Elizabeth, Illinois…

elizabeth mapYou may find your place using latitude and longitude, but still feel lost. (Who said that? Me… I just did…)

Here’s another selection from a manuscript in progress. The story is set in Elizabeth, Illinois (obviously), but the rest is made up.

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.

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.

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.

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Elizabeth, Illinois, and other places I’ve driven through…

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My Horse
Somewhere along State Rd. 11
winding through sleepy towns
dotting southern Wisconsin is a
small, faded farm house
pushed up to the two-lane
and animals scattered about
the yard with a hand-painted sign
propped against the once white
fence that read, “My horse is old,
not neglected” and it could easily
read that way for the house, barn,
the tractor or even me, I suppose.

Elizabeth, Illinois
I drove through the rows and rows of
look-alike domiciles, with alternating
sprawling industrial parks and ponds
retaining run-off from acres of blacktopped
lots, ribbon striped but vacant – hopeful
for business; hopeful for money to upgrade
to a bigger, better look-alike because won’t
that make everything right. Through
Rockford and beyond, past Winnebago
where I know people but never stopped
myself; and along the bypass around Freeport
where we used to stop for soft-serve, dipped,
by the roadside but not anymore; that
makes me sad and it closed down like so
many businesses bypassed. The story is that
a woman named Elizabeth was so wealthy and
generous she gave free portage to those
seeking a better life – any life – in the Illinois
gold rush of the nineteen hundreds and the
next town earned her name; there was such
a thing – the Illinois gold rush – that drew
immigrants of all colors and flavors, and some
settled and dug and died and are buried in
Lutheran and Catholic cemeteries (because
consecrated ground matters in death just like
in life) all along the ridge known as Terrapin
toward Galena and they’re still buried there
today. I drove slowly through Woodbine
because it’s a speed trap and more slowly
through Elizabeth – it’s always been only seven
hundred people living there because so many
born and raised there don’t stay there and
that might make some mothers sad but I’m
sure some are happy; a couple pick-ups slow
and turn off into farms with porch lights lit,
with fences needing mending, calves in a nearby
pen and an Oldsmobile on the front lawn with
a ‘For Sale’ sign on the window, and they’re
asking for ‘Best Offer.’ The road slopes and
turns over and around the most variegated
terrain of Illinois; two lanes in the binary
back-and-forth of this driving life where
west is sometimes north or at least northwest
and no compass tells you more than the
highway, passing by the homes of real
people happy and sad at the same time
with two hundred channels of cable of all
the world out there but not here. I drove
this road through the lives of so many who
knew exactly where they were and I knew
nothing more than the wheel in my hand,
the mirrors showing the fast fading of what
I’d passed, and what’s next hidden beyond
the next ridge; and so I drove on, and on…