Monday, March 31, 2014

Get Off the Interstate...Small Town America is Waiting for You!

I live on the East Coast, very near the 7th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country. Yes, that's Philadelphia.  And while I've come to enjoy living there, I miss the open spaces and small towns of the Midwest.

I'll admit it -- I'm a Missouri girl.  What does that mean?  It means that I appreciate a freshly-plowed farm, the clack-clack-clack of a freight train rolling down the tracks, and the quirky small towns found on the back roads that don't have names or numbers, but letters to identify them.

Today I drove to one such small town on a quest to find my maternal great-great grandfather's grave.  Eli Reno was buried on his farm, just south of Chester, Illinois, a stone's throw from the Mississippi River.  It's about two hours south of St. Louis.  Some distant relative that I still haven't been able to place in the family tree found his grave site, as well as those of a daughter, son-in-law and grandson, back in the 1970's.  She gave me a few clues to follow in a letter sent to my mother back then.  About four years ago, a Randolph County, Illinois, historian helped me locate the farm my great-great grandfather owned.  She had been to the burial place and found the other headstones, but didn't find Eli's.  She surmised that it had fallen over and become buried in soil or under the native grasses.  She suggested that I return in the winter or early spring, before the fields were planted and the grasses started to grow, and that I bring along some tools to find it.

I packed my car with a hoe, gloves, a cold drink, my notebook and a camera.  I headed down the interstate, but soon got off on Highway 61, then onto Highway H toward Perry County, Missouri.  I drove over the two-lane Chester bridge on Highway 51 into town and stopped at the Visitor's Center. I was greeted by this:

For those of you in your 50's, you'll recognize Popeye, a cartoon character that first appeared in 1929 in the "Thimble Theater" comic strip.  Popeye, the strong, hardworking sailorman, soon became the 'star' of the strip.

Popeye, and all of his cartoon friends, were created by Elzie Crisler Segar, born in Chester in 1894, just a year after my grandmother.  They probably went to the same one-room schoolhouse as children.  Elzie took a mail order cartoon course, then moved to Chicago before breaking into the comics.  It's said that he based some of his characters on people he knew from Chester.

The city has embraced his legacy, and is erecting statues of his beloved characters all over the town.
Olive Oyl, Swee' Pea and Eugene, near the Randolph County Courthouse
The Annual Popeye Picnic is held on the weekend following Labor Day every year (  The three-day event is filled with attractions and entertainment for all ages.  A new Popeye Character Trail statue has been unveiled annually since 2006.
Wimpy's statue is near the Popeye Museum.
This is why I love the back roads of our country -- you'll never know what interesting things you find in the small little towns where people settled 150 years ago. It's fun to drive through downtown areas and see how life used to be.  It's interesting to visit local historical homes or museums, or talk to the people who to genealogical research, who are familiar with your family surname and can tell you stories about the town and its people.

Back to my quest.  I found the Reno homestead, which is still being farmed some 150 years later. However, the tree stump that was my landmark in the field was gone.  And after trudging around in the field for nearly two hours, I concluded that the headstones were also missing.  This is unusual, because most farmers are respectful of family burial plots and will plow around them.  I have the telephone number of the owner of the property -- his neighbor was kind enough to call him and ask for permission for me to hike around, and the owner thought the gravestones were still in the field. I'm hoping to talk to him soon and see if he can find them or at least talk to the man who is farming the land and see what happened to them.  At first, I was a little distressed, but then realized that the Catholic tradition of placing ashes on the forehead at the beginning of Lent has some relevance here:  remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

And, after further reflection, my ancestry quest won't end because I couldn't locate a headstone.  The bigger question that has still gone unanswered is who were Eli Reno's parents?  It may be one that I never answer.

And while I'm a Missouri girl, my maternal ancestors were from Illinois (by way of Ireland), and now I have a real connection with this little town off the beaten path.  (And I'll have spinach salad in tribute to its native son!)

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