Exploring the Heel of Illinois or I Don’t Even Know Where I Am We had a destination when we started. It was the blue grass festival in Bean Blossom Indiana. This year was special because it celebrated the 100th birthday of the father of blue grass, Bill Monroe. We had attended once before but never camped so we picked a large open field hoping for some peace and quiet. This property used to be Bill Monroe’s home and farm where he lived and enjoyed making music with friends and fox hunting. We followed the bright sound of strumming banjos and guitars to the stage. Soon we were taping our toes and reminiscing about the songs our grand daddies sang even though we grew up in Indianapolis far from the hills of southern Indiana. Dr. Ralph Stanley topped off the evening with his rendition of “Oh Death, Won’t You Spare Me Over for Another Year,” made famous in the movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? We made our way to our tent at about ten o’clock and lay down for a peaceful sleep. Unfortunately the kids on golf carts had other ideas. They were still racing around the field, revving their engines and shining their headlights into our tent when I finally looked at my watch. It read a shocking 2:30 a.m., and we pulled up our tent stakes and headed for Nashville, Indiana and a Comfort Inn were they were doing an audit and couldn’t access the computer. We finally got to sleep around three in the morning.
The next day we were on our way to New Harmony a place where the Rappites and Owens had tried to establish Utopian societies in the 19th century, to visit my friend, an artist who paints subjects from the nineteen fifties and architecture along old highways like US 40 and Route 66. Serendipitously she found an old drive-in restaurant on state road 66 and converted it into a studio. We enjoyed seeing pictures of James Dean, Hank Williams, women in full skirts and high heels ironing with their new Steam-o-matic’s or admiring their snow white electric washing machines or ranges. One couple danced around the kitchen in front of their new refrigerator looking like they had just returned from the prom. Giant ice cream cones atop tiny restaurants promised relief from the summer heat with no worries about fat or calories. No worries about Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes either. No worries period. Just the promise of suburban bliss or Utopia 50’s style.
It is then that we strayed from the beaten path by crossing the toll bridge just a block from my friend’s studio across the Wabash into southern Illinois. Here was a different world which we had unsuspectingly entered into the previous evening when we went to hear a folksinger in Grayville. Everything seemed fine if a bit surreal. He sang of a minor league baseball player who spent time in Lynchburg and ended up with a pinched nerve. A few songs later he launched into “South of Solitude” about entering into the labyrinthine roads of southern Illinois and getting lost resulting in the lyrics, “I don’t even know where I am,” and ending with the lyrics, “I don’t even know who I am.” We didn’t know it then, but we would soon live the song. There were a grand total of nine or ten people in attendance, four of whom were some young German guys not paying too much attention to the singer. We weren’t too surprised to see them as southern Indiana abounds in descendents of German settlers and German restaurants. Travelers are never too far from a good sausage and sauerkraut dinner. But here in Grayville the waitresses seemed quite surprised and happy to see them as they actually spoke German and were young and not too hard on the eyes. We found out that they were in town to work in the coal mine for eight days and were enjoying some Grayville nightlife. The singer ended with some Dylan songs and his friend accompanied him on the harmonica. “That’s what you get for Loving Me” seemed appropriate to end the set, and the German guys smiled and said goodbye in English.
The next day, at the suggestion of my friend, we ventured across the bridge again following a vintage Airstream travel trailer, which again lent an air of the fifty’s, into surreal southern Illinois again to see the Garden of the Gods. We had seen the one of the same name in Colorado Springs and were not expecting much by comparison. But we were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and strange looking rock formations in the Shawnee National Forest. The wilderness area is over three hundred and twenty million years old and includes over 3,300 acres of beautiful old growth forest. The sediment rock in this area is over four miles deep and the fractured bedrock has created some interesting rock formations that represent various objects like anvils, camels, and mushrooms. Next we traveled south to the Ohio River and saw Pirates’ Cave at Cave in the Rock. Two riverboats had been built and had burned here, but now there was only the ferry taking cars and trucks across the river at no charge. As we reached the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, a truck with an oversize load in the form of an earth mover was waiting to board the ferry. We were glad we had crossed in the company of small cars.
