Day 461: Flora Dora

From Lewistown, Laetitia and her group drove southeast, touring Lincoln’s New Salem State Park. Abraham Lincoln lived in New Salem as a young man, from 1831 to 1837. The recreated town in the park was built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps; the original town had been abandoned and little remained of the original wooden structures. The village features 23 buildings in the style of the period. These include homes, stores, shops, a tavern, a school, a sawmill, and a gristmill. After touring the park, Laetitia and her group proceeded on, stopping at Springfield to visit the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

In the late afternoon, they arrived in Flora, Illinois, where they were spending the night. It’s a town of about 5,000 residents. Generally a quiet town, it made the national news in 1960 when Lee Iococca chose to make it Ford Town U.S.A. as a publicity stunt. Each registered car owner in Flora, 1600 in all, received the loan of a new Ford car for a week. That was some years ago, and since then, Flora residents have had to turn elsewhere for entertainment. A conversation overheard at happy hour about one such amusement gave rise to Laetitia’s limerick of the day.

The ladies soon came to abhor a
Quite buxom young lady name Dora
Who was so well endowed
That she drew a large crowd
Each day as she jogged around Flora.

Day 460: Spoon River

Laetitia and her group started their day at Dickson Mounds Museum, a major Native American archeological site near the Illinois River. There are estimated to be more than 3,000 burials in the area, accumulated over the 12,000 years since the last ice age. Earlier burials are in mounds and later ones are in cemeteries. Some mass graves on the site suggest ritual sacrifices.

Next the group went to nearby Lewistown, once the home of poet Edgar Lee Masters. Masters chose to call his 1915 collection of poems, which was based on the towns of Lewistown and nearby Petersburg, the Spoon River Anthology. The work is a collection of free-verse poetic epitaphs of the dead who are “sleeping on the hill.” The spirits that tell their stories are fictional, but the accounts they give are often thinly disguised tales of real happenings.

Laetitia decided to take her group on the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive before returning to Lewistown for the evening. It’s a drive through the rural countryside that crosses old iron bridges and passes small museums, monuments, cemeteries, and nineteenth-century churches. Back in Lewistown, the group went to Oak Hill Cemetery. The first names and surnames of the 212 characters that populate the Spoon River Anthology are from here or the cemetery in Petersburg, near New Salem, where Masters also lived for a time.

The combinations are mostly mixed up to provide a certain amount of anonymity. The anthology is about the pathos of small town life. It strips away the veneer of quiet respectability and exposes the venality and hypocrisy of the town’s leading citizens and the broken dreams of its disenfranchised. In the poems, lives are often cut short by disease, accident, murder, or suicide, mitigated occasionally by acts of genuine love.

After dropping her group off at their hotel with instructions of where to meet for dinner, Laetitia went to a local bar for happy hour. In preparation for the day’s tour she had read Spoon River Anthology. She decided to do the day’s multiple-verse limerick based on some of its poems.

On the hill there are harlots and pastors
Telling tales about dreams and disasters
In each frank epitaph
Of success or of gaffe
Set in free verse by Edgar Lee Masters.

Of those shades who once lived in Spoon River
Most before Henry Ford built his flivver
Some were glad; some were bitter
One made good, one’s a quitter
One’s a taker; another’s a giver.

Those folks on the hill in death’s slumber
Are more than two hundred in number
So I’ll choose just a few
To briefly review
I don’t want your day to encumber.

A. D. Blood who spent life fighting sin
From his tomb now expresses chagrin
And regrets his sad plight
As his grave every night
Is the love-bed of Dora and Ben.

Dear Em Sparks, unwed schoolmarm, alone
Loved her pupils like they were her own
And her death brought a tear
From one once held dear
In a far distant land and full grown.

Deacon Taylor, who pushed prohibition
To the town freely makes the admission
He drank under their noses
‘Til liver cirrhosis
Led to his date with the mortician.

Kinsey Keene admired Viscount Cambronne
Whose defiant “Merde!” rocked Mt. St. Jean
A word Keene’d have chose
For his Spoon River foes
And his tombstone emblazoned upon.

Though this book has been long on the shelf
It’s a treasure of lit’rary wealth
So this evening instead
Of TV in bed
I suggest that you read it yourself.

Day 459: Galena Halloween

The county seat of Jo Daviess County, Illinois, is Galena, named for the lead sulfite ore that supplied 80 percent of America’s bullets during the middle of the nineteenth century. Accessible to the Mississippi River by a short run up a tributary, Galena was an important port city during the mining era. The prosperity brought by lead mining and river trade sparked a building boom that encompassed a wide variety of architectural styles. Today 85 percent of Galena’s buildings are in its historic district, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

Galena was also home to Civil War General and United States President Ulysses S. Grant. He graduated from West Point and served in the Mexican-American War before leaving the army and struggling as a civilian on a farm near St. Louis and as a clerk in Galena. He rejoined the army on the Union side in the Civil War and rapidly rose through the ranks to general. He was said to have had a fondness for whiskey, especially a bourbon from Kentucky called Old Crow. Perhaps this taste was inherited. A few decades after the Civil War, his relatives back in Scotland would start several whisky distilleries. According to a local legend, when Grant left to become president, he told Galena townsfolk, “Don’t do anything until I get back.” He never returned, and the town lapsed into obscurity until revived by modern industry and tourism in recent decades.

Laetitia’s group first toured Grant’s former home. Later they went to the Historic District, where they visited the Old Market House, St. Michael’s Church, the neoclassical Elihu Benjamin Washburne House, and the DeSoto House, the oldest operating hotel in Illinois. When she was enjoying a pre-dinner libation at a local drinking establishment, the bartender told her about Galena’s annual Halloween parade, during which the population swells from the town’s usual 3,500 residents to four times that number. Then he told a story about a Chicago lady named Selena who tried to liven up the parade one year by making it more like Mardi Gras.

The townsfolk all thought it obscene, a
Parade costume choice by Selena
Who portrayed Aphrodite
Devoid of her nighty
On Halloween night in Galena.