All the Wilers…

Mr. Wiler was the third generation owner of Wiler’s Diner along the road in the heart of Elizabeth, and his name was John –John Jr. for a while but then just John. His dad was, of course, John Sr. but he was just John most of his life because he didn’t father John Jr. until he was in his forties.

The senior John was a confirmed bachelor, a devout Baptist deacon in town and held the closest thing to a claim to the founding fathers of Elizabeth. John Sr.’s own father was also named John but had a different middle name, but John Sr.’s grandfather had the same middle name as John Jr. and it was all so confusing that no one cared to care very much. Anyway, Wiler’s was a good diner and that’s all that mattered to most.

John Jr. often wondered about his name’s legacy, and even spent some time as a young man researching his family’s history at the Galena and Jo Daviess County historical society.

It’s in the Barrows Mansion right in downtown Galena, a big old building just like every larger town had in its early days –a rich family builds the biggest house just because they can, even though they don’t have any more kids than the other families and most times one less, but they have a servant or two that might live in the house (if they were white).

Dubuque has the Ryan Mansion, Freeport had the Taylor mansion but it burned down and that became infamous in itself, and Galena has a couple more mansions that are now antique shops, and Elizabeth had the Green Mansion and Wishon Manor.

Right in the middle of the nineteenth century made lead made mine owners rich and they built their mansions because they could.

Merchants and merchandisers moved to the area and set-up shop where they could make the most money, like Hezekiah Gear, and Amos Trumbler, and Daniel Barrows the merchant who made his fame and fortune by selling things to other people who were working hard digging dirt and lead ore out of the earth.

Apples will fall…

Of the few and several remaining leaves cured in the breeze and light and dew dangling from branches, each twists and flutters independently, drawing attention to their fastening not obviously visible. How do they remain when all the others have fallen?

Do they have a strength or stubbornness or means of support we cannot see? Or are they too proud to die? –Resisting what befell others? –Resisting Autumn?

What is inevitable, the course of Spring birth, Summer strength and vitality and veins drawing and returning sweet nectar, to Autumn maturity that ages some –no, most –to Fall, to trickle unnoticed, fluttering on breeze or gust to dance their death suspended on waters below and be carried to someplace else but not unlike here.

Or, they will resist on the otherwise deserted branches resisting stoically the inevitable.

They may be too proud to fall with the others, but they will fall, or rot on their branches and fall from their own weight instead of the noble breeze. And the falling will lack the autumnal ceremony and nobility of flutter and dance in newly crisp airs. They will just fall, too weak and withered to resist any longer.

The Apple River…

The flow is slow and unrelenting, churning here and calming there, the bubbling blop-blup-blop-blup-blop echoes in the canopy of barren soft woods bowed to see what happens below and protect with a parental carapace.

On early wintry days the noise is white with insistence and easily fades when ignored –if ignored, or a competing buzz crowds the air as if it were somehow opaque, gust conquers breeze, splash cancels gurgle, creak of a fragile limb countermands the flutter of resistant leaves.

Debris lines the opposite bank which turns toward the waters softly rounded mucky beach, leaves blackened and grayed, rotting against branches forming pools, glistening with the insistent wash of waveless waters.

Tasteless, musky scents swirl, catching new odors drawn up from the earth toward the sky of branches and returned to pass down the tunnel of turns and bends, hiding in pockets of sanctuary or escaping through sky-lights created by toppling winds from the previous winter. –This scene is created, not planned or constructed with consequence in mind, and even when traversed by bridges, brush cleared to make a scene or a view, or stocked with hatchery product, the waters, the banks, the bends and turns continue to create in a slow and unrelenting, churning here and calming there.

When pastor preaches…

There are also occasions when he doesn’t have to preach because an itinerant preacher was traveling through the area to encourage flocks and their pastor. Pastor Webber secretly enjoyed sitting in the pews and listening to someone else preach, especially because the itinerants were mediocre preachers and made him look all that much better when he preached the next week.

But the old-timers, the retired preachers who had run out of sermon material and were retired from their pastorates, were liked very much by churches on their circuit, probably because A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, save among his own people, as Jesus once said.