We were now on the Trail of Tears which the original Americans had been forced to take when their land was confiscated by the pioneer settlers. In 1830, Congress passed a bill permitting the removal of all native Indians living east of the Mississippi River. For the next twenty years, Indians were marched west to reservations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, including the bands of the Illini Indians in Illinois. In the Fall and Winter of 1838-39, Cherokee Indians were marched out of Georgia and the Carolinas across Southern Illinois to reservations in the west. It was estimated that two thousand to four thousand Cherokee men, women, and children died during this one thousand mile journey west. It became known as the Trail of Tears due to the many hardships and sorrows it brought to the Indians. The Buel Family told the story of their ancestor Sarah (Jones) Buel who moved to Golconda on Sept. 2, 1836. Two years later the Cherokees passed through Golconda. “My great-great-grandmother was acookin’ pumpkin an’ keepin’ an eye on her baby when she heard a strange noise outside. Before she knew it, the front door popped open and there stood two Cherokee Indian braves just alookin’ at her… They had smelled the pumpkin cookin’ as they passed by, but my grandmother had no way of knowin’ that. Finally, she understood what they wanted, and those Indians were mighty thankful when she gave them some of the cooked pumpkin. I ‘spect she was just as thankful when they left,” she added.*
Our trip in to Kentucky was mostly through farm country so we headed back to Illinois lured by Old Shawnee Town on the map. When we arrived it was not only old but a ghost town. A massive Greek architectural style bank dwarfed everything else in sight. We later learned that it was the first bank to be chartered in Illinois in 1816. It was also the first building used solely to house a bank in Illinois and was used until the 1920s. Someone told us that it had refused a loan to a bank in Chicago when it was first developing, because it didn’t think Chicago would be a successful settlement. HogDaddy’s bar was across the deserted street from the bank. A sign on the door said closed for the winter, but it was obviously closed for the summer as well. We also learned later that the worse flooding in decades had closed the town down. Two wooden cut-out figures of Lewis and Clark indicated that they had passed through Shawnee town, but they looked as forlorn as we did when we found out HogDaddy’s was closed. We drove south out of town thinking we were on the Lincoln trail but ended up on a gravel road. Common sense would have dictated turning back to the main road, but we wanted to see the confluence of the Wabash and the Ohio. We were soon lost in a labyrinth of corn fields. We saw a deer and her fawn in the middle of the road drinking from a mud puddle. We kept turning right when we should have turned left to get back to the main road, but the river beckoned.
Then without warning our engine sputtered and stopped. Walking was out of the question in the heat and humidity. We waited hoping the engine would start but after half an hour, we tried calling for a tow truck. Luckily we were able to reach Triple A, but were not so successful in trying to tell them were we were. “Well there’s a corn field on the right and a forest on the left, and we were on Round Pond Road, then Long Pond road, and then Pond Church Road, then Big Hill Road.” While we were calling, a farmer came along, and we flagged him down. He was a gift from Heaven as he had GPS and gave us our coordinates. Even more amazing was that he knew the guy we were talking to on the phone personally even though he was in Indiana. They had grown up together and the tow truck guy knew the farms bordering the road where we were. The nice farmer stayed and talked to us until the tow truck arrived. He had some sad stories about flooding in the area causing late planting and ammonia used in farming being stolen by people making meth. We had the feeling that we might not be safe even though far from the big city. An even sadder story was about his son, who had served two stints in Iraq, coming home and drowning while swimming in a quarry.
The tow truck guy soon arrived, greeted his friend, and invited us to climb into the front seat of his truck. He continued the tale of woe saying that the economy in southern Illinois had been ruined by the politicians in Chicago even though some of them had been sent to Washington. He also mentioned meth problems in the area acerbated by the bad economy and worse weather. We again felt like we didn’t know where we were, or maybe we had strayed into Mexico. However when we crossed back into Indiana, he cheered up a little naming various industrial sites that we passed such as Marathon and Bristol Myers Squib. Ethanol plants were prospering using the corn we had been lost in. It seemed more industrialized, but not necessarily better. But in his opinion there were more business incentives offered in Indiana and better politicians. He was glad to relate his life story saying he had wanted to be a chiropractor but had opted for nursing. Burnout caused him to go into business as a gas station owner. When his business in Illinois was not doing so well he asked God to give him a sign if he should move into Indiana and start a towing service. That night the roof on his filling station caved in. He now does missionary work every year in Honduras with the Baptist Church where his training as a nurse serves him and them well. He treats people for everything from parasites to gangrene.
