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Viola, Illinois

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Those of you whose hobbies have gotten out of hand—spilling over from the living room to the basement and then to the garage—will understand John Gilbert of Viola, Illinois. His hobby took up an entire town.

Viola was laid out in 1856 a few miles south of Rock Island as a railroad center, but not until 1869 did the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad reach the town.

In a spurt of prosperity, Viola began to grow. In 1870 a combined Masonic Hall and store was completed at the corner of Shepard and 8th streets. The building was the work of John Gilbert, the town's master carpenter. Carpentry was not a job for Gilbert; it was a calling. He loved wood, and each of his buildings showed what the wood had to offer.

John Gilbert began to build Viola. In 1878 he built the Presbyterian church. He followed that with the United Presbyterian Church in 1890, the Catholic Church in 1891, and a Methodist church in 1903.

His other public buildings included the Violetta Hotel in 1904 and the grand Viola Opera House in 1908. When the opera house burned in 1913, John Gilbert rebuilt it. John also built the Viola Post Office in 1893.

John also continued to build homes in Viola, cleaned lined, with carpenter Gothic decorations. One of the most handsome still stands today along the highway: a large Victorian home with carved wood and stained glass built in 1899 for a lumber executive.

John built his last building in Viola in 1931: a downtown office building. Many of the Gilbert Buildings not destroyed by the fire still stand—a tribute to the care and craftsmanship with which he built.

A descendant living in Viola today says simply, "John Gilbert built everything in this town. He took a big leap—borrowed the money and did it."

Gilbert's love for wood spilled way out beyond the garage. Now as for you, what are you going to do with those 2,652 refrigerator magnets?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.