Four decades ago Saul Bellow traveled to Galena, Nauvoo, Cairo, Shawneetown, and Springfield to gather material for “Illinois Journey,” an essay published by Holiday magazine in 1957. At the time Bellow, living in New York, had distinguished himself in his fiction as an anthropologist of the human spirit. He’d plumbed the psyche of a Chicagoan and a New Yorker respectively in Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), and he’d explored the promise Chicago held for the persistent opportunist in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the novel that earned him his first National Book Award.
“Illinois Journey,” a biographer has said, was written because he needed cash. But Bellow’s essay is not a throwaway. It’s the product of a writer whose intellect and imagination could create a logical pattern out of highways, cornfields, small towns, and vestigial political tensions kept alive within a territory that not only gave the Union its president and its victorious general but also spawned a host of copperheads living principally below a parallel with Richmond, Virginia.
Perhaps without knowing how close he was to a metaphorical truth, Bellow began with the fact that when crossing the Illinois prairie by automobile “you begin gradually to feel that you are riding upon the floor of the continent, the very bottom of it, low and flat . . . ” Anyone who has driven within Illinois–as I last did in the sodden spring of 1995, following Bellow’s journey on two- and sometimes one-lane state and county roads as well as on the jugular interstates–knows that Bellow referred to the sensation that comes from watching highways disappear into the horizon. This is the effect of Illinois on the transient traveler, the audience for whom Bellow was writing. But endless prairie flatland (now almost entirely taken over by farm crops) is not the defining characteristic of the land along the rivers, or indeed of much of Illinois. In fact Bellow’s journey commenced at Galena, close by Charles Mound, a moraine promontory of 1,235 feet, the highest natural point in the state.
What Saul Bellow did for his readers in 1957 was to compare the places he visited with their moments of greatness in the 19th century. In 1860 Galena was not only a center of lead mining and commerce, it was the place from which Ulysses S. Grant was embarking upon his destiny. A century later Bellow found Galena to be a town diminished and in stasis; he pronounced it a “failure” in comparison to the “success” of Dubuque, its Iowa neighbor. A generation before Grant became famous, Joseph Smith had made Nauvoo the state’s center of wealth and military power. Bellow described it as rife with proselytizing Mormons. Cairo and Shawneetown were powerful transportation communities before the river and the railroad washed over them. In 1957 Bellow found Cairo hardly worthy of mention and Old Shawneetown a curiosity for having once turned down Chicago for a loan.
For Bellow all these towns harbored only their memories, some towns exploiting them more successfully than others. Bellow also briefly visited Springfield, detecting under the pulse of the state’s third capital “a residue of old grievances” between unionists and southern sympathizers. Like many northern city dwellers during the Jim Crow 50s, Bellow was fascinated by the vestiges of Civil War sentiment and slavery, particularly in the southernmost parts of the state.
But Bellow, whose fictional heroes are sustained by an uncannily active, at times overwhelming knowledge of the past, found no conscious “historical mood” in the flourishing towns of Illinois. He wrote, “Prosperity wipes out the past or, in its pride, keeps the relics dusted, varnished, polished–sentimental treasures like the Lincoln residence in Springfield.” By contrast, he believed Grant’s residence in the “failure town” Galena to be a “museum within a museum.”
I have known these towns of which Bellow wrote, having visited them often this last half century. He was not wrong about them in 1957, only perhaps more expedient than a native would have been. But Bellow knew what he saw and needed no elaborate explanations from local residents to find the general truth. For instance, deep in Little Egypt, the southernmost tip of Illinois, he wrote this:
“People’s faces and their postures are Southern, and you begin to see things for which no preparation is possible. A young Negro woman, her head tied up in a handkerchief, drives by in a maroon convertible; on her shoulder sits a bull terrier. That is a pleasant thing to see and all the better because of the slight start it gives you. In a river town, a place whitened by local lime-burning, is a small bar and restaurant. You enter on a calm Sunday afternoon and see what appears to be a clan of working people eating and drinking. . . . Sliced bread and ham are on the bar, and a woman is drinking beer while her baby nurses. North of Vandalia you are not likely to see a child at breast. And yet this is a sight which has no business to be remarkable.”
