A hidden gem | Wierenga’s Heritage Canyon
A place to explore safely
I’m happy to be back writing about all of the amazing places to see and do in northwest Illinois! Despite our area’s pandemic restrictions, there are still plenty of things to do that can help cure the cabin fever everyone has experienced in the last few months–and stay safe within social distancing guidelines.
The great outdoors in northwest Illinois has always been a favorite scenic destination for travelers to discover. This year, it is especially popular as it provides not only fresh air, but enough space for you to explore and not feel crowded by others. I found such a place that takes you on a trip back to the 1800s while hiking through a 12-acre wooded area located along the Mississippi River in Fulton, Illinois. This ultimate blast from the past is called “Heritage Canyon.”
Travel Back in Time
This 12-acre hidden gem, tucked away in the outskirts of Fulton, was established in 1967. The historic village replica, and now a nature walk, depicts an ancient village from the 1800s. On-site buildings include a schoolhouse, doctor’s office, ironworks, an old church, several log cabins, and an old blacksmith shop. Guests are allowed to tour each building during certain hours and times of year.
The original owners of Heritage Canyon, Harold and Thelma Wierenga, operated the property until 2005, when they sold it to the City of Fulton, allowing proper maintenance and public accessibility for hiking, touring, and public and private events.
The Canyon remains open with the services of an on-site caretaker, a dedicated public works employee, and the Early American Crafters organization.
The Little White Chapel
The Heritage Canyon Little White Chapel is available for small weddings and seats up to 25 people. The cost to rent the church is $250, which includes a $50 refundable deposit. Make reservations for the Little White Chapel by contacting the Heritage Canyon caretaker to check for date availability, get more detailed information, and schedule your wedding event. All contact information is at the bottom of this article.
Heritage Canyon history breakdown
Mid-1800s – 1954
This region was originally a limestone quarry where the rock was crushed for field fertilizer, roadbeds, wing dams, and levees. Trucks, trains, and river barges hauled it away.
1954 – 1967
The quarry was abandoned in 1954 because the sound blasts from dynamiting were damaging both sides of the river. The area became an eyesore to the community with its junk and dilapidated shacks.
1967 – 1999
In 1967, Harold and Thelma Wierenga bought the quarry. They converted the machine shop into a practical workshop and then built their home on the old rock crusher site. The Wierengas changed the quarry, keeping two goals in mind: to preserve Midwestern history, emphasizing detail and authenticity, and each building addition had to disturb nature as little as possible.
1999 – Present
After the passing of Harold Wierenga in January 1999, his daughter and son-in-law oversaw the Canyon for several years. However, the volunteer task of maintaining the Canyon was too much for the couple. In October 2005, the City of Fulton took over ownership of Heritage Canyon. In October 2007, Thelma Wierenga passed away. A memorial for Harold and Thelma is on display near the entrance into the Canyon.
The Canyon is open seasonally from April – December, from 9 am – 5 pm.
It’s free, but donations are appreciated.
All tours are completely free and self-guided with trails and yellow arrow markers. They do accept donations that go to the preservation of the Canyon. Each path through the wooded hillside leads to one historic building site to the next, including the church, one-room schoolhouse, doctor’s office, blacksmith shop, covered bridge, swinging bridge, and so much more.