Archive for December, 2010

Providential Care

Early in 1999, my daughter, my dad, and I started collecting the new series of quarters that featured the states on the reverse. Five new quarters would be introduced each year, and all fifty states would have their own quarters by the end of 2008. Emily was eight and enjoyed starting a new hobby. Dad died later in 1999, but she and I continued our collections in two coin-holding books.

2008 seemed a long way off, but now that year has passed! All fifty states have been minted. Our two collections are almost complete, but we both need Utah quarters from the Denver mint.  We both kept looking for Utah Ds in change, but those quarters eluded us.  Coins from the Denver mint seemed scarce in northeast Ohio.  But we figured those coins would eventually travel to us via change at a store or a vending machine.

The thought of coins “traveling” among cash registers and pockets made me think of the scene in No Country for Old Men, where the killer Anton Chigurh tells the gas station proprietor: “You know what date is on this coin? …1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.”

That’s a dark movie to introduce within my family memories, but “randomness” is both an interesting and scary thing. Don’t we all worry about the safety of our family members because of random events: the drunk who happened to be driving in the same area as your loved one, or the psycho with a gun? I once had a comparatively minor traffic accident: if I hadn’t stopped at a particular store, I could’ve avoided hitting a van that went through a red light, I would’ve already been down the road. 

But randomness can be “serendipity,” too. Emily went to camp one summer at Lakeside, OH, became friends some kids from western Pennsylvania, and eventually investigated colleges in that area; she loves the one in which she’s enrolled. We meet people we love, and find new opportunities, through small encounters.

Ten years ago I took karate lessons, but we moved to another city before I progressed very far. When we moved, the instructor told me to contact her brother, who happened to work at the same university to which we were going. When we first got together for coffee, the brother brought along his pastor, whom he thought I’d enjoy meeting. A few years later, I met the pastor again when my daughter was in the same community choir with his daughter. This past year, when my wife accepted her new position, the pastor introduced me to his friend, the president of a school in the same city as my wife’s new position. Soon I had a new teaching job before I’d made a single contact of my own.

I could name numerous examples of that sort from my life. Someone once said that it’s not “a small world,” as the Disney song goes. If we’re active in our lives and open to other people, we’re bound to encounter persons who connect us to other people and places. God certainly uses these encounters to work for good (Rom. 8:28). 

God introduces many experiences into the flow of our lives, not only good people but also surprises and small serendipities. You’re in the midst of some problem, perhaps a problem that you’ve dealt with for a while, and then at the perfect moment, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news.   I remember when a life-changing opportunity opened up for me at a very painful moment when I wasn’t sure what to do next.   Somtimes God guides us, sometimes God simply reassures us about the loving divine presence. 

The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead. Needless to say, providence is one of the beautiful doctrines of Scripture. We long to be guided and used by God. We long to know that God has been at work whether we knew or not (Hos. 11:3). But our lives run aground sometimes; difficulties come to even the most devoted Christians, while mean people seem to avoid trouble.  Bad things happen to us, or to those we love, which make us question God’s love and care.  As we seek to walk with God—to seek God’s Lordship and companionship—we face challenges.

We also never know exactly how God cares for us amid our life’s events. Maybe that fellow who ran the red light would’ve caused a worse accident up the road if I (and another driver who had worse car damage than I) hadn’t “met” in that intersection. (But if so, why do bad accidents happen every day to other people?)

One of the most haunting stories in this regard is that of the evil King Ahab. Elijah prophesied about his death (1 Kings 21:20f). A little later, Ahab dies in battle … but the arrow wasn’t even aimed at him. An Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34).

In a more positive story, Paul and Timothy served in Lystra and Iconium, and then planned to go preach in Asia but were forbidden to do so there, as well a Bithynia. Eventually they arrived at Troas, where Paul received a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). What was the Spirit up to? The text only says they were guided.

Similarly with us. By opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance we can may find ourselves led—and comforted—in amazing ways, through meaningful opportunities, with people who care. 


The last few years I’ve been doing a midlife exploration of the Bible. Here is a list of narratives I found concerning God’s provision. The Bible does not spell out details of how God works, the Bible is clear that God does work! These stories arise from different narratives and sources within the Bible.

· Hagar has given up hope after her water has run out and leaves Ishmael to die. But the angel of God comes to her and gives her divine assurance. At that point, she realizes she has been close to water all along, and God remains with them (Gen. 21:15-21).

· Jacob is about to face his brother after many years, and he is greatly afraid. He prays to God for deliverance (Gen. 32:9-12). His prayer is touchingly answered when he meets his brother and unexpectedly is embraced lovingly by Esau (Gen. 33:1-11). Not only that, but Jacob experiences his unanticipated time of testing as he wrestles with … who? A man? God? An angel? (Gen. 32:22-32).

· Joseph experiences the betrayal of his brothers, the betrayal by Potiphar, yet another betrayal by the chief baker, and years of imprisonment before he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-41).

· Tamar schemes and presents herself as a prostitute in order to finally become pregnant—by her father-in-law Judah. One of her offspring, Perez, is ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38).

· David slays Goliath with what seems an extremely ineffective weapon (1 Sam. 17:4ff).

· Saul, on the other hand, has excellent means to slay David but is prevented from doing so (1 Sam. 19:10).

· Solomon becomes king of Israel, amid the scheming of his mother and even of the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1-2).

· As I stated above: Elijah prophesies concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 21:20f), but Ahab dies in what seems like a very freak accident (1 Kings 22:34).

· Elisha’s servant Gehazi cheats Naaman of money. Although not present at the time, Elisha knew and cursed Gehazi and his descendents with leprosy (2 Kings 5:19b-27).

· Ahithophel gave better advice to Absalom, to pursue David. But God led Absalom to also seek the advice of Hushai, who advised Absalom not to be hasty. Absalom followed Hushai’s advice, which sounded better but contributed to his (Absalom’s) downfall (2 Sam. 17:1-23).

· In that same story, a woman hid Ahimaaz and Jonathan, and then lied to Absalom, which allowed David to escape safely (2 Samuel 17:15-22).

· Esther, a Jewish woman in the Persian king’s harem, becomes queen of Persia and, with her guardian Mordecai, is able to save her people from massacre.

· The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts the people of God and blasphemes God. God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isa. 36-37; 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).

· Jeremiah is cast into a cistern to die. He is saved only because an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, heard about it, and the king happened to be at a place where Ebed-melech could speak to him (Jer. 38:1-13).

· The thief on the cross has not believed in Jesus and scarcely has what we’d call faith. But with the barest amount of belief he reaches out to fellow “criminal” Jesus with a word of compassion and regret. The man gets more grace than he would’ve dreamed (Luke 23:39-43).

· You could argue that the two fellows walked to Emmaus had less faith than the penitent thief. The thief knew Jesus would come into his kingdom, whereas the two fellows thought the promised kingdom was no more, now that Jesus was gone. They too, get “extra grace” (Luke 24:13-35).

· The Ethiopian eunuch studies Scripture by himself, when Philip encounters him and helps the man discover Jesus. The Spirit had merely instructed Philip to go to Gaza, and after meeting with the eunuch, Philip doesn’t even proceed to Gaza but is sent elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40).

· Peter is able to evangelize the centurion Cornelius thanks to the Holy Spirit’s “cross-referencing” of visions (Acts 10).

· Peter is imprisoned, and his friends pray fervently for him. Subsequently an angel releases Peter from prison, but when he returns to his friends’ house, they don’t believe (Acts 12:6-17).

· As stated above: Paul and Timothy had success in Lystra and Iconium, and then as they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” they tried to go into Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit forbade that, too. So they went to Troas, where Paul had a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).

· Paul and Silas are released from prison because of an earthquake, which also led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16: 25-34).

· Paul glorified God when God raised Eutychus from the dead; but Eutychus had died because he drifted off during Paul’s long sermon and fell from window (Acts 20:7-13).

· Paul wanted to go to Rome and preach; he would’ve been released by King Agrippa but Paul had appealed to the emperor (Acts 26:30-32); so Paul was sent a prisoner to Rome, but when he arrived, the Roman officials had received no charges against him (Acts 28:21). See the whole dramatic story: Acts 21:17-28:30.

These stories require prayerful interpretation on our part, for some are violent, untoward, and strange. Others are closer to our own experiences of serendipity. Does the Bible spell out God’s role in these events? Not always! In some, God is scarcely mentioned, if at all. But the Bible witnesses to or implies a mysterious but real and strong guidance amid the very human course of things.

The Bible also gives us confidence in God’s ability to use us. The Bible is filled with characters God used. We should never raise ourselves to the stature of Moses, David, Gideon, Nehemiah, Mary, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others. Remember that these people had specific roles in the history of God’s salvation, greater than our comparatively small place in God’s scheme. But, as we seek a deeper relationship with God in Christ, their stories give us confidence in God’s ability to use different people in astonishing ways. Although I strongly dislike that expression “One person plus God is a majority”—the saying sounds too much like “God is on my side, therefore I’m right, and you (and everyone else) are wrong”—the expression points to the deep truth of God’s power to accomplish his will.  God may accomplish great things in our lives, but he may use us for great things in other people’s lives; or God may use times of trouble and failure in order to bring about important things down the way. God’s providential signs and wonders happen within a context beyond our comprehension (Eph. 3:20). As we look to Christ and his Spirit, we open ourselves to God’s love, care, and guidance. 


Earlier, I said that my dad, daughter Emily, and I started collecting the “state” quarters as they began to be minted (5 a year for 10 years) in 1999. Dad died later that year but E. and I continued to collect them. Last year, quarters for all 50 states were minted. The only one we couldn’t yet find in change was “Utah” from the Denver mint.  Did we ever find some?  I did!   I finally found one in change on July 21, 2009, which was Dad’s birthday…

Read Full Post »


A couple years ago, Facebook friends introduced me to the expression “FML,” an addendum added to their news of unfortunate events, embarrassing twists of fate, and unhappy experiences. Without too much imagination, I figured the expression is an abbreviation for “f*** my life.” While verifying my surmise online, I found a website, http://www.fmylife.com, which contains short descriptions of assorted calamities and humiliating moments. These, in turn, have been collected into a published book F My Life.

The expression is crude but understandable: how badly you feel when you’ve said or done something well-intentioned but inappropriate, or when your best laid plans backfire in some way! I feel that way when I’ve done my best in a situation but, for whatever reason, the circumstance goes awry and I feel foolish.

Without being too irreverent, I thought of some biblical FML moments. Several passages in Job immediately spring to mind, but so does this one from Jeremiah.

Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?
(Jer. 20:13-18)

Most definitely a “FML” attitude!  

Similarly, the Israelites’ despairing complaints typified their experience of Wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Ex. 16:1-4)

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ (Ex. 17:1-4)

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ (Num. 14:1-3)

The migrating Israelites unfortunately became a historical example of impatient despair in the face of adversity.

Needless to say, a despairing, disappointed response to personal situations should not be a fixed part of a religious person‘s outlook (or anyone‘s for that matter). “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Phil. 4:4: “always,” not when things are going well.  But that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to fake a sunny attitude when we’re feeling down. The psalms, after all, give us permission to bring problems and disappointments forthrightly to God.  The error of the Israelites was not to call upon Lord amid adversity, but to lose all hope. 

Psalm 77 is one of my favorites. In the first half, Asaph expresses forthright unhappiness about life and toward God.

You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
‘Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’
And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’ (vss. 4-10).

Can’t you hear the disapproval of sunny, “I’ve got the victory” Christians in response to a complaint like that? But this is Holy Scripture.

But the second half rehearses God’s blessings, in an “object lesson” of verse 11, “I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old.” The psalmist recalls the works and wonders of God.

I try to curb my own “FML” moments by recalling God’s mercies. This is definitely one of my struggles and I don’t succeed as often as I wish–despairing moments, after all, resist a larger outlook than one’s personal pain. But it might be a good idea for us to make lists periodically of God’s wonders and mercies. The mercies could be personal, or examples from the Bible. The goal is to move out of the moment’s pain–the disappointment, the hurt of pride–to the consoling truth of God’s redemption.

Read Full Post »

Whenever a relative writes me with a family history question [a more common occurrence during the early 1990s, when I wrote this essay, than now], I’ll go through my genealogical collection to find information or locate an item to copy or a photograph to reproduce. Today I’m looking at the material out of nostalgia.

Whenever I look through my family history material, my mind fills with peaceful images of “place”:  Four Mile Prairie, Route 185 as it crosses the prairie and curves into a grove of timber, the hills around Ramsey, IL (associated with the Carson and Washburn branches of the family), Vandalia, and Brownstown.  All these are locations in Fayette County, Illinois.  Genealogy, memory, and landscape sentimentally mix in my mind. 

My material—today strewn over the kitchen table—consists handwritten or typed manuscripts in folders, charts, photographs in albums, and an antique oatmeal container.  I really did a lot of genealogical research when I was just a teenager!   And I gained such a wonderful sense of family and local heritage.  A little later, when I worked at my local library during my college years, I always wanted to run from the genealogists who verbally depicted their family trees to anyone standing nearby. But I was the same. I could top their depictions. I could recount how my first ancestors settled Fayette County in November 1829. They were the Pilchers and the Gatewoods. Next came the Carsons about 1830, the Mahons in 1835, the Washburns and Browns separately in 1836, the Williamses about 1840, the Crawfords in the early 1850s, and finally the Strobels in the 1880s. I never meant to bore anyone; I aimed to show them how deeply go my ties to home. I wished nothing less for them.


