Home of the White Squirrels
White squirrels are easy to spot against the browns and greens of nature -- which is why they don't live very long in nature. And that's why they need a safe-haven town like Olney, Illinois, "Home of the White Squirrels," which protects them like a blanket of earth over a well-hidden nut.
Olney is one of a handful of lucky (and often combative) towns with a self-sustaining colony of bushy-tailed albinos, rather than the occasional ragged white freak. "They are very well taken care of here," said Jessica Akes at the Olney Chamber of Commerce. Jessica said that the town provides food and shelter to the squirrels whenever necessary, "and our city clerk bottle feeds the babies that get knocked out of trees."
The Chamber offers a decent selection of souvenirs (though they were out of their popular white chocolate squirrel suckers when we visited), as well as a guide to prime viewing locations, feeding tips to avoid bites, and a list of snack suggestions. Early morning and late afternoon are recommended as the best squirrel spotting times, but anyone with a half-empty bag of crunchy chips and a little patience can see one at any hour of the day, or so we've been told.
City Park is Olney's albino Ground Zero. A granite slab on the park's White Squirrel Drive tells of how, in 1902, local farmers William Yates Stroup and George Ridgeley each caught white squirrels and brought them to one of Olney's saloons. Apparently a love match was consummated, the squirrels were released into a local wood, "and so populates the city of Olney." The slab was placed in 2002 to mark the centennial of this town-changing event.
Today, love for the furry-tailed inhabitants of Olney runs deep. You may pass through Olney and never see a real white squirrel, but you can't miss the nut-clutching pink-eyed profile cartoon white squirrel that's the unofficial icon of the city. It's on "Squirrel Crossing" signs, the town's newspaper logo, "Pitch In" signs (where the nut is replaced by trash being tossed into a litter barrel), and on the squad cars and uniform patches of the city police.
Laws on the Olney books grant squirrels the right-of-way on every street and sidewalk, and impose heavy fines on anyone who tries to take one out of town. "Vigilant individuals" are encouraged, according to the town's bylaws, and "Preservation by taxidermy requires proper authorization" -- cutting off the supply to freelance out-of-state squirrel stuffers like Sam Sanfillippo. Official documents also note, with perhaps too much detail, that Olney's squirrels are "true albinos," with "all-white fur and pink eyes with crystal blue irises."
If you crave more than a cursory encounter with these genetic purebloods, visit Olney during the last three Saturdays in October. That's when the city conducts its white squirrel count, an annual event since the 1980s. Volunteers scout the parks and wooded yards to record the population (usually around 150) and look for any worrying hint of albino seepage toward other towns (thus far, the squirrels seem content to stay put).
Even if every albino squirrel left Olney tomorrow, however, the town has plenty of other things to boast about. Signs next to the squirrel slab in the park proclaim that Olney is the Birthplace Of Solar Power, as well as the home to the 1992, 1993, and 2003 Miss Illinois County Fair Queens; the 2001 national winner of the 4-H Tractor Driving Contest; and the 2004 state champions of the Future Farmers of America Agricultural Sales Career Development Event.