Princeton, a pocket of charm on Illinois prairie

by  Margaret Sheridan
Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1987
Princeton, like ivy, grows on you. 
If one surrenders to the local tempo - and the pace here poses no threats to weak hearts - if one leaves high-rise cares and stopwatch schedules behind them, a weekend in Princeton (pop. 7300) is plenty of time to discover her shy charms.
There are many reasons to visit Princeton.  Shopping is one.  A car isn't necessary because most of the shops along Main Street, a 2 1/2 mile stretch of planters and benches, are within walking distance. 
But shopping isn't what lured me to Princeton.  Embarrassment did.  While researching a food story, one of my sources, a transplanted West Coast writer, chided me over the telephone, "You've never heard of Princeton?" she asked.
Her charge fell on ears familiar with the Ivy League university in New Jersey, not the town in Illinois where she lived for five years.  I plead guilty.
"It's Chicago's best kept secret" she said.  And indeed, it might be.  About 115 miles southwest from the Loop, Princeton is perfect for a leisurely weekend.
My weekend, including a one-way train ticket, two evenings lodging and more meals, snacks and tastes than I care to record, came to $188.  Friday evening and most of Saturday, I enjoyed Princeton solo.  Saturday afternoon, a friend with a car joined me. 
The litany of Princeton's attributes range from cultural to local color.  There's a farmer's market every Saturday through October.  To get a pulse rate of the city, join the armchair politicians every morning over coffee and warm cinnamon rolls at the cafe on Main Street.
Besides biking along the Hennepin canal recreation area and one of the oldest flea markets in Illinois (held every second Saturday of each month at the fairgrounds), there are many turn-of-the-century homes along Park Avenue and Peru and Elm streets, homes maintained by residents who respect tradition as well as trees.
Getting to Princeton is easy.  An Amtrak train departs daily from Union Station  or you can drive.  The trip from Chicago on Int. Hwy 80 takes about 2 1/2 hours.
The train trip will relax you.  Since you are heading westward, the evening light bathes everything - buildings, utility lines, parked cars-in a golden glow.  By the time the conductor announces Princeton, nothing is easy to identify except the crescent moon. 
I taxied three miles to Alexander Park Tavern (Park Avenue West), a favorite spot with the locals.  This place is  kick-off-your shoes friendly with bartenders as cordial as the barstool mates.  As a solo tourist, I felt comfortable being there and safe enough to walk back to the motel, so I could preview the territory and scout a jogging path for my morning run.
Princeton is divided into two areas.  The north end features hardly more than gas stations, a shopping plaza and fast food restaurants.  Most shops and restaurants are in the south end.  I took a jog before the stores opened at 9 a.m. and found the sidewalks and brick streets deserted.
A boon to walkers or joggers is an excellent brochure with map and self-guided tour of Princeton's historical homes.  Offered free by the Bureau County Architectural Preservation Society, it highlights famous residences and buildings and explains the styles-Prairie, Greek Revival, Italiate and Tudor. 
Princeton is where a nickel gets you an hour on a parking meter (they still take pennies) and traffic jams occur only in church lots.  It;s the kind of town where friendliness means more than a store clerk saying, "Have a nice day" when she hands you your change.  When one customer sipping coffee at the cafe saw me trying to photograph the building over her parked car, she put down her cup, walked outside and moved her car from my view.  "Is that better?" she asked.  New Jersey, eat your heart out!