Hats, Hudsons, hardware

Day trip: Hats, Hudsons, hardware

Hats, Hudsons, hardware

If you haven’t been to Paxton lately, it’s worth taking the short jaunt to see all that the county seat of Ford County has to offer these days.

Story: Christine Walsh

Photos: Christine Walsh

If you haven’t been to Paxton lately, it’s worth taking the short jaunt to see all that the county seat of Ford County has to offer these days.

We took Interstate 57 north from Champaign and were there in half an hour. The Illinois 9 exit takes you right onto Market Street, where most of our stops were located.

For our first stop, though, Simply Pat’s Hats and Things, we took a right to stay on Illinois 9/Pells Street, a left onto North Railroad Avenue and then a right onto East State Street to get to the State Street Mall. Owner Pat Milchuck has a bold personality that quickly puts you at ease.

Originally from New York, Milchuck graduated from the National School of Dress Design in Chicago and from the Warzecha School of Dressmaking and Tailoring in Buffalo, N.Y. There she learned to make everything from handbags to undergarments.

“They were Polish and knew the art of dressmaking,” she says. “I’ve been all over the map with my clothes.”

She moved to Paxton in 1970 and owned a couture shop downtown for years before she decided to open her millinery shop 10 years ago.

“Everyone thought I was out of my pea-picking mind,” Milchuck says. “But I am the busiest person in the world. When you buy one of my hats, you now become one of my family.”

All of Milchuck’s hats are one-of-a-kind.

“You will never see a duplicate,” she promises. “That’s what you pay for.”

Milchuck references a customer who just left proudly carrying two hat boxes.

“She says she’s always getting stopped by men who tell her it is so lovely to see a woman wearing a hat again,” Milchuck says. “There’s a huge movement in hats. People are wearing them.”

Fascinators, made popular by Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, got a lot of attention during the recent royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

“I had a wild run on them,” Milchuck says.

Milchuck made over 100 hats for this year’s Kentucky Derby. Another kind of hat that has become popular among Milchuck’s customers is the steampunk hat, which customers buy to wear with their costumes to festivals.

Milchuck also fashions wedding hats with veiling, crystals and pearls. Many of those are used for bridal showers.

Milchuck does programs and trunk shows with her hats, which often later leads to an uptick in sales.

In addition to making hats, Milchuck repairs them for both men and women. She carries some men’s hats in the shop. A man in Peoria likes to send photos of himself wearing the hats she makes him, along with the compliments he’s gotten on them.

For the first-time hat buyer, Milchuck advises, “Don’t start out with something big and bold. Get something very simple you’re bound to put on your head when you leave the house. Then you go and get something with more and more detail. Pretty soon you’re a hat wearer.”

Milchuck has customers from places all over the country, including California, Nebraska, the Carolinas, Florida. She’s had orders from as far as Australia.

Milchuck’s website has photos of her hat creations but no prices. All of those communications, as well as information about personal details like sizing, are done privately with her customers.

“I like very elegant, sophisticated hats but I have to consider what my clients would want,” Milchuck says. “Every one of my clients is a celebrity. A hat wearer is such a lovely person.”

Our next stop is The Humble Hog at 125 S. Market St. Owner Ben Grice, a 1996 Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School graduate, studied art at North Central College in Naperville and worked restaurant jobs before he decided to go to Scottsdale Culinary Institute. He broke into the fine dining scene in Boston and then made his way through Italy.

“I got to work with a lot of interesting people; I cooked for the Clintons and the Bushes,” he says.

Grice returned to the area, got married, taught at Parkland College and was working as a chef at the University of Illinois. He and his wife decided they wanted to raise their family in Paxton. Four years ago, the Paxton downtown was struggling, and Grice decided to finally take the leap into restaurant entrepreneurship and to start creating some jobs in the town.

“It needed a shot of adrenaline,” he says. “This was one big experiment. Once I got into this place, it was very apparent we were building momentum for the town.”

Grice’s unique take on barbecue brings in customers from as far as Chicago and Indianapolis.

“All our meat is fresh every day, and we also use local meat,” he says. “We buy our spice locally to make our own rubs.”

Even the décor is local, with wood from a local lumberyard and a local barn.

“I always tell the servers when I’m training them to make people feel at home and they’ll come back,” Grice says. “I tell them to look people in the eye and say hello. People are spending their hard-earned money on the food we’re preparing, so we try to knock it out of the park every chance we get. It may be their anniversary night or their first date night without the kids. If it (the food) is not good enough, it doesn’t leave the kitchen.”

The experiment was so successful that Grice decided to open a second restaurant, Harvest Ale House, across the street in a 100-year-old building that had been empty. It features an original art deco bar.

“We put a lot of time, money and effort into that,” he says.