I preserve my Pilcher keepsakes in a scrapbook with a copy of the family history. Most of Grandma’s Pilcher artifacts were lost in the fire, but I did have her handwritten copy of the family tree and a few pictures. The “tree” is the record of the descendents of Winslow and Averilla Pilcher. Grandma’s great-grandparents who came to the Four Mile area in 1829 along with Averilla’s parents, Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, and Averilla’s brother Thomas A. and his family. Blanche Harstad, Grandma’s first cousin, worked on the history during the 1930s and distributed carbon copies of the history in 1940. She begins: With all due apologies to anyone who might take offense to anything that 1 have compiled in these records. I started out to compile this Pilcher Family Tree for my own pleasure and interest. However it has turned out to be a good deal of work and most of my spare time was spent in making these copies this winter as I did want the secretary and one in each family of the first eighteen children to have a copy.

Blanche began with Winslow’s parents, about whom she knew little. Lewis Pilcher was born in England. He moved to Fairfax, Va., then to Frankfort, KY. Mary was from Wales. Lewis and Mary had eighteen children, twelve girls, six boys. One adopted boy, Robert Sage, fought in the Battle of Germantown. Mary Rogers Pilcher was the one who supposedly was George Rogers Clark’s aunt. General Clark would have been my first cousin seven times removed. It’s still a good story.

Blanche continues. Winslow came from Frankfort, KY. Their religion was called the Hardshelled Baptist. They were honest and respectable people. They had to endure many hardships. They settled on what is now known as Four Mile Prairie. They had to go with team and wagon to St. Louis nearly 90 miles. It would take nearly one week to go. Sometimes it would rain and water would come up so high they would have to wait until it ran down before they could get home. One time Great-grandmother (Averilla) took her seed beans down and was going to cook them for the hungry children when Great-grandfather came.

Averilla was a large woman. She was quick-tempered. She would often take her slipper off to spank her young offsprings.

One day two old buck Indians came to her home while Winslow was away, took down the shotgun which hung over the door. They grunted in their Indian fashion, hung the gun back, and walked away.

Averilla was a hard worker.

Among the several genealogical projects that I undertook during teenage, summer days, I set about finding all I could about the Pilchers. In my imagination they seemed a kind of Lincolnesque example of stalwart pioneers who “broke the prairie,” the kind of everyday people who helped found Vandalia. According to family lore the Pilchers hoped to travel farther north but the Vincennes Road was so muddy they resolved to stay where their wagons were mired. Four Mile is not mentioned among the named prairies in Fred Gerhart’s Illinois As It Is (1857) nor in local sources until later. Instead local sources call it “Wakefield Prairie,” after the first white settler who’d settled there in 1824, and also “Cumberland Township,” a reference to the nearest post office three miles north on the National, or Cumberland Road. The entire township was finally given the name Otego, after the New York location from which some settlers came. Several pioneer families began moving to the vicinity during the later 1820s and the 1830s; the county history names the several men who came to the township at that time, including other maternal ancestors of mine. Wives and children aren’t listed. As for the Pilchers, their “Hardshell Baptist” convictions apparently were fervent, for by 1830, according to the county history, the first church of the township was organized—in the Pilchers new home.

The family was an extended one. The adult children and their own offspring lived around the Four Mile area. According to the census records Thomas and Margaret Gatewood also lived nearby. Thomas sometimes ran for county offices and happened to be Fayette County coroner during the years when Lincoln served in the state legislature. Some of Winslow’s brothers apparently lived nearby, too, for in Winslow’s estate papers I located a transaction between two of them—a tragic transaction. Know all men by these presents that I Lewis Pitcher [the son of the first Lewis] have this day sold to Alexander S. Pilcher four slaves to wit Aaron about the age of ten years, Moses about eight years of age, and Ann and her child named Mary Jane, for and in consideration of the sum of one thousand and five hundred dollars to me in hand paid the reciept whereof I do herby acknoledge and do warrent them slaves for life, the title whereof I do bind myself forever to defend against any and all claims what ever given under my hand this 7th day of Oct. r 1839 Lewis his x mark Pilcher.

It is difficult to picture how Fayette County looked in those days, days of virgin prairie and the oldest stands of timber in Southern Illinois. I’m sure it would be entirely unrecognizable to me. Fayette County farms were just beginning to be productive by the late 1820s. Vandalia was eight miles east on the Vincennes Road and the new National Road; Winslow surely purchased many of his family supplies in Vandalia or at smaller settlements southeast of Four Mile.

Winslow set about farming but he did not limit himself to that. Like most men of the time, he hunted. The 1878 county history notes that Winslow purchased the first Durham bull in the township, so he must have raised some livestock also. Strangely no one in our family remembered that he made a hefty sum of money when Vandalia’s statehouse was constructed in 1836. Several downtown Vandalia businessmen and county residents pitched in on the building project that summer and fall, and records of state appropriations show that Winslow hauled timber to the public square during the summer of 1836. During the following winter he swept plaster from the senate chamber. For these duties he was paid $47, a very large sum considering that, forty years later, his widow received only $8 a month for a pension. Besides economic need I don’t know what might have compelled him to travel to Vandalia to help in the building project. For the sake of family history, I’m glad he did.

Winslow and Averilla died after the Civil War. Their two-story log house stood until the 1910s when, according to Grandma, it was torn down. It was located at a spot which is now a small fenced-in pasture adjacent to the family burial ground which had comprised the original property. According to family lore the little graveyard began when the eighth child, Octavia, contracted tetanus from a stepped-on nail and asked to be buried beneath a favorite bush. Winslow and Averilla were buried there too but their graves are unmarked, as (presumably) are the graves of those among their children who did not survive to adulthood. A marker honoring Winslow was later placed upon a simple grave there. Four other children—William Lewis Pilcher, Louisiana Smith, Charlie Pilcher, and Jonathan K. Pilcher my great-great-grandfather—are buried within the shady, peaceful space of their own childhoods. (Jonathan and his family comprise the stern group, circa 1891, at the beginning of this essay.)

I leaf through the history of the people and their descendents. Blanche’s text has a wonderful quaintness that enthralled me as I read the pages while sitting in Grandma’s house. The stories of the eighteen children are wonderful evocations of the Four Mile area from over a hundred years ago.

Hannah Pilcher was born in Catskilll, N.Y. At one time they [she and her husband William Lewis Pilcher] lived east and north of Jonathan K. Pilcher’s out through the woods. On their way to see them they often stopped to pick papaws. Mother can remember how they caught fireflies from the field of wheat across the road….

Cordelia was so small they could turn a teacup over her head and it rested on her shoulders. They carried her on a pillow for weeks…

Louisiana was a very large woman, plain spoken. They had one son who left home and was killed; the body sent home, buried as their son.

Uncle Charlie’s wife died leaving him to bring up the children to the best of his ability, and that proved to be extremely good. He would take them to church and parties and enjoyed the fun along with them. He was a Hardshell Baptist and believed what is to be will be, and in May there was one special Sunday that was always a big day at Four Mile. People would come for miles and if anyone got a new hat, it was always for that day. Uncle Ben Mahon would preach. They had a foot washing and Uncle Charlie was the one that always had his foot washed…. He was found dead in a chair outside his house. Aunt Cordie and family came to see them that particular 4th of July morning and found him dead..

My mother was hardly sixteen when her mother died in 1893. Her father, Jonathan K., was hard of hearing thus making it hard to carry on unnecessary conversation; therefore much of the family history was lost. Jonathan did quite a bit of carpentering, laying brick for brick houses, built wagons, buggies, and bobsleds. He owned 57 A. of land, also farmed, kept stock of all kinds. He sold the farm after Rhoda Ann died, and bought the farm on Route 185 owned by Steve Sidwell at that time, sold it later, and bought on the Brownstown Road… A kitchen lean-to was built on the house that extended to the smokehouse. It had a 10-ft. table with a bench next to the wall. Uncle Henry ate his first dish of oatmeal at this long table. The flue caught fire and caused the house to burn down. And again much of the family history was lost. Rhoda Ann loved to sing. Horseback riding was a delight to her. Aunt Martha says that I had as fine a grandmother that ever lived. She raised chickens, did some milking, made butter, baked eight or nine loaves of bread in an outside bake oven, and no doubt had many more responsibilities. She was born in Morgan Co., Ohio.

The stories of the third generation are similar.

Lottie, Lavina Litchenwalter, and Mother were together one Sunday. Loytie and Lavina were to go to church that evening. Lottie wanted her dress fresh and cream-colored, so she washed, starched and dyed it with strong coffee, ironed it, and was ready for church…

Clara was a large woman. She had well-behaved children. She dressed Ida like a doll. One dress that my mother remembers was embroidered with a long waist, wide ribbon sash, short puffed sleeves. Mother thinks they lived in Denver, Co.

John was a very small man; most Pitchers were rather large. Very nice sort of fellow.

Robert went with a Catholic girl at one time. During Lent she wouldn’t see him. He made the remark, “And by gosh, I respected her for it.”

Kate took care of the twins. She had a bed fixed in front of the buggy. There was where she put them while she drove around through the country.

Most of these people were Fayette Countians. Yet Pilcher is no longer a common area name. As in the case of Grandma the name was “married” into other local names.

Blanche wrote, I do not feel this book is complete until we have eliminated all the blank spaces that are possible to fill out. I do feel that you who have a book or see one can help make this a success by sending me the information that I have failed to get. Any remuneration will be guilefully appreciated. As I pursued genealogy I modestly added other branches of the family to sections which Blanche had found no leads. I do not know when Blanche died–she lived most of her life in the Dakotas–but I would like to think she’d appreciate my efforts to bring her chronicle to a greater fullness.


Here is my Pilcher Cemetery manuscript. In 1973 and 1974, when I was 16 and 17, I spent hours at the cemetery copying all the inscriptions. I tried to copy each inscription exactly, although I didn’t take time to double check my work.

Those were summertime trips.  A dermatologist had advised me to get a lot of sun for my acne, and I definitely wanted to get tanned.  So I wore a tank top or no shirt at all.  Usually I didn’t wear shoes, either. I reasoned that shoes were unnecessary for a morning spent outdoors in the grass and sticky but soft evergreen needles. The thought of going to work barefooted still sounds appealing to me. I remember startling a visitor to the cemetery who didn’t expect to see a long-haired, barefoot young man walking around the graves with a clipboard.

Back home, I typed my notes and made several pages of lists of inscriptions—just over 250 inscriptions in all. I also painstakingly created a chart that showed how many of the people in the graveyard were interrelated and intermarried. About this project, I was particularly proud of my identification and indication of unmarked graves. My grandmother and other older relatives knew where certain people were buried who, for whatever reason, never had a tombstone. For instance, one of Grandma’s cousins told me that six of her young siblings were buried beneath a tree in the smaller family cemetery.

As I wrote in the previous essay, the Pilcher Cemetery is actually two graveyards. The Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery is a small area near the site of Pilcher’s homestead. Thomas R. and Margaret Gatewood, Winslow and Averilla Pilcher, several of that couple’s children and grandchildren, and also Averilla’s brother Thomas A. Gatewood, are buried here. A few people not related to the Pilchers are buried here, too: my distant uncle Ben Mahon and his wife, children, and mother in law. The last burial here was 1928.

The graveyard is a pleasant small place, distinguished from the surrounding fields with a farm fence. Tall evergreens lay a carpet of shade upon the area. Sometimes cows had peaked at me over the fence. When I visit the place I like to see monuments for Louisiana Pilcher Smith, with its rounded plain top and its fading, soft-looking inscription; the old broad stone for William L. and Hannah Pilcher (on which Hannah’s death date was never carved); the small tablet for Charlie Pilcher; and my great-great-grandparents, Jonathan K. and Rhoda Pilcher, who died in 1908 and 1893 respectively. I remember how thrilled I felt to discover that these people are my ancestors; their gray obelisk stands at the west side of the graveyard at the edge of the evergreens’ shade.

Beside that obelisk is a row of small tombstones for the couple’s young children: children who would’ve been my grandma’s uncles and aunts. As a childless teenager I didn’t quite grasp the tragedy of this smaller cemetery: how many our children and infants are buried here. A few epitaphs reflect the terrible grief:

Jesus said suffer little children and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven Mat. 19

Our darling one hath gone before
To greet us on the blissful shore.

The larger Pilcher Cemetery is just up the narrow road from the family cemetery. Until the mid or late 1970s, a beautiful large oak tree dominated the cemetery, which is a pretty clearing a grove of timber. The name is a bit of a misnomer, because fewer Pilcher descendents are buried here. But seemingly the place began as a community graveyard, separate from Winslow Pilcher’s family but associated with the pioneer. The cemetery was called “Mr. Pilcher’s Graveyard” in an 1840s family letter. A cluster of plain stones crudely inscribed with initials and 1830s dates mark the oldest known graves. The place was also called the Washburn Cemetery in turn of the century obituaries–and several Washburns are buried here. My great-great-grandparents Josiah and Margaret Williams actually deeded the land in 1893 to cemetery trustees.

In this larger cemetery are buried my grandparents, great-grandparents (Crawford and Pilcher), some great-great-grandparents (Crawford and Williams) and great-great-great-grandparents (Williams and Washburn), as well as distant uncles and aunts and cousins. All but one of the original eight Crawford children are buried here.  Altogether, twenty of my ancestors are buried in the two cemeteries, along with many other relatives. Over the years, more of my great-uncles, great-aunts, and cousins have been interred here, as well as my mother’s brother and his wife.