Most people liked them because they told stories, old stories that you’d hear again next year, and Pastor Webber wondered why people didn’t mind hearing the same stories a couple of times over, even when the preachers didn’t realize they were repeating the same stories. But what really bothered Pastor Webber was how little the old-timers talked about what’s in the Bible.

They always talked about the Bible, how people don’t believe that it could be God’s inerrant word; holding it up, allowing the leather covers and thin India paper of their Bibles to drape over their outstretched hand while warning folks how those Educated academics, some of them even teaching our young pastors, some of them even found in otherwise good Baptist churches, who didn’t really believe that every single word of the Bible was God’s word—every infallible

And, If, and But, and every single sentence from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. These men would sweat when the preached, even in winter, and their collars were stained, their ties were muted colors, their suits made of manmade blends; in other words their taste was weak, but their rhetoric was strong.

When younger itinerants visited they wore bright ties and had sermons filled with quotes of people they’d studied, people with European names that they would explain in their own words as if translating into English.

You could tell, if you listened, which class was their favorite in seminary, and you’d hope it was some pastoral course or even ethics but it never was; it was always some historical seminar, like Patristic Christology or the Reformation, or a theology course like Systematic Theology which, as the course title indicates, puts everything, absolutely everything together and the young preacher always struggled to cram the entire theological encyclopedia into a thirty-minute sermon.

Pastor Webber, of all people knew this and it bothered him more than most since he was once a College professor himself before an untimely dismissal from his position in a respected college for Baptists, teaching things that they were either too eager to learn but reluctant to comprehend or having to prove important things to students who knew better than he what mattered.

Potluck theology…

The service at Elizabeth Baptist Church was at 10:30 am each and every Sunday, even on Easter when some wished for a sunrise service but the farmers couldn’t attend even if they wanted to which most didn’t.

There was no reason to give people excuses, was Pastor Webber’s explanation. Of course, there was a Christmas morning service no matter what day of the week it fell on, but a debate surfaced when Christmas fell on a Saturday or Monday because they’d have church two days in a row as if they were Catholics. Oh, and there was a once-a-month Sunday evening prayer meeting that became the night of the Christmas pageant in mid-December.

There was also a prayer meeting every other Wednesday evening in the church basement, and Pastor Webber’s wife, Debbie, hosted a tea and Bible study every other Tuesday morning that attracted almost three dozen women, which made it a successful occasion, even when they lingered into the afternoon at the Parsonage. On Tuesdays, and sometimes other days as well, Jack would eat lunch at Wiler’s, which made some women in town wonder if the Pastor’s wife was that good a wife.

Pastor Webber led singing on occasion, made announcements more often, and he encouraged variety at the upcoming potluck supper every time there was a potluck supper, and he would explain something he called Potluck theology exhorting good Christian people to be generous by saying What you bring to a potluck is like what you bring to the service of the church – for some that is the best, and in abundance, but for some it is leftovers and things they wouldn’t serve at home or their good food they always make sure they eat themselves.

Sometimes folks would point-out to Pastor Webber what they brought –if it was something good or something they knew he liked, and some of the older ladies would show him what they brought even if no one would eat a bite knowing who brought it.

Like Mrs. Mitchell, the aunt of the town’s banker Steve Mitchell, who was famous –or that is, infamous –for a casserole dish flavored with whatever she had in her cabinet, sometimes cooked dry and sometimes soupy, but always covered with broken-up saltine crackers, and everyone knew Mrs. Mitchell had brought it. Sometimes when she was cleaning-up afterward, Debbie would empty some of mostly full casserole before giving Mrs. Mitchell back her dish. But when she didn’t get to it, Pastor Webber would take a serving, right in front of Mrs. Mitchell, and take a bite, swallow hard with a smile.

That’s what Potluck theology means because the church, any church, has those who give their best and add flavor and you always wish you had more like them, and others are stingy and shouldn’t be and you wonder if they’ll ever learn, but most are like Mrs. Mitchell who try and don’t know better, but they try.

So, Pastor Webber eats her casserole at the Elizabeth Baptist Church potluck suppers, even though no one who knows better does; but they watch him do it and he knows they’re watching him do it, and he prays he won’t lose his reward in heaven because part of him does it just to show everyone what they should be doing, and he knows there is no reward here on earth for eating anything like Mrs. Mitchell’s casserole. And when he eats like that he preaches a damn good sermon, even with his mouth closed.

