, one of the event's organizers.
"It's impossible to count," she says. "We tried to count cars, but then there are buses and vanloads of people.
"It involves the whole county, so it's not a little festival," Keefauver says. "It involves 15 different villages and 21 different sites."
There are artisans and entertainment. Oh, and there's plenty of food.
"You can get a butterfly pork chop at about any stop," she says.Historical ties
Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown hosts one of the events on the drive, the Rendezvous at Spoon River, a living-history re-enactment of 18th- and 19th-century life.
Members of the Mackinaw Valley Longrifles Association demonstrate period crafts and trade items such as blankets.
The museum gets a bump in attendance from the festival, especially if the weather turns sour.
"They do come in," says Kim Dunnigan with Dickson Mounds. "If it is really warm, we don't see that many, but if it is cold they come flowing in."
Iftner says the Pike County drive was designed to promote local craftspeople and artisans. But it has grown beyond that to become a showcase for area communities.
"Each town uses the opportunity to show off anything they have that is unique," she says. "We have a lot of history here. Some towns have Civil War monuments, historic structures, and this year is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so many communities are going to focus on that.
"We have a lot of ties to Lincoln and the Civil War, so we expect to attract a lot of history buffs this year."
Blaze your own trail
Iftner says there is no start or stop. A map and brochure are available online or by mail with all of the participating communities. Every town has a welcome station.
"You stop at the first place and there is a little flag - a blue flag that identifies the welcome station," she says. "You pick up your map and you just follow along."
The drive is always set on the third full weekend in October to take advantage - hopefully - of fall foliage at its peak.
"By having it the same weekend every year, people become accustomed to it and come back every year," Iftner says. "We don't have to remind them. They put it on their calendar and they come."
While color drives can be weather-dependent, organizers say there is plenty to see and do, even if the leaves don't cooperate.
"Sometimes you get a beautiful drive; sometimes you don't. It depends upon the first frost," says Keefauver. "But it is a beautiful drive down the Spoon River Valley, no matter what season it is."
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Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )