An excerpt from a budding manuscript…
Chapter One – Go You Wildcats
In small towns that were once frontiers of hope and promise of so much more – of gold that turned out to be lead ore, the expansive and unlimited plains and the rich earth of the Mississippi Valley where settlements supported surrounding laborers breaking rock or dark earth with heavy and rich yields – life is different with good reason. Isolated by relative circumstance, these small towns crisscross America and if one could connect all these dots it would form a patchwork blanketing the land’s contours, creating the illusion of a crowded network from one point of view. But close-up, in the space in between this and that town, there are few enough people to leave room for productive labor, not far from outlets of provision, but with space to breathe and an uncrowded landscape to see.
At first isolated settlements weren’t escapes from urban preoccupation with noise, and for few were they a comparable opportunity for riches. They didn’t flee industrialization or the growing sense that productivity was becoming the measure of human success, replacing contentment and virtue with utilitarian and pragmatic preoccupation. Enough labor for enough reward for enough supply for enough comfort for enough opportunity for contentment –enough for life that few would call happy without significant qualification. In rock or earth, both or either were a good even if hard source of living, somehow sanctified by the motto Early to bed, early to rise. Rest was welcomed but not worshipped, leisure was enjoyed instead of planned, and the evening prayer was Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright with the morning light, to do what’s right with all your might.
They may live along a lonely road, and live among lonely people –not always, but often. But loneliness is relative, sometimes coming from straightforward emotional isolation, sometimes the quiet we so earnestly desire becomes the very danger that threatens our well being, and sometimes perfectly acceptable physical isolation, like living in a perpetually small township with little variation in lifestyle save that of the four seasons, stupefies its residents so that the greatest argument is over the experience of loneliness itself. The cure of such loneliness isn’t a simple reversal of circumstances, the sensory overload of immersion in a crowded setting or stadium or even a city; the cure may be a little hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-us, but that isn’t so much a cure as it is a treatment. It is learning to live with the satisfaction of isolated living –Simple is as simple does, as the old-timers say. –And that just might be the aphorism of Elizabeth, Illinois, U.S.A.
Most of the buildings in town were constructed before World War II, but there were a few old farmhouses, a town hall, a railroad depot, and dozens and dozens of barns dotting the landscape that survived the nineteenth century. The Baptist church and parsonage next door were built just after the War to End All Wars but before the next War to End All Wars. The motto being, Use care with superlatives. Anything that was wood frame is gone, remembered but gone. And buildings that remain are wood and brick and stone, stone and brick and wood, and the township was built and torn down and rebuilt.
Of course there’d been explorers and missionaries through the area, but they’d already moved on in their interminable march to anywhere else. They wrote journals and reports of the landscape, the Indians, the climate, and the peculiarities that when compared to where else they’d been made for the remarkable. When the first white settler arrived in the territory, a surly man named A. P. VanMatre, he traveled because of the report of rich hills for land mining near the Fever River. He settled in 1825 and was too busy to be lonely; too busy building a smelter and making money with hard work and a seeming unlimited supply of lead ore. Two years later a fur trapper settled nearby and his name was Henry VanVolkenburg (and it seemed that you needed to be VanSomething-or-other to live here). It isn’t official, but folks tell a story about the two Van’s, about how they got to know each other in their free time. Then someone else who’s an insider to the joke says But I thought they didn’t know each other, and the first person says That’s because they didn’t have any free time. That’s frontier humor for you. And you say But that wasn’t funny, and the response is That’s because they were too busy working to be funny.
The area was first claimed by the French and they had a trading post in the late seventeenth century, but then an Englishman and officer of the British Commonwealth named Wolfe defeated them on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec in September, 1759 and to the victor go the spoils, including the hilly area we call Jo Daviess County and everything around it called the Upper Midwest. That is, until the Revolutionary War spoiled the spoiled in the famous Treaty of 1783 but then the area was claimed by Virginia. They gave it up, and it turned out that Virginia control of the remainder of the known world was just a formality. Speaking of formalities, without ever seeing the area Congressmen enacted the even more infamous Ordinance of 1787 that divided up uninhabited lands to the West by geographic markers like the Mississippi River and making the area West and North of the Ohio River into at least three and no more than five states. Sometimes the lines were drawn along waterways, sometimes along valley basins, and sometimes it looked like someone stretched a line from one place to another to come up with a state and as arbitrary as it seems that’s why folks live where they live instead of someplace else.