On reading this I knew that Bellow had tried to understand Illinois. But today a suckling child is not a common sight south of Vandalia, in that portion of Illinois that belongs to what H.L. Mencken derisively referred to as the Coca-Cola Belt. I wanted to find out how his observations held up 40 years later. Would he recognize the Illinois into which he traveled as a Chicagoan, a foreigner.
Galena, located approximately 150 miles from Chicago on the other side of the state, would be the greatest surprise to Bellow. The “failure town” has become a destination for travelers, something one recognizes long before arriving there. Depending on the time you are coming or going, you will find yourself stalled in traffic reminiscent of the clogged arteries leading from Chicago to southern Wisconsin and southwest Michigan. Route 20, already a four-lane highway from I-90, is being widened from Freeport to the Apple River valley just west of Galena. In Galena, year-round residents await the coming of the superhighway somewhat apprehensively, wondering which Mississippi vistas the bypass will obscure.
Bonnie and Art Geisert have lived in Galena for a quarter of a century. They differ a bit on the highway, which, it seems, will be visible from the deck of the home they built by hand in the early 80s. Their three-story house is situated about four miles from town in a rock quarry. A suspension bridge crosses from a back door off the top floor to the quarry’s lip, over a sheer drop of 35 feet. The first house they built in Galena when they settled here permanently was not accessible by car. For a dozen years they carried all household necessities 95 steps up one of the many sheer hills that were formed by the Galena River, which runs through town.
Bonnie, a recently retired schoolteacher, is a photographer and freelance writer. She is not a large woman, but she has met the rigors of inhabiting a quarry. A colorful garden that greets us just outside the door sprouts wild and cultivated flowers growing from the limestone-laced earth. As she looks toward the Mississippi, which can be seen some 20 miles away from a balcony, Bonnie points to uninterrupted woods and fields that the new highway will likely cut through and expresses her disappointment and apprehension. Raised on a wheat and cattle farm in South Dakota, she values her solitude, finding visits to town and to friends sufficient. Art, an artist and author of children’s books, is understanding but less concerned. A Los Angeles native, he accepts the ineluctability of development.
I came to talk to the Geiserts about the changes Galena has undergone since they arrived in 1970. In this relatively short time they have seen the main street upgraded from 26 bars and a block-wide hardware store that sold single nails from bins to a string of upscale shops and restaurants catering to summer people and tourists. The storefronts in town are too dear for groceries and hardware. Laid out in the mid-19th century to accommodate 15,000 residents, the town proper now has but 4,000. But in its peak months, Park Avenue, the main street, suffers the glut of summer spas all over the country. The wide downtown roads hemmed in by shops bend with the little river’s meanderings; they are promenades perhaps suitable for foot traffic and horses and buggies but not for an endless line of automobiles in the humid summer. The town fathers have had to make them one-way streets. For some two decades the Geiserts have met friends for breakfast once a week at a restaurant to catch up on the local news. “We sit in the same place and say the same things,” Art says. “We are polite, but we do stare.” These are the words of a local, confident in belonging to a place.
That sense of place is what Galena, along with towns throughout the United States, has seen eroded by summer and weekend residents. For Bonnie, Galena’s virtue is the “spunk” of the locals. That’s what attracted her and Art to the place. This was once a center of commerce and a national resource for lead and, later, zinc. Even now it shows its brawn by logging walnut, most of which is sold to the Japanese. People are used to walking up hillsides. But a sense of place cannot sustain an economy. And a generation or so ago developers discovered what they call the Galena “territory” and packaged its beauty for well-to-do Chicagoans and suburbanites. “Galena is three towns now,” says Art. He counts the developed “territory” to the east, the old town with its architectural and topographical charm, and a large mall to the west. A bit further west off Route 20 in East Dubuque sits the Silver Eagle Casino, the only casino in Illinois to close down. And to the south is one of Illinois’ only ski resorts.
