When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant left his home in Galena, Ill., to be President of the United States, he told the townspeople not to make any changes until he got back.

He never came back.

And the town didn't change.

That anecdote told by Galenans is a half-serious explanation of the curious stoppage of time in this northwestern Illinois hamlet.

In the early 1800s, Galena was a prosperous lead-mining town. It was the busiest river port north of St. Louis. Fifteen thousand people called it home.

The prosperity of the mines and the river trade helped build a substantial brick and stone town. Nineteenth-century architectural imaginations had free reign. Italiante and ''steamboat Gothic'' gingerbread mansions perched ornately next to solid, elegant Federal style homes. Galenans built a town full of nice buildings. But the local economy failed to keep up with the early promise.

As time went on, there was less demand for lead. Railroads passed through other towns and took away much trade. Eventually the river silted up so much that not even a small steamer could approach the town dock. Modernity stayed downriver, and Galena settled in for a long recession.

For nearly 100 years, not much changed. Population dwindled. Nothing new was built: nothing old was taken down. Galena limped along, a forgotten town, a ripple in time.

But 10 years ago Galena's star started rising again. After 100 years of sleep the 19th-century town woke up to a 20th-century boom of nostalgia for things remembered. And the town is taking full advantage of its little-changed character - much to the delight of tourists and history buffs.

There are few new buildings to be seen anywhere in Galena. The two most obvious ones are the square, brick bank and the glass-fronted supermarket. And they look odd among the rest of the century-old structures.

But what's there to do besides look at gingerbread-trimmed rooftops in a town so small and far away from anything else? Why go there?

Fittingly, there are two dozen antique and gift shops all up and down the main streets of Galena. And in July and September there are open-house tours of restored private homes.

There are also five museums in Galena -- an astonishing number for such a small place. They are the work of the civic-minded people of the town -- people who are happy to live where they live, people who are glad you came, people who are delighted to show you why they so love their little city .

The Old General Store Museum is a working model of an 1890s general store. Many of the bolts of dry goods, the lanterns, the blanket beaters, the boxes of nails, cards of buttons, hats, shoes, and vintage clothing were culled from dated stock in attics of Galena shopkeepers. The rest of the collection is the work of a Galena woman who ''liked old things.'' Her store is a friendly, cozy place, very much in character with the surroundings.

Part of the ''staff'' of the store are cardboard and papier-mache figures so lifelike that you say ''excuse me'' when you brush too close to them. There are also very much alive storekeeper-historians who will tell you tall tales as long as you will listen. Kerosene lantern light and good wholesome heat from wood stoves complete the atmosphere.

The Galena Gazette newspaper has been spreading the word around town since 1834. At the Gazette's Museum and Printery are antique presses and hand typesetting equipment -- a far cry from the computerized production and gigantic presses of today.

Lolly's Doll and Toy Museum has dolls of every type and description, and miniatures, many of which are very old.

The Blacksmith Shop Museum is a little red, frame building next to the river. It was a working smithy until the middle of this century: now young craftsmen have opened it to visitors. They still use the facilities for metalworking, and have made museum-type exhibits with the tools and equipment.

The house where Ulysses S. Grant lived has been restored with the original furnishings. It sits high on a bluff overlooking the town. Inside, the table in the dining room is set for six with china that Mr. and Mrs. Grant used in the White House.

The energy and enthusiasm of the local people show most in the Galena Historical Museum. The entire second floor of the restored house and reception center is crammed full of artifacts in old library cases -- clothing, tools, letters, the first ballot box used in Jo Daviess County, and Thomas Nast's painting of the surrender of General Lee to General Sherman at Appomattox. It may be a small museum in a small town, but it is an interesting collection.

Galena has a number of Victorian guesthouses right in town (as well as three highway motels and campgrounds.) The guesthouses are pre-Civil War homes that have been restored; rooms run $28-$35 a night double.

For a complete change of pace, though, there is the Eagle Ridge Inn at the Galena Territory, a 6,000-acre plot of land six miles outside of Galena. Eagle Ridge is a modern, luxury resort with a country inn feeling.

Northern Illinois is not at all like the rest of the state. Visitors are often heard to say, ''Are you sure we're still in Illinois?'' No flat rolling cornfields here: instead you'll find round barns, dairy herds, forested ridges with wonderful views of deep peaceful valleys and the meanderings of the Mississippi River.

The Eagle Ridge Inn sits in among these ridges and valleys. The main lodge has luxurious spacious rooms that are decorated in early American antique style with quilts on the bed and coordinated wallpaper, private balconies, and beautiful views. There is an indoor pool, sauna and hot tub, a big fireplace and a glass-walled restaurant. Rooms are $70 to $105 a night double.

Cross-country ski and room packages are also available, as well as overnight equestrian packages that include horseback touring, dinner on the trail, a night under the stars, and an afternoon and night back in the luxury of the lodge rooms.

Scattered through the territory are numerous fully equipped town-house units that can be rented for the week or weekend. The community includes privately owned homes, a riding stable, groomed cross-country ski trails, sleigh rides behind a pair of majestic Belgians, skating, snowshoeing, tobogganing, tennis courts, and a golf course.

Chestnut Mountain is a fine Midwestern ski resort on a 3,200-foot palisade overlooking the Mississippi River.There are 14 groomed ski trails and two triple chairlifts. Chestnut Mountain has snowmaking equipment to supplement the natural snowfall and a ski school offering daily lessons.

There are excellent dining rooms at Chestnut Hill. Room rates are from $43 per person double occupancy including breakfast, dinner, lift tickets, and a ski lesson.

Galena is 31/2 hours west of Chicago. It sits in the corner where Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin come together. A leisurely drive in any direction will bring you to other small, uncrowded attractions, like the restored historic Mormon town of Nauvoo, Henrici's Clock Tower Inn and Time Museum in Rockford, Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park, Mississippi Palisades State Park and Apple River Canyon State Park, numerous local cheese factories, and other small, serene backwater towns.

For more information about the area, write: Illinois Office of Tourism, 310 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60604.

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