Giant City Lodge, serving southern Illinois since the Great Depression


The water tower observation deck Sept. 1, 2017, at Giant City Park. (Dylan Nelson | @DylanNelson99)

By Kitt Fresa

During the Great Depression, Giant City Lodge, a southern Illinois mainstay, looked a bit different.   

As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the lodge was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, according to manager Mike Kelley. This was a federal program designed to put young men to work in a time when there was little work to be had.

The program was run like the military, with the men wearing uniforms, living in barracks and eating in mess halls. Most of the money they made was sent home to their families to help them make ends meet.  


Today, the state-owned lodge is the centerpiece of Giant City State Park, offering park-goers a place to grab a bite or weekend respite in one of its 34 guest cabins.

“It’s a big operation, one that we take a level of pride in, but at the same time, it’s a family operation. It’s a big mom and pop kind of thing,” Kelley said, who has been working at the lodge since he was 19 when his father managed it. “I think our family has been blessed to operate the lodge like we have.”

Since the lodge is state-owned, it must be managed by concessionaires, or holders of grants for land usage. The Kelley family has been managing it for 37 years.

In the ‘70s, the Kelley said his family was known around town for a different business — Kelley’s Big Star grocery store.

When it came to Mike Kelley’s grandpa’s attention that the lease to the lodge had ended and was available, he jumped at the chance.

“Grandpa said, ‘Hey, I could probably run this place,’” Kelley said.  

His grandpa put the bid in and he and Kelley’s father — then fresh out of high school — started running it in 1981.


Kelley said the lodge’s proximity to the university has been an advantage.

“We really have a nice relationship with SIU,” Kelley said. “Whether it’s through athletics or many of the other departments, a lot of meetings, groups and banquets are held here that are SIU.”

The lodge has also benefitted from SIU student employees.

“A lot of good kids have been SIU students,” Kelley said. “I can say now, and I’ve been able to say for years, that we’ve had really good luck with a lot of really nice young people that are not only dependable, they just do a good job and have a little fun doing it.”

The most famous thing on the lodge menu is its fried chicken, which is served every day and the only thing available on Sundays — their busiest day — during the restaurant’s weekly chicken dinner.

“A lot of folks really think we don’t even have a menu because everyone comes down for the chicken,” said Mikey Kelley, Mike Kelley’s son.

Even on Thanksgiving, the lodge doesn’t serve turkey — they just keep serving fried chicken, Mike Kelley said.

Mike Kelley said the lodge usually sells out of chicken on Thanksgiving, with Mother’s Day and graduation day — which tend to fall on the same weekend — being close seconds in terms of business for the restaurant.

“That makes a big weekend,” Mike Kelley said. “We’ll serve 5,500-6,000 people.”

Though Mikey Kelley said the lodge is a literal home for him because he grew up there, he added that the lodge is special because it feels home-like to its patrons as well.

“No matter where you live, all towns have fast food restaurants, they have chains, but for some people this reminds them of grandma’s cooking,” he said. “There are a lot of people that aren’t lucky enough to live within … something that’s as unique as this.”

Mikey Kelley said the lodge’s surroundings also keep people coming back.

“The biggest draw probably is the food,” Kelley said. “But with the hiking trails, folks come down and hike, eat food then go on another hike to walk off that chicken.”

Staff writer Kitt Fresa can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @kittfresa.

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