Farmers followed VanMatre and VanVolkenburg and changed the balance of odd to ordinary names when Winters and two brothers named Flack cut the rich soil and planted a first crop of corn in the area and the rest, as they say, is history. Mining and farming, farming and mining, made the area livable and that’s Jo Daviess County from its establishment February 17, 1827 to today; at first literally, then faming took over but mining became the first story in Elizabeth’s history, The Lore of the Ore, as they say.
Why mining? That’s the way it’s always been actually. Geologists call this the southern terminus of the Driftless Region, an area that covers the upper Midwest of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa. About two million years ago, back in the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch (that’s the sixth epoch of the Cenozoic era of geologic time for those of you keeping score), this area supposedly didn’t have glaciers while everywhere else nearby did. That’s why all around is leveled land, flat and without contour, but the Mississippi River area has deep valleys that were pushed, shoved and cut by the undulation of advancing and receding glaciers nearby that teased the area only to dump their outwash deposits of silt, sand and gravel and made the mighty Mississippi a mighty drain, flushing waters but leaving the rugged and rich deposits that drew settlers to the area in the nineteenth century. Thus it was, and thus it will always be.
The first official settlers were a small crowd that stayed small; and the story always goes back to two men: John Winters the farmer and Captain Clack Stone. The Captain owned the claim to the village of Elizabeth and that meant they had all the responsibility but just a little authority. They took care of settlement claims and kept the peace, which they thought would be an easy job and they’d nurture the area into a modest infamy. Infamy it was, but not modestly thanks to a little incident known as the Black Hawk War in 1832. On May 15th Captain Clack Stone’s Company, the 27th Regiment Illinois Militia was called out of retirement to repel the aggression of the Sac and Fox Indians all because they reacted poorly to President Andrew Jackson’s order of relocation to west of the Mississippi. There’s a suspicious account of a cowardly retreat (or Was it wise? –that’s the debate) by some of the militia on May 14th that led to the Governor’s order the very next day to Captain Clack Stone and the war was on.
The battle took one farming season, May to August, which was unfortunate for the farmers, but the peaceful result of war was a happy irony that was tragic but short lived enough to become historically curious and provide the Chamber of Commerce another folksy attraction in what is now a quite farming community that it’s always been. Soundly quiet, that is until the Chicago Great Western Railroad came ‘a steamin through in 1888, stopping at the Depot on Myrtle Street in downtown Elizabeth and connecting the sleepy community to Chicago to Iowa to Minnesota to Omaha, Nebraska, to Missouri (obviously not a straight route). They built an elaborate tunnel west of Elizabeth called the Winston Tunnel. It was over a half-mile long and was the longest in Illinois –considering the topography of Illinois it was pretty much the only place someone could build a half-mile tunnel without digging straight down.
Now it’s the next century and Elizabeth, Illinois, is pretty much the same it was last century. Except the railroad’s gone now, the tracks torn up not long ago, the Depot is a historical site, and the impressive tunnel became such a burden to maintain that it was closed as well. Mining lost its luster after its glorious contribution to the Civil War armory. And the Fort the settlers hastily built in the Black Hawk War is also gone, the lumber used to build a barn for farming. Only the farming remains, and the rest are the stories of history.
These days almost seven hundred people live in Elizabeth, in 1950 almost seven hundred people lived here, and in 1900 almost seven hundred people lived here. And the same thing can be said for the town’s downtown; there is a diner named Wiler’s right along the main street cutting through town, a bar, a bank, a grocery and variety store, a B & B and a craft and antique shoppé owned by the same woman, a town hall and a township library, and two or three churches depending on how one defines the word Church. There’s the Baptist church, cleverly named Elizabeth Baptist Church, unaffiliated with any Baptist Convention. There’s a Lutheran church named St. John’s even though you’d expect it to be named after Paul, and the Saint part always bothered Baptists anyway because they say all true Christians (read Baptists) are saints themselves –at least Positionally, as they say. To call any of Jesus’ apostles Saints seemed sacrilegious to the real Protestants who called themselves Baptists and thought all other Protestants were just closet Papists. Luther didn’t go far enough and should have thrown the baby out with the baptistery water according to Baptists because the child shouldn’t be there in the first place. In town there’s also what used to be a Presbyterian church and it had one of those paedo baptisteries as well so they could sprinkle the secretly elect of God. But in the sovereign providence of the Almighty it seems Presbyterians weren’t predestined to thrive in the area and the church building was boarded up during in 20’s until a developer from Galena bought the building and turned it into a Wedding Chapel in the late 80’s, making for a sort of rural Las Vegas in Northern Illinois.
Families in this part of Jo Daviess County in Northwest Illinois send their kids to Hanover for middle-and junior high school (everyone except the Catholics and the growing number of home schooled these days), which means they take a bus ride each day and it gets iffy when ice and snow fall, as in anytime from November to March. Used to be that both Elizabeth and Hanover had their own schools in their own towns with their own teachers, but nowadays it’s different.
Back in the eighties the Elizabeth and Hanover schools consolidated into River Ridge Community School District number two hundred ten. The towns are eight miles apart and that was close enough to wonder if they couldn’t do more together than apart. Back in the seventies town leaders and pastors got involved and presented a united front about the unity of comm-unity, and then there was a referendum on the local ballot and everyone put big Yes or No signs on their front lawns. Those in favor, the Yes sign folks, said that even though it would cost more in property taxes the quality of education would also improve. Some Yes sign folks got caught up in the rhetoric and made it sound like their new School District would be the next Ivy League of primary and secondary education in the Upper Midwest –as is their hayseeds would blossom into Albert Schweitzers. Those opposed, the No sign people, said that classes would be too large and the quality of education would decrease, and it would raise property taxes.
The Yes’s won with over seventy five percent of the vote and property taxes went up proving that Winner takes all, but how he takes it sometimes hurts. The school district quickly became the County’s largest employer with more employees than the local electric, gas and telephone companies combined. Oh, and the property taxes kept going up, but the kids’ I.Q.’s remained about the same.
Everyone knew they were right about the tax burden; the argument was about whether the money would be well spent, and that’s always an argument in Jo Daviess County, as it should be everywhere else for that matter. Jo Daviess folks have always thought that some communities, like anywhere near Chicago, think that spending money is the solution to everyone’s problems, especially problems with their kids. Buy them a car, a video game, buy them anything to see if that makes them more loving, better young people. That means that the greatest failure as a parent comes from not having enough money to spend on their kids. In Jo Daviess County money doesn’t buy happiness and money doesn’t make you a better parent; maybe that’s because there’s not that much money around, and the money there is only comes from work and all the work in Jo Daviess County is hard work. So there’s a natural suspicion about throwing money at a problem, even if the problem is your own children.
That was the polite debate in town meetings and in Wiler’s diner, but everyone knew the real dispute was over the loss of each school’s traditions; Hanover’s school colors were red and gold, Elizabeth’s were navy blue and gray, Hanover’s school mascot/nickname/cheer was Go Wildcats! and Elizabeth’s was Hey Lions! In the compromise of consolidation the district’s school colors were navy blue and gray, and the mascot/nickname was Go Wildcats! One can be thankful that both school districts shared a lack of creativity when it came to school songs since they both used the same music (the Naval Academy’s Navy Blue and Gold tune) and the words were pretty much the same, except for the Wildcat/Lion thing. Now they all sing:
Let’s Go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,
Let them hear our name.
We are the team from River Ridge,
We’ve come to prove our fame, Rah, Rah.
Now Go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,
Hold our colors high.
The Blue and Gray will march along
To vic-to-ry today.
We are the Wildcats, fight-ing Wildcats,
Give your best al-ways.
Stand up, with pride, for River Ridge
Your loy-al-ty dis-play, Rah, Rah.
Now go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,
Hold our colors high.
The Blue and Gray will march along
To vic-to-ry to-day.
But some people to-day still say It isn’t the same, and Nobody wins with compromise, and It’s better just to stick to what you know.
What people know in Elizabeth would flood the Mississippi, so to speak. The almost seven hundred residents know each other, sometimes too well and that blurs the line between common knowledge and gossip. As a rule, speaking ill of someone’s supposedly private affairs or goings-on’s is gossiping, but reporting things that are open like a book to anyone who wishes to read them is news. So when folks do the math and figure out that so-and-so’s baby was born just six months after so-and-so’s hastily planned wedding, well, then is it gossip or simple math? And the news would be malicious only if conceiving a baby out-of-wedlock was improper, which most people thought it was in 1900. By 1950 such a thing was unseemly but not necessarily sinful. And by 2000 it was understandable and the wedding made it legitimate and a happy occasion, like the story of Joseph and Mary when her virginity was under suspicion and instead of divorcing her he married her and made her an honorable woman in the unseemly situation. Except in Elizabeth the couple was named Jim and Susan and Susan was most definitely not known to be a virgin, and everyone said they made a nice couple, even at the shot-gun wedding, and they made a nice family living above the garage in back of Susan’s parents home until they get on their feet which took a while since Jim couldn’t find steady work…at least that’s what people were saying but the gossip was more sordid. And it all started-the Jim and Susan thing –because they were lonely, or bored, or both –but not for long, obviously.