Clearly, Galena no longer has the look of economic failure that Bellow discerned. If one measures success by tourists, traffic, and visible restoration, Galena has caught up with and perhaps surpassed Dubuque. Bellow’s Galena of 1957 still exists in its historical landmarks. But no longer is Grant’s home just a “museum within a museum.”
The price of success remains to be calculated. Art and Bonnie Geisert were attracted to Galena because they could match their own spunk with that of the residents. The new Galenians have come for a different reason. They have come to purchase comfort and to relax. Galena is now Chicago’s western location for second homes. In his essay, Bellow’s refrain was that the towns he visited were not places where the youth wished to spend their lives. This may still be the case, as leaving home, wherever home may be, is a national habit if not an expectation. But if they are successful enough the Galena-born might return to buy a second home in the “territory.”
Nauvoo, some 200 miles south of Galena, is a destination only for those curious about its dramatic history or its distinctive religious origins. The winding two-lane roads far from any interstate tell us that as we approach. Nauvoo lies on the bank of the Mississippi about as far west as Illinois goes. In fact it is almost directly south of Iowa City and longitudinally 50 miles west of Saint Louis. It is as if the Mormons purposely paused on this western bulge in 1839 to prepare for the exodus that took place some six years later. The traveler comes here now to visit the rehabilitated and reconstructed Mormon village. John Hallwas, a cultural historian, reminded me, “You are going to be heading into the most discussed area in Illinois history. Not even Lincoln’s life in New Salem has had more written about it.”
Bellow seemed more impressed with the flow of the Mississippi than with the Mormon reconstruction. That’s understandable. Even today, when the Latter-day Saints have erected an imposing visitors center into which the potential convert might walk, there is something a bit disconcerting for the skeptic about the slick evangelism of a religion invented in America. One feels more at ease–at least not as overwhelmed–with the simpler Mormon shrines maintained by the Missouri Mormons who retained allegiance to founder Joseph Smith, who was lynched in nearby Carthage in 1844.
Nauvoo may be said to still exist because of its historical significance, which includes the Icarian communal settlement that succeeded the Mormons, who had become the most imposing economic and military force in Illinois by the mid-1840s. There is a thriving Catholic community and there are makers of wine and cheese. But the visitor finds little evidence of a commercial economy strong enough to sustain the town’s existence far from any large city. Golf and the equestrian sports that occupy the well-off are not in evidence. Of course, skiing is out of the question. The town contains few upscale shops and eateries.
But to the south, toward the small town of Hamilton, a stretch of low bluff contains vacation homes, some of which rival those in Galena. This development rankles 65-year-old Estell Neff, a gray-bearded farm equipment appraiser and history buff, who exhibits an astounding variety of used and new history books in his small store on the east side of Hamilton. “It’s a shame,” he says of the houses on the bluff. He thinks the owners, many of whom have cleared trees for the view, have little regard for the environment. Their houses, he predicts, will be left to rot when the next generation can no longer afford to keep them up and a view of the river loses its appeal. As in Galena, these are second homes whose owners are not uniformly welcomed by locals. Those who vote here know that this country lies in what a political wag once called the “Kingdom of Forgottonia,” the large section of the state west of the Illinois River and, according to residents, for years poorly served by the state’s economic development schemes. Its beauty is all it has going for it, and, in spite of what the song says about the best things in life being free, the beauty of the river from these sorts of homes is something you have to be able to afford. Nauvoo and Hamilton are less populated and clearly less affluent than Fort Madison and Keokuk, Iowa, just across the Mississippi. Not enough summer people have chosen the Nauvoo territory.
Sitting among his books, Neff muses wistfully about the quiet beauty of the Nauvoo he knew as a child, a beauty that he believes is best represented by the old Mormon cemetery a couple of miles from the center of town. Bellow probably didn’t know the cemetery was there in 1957. It is easy to overlook. I have visited Nauvoo a number of times, and I hadn’t come upon it. In 1957 the cemetery would have been in ruins. Vandals had broken stones and thrown them into a ravine. Today the stones have been returned to the graves. They are newly patched with cement and generally unreadable. A contemporary Mormon sculpture of a family gathered to mourn the loss of a child overlooks the lonely savanna. The idyllic scene was for me enhanced by curious cows that crowded behind the fence immediately behind the sculpture. Neff would like nothing more than to be buried in this cemetery.
If you drive from Galena to Nauvoo, the fastest and shortest route is through eastern Iowa. From Nauvoo to Cairo, a trip of some 300 miles, the fastest way is down the Mississippi on the Missouri side. But the relative viability of Cairo as a city can best be discerned by the approach made on Illinois roads. A couple of miles south of Chester on Route 3 in late May of 1995, I came upon an impassable stretch of road. There were no signs to warn me. I should have known, a local fisherman told me, that during the spring floods Mary’s River, unable to flow into the gorged Mississippi, backs up over the highway. I turned around and went into Missouri to pick up I-55, which starts at Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and cuts a swath through Illinois before crossing the Mississippi at Saint Louis. At Cape Girardeau, the hometown of Rush Limbaugh, I turned back toward Illinois, crossing Rush Limbaugh Avenue at the same moment I listened to the talk-show host express his anger at anyone who would dare to criticize the National Rifle Association.
In 1957 the fastest way for Bellow to have come to Cairo from Chicago would have been by the Illinois Central. Had he traveled by train, plane, or interstate in 1995 he would have missed hearing Rush Limbaugh and the lesser voices of anger and derision, missed passing the ubiquitous gun shops, missed feeling the frustration and fear exacerbated by the homes under water along the Cache River, missed smelling the stench of rotting weeds and grasses, and missed being reminded by strident, antigovernment voices of the national confusion over the deaths in the federal building in Oklahoma City. He would have missed knowing the promise of Cairo.
Cairo, in fact, seems ideally situated to be a destination. It should be a port of entry, a window to a state that is more populous, more productive than its neighbors. Such is not the case. I-57 bypasses it to the north, hurriedly crossing into Missouri to join I-55. No inviting motels or restaurants slow the speeding traveler. Just south of the town, above Fort Defiance, spindly bridges carry local traffic into Kentucky and Missouri. Because it lies at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi at the southernmost point of the state, Cairo has been observed by traveling writers since Jolliet. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain might have sung its praises. But Dickens mocked it in Martin Chuzzlewit and Twain has Huck and Jim pass it by in Huckleberry Finn. There seems always to have been something unsavory about the town.
In 1996 Cairo exists, but the visitor does not know why. Because of its location it still figures in a small way in river commerce. But in spite of efforts to salvage it from years of prevailing poverty, racial tension, and general neglect, it is a desolate place. If the African-American prevailed in the racial rivalries of the 70s in Cairo, he finds it a cruel victory. The town is predominantly black. It is also a town that looks boarded up and dead. In his essay, Bellow gave short shrift to Cairo. Even then it showed signs of decay, and Holiday readers would not have wanted to take the trouble to venture there.
I tried to get to Fort Defiance, the promontory from which the Ohio can be seen meeting the Mississippi. High water covered the entrance, the floating trash suggesting a sewer in need of a Roto-Rooter. A child fished near a sign that declared the park closed. The restaurant at the park entrance was boarded up. In a far-off time Grant had plotted the siege of Vicksburg from this site, and Twain imagined Huck and Jim drifting by in the night, missing a last opportunity for freedom. Bearing an ancient and honored name, Cairo should lend credence to the myths surrounding the appellation given to southern Illinois of “Little Egypt.” Today the name seems a mockery.