Harvest Ale House has only Illinois-brewed beers on tap. The Old Bakery Beer Company in Alton, Ill., brews the most popular beer, citrus wheat, from wheat grown near Paxton. Other top-selling beers come from Riggs Beer Company, Triptych Brewing and The Blind Pig Brewery, which he promotes because he believes in supporting the local economy.

There is a back room for private parties, furnished with a large 1920s architect’s table.

Grice doesn’t let the fact that he’s land-locked stop him from serving fresh fish like his popular North Atlantic salmon.

“You definitely don’t see it often at a bar in Paxton,” Grice says.

His steaks and pork chops get a lot of attention, too, but a lot of online reviews mention his pint of bacon. He candies the bacon in the citrus wheat ale and serves it with a sweet pepper jam.

“It’s an extra step but makes it so good,” he says.

Last month Grice opened his newest venture, Market Street Tap, next door to The Humble Hog. The casual bar has a pool table, dart board, video poker machines. Grice still does murals, and many of his artistic touches can be seen throughout all three businesses.

On the way to Harvest Ale House, Grice takes us by Mom & Pop’s Kettle Korn Stop, and owner Marcia Meyer offers us some samples. Marcia, a Gibson City special education teacher, and firefighter husband Alan opened the store two years ago after starting the business eight years earlier as a youth wrestling team fundraiser.

Our next stop is Hudson Drug and Hallmark Shop at 108 N. Market. Third-generation owner Andy Hudson took over the business from dad Carl Jr. 10 years ago. Andy’s grandfather, Carl Sr., bought the drugstore from Clem Jordan in 1950.

Hudson offers free prescription delivery to Rankin, Hoopeston, Rossville, Cissna Park, Potomac, Gifford, Paxton, Ludlow, Rantoul and Farmer City.

“When my father was here, he carried cosmetics and perfume, but you evolve and find what works,” Carl Jr. says. “You try to hit the moving target.”

The independent pharmacy has managed to thrive over the years despite competitors like Market Place, Kmart and Walmart.

“You just have to do something better than the next guy and give the personal service,” Carl Jr. says.

Andy says some of the pharmacy’s automation has freed up the staff to be able to talk more with customers. Although many of their customers work in Champaign, they prefer Hudson over the chain pharmacies there.

“It’s all about service,” Andy says. “They can be in an out in 10 minutes. And we know them by name.”

Andy worked at the pharmacy in high school and college. His grandfather was still alive when he first took over the business, so all three generations worked together for a while. Andy says he wouldn’t sell the business “even if a chain came in and offered a bucket of money.”

“The community has been very good to us,” Carl Jr. says.

The shop has the largest selection of Hallmark products in East Central Illinois, as many other local communities’ Hallmark stores have closed.

“It draws people in,” Andy says. “The ornaments are a big thing in the later half of the year.”

The store has a total of 30 employees, and two pharmacists are on duty at all times.

Next we went to Paxton Hardware & Rental at 525 S. Market. Owner/manager Scott Allen tells us that the True Value store has been in Paxton for years and used to be located where the Hope Vineyard Church is now. It added rentals when it moved to the 8,500-square-foot facility. Allen, a former grade school teacher, took over the business from his father-in-law despite his lack of a business background.

The business also offers services like sharpening chainsaws and repairing windows and screens, and even some small engine repair.

“We’re a huge destination for paint,” Allen says, adding that the store carries an extensive selection of the True Value EasyCare line.

The store rents everything from contractor equipment like mini-excavators and skid steers to do-it-yourselfer hand tools to party supplies like bounce houses a portable PA system.

“You don’t usually find one (a small-town hardware store) this well stocked,” he says. “I really pack things in.”

Originally from Newman, Allen is active on the PBL Education Foundation, has been an assistant scoutmaster and enjoys being part of the Paxton community. Our conversation is periodically interrupted as Allen stops to chat with customers coming in.

“I have a really neat relationship with a lot of people,” he says. “That’s what I hang my hat on – taking care of my customers.”

Allen’s daughter and son have both worked in the store, and his son is going to college for business and finance in the fall, so Allen has hopes that he may take over the store one day.

Our final stop of the day is Mexican restaurant Pueblo Lindo at 124 W. State. Husband-and-wife team Paulo Rebollo and Lupe Olivares have owned the business since 2015, having bought it from Rebollo’s cousin after managing it for him for a while. Including them, there are eight employees.

“We like to treat people the way we would like to be treated,” Olivares says. “The community has really accepted us. We are very blessed. We love it. We enjoy what we do – we really do.”

Olivares says she tries to make customers feel like family, greeting them with a smile and a “How are you?,” and that keeps them coming back.

“We already know what they’re eating and drinking,” she says with a laugh. “We get to know our customers.”

Pueblo Lindo can accommodate parties of up to 40 people in a side room, but Olivares and Rebollo are considering expanding.

“We always try to listen to what the customers say,” Olivares says. “We love feedback.”