Whenever I visit the cemetery I read the inscriptions of relatives: Crawford, Fink, Williams, Washburn, Rush, and others. As I indicated in the previous essay, as a little boy I loved the archaic names on older stones. Gravestone symbolism isn’t plentiful but interesting: a finger pointed toward Heaven, hands clasped in greeting, a dead dove, a bare-bottomed cherub. A double stone for the babies Elvina and Lemuel Parks stands in the far corner of the graveyard because, according to Grandma, the babies died of smallpox. Nearby are a pair of tiny stones of Williams infants who died in 1861. They weren’t even named. Not far away is a young man who, according to the inscription, died at Vicksburg, and nearby is another Civil War veteran with a military marker but, hidden in the grass, is a flat circular stone that indicates he died in 1862. And not far away is an epitaph:

Farewell my wife and children all
From you a father Christ doth call
Mourn not for me it is in vain
To call me to your sight again

The epitaph is a fragment of a tombstone but I never could find the rest of it

As I look through my painstaking recorded and poorly typed manuscript, I remember that, when I was young, I tried to imagine what these people looked like based on their stones—like David Copperfield who thought of his infant brothers as having been born with their hands in their pockets. If I saw photographs of the people, of course they never looked like my preconceptions.


I sort through other pictures and items, letting memories intermingle. Here is a photograph of Andy Stroble, my long-dead grandfather. During the era when it didn’t matter Andy changed the spelling of the name according to the whim of the moment and happened to spell it “Stroble” on Dad’s birth certificate. Thus my name is different from my cousins. Here is the beginning of a Strobel family tree that I never completed before I left for college. John and Emma Strobel, my great-grandparents, lived north of Vandalia on U.S. 51 and had ten children. John was born in Bavaria in 1840 and emigrated with his parents a few years later. I never discovered much about my Strobel and Hotz ancestors, settling for a few family facts from the trivial to the bitter, concerning the immediate family. John was a farmer for 75 years until 1929 . . . John and Emma both died of myocarditis and senility . . . George Strobel worked in the coal mines . . . Lillie Strobel was the daughter of Ellen Watkins and her second husband; Ellen was the maternal grandmother of Grace Crawford, mother of Mildred Stroble, by Ellen’s third marriage to George Washburn . . . Gustav Strobel died when he drank some lye while his mother washed the kitchen floor; he was two days shy of his first birthday . . . Ed Strobel raised and sold horses, and served in World War I . . . . Andy died of a stroke walking to the harness shop in downtown Vandalia . . .

Here is Dad’s picture of John and Emma. Wearing work clothes and standing before a rose bush, they look like a German American Gothic. Dad remembers they grew rhubarb and cabbage and once “put up” 55 gallons of wonderful sauerkraut. He remembers sitting on their front porch with his cousin Delmer, practicing their slingshots, and Dad’s shot hit Delmer’s brother Fred in the head, momentarily knocking him senseless. “Damn! Paul! Damn! You killed the son of a bitch!” Delmer had yelled, laughing, and I hear his laughter in my father’s. Dad still has the gun which, according to family lore, John carried into the Civil War. The gun was found, loaded, after John’s death in 1932. In order to fire it but also to protect people if the old gun exploded, someone tied it to a stump, tied a long rope to the trigger, hid behind a tree, and pulled the rope… The gun fired, one last time.

I’d love to be able to add that a duck fell from the sky, and all the cousins feasted on duck and “roastineers” in memory of Grandpa Strobel, the old German farmer. But that would be adding to the truth.

Here is a Polaroid photograph of my dad’s mother and her siblings-Ross, Roy, Peg, Pauline, Lonnie. Grandma’s brothers and sisters were people who still elicit grateful memories from their kin. I remember how Aunt Peg loved to tease me about the time when I was a toddler and, during a family visit to her house in Decatur, I tried to fold a live cat in half and place it into a toy dump truck. I heard about that until I was in my twenties. Janie died when she was 101–the third of fourteen children, she survived them all–and her body finally outlived her mind. Before she went into the nursing home she’d tell me she and her mother (who was, at that time, dead for over 25 years) had taken a buggy ride that day. While visiting her I realized that sometimes, when the ties break between our minds and reality, our family ties remain strong.

Here is a photo of Mac Carson, my great-grandfather on Dad’s side, who lived in the northern part of Fayette County. James S. Carson, a Revolutionary War veteran and Mac’s great-grandfather, had settled the country in the 1830s. Mac has his gloved hands on a saw with which he is cutting a log, a cigar is in his mouth beneath an ample moustache, and he looks up at the photographer. His broad rimmed hat shades his face. But another picture shows him wearing a suit and looking slightly bemused. His wife Alice holds a squirming infant, Uncle Lonnie.

Here is a photo of Alice’s father, my great-great-grandfather, who also pauses from sawing a log. His beard extends to the middle of his chest. The photograph is an old postcard on which he affixed his own name and address: John T. Colburn, Loami, Lock Box 94, Illinois. That branch of the family settled in Sangamon County and helped found the town of Loami. Grandma Janie also gave me a picture of John wherein he sits beside animals and toys that he whittled from wood. He has an almost childlike look in his eyes.

Here are photocopies of Carson and Colburn family information that Uncle Roy Carson had obtained for me. The two-column page from the History of Sangamon County, Illinois (1881) states that John’s father Paul Colburn and his family traveled through rain, mud and unabridged streams for about five weeks, which brought them to the south side of Lick creek on what is now Loami township, where they found an empty cabin. From sheer weariness they decided to stop…. Having succeeded in bringing so many of his descendents to the new country, and witnessed their struggles to gain a foothold and provide themselves with homes, Paul died Feb. 27, 1825. near the present town of Loami… Elsewhere in the same history my great-great-great-grandfather John Carson–a Fayette County resident who left many descendents in Sangamon County–is mentioned as a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War. One day Mom, Dad, the family dauchshund, and I found John’s grave in a Fayette County cemetery high above the Kaskaskia River. Beside the grave was that of his son, James Carson, Mac’s father, who was killed while hunting wild turkeys in Fayette County In 1859, aged only 39.

“What a way to go!” my mom remarked.

Here are several sheets on the Mahon family, related to me through the Crawfords. An old gentleman in suburban St. Louis gave me information about the descendents of John Mahon, an Irishman who had emigrated in the 1760s and was killed by British soldiers as they ransacked his home. We know nothing about John’s wife but their sons were named Doctor, Barren. Dennizen, Pliant, Thomas and James. Doctor Mahon was my great-great-great-great-grandfather who, along with Thomas, settled Fayette County in the mid-1830s. Doctor’s son John was my ancestor who wanted a gravestone no more ostentatious than Jesus’ stone, but Doctor had less than Jesus did, his grave is unknown.

John had a brother named Benjamin who was a “Hardshell Baptist” minister in Fayette County for many years. My own ancestor emerges relatively colorless compared to his younger brother “Old Ben Mahon,” one of the very few clergymen in my family. He was a circuit rider of great local note in the nineteenth century. The county history calls him “a rough diamond, loving his joke,” and states that he took 150 preaching engagements each year, but he accepted no money for his evangelistic work. Grandma told me there was some uproar when he was disinterred in 1902 to be buried beside his wife, who had already been buried in the old family graveyard. The men opened the casket before reburial. Apparently Ben had rolled over.

Here are photographs of the separate graves of my great-great-grandparents, George and Ellen Washburn, and also the grave of their younger daughter Susan England. The graves are in a small cemetery in the hilly, northern townships of Fayette County. Grandma Grace liked to tell me the story of how George walked away from the Civil War, missing an arm, and came home to Fayette County only to discover his wife had recently died. He lodged with a family that included the recently widowed Ellen Watkins, and they eventually married. In her endearingly hard-headed manner Grandma always stressed that George and Ellen both had several children from previous marriages but that their own marriage produced only two children. Grandma’s mother Abby Pilcher and “Aunt Suze” England. It was essential that we know that Aunt Suze was not a half-sister but a “real” sister. It wasn’t that we’d have hurt Suze’s feelings if we got it wrong, though; she had died in 1931. Grandma just wanted us to know. The cemetery is pretty, nestled in a grove of trees beside a gravel road, far from the two-lane; to get there we pass “my” Miller High Life silo on a high hill along U.S. 51. A few years before I discovered genealogy Mom and Dad took me to the cemetery along with some cousins. I remember catching some good butterflies for my third-grade science project. I couldn’t have cared less about my ancestors.

Here is a sheet of paper on which I wrote that my ancestor, David Washburn, was a Cape Cod whale fisherman. His wife Esther Griffith was the daughter of a wholesale dealer in New York. I do not recall who gave me the information; perhaps Grandma’s distant cousin who ran the Four Mile store. The sheet of paper is stationary from “Hasler Oil Co., 501 S. Fifth, Vandalia” –Dad’s old employer. I always like to look at the beautiful cursive script upon David and Esther’s tombstones in the family cemetery. They came to Four Mile in 1836. I was able to trace a few of their descendents in Fayette County, including George’s and those of David and Leroy who married Crawford sisters, but eventually I gave up. I find the reason why: Leroy’s 1908 obituary states that David and Esther had seventeen children. Some of them were small children buried in the family cemetery; but I found insurmountable the task of locating even the names of all the original seventeen.

Here is a photocopy of a page from the 1878 History of Fayette County. The pioneers of [Otego] township were Henry Scroggins, Thomas Crickman, Wm. Crickman, Mr. Riall, Mr. Clements, and Mr. Stanfield, who came in 1828. In 1829 came Jacob Tinker, Thoams Osbrook, Winslow Pilcher, Thomas R. Gatewood, Edward Healey, Hardy Heafy, Thos. A. Gatewood, Cole Norris, Mr. Robeson, and Wm. D. Brown. In 1830, came Ezra Griffith, Rutherford Shelton, Wm. H. Mabury, James Beal, Sr. … In 1832, Mr. Roe and Henry Brown In 1833, Hezekiah Brown, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Taylor …In 1835, ’36 and ’37, Harvey Lee, Asa Lee … and David Washburn … There, in one paragraph, I found several ancestors, as if they had gathered in Otego Township like pilgrims. I always thought of this paragraph as somehow fundamental to my very identity. 

Here is a wonderful picture of my ancestors Josiah and Margaret Williams. Margaret’s family, Henry and Hezekiah Brown, had settled Four Mile several years before the Williamses. Bearded and dressed in an old suit Josiah looks clear-eyed out at the camera; she stands as tall as he seated. She was twenty years younger than he was. But they died within months of each other, in 1893.

Here is the Williams family history along with a print of a daguerreotype purported to be my ancestor Comfort Williams, whose tombstone fascinated me as a child. Her husband, the first Josiah, died in 1826 at the age of 40, leaving Comfort a widow at the young age of 32, and she never remarried. One wonders how she supported herself and their five children, but we know that she lived near Columbus, Ohio several more years. Her parents also lived there, as did other family members who are all buried in a small churchyard in Obetz, Ohio. Comfort did not join them there, however; some desire within her compelled her to travel the National Road to Illinois, and she and her five children settled in the Four Mile area around 1840. She lived there seven years. The author of the Williams family tree gave me a typed copy of a letter that one of Comfort’s daughters wrote when Comfort died. April 2n AD 1847 Dear sister I embrace the painful opportunity of writing a few lines to you know that we have had to endure great trouble we have lost our dear mother she died last Tuesday morning between eight and nine o clock. . . she had the Pleurisy or what is here termed the winter fever I do not think that she thought much about getting well after she was taken sick she was not able to be up any she was helpless as a child. . . Josiah write home every month we got a letter from him the Friday before she died and he told her if nothing happened he should be home before harvest and she calmly says poor boy I shall never see you she told us to not let him know anything about her death till he came home he had been verry well ever since he crossed the gulf he was in Tampico when he last wrote but I expect he is now at verry cruz . . . she looked as pleasant and natural in her coffin as though she had been sleeping with a smile on her countenance I trust she is better off than the rest of us I trust she is happy she is buried about a mile from home in Mr. Pilchers graveyard I can have the consolation of visiting her grave…

Reading through the Williams history I remember its author fondly. She was a dear woman named Helen Dickes. Helen was in her seventies when I knew her: she was blue-haired, short and broad and had a very clear intelligence. I don’t remember exactly how we came upon each other but some Brownstown Williamses must have given me her name, and Grandma and I were happy to obtain her family tree. Helen was descended from the first of Josiah and Comfort’s five children and I from the third, and I remember how interesting—exciting! —it was to learn about the history of Comfort Williams, and how grateful I was to Helen for the photocopy of her history. Her history provided another good windfall for my various genealogy projects because one of the five Williams siblings had married one of “my” Crawford pioneers and another had married one of the first generation of Fayette County Pilchers. Thus Helen’s book gave me two entire branches which neither Blanche nor I had been able to find. We had a lively correspondence during the early 1970s, and I’ve saved all her letters. Then we dropped out of touch and I never heard when she died.

Before we stopped writing, though, I visited the cemetery in Obetz. Bronze markers had replaced the tombstones of my ancestors. An unmarked grave lay between the graves of family members, and I’ve always assumed that the grave is that of the first Josiah Williams. But his tombstone was not replaced by a bronze one. He lies forgotten, while many miles west his wife’s grave has fresh flowers each year—for a very large number of Williams relatives live in the Vandalia area.

Genealogy is a mixture of historical, heritage, personal identity, and family pride. Sometimes I think I confuse these people’s real lives with the few materials before me, their real faces with old photographs, and I confuse their lives with the place. My family keepsakes comprise a hodgepodge of information — less a local “saga” than fragments and images about the first generations of Scot-English-Irish-German forebearers in a small Midwestern community. Yet I’ve counted the material a precious store of knowledge which takes my love of place to a different level. If one counts genealogy as a kind of self-knowledge, a way of knowing “who you are,” the hobby has helped me know who I am and where I am. Fayette County was home to generations of my family. I could by no means decorate all their graves.


Along with various photographs, keepsakes, notes, charts, and typical genealogical paraphernalia on other branches of my family, I keep my Crawford material. I leaf through my own family tree, embarrassed by my adolescent phrasings and my poor typing. Thanks to my Utah cousin I could begin the history with additional information about Paul Crawford (to whose name I affixed “1809-1849”) and his wife Susanna (whose dates remained “1809- ? ” until I learned that she died in 1875). So many “shirttail” cousins around Fayette County provided information about their own branches. Still, my little history emphasizes the descendents of my great-great-grandparents Andrew and Caroline (Mahon) Crawford. Like Blanche and Helen, when it came to writing the family history I had the most information about my own branch.

The photograph of Andrew is striking, for one of his eyes seems tired and weak and the other is wide open and penetrating. The effect must come from the Vandalia photographer’s light, for half of his goatee is washed out by the light and half is dark. Andrew was killed the year their last child was born. I have a photograph of Caroline and her five children in 1899. It is a wonderful picture; the Crawfords all look fairly fierce—Andrew’s penetrating look must have dominated the family genes. They also look fuzzy; only the tree beyond them is in sharp focus. John sports a moustache that droops to his chin; his brother Will, who lived in the same house all his life, stands near him. Paul, Alice, and Andy Jr. complete the picture; one infant daughter had died many years before.

Coming to Vandalia I sometimes see cousins who are descended from John, Will, Paul, or Alice (Rush), but the younger Andy Crawford lived a mysterious life and had no children. This 1899 photograph may have been taken around the time he ran away from home. Apparently he resented Caroline’s 1890s remarriage, left one day, and never came home again. My great-aunt Nell told me he would cruelly write or wire information about his whereabouts; the whole family would come to meet him, but he’d not be there. This happened several times every five years almost to the day. Caroline died in 1921, never having seen him again, although some of the brothers apparently met him sometime, somewhere. When Andy died in 1959 he was living in a shack near Caseyville, Illinois, with two women, who reported his death and weren’t seen again. The family buried Andy in the Pilcher cemetery.

Here is another photograph of John from 1899 He and his wife Susan sit together with their young children; there is Josiah my grandfather, who is thirteen years old in this picture, Marvin (who, like my grandfather, I never knew), Charlie, Jean, Ruby (holding a doll), and the infant Mary. Nell and Ruth were not yet born. They’re nearly all gone now — those dear older relatives who figured so importantly in my childhood. How wonderful it would be to have just one more day to speak with them, to embrace them, now that I’ve become an adult and see how deeply they became a part of my life!

John Crawford kept his personal papers in a “Farmer’s Pride Quick Cooking Rolled Oats” box.  I reach for the box, open the cardboard lid, and empty it out the contents.  Among my ancestors I knew the most about him because of his white-haired daughters’ fond remembrance (Jean, Ruby, and Nell, especially) — and the contents of his box. I assume my grandfather acquired the box after John died. Most of the material therein dates from the years 1925, 1926, and 1927, the last three years of his life.

What records would any of us want to leave at the time of our deaths? John’s papers reflect local history. Brownstown and Vandalia during their busy, railroad eras when my parents were small children. John lived just south of Brownstown on the Brownstown Road; thus he kept a number of receipts from Brownstown businesses like Bingham Brothers and Brownstown Lumber and a few from Vandalia businessmen like George A. A. Dieckmann and Polk Atkinson. A receipt from Pevely Dairy Co. in St. Louis may have been from the company’s Brownstown station. (There are, however, some St. Louis trains schedules in the box; John has written home 10 o clock on one.) Brownstown during the early 1900s had a wide assortment of stores, physicians, churches and schools, a lumberyard, a blacksmith, a hotel, a mill, an I.O.O.F. hall, farm machinery and feed stores. Like Vandalia, its economic mainstays were the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Railroad and the county’s agriculture. “Crawford” is an old Brownstown name, as are Washburn, Williams, and Mahon, and I imagine John was a local fixture as he walked the village streets.

There is nothing in the box concerning the purchase or repair of automobiles. I wonder if John owned one. Grandma and Grandpa owned a car at that time. But in 1920s Four Mile, considering reliable horses and buggies and the handy train depots at Brownstown and Vandalia, a family could have gotten along without one.

When Susan was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she had to spend time in the Mark Greer Hospital in Vandalia, and died there in 1926. Several of John’s checks from his account in First National Brownstown were written to the Mark Greer Hospital, and endorsed by “Dr. Mark” himself (Dr. Mark, with his downtown waiting room filled with animal heads, was just winding down his local medical practice when I was a boy.) One hospital receipt has Board & Room 8 days at 3.50, 28.00, Operating Room 10.00, Special Nurse’s, 7.00. Today, those decimal points have moved to the right! John kept several get-well cards that Four Mile people had sent to Susan, posted with 2-cent stamps. A receipt from the Brownstown undertaker totals the funeral expense for Susan at $277.50, most of which was for the casket.

John was a farmer. There are mortgage papers in the box for his farm, which in 1899 was 80 acres. That is insufficient acreage today for a profitable farm; it was quite sufficient then. John’s neighbor up the road, Jonathan K. Pilcher, had only 57 acres. A statement of John’s 1925 Fayette County taxes indicates he paid $38.29 that year. John had livestock; in those days one took stock to Brownstown for shipment by train to Indianapolis or East St. Louis. One item from the box, which I’ve since had framed, is sad, for it announces the sale of John’s and Susan’s property. Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: four head of horses consisting of 3 good work horses and I good 2-year-old colt, 2 good dairy cows and 1 spring calf, 13 good head of hogs weighting from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder, 1 McCormack Mower, 1 McCormack Sweet Rake, 1 Wheat Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture . . . John Crawford. According to my great-aunts, their brother Marvin had contracted tuberculosis by 1908 and the sale was necessitated by his illness and subsequent move to Texas for his health. He and his wife had needed money badly, especially after the birth of their child. Grandma had a heartbreaking letter from Marvin to John and Susan when Marvin’s little boy died. The poor little Kenneth is at peace with the Angels now and I Pray we will all Meet him there when we leave this world of Sorrow. Marvin himself didn’t live long after that and was brought back to Four Mile for burial. The older aunts–Jean and Ruby especially–remembered with abiding sadness the early death of their second brother.

John and Susan must have rebuilt their holdings in the years ahead. There is little evidence in the box that they remained in deep debt. The only mortgage papers in the box are from 1899. They both died just before the Great Depression which, Mom says, struck the area very hard. Although oil exploration around the St. James Field took place throughout this period, the major discoveries did not come until the late 1930s, at which time the area began to recover economically. Widespread mechanization of farms didn’t come until later, too.

John kept several credit vouchers from Sears, Roebuck & Co.—2 cents, 3 cents. I’ve thought of taking them to the nearest shopping mall where I live and jokingly try to redeem them with interest.

John tore a First National Bank Brownstown check in half and wrote on the back: Andrew Crawford 218 South 4th Street St. Louis Mo c/o Erie House. I wonder if John was, at some point, able to meet his prodigal brother there, or if this is an artifact from one of Andy’s cruel wires home. I’ll never know. But John did keep the address.

One interesting thing to me in all these papers is John’s religious work. He was a very active lay person in the Methodist Episcopal Church. John left several Sunday school and denominational materials in his box. In the 1910s and 1920s he was a delegate to the Fayette County Sunday School Convention and the township president of the Otego Township Sunday School Convention. A statement from the Brownstown Methodist Episcopal Church states that he paid $19.50 to date for the 1924-25 year. The Nashville, Illinois Methodist minister wrote John a sympathy letter when Susan died. I rejoice in the fact that Sister Crawford had such resolute faith in her Lord and Master that no powers of life or death could separate her from His love. An older letter, from 1906, is a note of thanks from the Casey, Illinois Methodist pastor for John’s 50-cent contribution to the parsonage fund. Susan was apparently active in the church, too; two note pads from the M.E. Women’s Home Missionary Society gives the upcoming programs as “The Way of Christ in Race Relations” for 1924-25 and “The Slavs in the United States” for 1925-26. Susan was hostess for the May 1926 program; but I wonder if she was sick with cancer at that time.

There is a page from “Our Senior Lesson Quarterly” from 1906. This old book will survive the century, correctly states an editorial on one side. Brethren, let us study the Bible; let us love it; let us obey it; and if we do, we shall share in its immortality. “All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man is the flower of grass. .. but the word of the Lord endureth forever.” On the back is a hymn: Jesus is my Savior, is he yours? is his yours? John must have found the words especially moving. So he kept the sheet.

John Crawford went to Vandalia during the time when the old business blocks which I love were new and the trains made Vandalia a popular, exciting place; he knew Four Mile, the old Vincennes Road, the family graveyard, the route which became U.S. 40 about the time of his death, the schedules of the local trains. Like many of his relatives—and unlike many people of his generation who fled the farms for the cities— he didn’t budge from Fayette County. How did it move him within?


I know better than to think that these keepsakes will last forever. But I’m grateful for them. I wish we had more from my wife’s side. I’d like to think that, if Emily becomes interested in such things, she’ll treasure her relatives too.  Hopefully she’ll treasure, too, the place.



Sketching my family background in an essay form, I was inspired by a wonderful book, Ancestors by William Maxwell (New York, 1972).

Nearly forty years ago, my relatives Grace Crawford, Janie Stroble Plinke, Harold and Tillie Crawford, Charles and Fanny Crawford, Jean Boughers Parker, Ruby Wiseman, Mary Philboork, Nell Storm, Ruth Kistler, Ella Braun, Erma Hachet, Ann Link, Roy Carson, Helen Dickes, Bessie Marquis, my parents Paul and Mildred Stroble, and others gave me family stories and keepsakes, inculcating in me a love of things historical–and a deeper love of Vandalia and Fayette County.  All are gone except my mother, but I’m grateful for their gifts and love.

Read Full Post »

Along with other things of my childhood, Four Mile haunts me. I love to see those familiar barns, homes, and turnoffs, the old country store, the old fences, the far-off timber that turns feathery and transparent in autumn. The prairie is typical, Midwestern landscape that one finds off the interstate, but for me it is more. It is also my “essential thing” which has changed slowly overtime.

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. Four Mile has also been my deepest link to my family’s heritage upon the landscapes of my home. I remember being shown so many times, where things used to be along or near 185. I knew the location of the family peach orchard of 40 years before, the place where Harold found over six dozen morel mushrooms, where the mail came to the farm by team in winter, where kin had lived in the early part of the century, where their barns had stood. Besides Four Mile, I had notions of where my father’s kin had settled in the hills of northern Fayette County, for Dad reminisced about his family during our trips north on U.S. 51 to visit his aunts Pauline and Peg. Thus, very early I sentimentally confused family ties, and rural midwestern geography along old two-lane roads.

Driving to the cemetery was a longstanding family ritual, one which, it seems, I share with many Midwestern families. On Memorial Day (or as I always heard it, Decoration Day) and other times, too, we took Grandma to the Pilcher Cemetery near her home. We backtracked on 185 and turned north onto a blacktopped county road. We passed a hog farm and a pasture and a farmer’s gasoline storage tank, rounded a corner, and finally turned down the old, bumpy gravel lane to the graveyard. Another three miles north we’d have accessed U.S. 40 near Brownstown, but we were also very isolated

I was told that one ancestor, Winslow Pilcher, had owned the land first but that another ancestor, Josiah Williams, had formally deeded the property as a cemetery. The graveyard was located in a bright meadow surrounded by thick timber. A single massive oak stood in the clearing. A few houses have since been built along the gravel lane, but for many years the graveyard was indiscernible through the trees. We could see no houses and hear nothing except sounds of nature, our own voices, and the slam of the car trunk as the adults removed the “decorations” and then placed the flowers on graves of my grandfather and other relatives.

My grandfather’s monument was red granite. It read, simply, “CRAWFORD Grace 1890- Josiah 1886-1954.” To each side of the stone were the graves of my mother’s grandparents: John and Susan Crawford and Albert and Abbie Pilcher. Grandma had a picture of Albert’s stone—an impressive gray stone and one of the largest in the graveyard–as it looked before Abbie’s “1949” was set thereon. The date was carved from the raised bar which followed her birth year of “1869” once Abbie had lived the unhappy remainder of her life.

A vigil lingers around these kinds of stones, a waiting for a person’s open-ended life, symbolized by a mere hyphen, to provide a date of closure. It is as if the stone abhors an unfinished life. As a child I did not understand such a thing. In fact, the old section of the cemetery intrigued me most A new stone, so plain, solid, and unfinished, seemed less interesting to me than some falling marker which carefully tallied the person’s exact age at time of death and contained odd names like Comfort, Alonzo, Mortimer, Elvina, Reuben, Ulysses, Tabitha, Jahiel, and Eudoxy. A few of the old stones had fatalistic inscriptions.

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Others had more explicit promise of a greater peace beyond.

The rose may fade, the body die,
But flowers unmarked bloom on high
Beyond the land of sinful powers
Our son is safe in Eden’s bowers.

The stones had extremes of brevity and wordiness, from the mere initialization of names (“J A T 1835”) to one particularly long epitaph upon my great-great-great uncle’s stone:

When Jesus comes to reward his servants
Whether it be noon or night
Faithful to him will he find us watching
With our lamps all trimmed and bright

Chorus [sic!]

O can we say we are ready Brother
Ready for the soul’s bright home
Say will he find you and me still watching
Waiting waiting when the Lord shall come.

A hymn carved in stone in a beautiful meadow, where the shadows of oak leaves played upon new grass.

What makes something spark an interest in a child? Thanks to Grandma’s house, I was already interested in old things and reminders of time’s passage; thanks to our church, I liked poetic words of theological assurance. Too, the cemetery was a favorite grassy place, a place to lovingly tend. Every year I walked back to the cemetery’s north side to read inscriptions. I tried to tabulate the people’s birthdates from the numerical series subsumed under years, months, and days, for the oldest stones provided only a death date and the person’s exact age at death. I liked the stones that were the oldest, the most elaborately caved, the ones that were in half and strewn like ancient tablets of law. No one any longer decorated these monuments, except for one surprisingly erect and readable monument:

SACRED to the Memory of Comfort Williams
Who Died March 30th, 1847 Aged 54 Years

Each year a Williams descendent places flowers on her grave. Eventually I learned I am her descendent too.

The cemetery was a place of lonely peacefulness. Every year, too, the adults interrupted that peace with remarks about the peacefulness, about how long that tree might have been growing there, about how badly Cousin So ‘n’ so said he misses his wife (who’s buried over there) when we last saw him in Tri-City, about why Cousin Such ‘n’ such hasn’t been out with flowers because she’s usually decorated by now, about how old Grandpa Crawford would have been (” 196- minus 1886 is — so he’d be —”). Sometimes we’d arrive in time for a trustee’s meeting beneath the oak and the grownups would talk about how much mowing costs had been last year, what kid was going to be around this summer who could be counted on to do trimming, and…on and on. Mourning doves made their haunting call.

These are childhood memories, tenacious as any, but all the more fond, perhaps, because they join with those of Grandma’s farm, and they also provided me a kind of lesson in history which, only after several years, I put to good use.


Memorial Day marked the beginning of summer. My summertime memories are local but no longer strictly chronological. I remember proudly checking out books on science from the library; the retarded man named Mark who walked around downtown all the time and greeted everyone with a smile and hello, and led every parade; the crowded Saturday afternoons on Gallatin Street as I went with my parents to one store or the other—the lumberyard, the Purina store, the clothing stores—thoroughly ashamed to be seen with them. I was in junior high and my hormones were right on schedule. I remember popular songs which variously filled my mind as I walked the Illinois Central tracks home: “Good Morning Starshine,” “A Day In the Life,” “Incense and Peppermint,” “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” “Tumblin’ Dice,” “Purple Haze,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Out In the Country,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Get Together,” “Levon,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Come Saturday Morning,” “Closer to Home,” “Aqualung,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Break On Through to the Other Side,” “Gimmie Shelter,” “Baba O’Reilly,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Holly Holy”. . .

During my childhood the Sixties era hung like psychedelic drapery among the more muted but still colorful tones of the pioneer, Victorian, and world war eras of downtown. The Carson’s dime store sold Beatles memorabilia and tie-dye bubblegum. Mom brought home issues of McCall’s, Look, and Life from the library and the models had flowers in their hair and their bell-bottomed clothes. Pictures of Apollo VIII appeared on books and magazines. I think of these things, sentimentally perhaps, in terms of summertime and the freedom to do and be what you wanted. In those days I had several summer hobbies. On St. Louis trips Dad patiently took me to the stamp department of Famous Barr. Another summer I liked numismatics and eagerly sought oddities among Lincoln Head pennies. I saved all the “wheat” pennies in change and was overjoyed to find one with no obverse. When we visited the old Four Mile Store I’d save interesting bottlecaps which had been discarded in the parking lot. Rocks and minerals filled my time another summer, butterflies the next. One summer I stayed with Grandma and copied lines of music from Peanuts comics, in collections of strips that Mom bought me at Vandalia’s old Rexall. Another part of me wanted to be a writer, and I looked at poetry with interest. I was briefly interested in collecting beer cans, a hobby I remember less for the brands than for the hot days of exploring the trees and streams within Vandalia’s city limits.

In one sense I was a busy kid because I was bored and lonely—an only child eager to please my parents who were, in turn, eager to encourage me. In another sense, I think my parents’ memories of the Depression made them give me freedom to find a satisfying work. Thus free, I surveyed the sunny, small cosmos in which I lived and found plenty to interest and engage me, although, paradoxically, Vandalia nurtured me amidst my boredom. I had psychological space in which to grow.

History almost “won out” among my hobbies. History was “happening”–it was the Sixties, after all. I can scarcely recall my family’s big “get togethers” at Grandma’s house without recalling things they talked about around the house and farm: Ho Chi Minh, George Wallace, Dean Rusk, Bernadine Dohrn, Spiro Agnew, Kent State, John Birch, Sharon Tate, Martin Luther King, ABM, ICBM, General Westmoreland, escalation and Vietnamization, Bobby Kennedy, “war in the streets,” Martin Luther King, the Silent Majority, “love it or leave it.” In that farm house, built when Teddy Roosevelt was president, the view of history was fantastic.

But my interest also had to do with downtown Vandalia and Four Mile. At some point, the obvious and overlooked features of downtown stirred in me an interest and a longing for the past. In sixth grade I’d walk to town after school to get a haircut and, idly standing under the awnings of the Hotel Evans during a cold, autumn rain I’d look at the cornices upon the old commercial block. They had names of “old time” Vandalians. I’d ride my bike to the South Hill Cemetery and see the nineteenth century tombstones sweep that hill like proud beacons from the past. Andy Stroble’s stone was there. On some of my errands I’d read the several sidewalk plaques which the local historical society had placed at the site of capital-era buildings, or instead of looking through the science books I’d survey the many Lincoln biographies at the library. Other times I’d notice mundane things like bridges across the town branch, remnants of concrete pedestals where filling stations had stood, broken sidewalks from previous years—one sidewalk was dated 1914 and contained the names of Vandalia’s mayor and aldermen–forms of local architecture, old signs for “Rail Road Crossing Two Tracks” and U.S. highways, and the remains of U.S. 40’s realignment across the river. Still other times, as I have written, Mom and Dad reminisced about the furniture stores, groceries, tobacconists, saloons, highway garages, coffin dealers, and jewelry stores that had operated downtown during the 1920’s and 30s. Anything old and well-used, anything preserved from the past interested me in a general, unfocused kind of way.

And I liked the old biblical maps and ragged religious books at our church and I liked the family cemetery and I liked Grandma’s house and her Pilcher family history and her old household items close at hand. All my acquaintances with history sentimentally converged. Eventually I went on to study theology, and perhaps I did so because I liked local history first: if this life is so filled with old, dear things, what must eternity be like? What is older, more dear and close than God himself?

Or, as Thoreau put it in another context, “Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?”


I became interested in genealogy late in 1969. During a unit on heredity a seventh-grade science instructor assigned us to trace our ancestors as far back as we could. Overjoyed to find a new hobby, I proudly began the assignment with myself—Paul Edward Stroble, Jr., born in Vandalia, Illinois on Wednesday, January 2, 1957 and not yet deceased (nothing right of the hyphen)–and added my parents, Paul and Mildred (Crawford) Stroble, and then my grandparents, Andy and Janie (Carson) Stroble and Joe and Grace (Pilcher) Crawford. With my parents’ help I added my great- grandparents (Grandma Grace knew of some other ancestors–her own grandparents—so for my original project I could go back as far as my maternal great-great-grandparents.

But the basic chart wasn’t enough; I did not have many lifedates. So I begged Dad to drive me to the Pilcher Cemetery and as he kept the motor running I trod through a light blanket of snow and carefully copied inscriptions into a little notebook purchased from the Ben Franklin. I also copied names and dates from stones in that smaller, unused graveyard. We returned to town and Dad drove me to his father’s grave. That may have been the first time I heard the story of how Grandpa died downtown. I copied Andy’s dates. Then Dad took me up the hill and showed me two graves I’d never seen before: his maternal grandparents, Mac and Alice Carson, who had died many years before my birth. Next to their graves was the 1909 stone for Dad’s young great-uncle. Dad told me that, while duck hunting in a boat, he had stumbled with the gun and it went off and killed him.

It was a sad and terrible story but I was a twelve year old boy and therefore enjoyed the horrific. I don’t remember what grade I received for the heredity assignment but the original reason for my work was soon forgotten. For the next five years, mostly during summer vacations, I pursued genealogy and discovered all I could about our family’s history.

It was a local hobby; I rarely left Fayette County. The generations of our families had been there for many years. My father’s side of the family was either difficult to trace or already researched. Dad was 44 when I was born, most of his uncles and aunts were deceased by the early 1960s, and so many of the generation’s stories had been lost. Not enough information remained to trace that line back to Bavaria. As for Grandma Janie’s side, I knew more. One branch had settled Fayette County in the 1830s while another settled Sangamon County, Illinois in the 1820s then came to Fayette County as well. My father’s uncle Roy Carson, a genealogy enthusiast for many years, had traced the descendents of the various branches and shared his material with me.

Then there was Mom’s side. Talking to Grandma Grace and consulting her 1891 county platbook and the old Fayette County histories, I was thrilled to learn for the first time that my maternal ancestors had all settled in the same general location— which, as I wrote before, was Four Mile Prairie and the old Vincennes Road (185). Ancestors who came from Virginia, southern Ohio, New England and Kentucky had arrived at the prairie during the first wave of local settlement in the 1820s and 1830s. The National Road terminated at Vandalia in those days, and some of the families came to the county via that highway.

With a commitment that pleases me today, I copied tombstone inscriptions, wrote to state historical libraries, and found census records. I gratefully accepted old pictures from relatives who knew I’d keep them safe and not (in one lady’s phrase) “take them out and burn them.” I found wills and probate records in the county courthouse. I watched the mail eagerly to see if a distant relative had sent me new information. I obtained family information from my cousins who good-naturedly tolerated my naïve enthusiasm to inquire of their age. From old county platbooks I found locations of ancestral properties and reread with eagerness the stories in the Pilcher history.

I no longer remember when I discovered particular genealogical tidbits. But I recall the sense of wonder and excitement as I built my “tree” with the names, stories, and in many cases the photographs of my ancestors. Too, I recall feeling a sense of reverence as I stood at particular tombstones which, I’d discovered, marked the graves of ancestors and when I realized that particular fields near 185 were sites of ancestral homesteads.

In addition to its locality I liked the difficulty, mystery, and lore of genealogy. People who trace families know that an entire branch of a family may be missing due to a name omitted from a will, an abraded tombstone, or the want of one more source. Sometimes a family may be so vast that tracing it becomes impossible. Grandma’s maternal grandfather was one of seventeen children and merely tracing his descendents by three wives look several summers. I heard family stories which could’ve been truth or lore, for instance, one relative told me an ancestral family was intermarried with the Cherokee tribe, but could no further information. According to family lore one Pilcher ancestor was first cousin to George Rogers Clark but we lacked the previous generation to know for sure. Unfortunately my research disproved the legend, and my claim to fame was fleeting.

But I learned more truth than legend. Inspired by the Pilcher history to dabble in genealogy, over the years Grandma had collected material for a Crawford family tree: clippings, photographs, letters, funeral parlor keepsakes, turn of the century obituaries; she owned a large quantity of cancelled checks, receipts, credit slips, and Sunday school announcements which her father-in-law, my great- grandfather John Crawford, had kept in a rolled oats box. Grandma even had a lock of hair from the head of John’s mother, who died in 1921. Grandma also had many old photographs of kinfolk—hilarious pictures in a way, since no one in the 1800s smiled at the camera. But she had never found time to do a Crawford history and seemed pleased I wanted to help. By the summer of 1971 we mutually resolved to compile the descendents of Paul and Susanna (Straub) Crawford, my great-great- great-grandparents. Susanna had been the widowed pioneer who settled Four Mile. Our plan was to write the history and then to place the material with each family branch to form a kind of family scrapbook.

She knew plenty of family stories, some of which she had already written down and some of which I recorded for her. For instance, in her tiny handwriting, she had written these words about John Crawford’s mother:

Caroline was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, which carried significance in those days. She spoke tartly, and when asked why, when they had been so much apart of the area, didn’t they record some of the things that happened, she said, “We were too busy making a living to think about history!” She never kissed any of her family, because she felt that they should know she loved them without having to periodically show it…

At the time I thought that was terrible. Now I think, how like many of us; too brusque and too busy. Grandma knew that one great-great-great-uncle had married a young woman whose health was poor. He was known as a great whistler, Grandma said, and so once when he cut his foot badly, he did not want to shock his wife, so, bleeding badly, he entered his house whistling. She knew that our cousin, Lewis Crawford, for whom the local American Legion post was named, was a religious young man torn between enlistment in World War I and the care of his widowed mother. He saw his Brownstown friends go “over there” and felt that he should go too, and he died in France of influenza. She knew that my great-great-grandfather Andrew Crawford had been killed in 1880 at Four Mile by an overturned farm implement; a spooked horse threw him and the wheat drill’s lever struck him in the stomach. He died after a few days, for no doctors lived nearby. She knew all the family stories that I’d heard along Route 185: the field where Andrew had been killed; the places where my ancestors John Crawford and Jonathan K. Pilcher had lived. She knew that my great-great uncle Will Crawford had lived in the very same house all his life, and died in the very room in which he was born. She knew that a certain ancestor, John Mahon, was buried in a roadside graveyard beneath a plain rock, for he had wanted no more ostentatious a marker than had Jesus.

Family stories. I wrote them all down, enthralled.

We began to organize all the photos, clippings, funeral notices and other items according to families. Some of the oldest, locally-published obituaries of Crawford and Pilcher cousins were very quaint. Here are two.

It was in 1905, when Brother Wilson was telling anew the wonderful story of Jesus that Ruby said to her Mother; “I am going to give my life to the Master,” and stepping down from the platform she confessed Jesus and took Him as her life’s teacher…

A short time before he died he called the family, brothers and friends to him and said he was ready to go. “My advice to all is fear God. I want you all to meet me.” Then he offered a short prayer, saying “Dear Lord I have prayed thee thy will be done and this seems to be thy will. Pardon every sin I ever committed.” Then he sang a line and said goodbye to all…

I didn’t know what to think of such words. They seemed too fervent. But I loved to hold the old, brittle papers in my hand and look back, so to speak, into the past and to believe what the words said. Grandma read the same words and looked back to a time- a time we were now able to share–when such faith wouldn’t have been deemed “quaint.”

Grandma and I got closer during that time. We also talked politics, because the Vietnam War seemed to have no resolution and she deplored the fact that a Republican succeeded her beloved LBJ. Sometimes Mom drove us to Brownstown where we’d visit older relatives and gathered their stories. I discovered that many older people have remarkable memories Grandma Grace’s memory was clear to the end. I remember one afternoon in 1971 we were looking through the old Fayette County history.

“George Sandage!” she exclaimed excitedly.


“George Sandage! He was my father’s friend!”

I looked at the picture. The man, a prominent local person, had a long wavy beard and very clear eyes. The adjacent biography stated that he died in 1904. Grandma was fourteen that year. I’m sure, from how she talked, she’d never seen a picture of him since.


As it happened, I had many of our materials at my parents’ house when the fire happened—photos, clippings, the Pilcher family history, the 1891 platbook, even the lock of my ancestor’s hair. Having inadvertently saved the material from destruction, I knew I had to persevere with the project. Grief necessitated the pursuit of truth: I had to make something lasting from the work which Grandma had started.

The origin of the Crawfords was shrouded in enough mystery to keep me persevering. Susanna was a “Pennsylvania Dutch” woman from Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania; the Fayette County census indicated that she was born in 1809. According to Grandma, Paul Crawford had been killed by Indians in Ohio in the 1850s and Susanna had then emigrated to Fayette County. No one knew where he had died, though. Was it in a known location? Was it en route to Illinois? Was he buried somewhere or left for dead as his family escaped the attack in their wagon? No one knew. (The story is surely folklore: most Indians had been driven from Ohio by the 1850s.) Susanna and Paul had eight children, all of whom grew to adulthood and seven of whom settled at Four Mile along with Susanna. The other son was a Baptist minister in Central Illinois; I knew very little about him and did not expect to find leads. Susanna’s grave was entirely unknown. Grandma was sure it was in the Pilcher Cemetery but no one knew where or even when she had died. Family tradition said that she had “taken sick” at a church quilting and soon after died, but when? Why did no one erect a stone for her? (As one wag in our family said, who knew that church quiltings were so dangerous?) Searching public records proved futile.

But besides these mysteries the family was not difficult to trace. All the seven were buried in more or less continuous line in the meadow of the Pilcher Cemetery. One grave was unmarked but Grandma possessed the man’s obituary from a 1904 Vandalia paper. Thus with one visit to the graveyard I obtained the lifedates of most of the first Fayette County generation. From Grandma’s material I could pursue leads and know whom to contact for more recent information.

Some of the joys of adolescence attend my happy memories of genealogy. It was a time of my life when popularity, girls, rock music, and getting a tan ranked high among my priorities. Once licensed to drive I happily used my freedom to finish the research—including a search for “missing” relatives’ graves in local country graveyards—without having to be chauffeured around the county’s backroads. It is a minor thing, perhaps, but an essential aspect of my discovery of the pioneer generation was “filling up,” and I carried into my genealogical forays the smell of fanbelts and tires hanging from the ceiling of the local Mobil station, and the sight of the red Pegasus symbol, and the smell of “regular” upon my hands. Free, easy, and usually barefooted, I set about the work. I liked to make my drives in the morning when the heat hadn’t climbed high and the light was soft on the leaves. I liked blending the historical with the familiar as I passed highway sights I knew best: the oil wells, gas pumps, and New Deal trees along 40 and 185; the country churches, the fields which stretched toward timber, the country stores and farmhouses. At the cemetery I took notes of nearly-obliterated inscriptions—some too gone for even pencil rubbings to pick up. With my mind filled with Neil Diamond songs I took pictures of Four Mile places Grandma had showed me a few years before. I went hiking across tilled fields in search of gravestones or homestead sites and, in a reversal of my childhood whining, I was loathe to go home.

The work finally wound down. I had found many descendents of the original Fayette County branches when a distant relative in Utah wrote me. I hadn’t known him or heard about him. But he stated that Jacob Crawford, the son who did not settle at Four Mile, was his great-grandfather and that he had traced all of Jacob’s descendents but knew little about the families of the other seven Crawford children, His genealogical dilemma had been exactly opposite mine, and he and I turned out to be each other’s last, best lead. It was a windfall of spectacular proportions. Most exciting to me was that he knew about Paul Crawford’s ancestry and his lost grave. Paul had died in1849 and was buried in Waldo, Ohio beside his father, William. William himself was the son of a Scottish fanner named James who’d settled in central Ohio. Guided by my relative’s description of the place, I finally traveled to Waldo and found Paul’s blank, broken stone in the place beside William’s readable marker. It was so much more than I had ever had, and I was grateful to stand at their graves.

Yet one mystery remained unsolved. While driving Four Mile near Grandma’s farm I was always intrigued by the spread of thick roadside timber where Susanna Crawford had homesteaded. Her church still stood along 185 too. But I felt frustrated that I could never locate her grave at the old cemetery. I wanted to stand at her grave too.

After several months of note-taking, copying, and sitting in my hot, non-air-conditioned bedroom typing by the “hunt-and-pick” method, I completed the Crawford history.  Sunlight from the yard brightened my room as I typed and listened to my LPs. Later, I produced slick, gray photocopies for distribution to relatives. In the manner which Grandma and I envisioned it I also put all the Crawford memorabilia together into huge scrapbooks, which I have always kept close to our family’s agreed-upon fire exits.


Now I leaf through all these pictures and clippings the way some people leaf nostalgically through their high school yearbooks. The work validated an enjoyment of research and intellectual problems–and a willingness to spend my energies on something beneficial to others — which have never left me. But although relatives often write me for genealogical information, I haven’t pursued the hobby for many years. The following summer I went off to college and eventually graduate school and beyond.

My genealogical forays were, in one sense, an extension of my childhood games–my blissful setting-out into a world of my imagination, except, this time, based on real things past instead of make-believe–along with a poetic kind of outlook toward the land which I gained as an adolescent. But more than that: if, in my small town I gained my “first affections” thanks to felicitous space, and if my father’s work caused me to love movement through space, then in my genealogical forays I came to love space precisely through my pursuit of time—history-“on the road.”

And genealogy was, for me, a spatial rather than temporal thing. In genealogy one scarcely makes reference to concurrent national history; instead one speaks of branches, leads, paths, lines, dead-ends, and although I later became more historically conscious this informal, “spatial” imagery appealed to me greatly. It was as if each “branch” of my family had its own invisible but felt space, just like, as I might have associated it, a particular road on 185 had its own space, or a parcel of timbered land owned by a remote ancestor, or a room in Grandma’s beloved, destroyed house. I wanted to go to a distant destination as if to an apex of a two-lane road, but I could not, because the destination was the time of my forebearers and it had passed away, leaving me haunted by the rural geographies which we, my relatives and I, had shared.

To quote Thoreau again, “Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me.”

But I still travel the region, allowing space and time and the sense of place to mingle in my mind. I remember one genealogical discovery, more for what I felt than what I found. A graveyard was shaded by tall trees. It was on the road to Grandma’s farm, a way which, I realized, had been transformed. I had a name and birthdate for a distant relative, but little else. One day I found her legible stone beneath a great oak. After I photographed the grave I walked around the yard and felt deeply moved by the plain landscape, the quiet sounds, and the memory of Grandma. Across the minimum of fence the field was yellow and unharvested; sunlight lay across it. The lonely sound of mourning doves drifted across the field. The sky and earth looked soft, like the pastoral scenes on Grandma’s Sunday school literature, symbolizing God’s tender care. To the north I could hear and see traffic on 1-70. An overall-clad farmer drove his tractor half on the shoulder and half on the two-lane and didn’t see me wave as he bumped along past shade trees and farmhouses. Thick timber grew, faded for the distance, upon the horizon as if planted by a long-ago gardener. Beneath the midwestern sky, I stood among the mossy antebellum stones, among the buried dead and, in a sense, among those pioneers who left their dead behind.

The country graveyard was surrounded by a field that stretched to timber west and east and to highways north and south. I knew a thousand sights along both roads. I knew the ancestral plat of this land, and the plat lay across us all. History seemed a warm embrace, like the green far-off timber. The distant passage of traffic sounded like time, indifferent and confusing yet at the same time comforting. I wanted to be, with all due humility, omniscient in just this respect: I wanted to know every story for each farm fronting every road, to know all fields and roads and stories, to know each poor soul like me who couldn’t tell any longer between the memories of a happy home, and the way there.



On this era, I enjoyed William Machester, The Glory and the Dream (Boston, 1974), especially chapters 31-33.  The two Thoreau quotations are from Walden, “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” See also the History of Fayette County, Illinois (Philadelphia, 1878), and Robert W. Ross, History of Fayette County (Chicago, 1910).

Read Full Post »

These three pieces (“The House and the Farm,” “Thinking about History,” and “Local People”) were originally published in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places (Louisville, 1995).   The pieces deal with family and personal history during the years 1970-1975, when I was in junior high and high school, but with reference to other times.  Although the pieces also deal with places other than Four Mile Prairie in Fayette County, IL (my grandmother lived just north of the prairie, for instance), that land is a good centerpiece for these recollections.  My thanks to my friend Michelle for transcribing these. 


I picked up the phone that Thursday night in January 1972. I’d turned fifteen four days earlier. The St. Louis evening news was nearly over; Johnny Carson was next on television. Confused at the fireman’s question over the phone line –“Is Mrs. Crawford with you?”–I told my mother something was wrong.

My memories of that night open and close, like eyelids fighting sleep. I don’t remember my parents and me racing to Grandma Crawford’s house, down the familiar five-miles of U. S. 40 to the 185 turnoff in our Chevrolet. When the eyes open, we are on 185 and we glimpse the fireball on the night’s near horizon. The eyes fall then open, and we have turned off 185 onto the Brownstown Road and are down the lane in the driveway by the old barn. On their west sides, the barn, granary and milkhouse, glow in sickening, flickering light. The firemen do their best, spraying water over the flaming heap where a farmhouse had stood. But nothing is left to save. Mom is shattered. Her brother, we fear, might have a heart attack.

Thinking back today, I don’t remember where my father was. Perhaps he was talking to the firemen or to Grandma’s neighbor Eddie who had called the department and bravely tried to break open the house’s side door, already too hot to touch.

A malfunction in the old electrical wiring, or perhaps a spark from the coal-burning stoves, or something else altogether might have been the cause. When the embers were cold, the piles of coal outside burned for another day or two. The coroner found Grandma the next morning, at the place where she habitually slept—which was our only comfort, that she had known nothing of what happened. We heard about it, though, on WPMB. The coroner and local authorities neglected to inform us before the media, even if there was no doubt what they would have told us


Sometimes I try to visualize the drive to Grandma’s, as it would look in one who had not taken it all his life. The eastern boundary of Vandalia looks junky to a person unblinded by nostalgia, the abandoned alignment of U.S. 40 which parallels the main road just beyond the river bridge; the boarded-up rink and bowling alley, “Junction Park,” where my mother went skating as a girl; the useless concrete supports that once held an historical marker honoring the National Road in Illinois. But farther on, there are the pretty, low, plowed fields between U.S. 40 and the Conrail tracks. There is the old Clark family home which that, my uncle remembered, was there when the road was the National Old Trails Highway and was one gravel lane. Horse-drawn wagons and cars, he said, had to pull over upon the shoulder to pass. Farther on still, there is the small, closed garage where my father took his big Diamond-T for oil changes (it required 48 quarts, he tells me); the proud rows of farm implements at a country dealership; the undulating land as one passes farms and a National Road inn at the intersection of the main highway and the long-overgrown track of the pioneer Vincennes Road. I loved the sight of 40’s cracked pavement; it seemed secure in its oldness. Five miles east of Vandalia, not far from a row of shade trees planted, I was told, by the CCC, deteriorating sections of previous alignments of 40 and 185 at an old sawmill signal the turnoff for Illinois 185. Both roads were realigned during the early Sixties to accommodate the pathway of 1-70. The roadbed of 185 shows an ugly seam where the road once went straight; the turnoff from 40 had been a quarter-mile or so west of the present one. Even as a toddler I knew that wrecked landscape was the halfway point to Grandma’s; it was no unimportant landmark.

Forty continues east to Brownstown, a pleasant town of 700 where Mom went to high school. Turning onto 185 we passed through a small valley where great power lines proceed brightly to the left and right, then passed a hill where a solitary gravestone stood in pastureland, then we climbed up a small hill to a four-mile long stretch of prairie. “Four Mile” was the local name of that area where Grandma’s neighbors all lived, where Grandma and Grandpa were born and raised, and where ancestral families on Mom’s side had settled before the Civil War. I heard about these people all my life; most of them farmed small acreage, were moral, honest, and religious. “Shirttail” relatives still lived in the area, on Four Mile itself, at Brownstown, or in adjacent townships.

Grandma’s farm is just north of the prairie, not far from the 185 turnoff onto the Brownstown Road. According to the farm abstract several nineteenth century relatives like Jonathan K. Pilcher, Thomas A. Gatewood, and Caroline Crawford owned portions of the property. Grandma was seventeen and “still at home” when her father Albert Pilcher built the farmhouse in 1907. The next year she and Josiah Crawford, with whom she had gone to school, were married. Albert Pilcher died in 1910, aged only 43. The story was told—a typical kind of story passed down through families— that Albert’s brother Waldo contracted tuberculosis, and that Albert lamented aloud that his brother wouldn’t live very long; then Albert “took sick” with diphtheria and Waldo outlived him by several years. My great-grandmother Abbie Pilcher subsequently sold or gave the house (I’m not sure which) to her only child and son-in-law, and there Grace and Joe lived and raised their own children—my uncle Harold and my mother.

Harold and Mom grew up there, in a little rural neighborhood; they attended the Mahon Schoolhouse, ramshackle now, north of the farm, and walked the obligatory three miles to school. In past times the Crawford’s neighbors lived “just a stone’s throw” away; you could listen on a still day and hear them plow their fields. You could hear the trains pass through Brownstown in the northward distance.

Grandma was 67 when I was born, and I knew her as a stooped little woman whose white hair was kept under a hairnet night and day, as if she hoped to save her hair, as she would the good china, for a special occasion, and if none came nothing had been wasted. My memories of her are a litany. She kept her hearing aid microphone in her brassiere and her teeth in a glass of water at night. She believed playing cards was a sin, working on Sunday was a sin (laboring in the kitchen on Sunday to feed relatives was not a sin!) — certainly baptizing people by sprinkling was, if not a sin, theologically unadvisable (especially babies, who had no sin or consciousness of sin and thus no need of public repentance which should precede baptism). But she was devout in a way I liked. She wasn’t “showy” about it; she didn’t parade her biblical knowledge but took seriously the Lord’s admonition to do good in secret and to trust his unfailing love. She gave me a Bible dictionary that I still use in my work. Slow to move around, her hard-headedness and resolve outran her decrepitude by many laps. That resolve joined with an eagerness to please which, unfortunately, sometimes set people at odds. She was very loving and also very opinionated and “set.” I remember how tenacious she was seeking a piece of historical verification-she remembered that Indian Head nickels were called “bull moose nickels” during the presidential campaign of 1912—but she never found anyone who’d take her seriously. She always drove, always had a car—this woman who never had indoor toilets nor a washing machine – as she sped down the road in a light green ’49 Ford, too deaf to hear the car rattle itself apart as she went to the Four Mile Store or to church up at Brownstown. Sometimes she attended the Four Mile congregation, a little country church near a field, a place where, to me, the rural ambiance of the Bible seems written right for such a church where the walls are old and good and the steeple is sound.

Grandpa Joe farmed to make a living. But in the late 1940s a heart attack debilitated him physically, and he died in 1954. After his death Grandma stayed with my parents. She lived with us when I was born in 1957. She moved back to the farm around 1958 but she still came to spend the night with us many times. In her loneliness Grandma loved to note the rhythm of the days as they became shorter and longer during the year; she always planted her garden the same day each year. She let some of the fields go fallow—”back to the government” as Joe would’ve said it—but rented out the better land.

She wasn’t in good health at the end. Her heart wasn’t good and a hysterectomy had left her weaker. Even as a child I came to her house with a certain sadness, because I was always the first one to enter her house when we visited, and I knew that if she had died there alone, I’d be the first to find her dead. Yet that fear never prevented me from running in first. She liked to spend her time writing letters and wrote me often. She once wrote me a wonderful letter describing with pride how she’d killed a pesky snake. I felt sorry for the snake, the odds were against it.

(She also may have written a letter to President Lyndon Johnson, although I have no proof of that. In his memoirs The Vantage Point, the president recalls at letter he received. ‘”Please try to pass Medicare for us old folks,’ wrote a lady in Brownstown, Illinois. ‘I just don’t want to be a burden to anyone.'” Any elderly lady in and around Brownstown could have said that phrase, “being a burden,” which Grandma so often declared aloud. But Grandma loved “LBJ.” I wonder.)

A few years before her death she showed me her wedding pictures, and, like many children who only knew someone in their old age, I was startled to realize what a very lovely woman she had been. I still look at that picture, and still am startled, since I recognize in her astonishingly pretty features—the clear gaze, the high forehead and jawline characteristic of the Pilchers—qualities of the face I only knew in her old age. She was widowed after 46 years of marriage. (Everyone liked my grandfather, I’m told, in spite of the fact that he was the county tax assessor for a while, and was also outspoken in his Democratic politics. Fayette County democrats like Dale Tedrick and Judge Burnside sometimes came to the house for informal planning sessions. Grandpa would turn off Jack Benny, even Jack Benny, from the radio and delight in the politicking.) Some cousins announced their golden wedding anniversary and I remarked that that was a rare event. Grandma scolded me a little, noting that she and Joe had married over fifty years before. True enough, but I didn’t argue with her, not understanding what she meant, knowing neither death nor the kind of love which is stronger by far than death.


As a boy I roamed Grandma’s farm. Like riding in a car the place was a kind of dialectic between the enclosed and the open, the bounded and limitless—land that though parceled is vast and full. A soft, sticky layer of cedar needles covered the grass by the house; two or three tall spruce trees shaded an old, working pump. The yard sloped downward toward a shallow ravine in which some tall trees grew and where a grape arbor once thrived. I loved to see the land through the dusty window of Grandmother’s living room as I sat amid the warmth of her coal stove, as red birds and snow birds flew by.

As Annie Dillard puts it, the place was like the Platonic form of “farm” (except that the forms are everlasting). The yard was bounded by a fence and a tangled thicket of briars, flowers and vines which kept Grandmother’s renters’ cattle away from the yard and her enclosed garden. The yard had warm embrace yet was open and sunny, smelling of summer’s blossoms and grass. The small disused milkhouse sat in the yard, filled with bundled up newspapers, Saturday Evening Posts and Reader’s Digests. Sometimes I pitched soda bottles into the open space between the garden fence and the milkhouse and cistern. There they lay, among the blooming lilacs, honeysuckle, and pokeberry bushes, lighted upon by monarchs and swallowtails until someone picked them up and took them to the store for pennies back.

The house, milkhouse, granary, and two barns formed an irregular west to east line, a boundary between the yard and farm. The fence of barbed wire and white oaks limbs stood at varying angles. The driveway came in at the granary, which was used as a garage, and turned east past the largest barn and exited the road again at the fence. Homely, humorous cardboard ads for Champagne Velvet beer, depicting fat men fishing in streams, had been used to patch holes in the granary’s side. By the time Albert Pilcher died and my grandparents acquired the house, the automotive age had begun: my uncle remembered that his father’s first car was a Maxwell, purchased in 1916 (“the year we put up the silo,” Harold said, which incidentally “didn’t have a knot in it”). A door from a ’37 Chevrolet had been used to patch a hole in the fence beside the granary, and I always fancied as a kid that the door, once opened, would magically take one into a blessed kind of land, a magical woods where spirits or ancestors lived.

Yet the automotive era had not entirely taken over the farm: as a boy I was told that much of the farming was done by teams. The greater barn stood proudly at the eastern end of the yard. Albert Pilcher had built it using wooden pegs instead of nails. An enormous maple tree shaded that side of the yard, and on bright days I loved to run along the driveway, breathe the stale smells, and rest in the grass beneath the maple. A smaller barn just beyond the fence seemed on the verge of collapse; I was strictly forbidden to play there. Yet it was all right for me to stay outside the barns and linger in the shade and crawl through the tangled vines by the fence. It was all right to linger in the remnants of the adjacent orchard and toss apples at the gray planks.

And there was the marvelous clutter of the farm, years of tasks waiting to be finished, the land trampled and fertilized by cattle. I loved flying kites on the adjacent field, among harvested stalks and dry tassels; I loved exploring the old chickenhouse, with its coops and groundhog holes. I loved to follow the trail past the salt block and the white stone that marked our cocker spaniel’s grave. Is the pond still there, now that I’m no longer a kid shooting at space ships from the sky with the loaded end of a fishing pole, or shooting at toads with my BB gun, or chasing dragonflies up the grassy bank?

And if I follow the wooded paths as far as they go, could I find my way to the stump of the paw paw tree which my mother had loved as a girl, all the way to the north road and the one-room school? Could I still feel the glad anticipation of a hike following an overwhelming Sunday meal with apple pie?


When I first studied Thomistic philosophy I was struck by a definition of “truth.” Truth is adaequatio intellectus et rei: the intellectual idea is true when it corresponds to the thing itself. That struck me because, in the case of a house fire, grief and truth conjoin as one accepts in one’s mind and heart the reality of what has happened. My mother and uncle grew up in that house and grieved most deeply. Mom felt the loss of her mother immediately, then lost one thing at a time in memory: jewelry, an old guitar, the family bible, the rocking chair, and the hope that, when a life ends, the end will verify, by its good and peaceful manner, the meaning of that life.

I felt that loss too: the painful and arbitrary recollection like unanticipated needles in your skin. But grief is a misbehaving thing, straying from its partner truth. I thought I’d handled Grandma’s death well, except for a strange reticence to speak of it and a pessimism, a heavy and fatalistic perplexity that emerged at odd moments. Adolescents are long on self-consciousness, short on productive introspection, and I went about my schooling and my career.

But fourteen years later nearly to the day, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I could scarcely contain my rage—rage at God, rage at “circumstances.” Why this? Don’t horrible events daily fill the news? I traced my feelings back to an earlier, more personal rage, and finally faced what had happened in 1972.

The delay was not difficult to understand. I saw my grandmother alive one Sunday afternoon, and then I never saw her again, alive or dead. The following Thursday night she literally disappeared from the earth. She was like an MIA. She was like the prophet Elijah who disappeared into heaven as Elisha cried out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Without the dreadful tasks of an open-casket visitation then of dividing goods and discarding clothing—all to make the loss seem hard and real-Grandma’s death never seemed believable.

But Grandma’s house is another story. I never saw Grandma again, but I saw her house “die.” And although my grief at Grandma’s death was delayed, I have always, in a real way, mourned the house and felt cast down by its violent end.

This, too, I did not understand until years later. I watched my daughter roam our house with a toddler’s relentless curiosity. I thought of Grandma and wished the two of them could have met. Then I realized … I must have roamed her house relentlessly as a child. It was a loved house, but not my home, so it was strange from the first, filled with simple specifics of an era before my time.

I was also very bored. At the farm most of my family were adults— adults who by no means ignored me, but adults nonetheless. Sometimes only Mom, Dad, and I came to see Grandma, sometimes Harold and Tillie were there too. Harold and Tillie had four sons, all born in the Thirties and early Forties, so my first cousins were married adults when I was a young boy in the Sixties. When the sons came back to Vandalia, we all met at the farmhouse. Grandma remained close to her five sisters-in-law, all born in the 1890s and early 1900s. Three of my great-aunts lived in the area and one of them lived in St. Louis, and when Aunt Jean came from St. Louis with her daughter and son-in-law, the other great-aunts with their own adult children would come to the farmhouse, and the “get-together” would become quite a crowd, a regular Crawford reunion. A tremendous, group-prepared meal ensued, with ham and potatoes and vegetables and “thirty-day slaw” and Grandma’s pies. Then the adults walked the farm, sat in the comfortable house, talked about Vietnam and other news, talked politics, religion, other people, and family lore. They looked through Grandma’s old pictures and talked about the Depression and the New Deal.

Meanwhile, shy and bored, I thoroughly toured the quarters and unintentionally memorized the house. I memorized the weathered gray wood and the rusted, torn wire screen of the front porch, the torn, dusty porch seats piled high with newspapers. Wasps nested in the eaves and made their lazy, fearless way in and out of the porch and round about the ears of house guests. I was terrified of them for years and ran screaming from them. But they met a proper end.

I memorized Grandma’s kitchen: the table in the center of the room; another table filled with flour bags and empty egg cartons; an old refrigerator, in which, for a while, Grandma kept an opossum’s tail which she’d proudly retrieved from one of her traps; the kitchen counter and tall battered cabinets; the pump which brought the only water into the house; the peachlike leaves of African violets which Grandma set in the dusty window sills; the sunny pantry. I remember Grandma’s old calendars there, hidden behind her aprons and rags, made mysterious by their being veiled with ragged cloth. They were typical kinds of calendars given out by country stores and filling stations, with trademark symbols of Good Gulf or Bunny Bread or happy farm scenes under which one placed the spent month.

I memorized the rough-textured, burgundy sofa on which Grandma slept at night; her father’s well-worn rocking chair, a table in the corner piled with local papers, her purse and pocket items, and the dictionary in which she proudly saved a drawing of a stop sign which I’d made at the tender age of 34 months. I memorized the front bedroom, with its four-poster bed and lumpy mattress, the tall, walnut wardrobe filled with linens; I memorized the corner bedroom with its muted sunniness, figurines, and jewelry set upon a small vanity. Most of all I memorized the sunny corner family room. I sometimes wonder if I both “got religion” and “got history” in that family room. I liked to sit alone in that room and read and think. I’d read the Pilcher family history which Grandma’s cousin Blanche had compiled in the 1930s. I liked reading other things, like the theological books written by C.C. Crawford, a distant cousin. I liked them because they looked and smelled like books from the 1910s and 1920s — they were both sentimentally and theologically appealing. I also liked the possibility of becoming one who writes books. Grandma kept her family photographs in that room—pictures of folk long dead or grown old, folk who had shopped in “my” downtown during its earlier eras. If the adults hadn’t claimed them already, I’d look through those pictures. All these books and keepsakes gave my imagination a kind of fond access both to Time and to Eternity. It was an introduction to Eternity that, thanks to direction later, was sufficient to help me withstand the hurt inflicted by Time to the farm.