It’s but 70 miles as the crow flies over the Shawnee National Forest from Cairo to Shawneetown on the eastern border. But as with many points of interest in this part of the state, the saying “You can’t get there from here” is apt. In fact, to know this portion of southern Illinois, the traveler should never take the shortest or the safest route. River towns like Joppa (which once promised to provide southern Illinoisans with high-paying utility jobs), Metropolis (which boasts a gigantic Superman statue and harbors Illinois’ southernmost casino, to which busloads of Kentuckians flock), Golconda, and Rosiclare provide excellent views of the Ohio and respites replete with the local fare of fried catfish, hush puppies, and barbecue.
The more historical towns are farther up the river. The Rose Hotel in Elizabethtown (now being renovated by the state), Illinois’ oldest, offers one of the most inviting vistas along the Ohio. And Cave in Rock contains accommodations overlooking the river in a state park that sits astride rock formations that hid notorious river pirates of the early 19th century. At Cave in Rock a ferry plies the river between Illinois and Kentucky. This is the picturesque, circuitous approach to Shawneetown. But only Metropolis with its casino and Cave in Rock with its park and ferry can plausibly boast that they are destinations. I struck off north from Cairo through the heart of the Shawnee National Forest into Pope County, with but 4,300 residents the least populated of the 102 counties of the state, to ask my friends Gary and Judy DeNeal how the area, including Shawneetown, had changed since Bellow’s visit 40 years ago.
Bellow saw a child of the age Judy and Gary would have been back then and gave his readers the impression that such children were destined to be yet another generation of Illinois southerners, which for Bellow meant relatively unschooled, placebound, culturally inert. In fact, Gary has lived all his life near the post office town of Herod and up the road from the park vacationers and rappellers know today as the Garden of the Gods, a series of sheer rock formations overlooking a forested valley of breathtaking expanse. There is a DeNeal Road that leads to another, but seldom-visited, state park, the Stone Face. Gary’s family is deeply rooted in Saline County, which borders Pope County to the north, and relatives operate a building-supply company on Stoneface Road. When she was seven, Judy’s family came to Harrisburg, which with 9,200 citizens at the last census is by far the largest town in the area. They married in the 70s and moved to what some would call a hardscrabble farm bordered on three sides by the Shawnee Forest.
But unlike their neighbors, they did not sacrifice their lives eking out a living from the land. Instead they have chosen what some would think is a far more difficult task, there in the dense forest. They began to edit Springhouse: An Adventure Shaped Like a Magazine, an eclectic quarterly featuring historical and contemporary essays and stories about one of the first settled regions of the state. In 1996 the magazine enters its 14th year and is being read by subscribers throughout the United States. With a circulation of but 2,000 and modest local advertising, the publication barely makes ends meet. It is a labor of love. Because there’s such small recompense for the time put in, it’s the sort of labor folks in these parts understand. The DeNeals’ work is to think and write about the rich history of the place and its current human and environmental condition.
They invited me to visit them at their modest home and workplace, which is reached by following a dirt and stone road far enough from the state highway to make you think you took the wrong turn. It’s here that Judy, an amateur ornithologist with a growing reputation throughout the state, has identified 200 species of birds. For the hour we talk inside, a quail incessantly sings “bob white” from just beyond the front door. Judy is the more voluble of the two. Gary shyly measures his words, in the careful manner of a writer who knows his readers will in turn weigh each syllable. Bellow’s journey had not taken him so deeply into the Shawnee Forest as this. But his observations of the habits of speech and action of the people he talked with in Old Shawneetown, Shawneetown, and the Old Slave House (today a state historical site) caused him to conclude, “Egypt belongs not merely to the South but to the Deep South.” It is with this observation that we begin our conversation.
Not surprisingly, Judy finds Bellow’s assertion somewhat simplistic. Though she and Gary both speak in the dialect of hard, flat vowels and monotonic phrases that characterizes this area, Judy concludes that when Bellow says the towns are of the Deep South he is referring to those towns that border the river. She makes a distinction between the more northern, landlocked towns and the river towns by noting that the former were engaged in coal mining, which brought a variety of European ethnic groups together, and the latter were populated mainly by southerners of Scotch-Irish and Anglo-Saxon descent, folks who maintain a collective memory (particularly of the Civil War). “They even decorate their yards differently,” she says, pointing out that along the Ohio River some residents even grow exotic flora such as banana trees.