No difference…

Nowadays, of the population fifteen years and older, half the men are married but only a third of the women get married, only a few men are widowers while one quarter of the women are widows (which seems to mean that marriage is killing the men but not the women), and fifteen percent of the men are divorced but just a handful of women are divorced (and everybody knows who they are, their stories, why they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and I told her so, but she wouldn’t listen, and Who did What to Whom).

Ironically, churched women get divorced at the same rate as unchurched women, but churched men divorce less frequently than unchurched men (go figure…).And one-in-four of the men never marry so divorce isn’t an issue, and one-in-five of the women never marry, but I bet four-out-of-five of them would give marriage a try if an offer came their way.

And then there’s the age thing that makes living hard for some and harder for others. Most of Elizabeth’s residents are old –one-in-three, as if the town was a retirement center, and no matter how respectful young people are the older people in Elizabeth are just plain older –as if being older meant being indifferent to differences and curmudgeons about circumstances.

No-difference, is what they say; No difference, in response to others’ concerns; No-difference, to the handful of young adults left in town, and only eight-percent of the residents that makes it a lonely place for them. No-difference; –six-of-the-one, half-dozen-of-the-other.

Well, those are the numbers and percentages, but what they don’t tell us is why. Sometimes the How is easy enough to understand so the answer to the Why is as obvious as the difference between a woman and a man; it’s either that or it’s six-of-the-one, half-dozen-of-the-other.


The women of Elizabeth…

Soon enough it was obvious that there would be no easy money from the area, but there was lead ore to be mined. That brought hard working immigrants (especially after the settlers had driven-out the Sauk and Fox Indians in the 1830’s), a railroad eventually connected it between Freeport and Galena, but that’s not for a while yet.

It was called nothing at first, then Apple River Settlement, then Apple River, at one time it was Lewistown, but then it was Elizabeth and it has been that way ever since. One story says that the area was renamed after Elizabeth Winters, wife of John the farmer who held one of the first land deeds in 1825.

While John planted corn, Elizabeth was one of the few women in the area and made it a place to live, eventually opening the first hotel and began development in the community. She was a Lady, as in a respectable woman with expectations and pressures and obligations and she met all of them, and even if she didn’t she was the one who had to pay the price. She worked hard to survive and so some people say Elizabeth is named after her.

Others say it was renamed after Elizabeth Armstrong who famously rallied the flagging spirits of settlers held up in the Apple River Fort during the famous battle of 1832. Either way, Elizabeth was still named after a woman.

And most of the people who live in Elizabeth to this day are women; they outnumber men 55% to 45% in the less than a half square mile that makes up the town.

Back in the days of the Settlers it was 95% men and a few women who were all wives at first, then they had babies and some of them were girls. It’s hard to imagine how we get from a couple of male settlers to a community of families, but it might be like how the book of Genesis tells us about Adam and then Eve and then Cain and Abel who have wives and children and everyone winks assuming they married their sisters –six-of-the-one, half-dozen-of-the-other.

John Law…

Elizabeth, Illinois –latitude 42.317N, longitude –90.221W, used to be called Apple River, but today Apple River is upstate and a place to live on the Illinois-Wisconsin boundary with a newspaper and industry and better standard of living than here.

And it’s not Apple River Canyon or Apple River Canyon State Park with vacation homes and campgrounds and picnic areas where people fish and boat and camp and hike on winding and hilly trails and frolic and relax where others once worked themselves to death mining. That’s all somewhere else from here, connected by some water that doesn’t run through it or much for that matter.

You’ve heard about French explorers in the upper Mississippi Valley in the seventeenth century, and about the mining, but you haven’t heard about a Scotch man named John Law, who was anything but law abiding –he  founded the Company of the West in Paris in 1717 based on a claim that the area held well-developed mines.

When the truth reached France that investors had been duped, the fiasco became known as the Mississippi Bubble (something about the over-inflated estimates bursting). Some say John Law never came near the upper Mississippi Valley, that he culled information from explorers that either lied to him or told him the truth and he lied. Either way, his bubble burst.

Rah, rah…

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 earth moving 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.

Holidays or funerals…

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.