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‘The rich tapestry of Galesburg’s past:’ New tour company highlights city’s abolitionist roots, contributions of immigrants

Shanell Lightfoot is the owner of Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Shanell Lightfoot is the owner of Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co.

Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co. offers a local history tour and a walking tour of local breweries.

A new, eco-friendly Galesburg tour company is shining a light on the city’s most iconic historic leaders, streets and sites.

Shanell Lightfoot, owner of Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co., calls the Iconic City History Tour an immersive sightseeing experience exploring the “rich tapestry of Galesburg’s past,” with a particular focus on abolitionist leaders and the contributions of immigrants and women.

“I want this to be an experience. That’s why we get off at places and let people kind of roam. But also introduce them to some of the stories that are relegated to the shadows,” Lightfoot said.

There are 32 points of interest on the Iconic City History Tour, from from AME Allen Chapel and the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debate to the small cottage where Carl Sandburg was born and a plaque commemorating the location of a boxcar camp where the Mexican immigrants who built the railroad in Galesburg lived with their families.

The majority of the points of interest are south of Main Street. Participants travel around town on an Evolution D-5 Ranger -- an electric, low-speed, street-legal vehicle.

Lightfoot worked with local historians and conducted research for the narration that plays throughout the tour, and she complements that with extra snippets and facts, good conversation, and some humor.

“Whenever I travel, I always go on local tours, whether I’m in Paris, or I did a tour when I was in Seychelles. I’ve done tours in Savannah and Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “I feel like Galesburg has just as much history. And I feel like it was just something that was needed.”

Lightfoot grew up in Galesburg. Some know her as Shanell Jackson, a former Galesburg High School basketball star.

After high school, she went to Tennessee State University, an HCBU in Nashville, and studied hospitality and tourism, then worked in sales in St. Louis and Atlanta.

She sees Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co. as a hospitality venture, but also as a reconnection and deeper understanding of her hometown.

One of the hop-off stops on the Iconic City History Tour is the Great House, which was built by Silas Willard, an early businessman and civic leader credited for helping bring the railroad to Galesburg.

But it’s also where the idea for Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co. started.

Lightfoot was back home in Galesburg a couple years ago for her father’s funeral and stayed at the Great House. That’s when she started looking at Galesburg’s history in a different way and started thinking about opening a Black-owned, woman-owned business in her hometown.

“This is something that I want to make money off of, but it’s also an opportunity to show people you can come back, and you can have success here,” she said.

Lightfoot said she knows she has inspired people with Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co. because they’ve told her so.

“There is a lot of history that is our history as well, and I’m going to tell the story how I want to tell the story,” she said.

Lightfoot started working in earnest to get the business off the ground late last year. Tours began in February. In addition to the Iconic City History Tour, she offers a walking tour of local breweries.

She also has plans in the works for a coffee crawl, excursions, and team-building events.

Lightfoot said prior to founding Galesburg City Tours and Travel Co. she was very familiar with parts of Galesburg’s history, like the Lincoln-Douglas debates and connections to the Underground Railroad.

“But the detail, with Mother Bickerdyke, Allen Chapel, and a lot of the stories about Mexican families, Black families, and women, I didn’t really know much,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning.”

One figure Lightfoot never heard of before her tour venture is Joseph Barquet, a union soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.

Barquet lived in Galesburg before and after the war and was an advocate for civil rights.

Lightfoot is now working to get a monument in Galesburg in Barquet’s honor.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.