But subtle distinctions aside, she finds that common characteristics prevail throughout the area. An insistence on having and maintaining particular truths, she explains, is the reason that there are so many small church congregations, most of which hold to variations of Southern Baptist theology. People here are comfortable with their absolutism, whether it be in religion or politics or the conduct of their daily lives. For instance, their attitude toward big cities, particularly Chicago, which has always been like a two-headed monster to them, is almost universally negative. “People say they hate Chicago,” Gary says, citing the fact that his 92-year-old grandmother just prior to her death expressed satisfaction that she had never been to Chicago. Laughing, Judy adds, “High on the list of priorities for folks in these parts is that Chicago secede and become a part of Wisconsin.” Judy, an avid environmentalist, sees absolutism as a barrier to communication on environmental matters. “Not wanting to be told that you can’t plow up a wetland in a year that it goes dry,” she says, “is an example of a southern conservative position.”
There are blacks in this eastern part of southern Illinois, of course. Some worked the coal mines farther north, others the lime kilns along the river. But this ethnic group is not as apparent as it is in and around Cairo. Still, emancipation proclamation celebrations take place in August in various communities in the area, particularly in Paducah across the river. This is a time of homecoming for many blacks who have left the area but who return each year to their family roots. The white locals have come to refer derisively to these holidays as “nigger days.” In Elizabethtown, the celebration coincides with the county fair. But Saline County just to the north takes no interest in this celebration. It is a “southern” thing.
Gary has been sitting silent for some time. He is struggling to find the right way to say what is on his mind. When he does, the comment is startlingly painful. “You are told, “Don’t talk like you are from southern Illinois.’ It is bred into us that we are just not as good as folks from up north.” “Or folks in town,” Judy adds, mindful that they live deep in the country. They go on to explain that it’s teachers and parents who think this. People here feel that they may not be as good as others who live away from the area. “There’s not as much money,” Gary says. Changing the sound of one’s speech habits is a way “to apologize” for failure. I listen, knowing that this singularly well-educated and intelligent couple have not bothered to alter their speech.
The economic distress of the region is never far from the minds of its people. Judy observes that “in the last ten years two-thirds of the coal-mining jobs have disappeared, to the extent that we export coal miners out west. A number of people went to Nevada to mine gold.” She recalls the halcyon years when driveways and backyards were adorned with bass boats that cost almost as much as her father’s first house, and with two or more cars. That affluence was evanescent. The largest employers in the area now are the state and federal governments, which fund education, health services, welfare, and prisons. Everyone here knows that the government taketh away as easily as it giveth. Jobs depend on political whim. Residents are “so desperate,” Judy says, “that they are ready to wreck the family farm because it is no longer productive to bring in a waste-management site or to build a prison. Now we need jobs worse than we need a quality of life. And that’s the degradation that southern Illinois has come to. We’ve exported our youth forever, simply because southern Illinois–southeastern Illinois, in particular–should never have been anything but a recreational site. But now we are willing to sacrifice this whole interesting outdoor experience for anything which is going to get another 200 jobs.”
Again Gary interrupts, reminding me that there is a mind-set in the region that is exacerbated by the frail economy. “There are some red-flag words here, reducing the situation to its most elementary terms. The word “intellectual’ is not a good word; the word “liberal’ is not a good word at all; the word “environmentalist’ is another bad word.” These words and the term “government” have become bugaboos, a replacement for the hatred folks once held for the abstraction of communism. New ideas are threats to the remnant of control these people have over their own destinies. Then Gary adds that he expects this to be true over much of the United States. “Because conditions are what they are,” Gary says, “there is no room for idealism. We’re on the bottom. We just have to make do.”