These guys from southern Illinois were two of the nicest guys I have ever met and representative of others who are trying to survive in spite of large corporations taking over family farms and politicians passing legislation not favorable to small businesses, and they are retaining their values as good Samaritans as well. We also appreciated the 277,500 acre Shawnee national Forest with its diverse population of plant, animal, and bird life. It provides habitat to several endangered or threatened species and is a beautiful place to visit. It is hard to believe that this area was once covered by a shallow ocean and inhabited by sea creatures before the Mississippian people, the Illini and other Indian tribes, the French, British and finally settlers of English, German, Scottish and Irish descent, and even freed slaves arrived. If we travel to the Ohio River Valley in southern Illinois again, it will be to see Metropolis, the home of Super Man and Harrah’s Metropolis casino/hotel.
The tourist industry is big here also because of Kincaid, the home of a complex society which was part of the Mississippian culture. People first arrived in the Ohio River Valley around 12,000 B.C. The culture reached its peak about 1100 AD and a large city was built at Cahokia, near present-day Collinsville, Illinois. Its people built large earthworks and related structures, many of which remain. Mississippian culture regional centers arose throughout the Ohio and lower Mississippian valleys, one at Angel Mounds in Evansville which we would visit later. The rivers were part of widespread trading routes. The French settled in the area in 1757 before the victorious British came to claim the territory. Sometime in the 1830s, Southern Illinois became known as Egypt or Little Egypt because settlers from northern Illinois came south to buy grain during years when they had poor harvests in the 1830s just as ancient people had traveled to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 41:57 and 42:1-3). Later, towns in Southern Illinois were named Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak, as in the country of Egypt. We were happy to reach Evansville and turn our car over to Pep Boys.
The next day we rented a car and went to the Evansville museums on the riverfront and visited Angel Mounds. From 1100 to 1450 A. D., a town on this site was home to people of the Middle Mississippian culture, who engaged in hunting and farming on the rich bottom lands of the Ohio River. Several thousand people lived in this town protected by a stockade made of wattle and daub. Because Angel Mounds was a chiefdom (the home of the chief) it was the regional center of a large community that grew outward from it for many miles. Roving bands of Shawnee, Miami, and other groups moved into this area about 1650 A. D., long after the Mississippians abandoned the town at Angel. Later, white settlers farmed the land. Much like the Native Americans, they were lured by the rich soil and temperate growing season. One of the families to settle in Southwestern Indiana was headed by Mathias Angel. He had a farmstead on the site of Angel Mounds from 1852 until his death in 1899. His brothers owned adjacent farms, and the land remained in the Angel family until 1938.
Angel Mounds State Historic Site is named after this family. I had participated in an archaeological dig near there while in college at Indiana University. We lived at Angel Mounds and used the Glen Black Laboratory there. WPA workers had excavated at Angel Mounds during the nineteen thirties. Now there is a restored village and a museum. We had photographed the site using box cameras and developed large prints in the dark room. We had used surveying equipment to locate our site in the middle of a field. We found post holes that had been a house, bones, pottery, and even an inscribed stone that looked like a numbering system. Now they probably use modern technology such as digital photography and GPS to find and study the ancient technologies of the inhabitants which included chipping flint spear points, decorating with wax resist pottery techniques, and basket weaving.
We ventured back into Kentucky again to Henderson to see the John James Audubon Museum. He had a fascinating life drawing birds, but left his devoted Quaker wife alone for years at a time and eventually had to declare bankruptcy. He was a dedicated artist and his son later joined him in his passion for recording birds and animals in the wilderness. This museum has a complete Double Elephant edition of Birds of America, the value of which is in the millions. It’s on display only one page at a time, understandably. This museum was well worth the eleven mile trip from Evansville. We had to laugh because every place we went on this trip seemed to be eleven miles from the previous place or, if not, a multiple of eleven. Eleven is our lucky number! We picked up our car from Pep Boys and headed home. The windshield wipers came on whenever we used the turn signal, but at least the fuel pump was working, and we were on the road again. My next story may be about all the places our car has broken down and the opportunities it has provided to get to know people in the area proving that older vehicles have their advantages. Road trips in the Ohio Valley are always fun and provide numerous opportunities for enjoying nature, traveling through history and meeting fascinating people.