There’s a steady stream of people through the town, so it’s not for lack of passersby that Elizabeth seems lonely to some. County highway 20 runs right through her, creating a northside and a southside that are almost identical to one another except for the Catholics on the northside and the Lutherans on the southside; the road joins one town to another, both bigger, with two or three of everything, and six or seven churches. To the east is Woodbine and then Stockton, big and bigger than Elizabeth but not as old, to the west is Galena and everyone knows and goes there.
–Fifty-five to thirty for almost two miles and fifty-five again none too quickly on the other side, offering pretty much the only excitement for her one sheriff. His name is Jason Markinson, the grown son of the previous sheriff named Mark who moved to Elizabeth after being wounded breaking-up a gang fight in a place where such skirmishes were happening too often, at least once too often for Mark. Sheriff Mark was famous for saying that he moved for his family, and resented any complaint of quiet days. His son Jason, on the other hand, appeared eager for the little excitement of his watch, and he preferred to be called Sheriff Markinson. His father was known as Sheriff Mark, or just Mark by the old-timers and his friends, a familiarity he used to his advantage to reconcile, treating Elizabeth’s residents as friends. Sheriff Markinson, on the other hand, thought his father was too lenient, resented being compared to him, and often had to be encouraged by the town’s council members to avoid trapping speeders, lest Elizabeth become known as a place to be avoided, slowly, but avoided nonetheless.
Mark was a good small-town sheriff, and his only frustration was with those who were frustrated with the small town of Elizabeth. Some lobbied for industry, development, wishing to offer incentives to attract business, dreaming of a hopeful future that was impossible at present. The others who were vocal were old-timers who sourly dismissed such vain wishes, and wondered why Elizabeth wasn’t good enough for others like it was for them. The majority, as in any place, was silent or just too busy making-do to make a fuss. Women’s consolation seemed to be daily chores and the spice of gossip reminding themselves of other, less fortunate women, or well-to-do neighbors who have at least as much trouble as money. The men’s distraction is work often without obvious reward and rarely the satisfaction of conclusion. And the children –they grew-up learning to find satisfaction in the ordinary but that doesn’t last much beyond high school for most, or they dared to hope to move anywhere else, and a few, but just a few, went-off to college never to return except for holidays or funerals.
Like most small towns, there was an unofficial group that took responsibility for the community. Elizabeth’s includes Sheriff Mark, a local dairy farmer named John Ober who was chairman of the River Ridge school board, there is the diner owner named Mr. Wiler, and the local Baptist pastor, Jack Webber. These men were sort of Elizabeth’s soul and conscience and compass all rolled-up together. They’d treat people like family, maybe more than they probably should have, and it got them into trouble sometimes and earned them little recognition all the time.
When cow manure was obviously polluting the stream, they encouraged the council to declare the cause as soil erosion and avoided forcing a young struggling farmer named Ross Clark to pay for the earthmoving necessary to alter his field’s access to a tributary, and the work was done by Mr. Ober himself. Even retired, Sheriff Mark was the peacemaker, intervening with wise alternatives before they became problems for the county sheriff’s office (they didn’t want to be bothered with small-town squabbles); like when Mrs. Jenkins’ son was accused of stealing tomatoes from Mrs. Smith’s garden and the latter wanted to press charges against the former, but Sheriff Mark figured out that it was probably Mrs. Jenkins herself who had stolen the tomatoes and suggested that Mrs. Smith would enjoy some of Mrs. Jenkins sweet corn as compensation. –Hardly Solomonic, but it was as close as Elizabeth had ever seen. Mr. Wiler fed the towns two widows by pretending that their tea was free and charging them 1950’s prices for meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy even though they complained about the gravy and how it wasn’t as good as their own which they hadn’t made since their husbands left them as widows and their kids stopped visiting. Mr. Ober donated milk and cheese to the food pantry at the church so that Pastor Webber could anonymously give it to the poor mother with three children and a sickly husband that everyone gossiped about. These men calmed the disquieted, and remedied the dilemmas of their lonely town, all the while shrugging-off the complaints that preoccupied so many. It wasn’t their responsibility to make people happy or solve everyone’s problems, and even when they did solve their problems people weren’t necessarily happy because some people don’t know how to be happy or are only happy when they have something to complain about, as strange as that sounds. Mr. Ober, Mr. Wiler, Sheriff Mark and Pastor Webber didn’t organize a crusade to change the world, or even change Elizabeth, Illinois. They did what they did because the things they did were the right things to do no matter what other people thought. They were, after all, Wildcats, fight-ing Wildcats, Give your best al-ways. Stand up, with pride, for River Ridge, your loy-al-ty dis-play, Rah, Rah.