Judy agrees. She remembers when Senator Paul Simon wanted to build recreational lakes in the area, and people didn’t want them. Instead, Judy says, those whose use of the land is destructive–such as the riders whose horses tread the fragile paths of the Shawnee in large numbers–prevail. Their mentality, she believes, is this: “We do not want to be told what we can’t do. We just hate being told. We are good people, and anything we do we have to assume is going to be done for the betterment of the universe. And if we want to bring a hundred people on horseback across the most pristine and delicate natural area that the Shawnee Forest holds, well, we’re doing a good thing. It’s wrong of you to question our motives.”
Why then do the DeNeals stay in a region that they believe to be populated with their philosophical opposites? Judy explains it simply by extolling the fulfilling beauty of the secluded life they live. “We are not focused on making money. That’s why we have a lovely place to live in the world. It is not traversed by those with ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] and horses.” They have friends who think as they do, though they are not an organized group. Judy and Gary agree that they are accepted by their neighbors because they do not try to convince others to live another way. But they do set an example with the care they take for their own property and environment, with the work that Judy does as an ornithologist and naturalist, and most pertinently, with the continued publication of Springhouse, which speaks to a way of life that encourages human beings to live in harmony with one another and with the natural world around them.
There are others in southern Illinois who understand the complexity of the place where they live, care about its future, and think of their part of the world in a universal context. Most likely there are a number in Shawneetown. But neither Bellow in 1957 nor I in 1995 found them during our visits. That’s not surprising. Shawneetown is a place with a past. Like Cairo, it is a way of getting into another state, Kentucky. In fact, Shawneetown proper did not exist until shortly after the great Ohio flood of 1937, which finally convinced all but die-hard “old” Shawneetown residents that they should move a few miles north to permanently dry land.
The visit with the DeNeals has prepared me for this visit to the seat of Gallatin County and its roots down the road. I have come to talk with “Ramblin”‘ Rudy Phillips, perhaps the resident best known by visitors to Shawneetown. Rudy has the demeanor and posture of a bantam rooster, much like Ross Perot without a suit and tie. He gives me a southern Illinois welcome, making me feel immensely at home and leading me to the converted garage at the back of his house. It is filled with memorabilia of the hobo life.
In 1986 Rudy was crowned king of the hoboes in Britt, Iowa, an honor that came over a half century after he left the road to come live in Old Shawneetown. He had left home in 1925 at the age of 14 and returned in 1932 to find his parents situated here near the Ohio. Having decided to settle down, he weathered the flood and moved up to the new town with most of his neighbors. Over the next 55 years he made Rudy’s Barbecue better known than the town in which it stood. Now eight years into retirement, he entertains visitors with stories of the road and of old friends and fellow “kings,” such as Steam Train Grimm and Box Car Willie, who has made a good living in recent years singing of his hobo days in Branson, Missouri.
These days it is difficult to get Rudy to talk of anything but his past, though you know that he understands Shawneetown as well as anyone could. Besides running the most successful business in town, he also spent his adult life on the Ohio, boating and skiing. The river, he says, is what kept him from wandering any farther. He added to his income by owning and operating a water ski school for 30 years.
But it’s his private life he wants to talk about now, and he easily diverts questions about the prevailing attitudes of the people in the town. I mention Bellow’s observation about the southernness of this place. “Oh, yeah,” he replies. “That’s me with Box Car Willie in the photograph there.” I talk with him for an hour. Finally he comments on the last train out of Shawneetown in 1986. Then, almost as if he had awakened to the fact, he says, “The great loss is that Peabody coal mine went out of business about five years ago. It’s a regular ghost town now. Course I like it, because I ain’t got anything to do anyhow.” And just as quickly as he entered the subject, he turns again to his hobo days. He thinks, of course, that I’ve come for that. I buy his Hobo King autobiography and he signs it, “Your old hobo friend for life.” We make our good-byes.
Before I looked up Rudy at his house, I’d had lunch at the restaurant that still bears his name. The fiddleheads tasted like the catfish I have come to expect along the river. I sat looking at the expanse of metal tables that filled two large rooms, the catsup bottles and salt and pepper shakers centered on the rectangles of linoleum. The restaurant was immaculate, like the movie scenes of prison dining rooms before the riot. It gave testimony to a crusade Rudy has waged since his wild youth to rid his and others’ lives of drink and its attendant evils.
In the room where I sat a couple of tables were occupied. A man sitting across from his wife carried on a monologue about how he had beaten another man in a deal over a used tractor. It was loud enough that the few diners could hear every word, for he was proud of his small victory. The other table was occupied by a bearded, overweight man whose very size and silence seemed threatening. Next to him was a young woman preoccupied with her food. They were incongruous, I felt. She could have been a sorority girl from the north suburbs of Chicago, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, her shirt and jeans seemingly tailored for her lithe body. When they got up to pay the cashier, their backs to me, I read the lettering on their shirts. His proclaimed, “Every Jackass Thinks He Has Horse Sense.” Hers read, “Co-ed Postal Worker / Lick It Before You Stick It.” They left arm in arm. I came back to reality.
But a sense of reality doesn’t prepare the visitor for Old Shawneetown, particularly if you go as I did during a flood. Bellow was right when he wrote, “A strange, Silurian smell emanates from the mud and the barren houses.” And as he said, “The scene is Southern.” But it is the south of Faulkner’s Frenchman’s Bend and the Snopeses, not a Confederate south. When it is not underwater Old Shawneetown today boasts five bars. Living there is an option for only a few, but as in 1957 it is still the center of night life in the area. Its principal building is the boarded-up and abandoned bank, juxtaposing its Greek Revival lines against the rot that comes from too many river risings.
If, as Rudy says, Shawneetown is a ghost town, Old Shawneetown is but the detritus of the moody Ohio. Bellow’s Cairo and Shawneetown may have changed their concerns over the years, but they have remained essentially the same. The “confederate” sympathy no longer pervades deep southern Illinois. At one time it was a declaration of dissension from some amorphous northern sentiment, and the attitude was pasted on bumper stickers and flown from poles as if announcing a club. Today that comparatively innocent sentiment is not in evidence. People here quietly go about their business. They listen to talk radio. And they are looking for a way to make their lives have meaning. Where they live may not seem like much. But they own it.
On his way back north, Bellow stopped at Springfield. Here in 1957 he found “a residue of old grievances still in Sangamon County, for North and South meet here.” Obviously he had in mind his recent “southern” experiences. “But,” he concludes, “it is nothing but a residue. Most of the old differences have long since been composed; it is mainly the historical (feuding) sense that preserves them.” Some 40 years later, Springfield, as Bellow could have predicted, appears not even to have a residue of that sentiment. As Guerry Suggs, a Springfield banker and Chairman of the Springfield Urban League, concludes, “The “feuding blood’ in Sangamon County is no more.” He thinks that “Lincoln’s reputation is very high,” and that this reputation has helped to clear away the old animosities that once pervaded the town. This is a town, like Galena and Nauvoo, that cultivates its history. The Lincoln shrine is one of the places most visited by foreign tourists in the United States. Of course, Springfield has its position as the state capital to thank for much of its economic success and population growth. It no doubt will continue to evolve.
What will become of the towns on Bellow’s “Illinois Journey” cannot be foretold with certainty. It is likely that the money developers are putting into Galena will make it a destination for Chicago-area suburbanites for years to come. Nauvoo should succeed because it is a Mormon shrine. John Hallwas predicts that Mormonism, with ten million adherents today, has the potential to become America’s leading religion in the future. If so, Nauvoo and the surrounding area will become a Mormon Mecca, and the large homes south of town may be replaced with even larger mansions.
But the towns on the state’s southernmost rind hold little or no promise. They face–or refuse to face–a dilemma familiar to many of the country’s towns, which were settled in areas of natural beauty that have deteriorated because of their own parochialism and others’ greed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Larry Kanfer.