My solitary explorations of the house provided me a place in which I’ve never ceased to live, so to speak. But I do not remember the entire house with equal clarity. I rarely lingered on the back porch, which smelled of cattle urine and damp wood—for the rain and smell came in through the rusty screen. The porch was filthy and contained coffee cans filled with nuts and washers, old tools, and also discarded wax storage cartons for leftover food. Because I rarely lingered on the porch, a particular date haunted me for years: November 17th. I could not remember the date’s significance, if any. After years of perplexity I remembered. Upon the outside of the door to Grandma’s back porch, scratched into the rusty stain, were the tiny words, “C. E. Pilcher, Nov. 17, 1907.” (Cassius E. Pilcher was a house painter, and my great-grandfather’s first cousin.)

I didn’t like going upstairs. I had a fear of it. Yet it was sunny and bright too, with sunbeams streaming through the crusty windows. Like Andrew Wyeth’s “Olsens” paintings, the upstairs had a bone dry quality, a faded world over which a thick pall of dust had settled. The curtains had lost their color to the sun and dead flies, wasps, and wasps’ mud nests lay on the floor. Boxes of local papers and a variety of castaway items were piled about. The upstairs was the kind of place where, I always feared, I’d turn around and encounter someone strange, hiding, hostile, a revenant or intruder. Grandma never locked her doors.

But I don’t quite relive the fear in my memories, only the love for a place I once visited, and do still.


Coming to Grandma’s house, I felt as though I was entering another world. I was, more so than I realized at the time. The house, the barns, the farm, the one room school—all dated from an era when a farmer could make a good living upon a comparatively few acres, with horse-drawn implements. The parents of my wife and me both left family farms for blue-and white-collar jobs and so our young daughter, two generations removed from an agricultural life, is fascinated that someone might actually live on a farm. What does that say about the future of American agriculture, and a time-honored way of life?

Too, as I have written here, Grandma never had indoor plumbing but always had a car, facts which speak of earlier times than my own. (Grandma’s house was never modernized to the extent of many of her neighbors’ homes.) I have read many books about this era, the very fact of owning a car was revolutionizing country living even as Grandma was a younger adult. Small rural stores and country churches became less and less the chief community gathering spots in places such as this. Newer supermarket chains sprung up around the country, and other changed aspects of mercantilism arose in response to the greater mobility of rural people thanks to the automobile. Fewer people needed to stay on the family farms. Eventually the automobile spelled doom, too, for the small-town mercantilism in which my mother worked prior to my birth, in so far as “Main Street” became superseded by rerouted highways, interstates, and mulls. All this is an old and well-chronicled story, of course. I mention it here because Albert Pilcher missed most of it, and his only child who loved to drive lived rooted in both the old and the new. I, Grace’s youngest grandson, feel nostalgic for a whole range of midwestern life as it changed over time.

Grandma and her farm are never far from my thoughts as I study theology and contemplate the difficulty of holding to three statements: (1) God is good, (2) God is almighty, and (3) evil and sorrow exist. Scripture does not resolve the difficulty except to raise doxologies to God and to call one to accountability in the present. Somehow–perhaps because I didn’t emotionally confront the event until years later–when I first considered a religious vocation I was able happily to respond to that call without a cynicism which the fire could have easily stirred in me. (Our minister thoughtfully told us, “I trust no one will be foolish enough to tell you ‘This was God’s will,’” and that stayed with me.) The “why” question will persist, of course, until I no longer peer through the dark glass of this existence. I myself am Job on the ash heap, unable to curse the God I dearly love but unable to fathom what I see: the evening news which brings knowledge of tragedies greater than mine, and the deeper sorrows which my friends and acquaintances bear, with a faith and a strength which shame my own.

And yet–at the risk of sounding superficial–that ash heap taught me, early and decisively, a potentially positive thing: that none of us knows how much time we have. We all know this, but we wait to face the full implications and responsibilities until we must. For once, waiting seems preferable.

So ever since January 1972, and especially in my adult life, I’ve tried to strike an overall balance. I’ve considered my own special calling the balancing several areas of service and living. For instance, I try never to shortchange my family amid an active professional life. (I’m proud to say that, at this writing, I’ve stayed home with our daughter for five consecutive summers–times I’d never exchange for anything.) I’ve tried to balance life and prayer; to be concerned for art and music. I’ve tried to be generous with praise, love and encouragement; to make amends when I’ve erred; to know that to be called of God does not mean that my way of seeing things is the only way; to subdue ego in order to maintain a sense of service; to be modest and genuine, to do good in secret, always to be an instrument of God’s Spirit who brings our work to fruition. I’ve tried to live according to a proper balance of head and heart. I’ve had a busy professional life: by the time I was 40 I had served churches, taught many college classes (history, philosophy, and religion), and had written four books and numerous shorter pieces. Best of all, people usually don’t learn from me about these accomplishments.

Before I break into a rousing rendition of “I Did It My Way,” let me reiterate my point. If I die anytime soon, I’ll know I did as much good as I could with the talents God gave to me. I’ve tried never to postpone, to avoid ways in which I may be of service to people. I know that people can be influenced tremendously by simple kindnesses, by an offhand remark, by sitting quietly in beloved rooms. Who knows? Maybe someone will be helped by the Spirit through something I write or say, some encouragement or kindness. So I fling my bread upon the waters, not presuming to wait till some probable yet never-guaranteed tomorrow. Sometimes a tragedy can point you to a right and mindful way to live.


Grandma’s farm lived in my reverie for many years, and does still. For years in my daydreams, the house was intact, but it was empty, awaiting occupancy as it did for those years when Grandma lived with Mom and Dad. I also had a dream, about once or twice a year, that it had all been a mistake–the firemen and coroner had been wrong.

All the while, the place seemed to transfigure in my mind. I’d read poems by Bryant and Whitman, and they seemed to be describing that very place. I’d read other things-Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, stories by Faulkner, poetry by Frost (“The Need to Be Versed in Country Things”), Richard Eberhart’s poem “The Groundhog” – and my mind quite naturally made a mental picture of the locations therein, the house and farm and the woods. Durand’s famous painting Kindred Spirits seemed to depict the very gullies and waters of Grandma’s place. Too, the quality of certain pieces of music invariably triggered memories and associations: especially Appalachian Spring and others by Copland, Vaughan Williams’ third and fifth symphonies, John Rutter’s Requiem and “I Will Lift Up My Eyes,” pieces by Mendelssohn and Mozart, and others—my desert island music.

Then the event “hit” me in 1986. Soon afterwards I went to the farm again for a long-delayed recognition. Since 1972 I had visited the farm a few times; I knew what to expect. No one had had the heart to keep up the yard, which became overgrown very soon — “back to the government”—and trespassers had stolen some of the barn wood. Time and the elements claimed the place. I recalled Bryant’s poetic image of Nature as caregiver, which still seemed lovely but also seemed a cruel hoax in the face of something as capricious as this.

Before Jerusalem was established, Israel’s first holy city was Shiloh. The Philistines captured the ark and effected a slaughter (1 Samuel 4:10-12), but the destruction of Shiloh (a place so dear that, according to one interpretation of Genesis 49:10, the Messiah himself will return to it) is omitted altogether, as if its loss were too painful for even the Scriptures to lay. Centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah (chapters 7 and 26) told the people they shall become like Shiloh, and they sought his life. I’m not so sure I might not have lobbed a small rock at his head myself; the loss of place is a painful thing of which to be reminded. This time, I saw anew that the remaining farm buildings, which had formed that continuous line together, were collapsed or collapsing. The granary genuflected blasphemously, broken down at one corner. The greater barn had fallen flat. Yet the smaller barn-the one identified to me as a dire hazard many years ago-still stood. I thought of Albert and his brother Waldo. I saw that the beloved old maple tree was dead, apparently from lightning, for it looks burned as well as rotten, but is too far from the scene to have been scorched by “the fire.”

The prophet Isaiah said, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.” The yard, which I remember as freshly mowed, upkeep, and sunny, was colored in the brown, olive, amber and pink: winter’s half-transparent shades of grass and brush. The field’s flowers, the milkweed, foxtail, and witchgrass grew wildly. I remembered the bright house, and the house was grass, and Grandma was gone. I slept poorly for several nights.


I am one of the younger people who recall the house vividly. The land was ancestral before the house was gone, and my own dearest memories are something which my daughter will ever consider part of the past.

Yet the farm has a quality which I’ve found in other local landscapes as well. That quality is the power of one’s favorite places to become the landscapes of one’s soul.

When my ancestors settled in the vicinity during the early 1800s, great change, both cultural and geographical, occurred in the wake of the entire phenomenon of frontier migration. Five generations ago people complained as they do today: that no one lived in the same town in which they were born and raised. The historian Sidney Mead has written, “Americans during their formative years were a people in movement through space—a people exploring the obvious highways and the many unexplored and devious byways of practically unlimited geographic and social space.” The original settlers of Four Mile including the first owners of the farm were certainly part of that social phenomenon. Yet, as the geographer Norman Stewart points out, that formative pioneer migration soon transformed into stasis—a deeply-rooted, family-oriented conservatism and a rootedness to place–of the kind I learned first from Grandma herself. (She died, after all, because she wanted to be independent and live at the place she knew best. Among the things for which one may die that is a very good one.) That stasis allowed not only for a forgetfulness as to the heritage of the land—an ecologically and culturally devastating forgetfulness, in some cases-but also for a “protective” feeling about the land: those of us who love certain landscapes want them always to be the same, that is, the way we’ve always known them. We are, quite naturally, ambivalent about the general change that affects our dearest landscapes. (Thomas and Geraldine Vale have perceptively explored this tension in their history of U.S. 40.)

“Our” landscapes are, of course, not always ours at all. White settlers were not the first, nor “the right.” Neither is “your” property yours at all. Stop paying property taxes and find out, or try to “take it with you.” But the love of place is still an essential one for us, whether one “own” the beloved place or not. The slow changes in the character of lands and places often brings a wistfulness and sense of simple, passive nostalgia, and because those changes are slow over time the change itself becomes part of the experience of being “from” that place.

Yet when the alteration of the landscape involves a more deep and personal loss-and when change is terrible and swift—the love of place takes on altogether different meanings. Then that love becomes rooted in deeper feelings, and it begins transfiguring the lost place in memory, the same way we tend to idolize the person whom we’ve lost to death. That is when the love of place becomes not just a nostalgic sigh, but the deepest of longings. Something essential has been taken from you, even as someone essential to you has died.

Yet that essential thing never leaves you either. Today I pull into the weed-choked driveway, leave the car, and walk. I have never again dreamed that dream about Grandma and her house. But now, somehow, whenever I think of the house, it is not empty. I see Grandma in it once again, puttering around in her old-woman way—a stubborn, kindly old woman. And I’m a young boy coming in to grab an icy Orange Crush and talk to her. The house no longer awaits occupancy in lonely abandonment.

The tragedy remains, of course. But in the realm of dreams where we live in our first homes, I have ever after dwelt in peace. I have an assurance of things unseen, and can enjoy coming to the farm with a fresh and loving gratitude to God for the wonderful things we are given in life. There are places stronger and deeper than change, and loves which are stronger by far than death.



The Lyndon Johnson reference is from the president’s memoir, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of a Presidency, 1963-1969 (New York, 1971), p. 213). The Annie Dillard reference is from Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York, 1982), p. 133.  Although these are personal memories, several sources gave me a larger context. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (Boston, 1969), has interesting discussions of lost space, creative boredom, rooms, and corners.  Other sources include Gerald Carson, The Old Country Store (New York, 1954); Herman Mattern, “The Growth of Landscape Consciousness,” Landscape 15 (Spring 1966); Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment (New York, 1963), 5; Hugh C. Prince, “The Geographical Imagination,” Landscape 11 (Winter 1961-1962), 7-11; Norman R. Stewart, “The Mark of the Pioneer,” Landscape 15 (Autumn 1965); R. Burton litton, Jr., “Time, Trees, and Places,” Landscape 15 (Spring 1966), 21-24; Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia (Brunswick, 1974); Thomas and Geraldine Vale, U.S. 40 Today (Madison, NJ, 1983); May T. Watts, Reading the Landscape of America (New York, 1975).

The quotation of 2 Kings 2:12 echoes the conclusion of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm (New York, 1978). 

In 1918 and 1924 the state of Illinois began numbering state highways as part of the State Bond Issue system.  The last of these state roads was none other than my beloved IL 185, which at that time went from Bluff City to Farina and only later extended through Vandalia to Hillsboro.

Read Full Post »

U.S. 40 Days

Annie Dillard opens her memoir, An American Childhood, with the belief that, “When everything else has gone from my brain” including her knowledge and her life’s goals, she’ll remember topography, specifically the topography of her native Pittsburgh. I think a similar thing: as my brain declines someday, I hope it holds onto the roads in, around, and near my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. Certainly the top contender for my possible “last memory” is the road to my grandmother’s house. When I was a kid in Vandalia, my parents and I crossed the river bridge and proceeded about five miles on U.S. 40, a way which had both flat and hilly sections. Then we turned onto Illinois 185 and drove across Four Mile Prairie to the Brownstown Road turnoff. My grandmother (who died in 1972) lived a bit off the Brownstown Road.

But the way to Grandma’s was just part of a collection of fond local memories. The main drag through Vandalia was once U.S. 40, prior to the road’s bypass realignment to Third Street. As in many small communities, the business district is quieter today. But I like to think of my childhood days when a person would go to town and shop (or window shop) among the several clothing stores, buy the hardware you needed at Western Auto, get groceries at the A&P or Tri-City or Kroger, and run other errands. Maybe you’d stop for coffee at the Abe Lincoln Café inside the Hotel Evans and get local news not printed in the papers.

During the Christmas season I loved the Christmas holly and bells that draped over the downtown street lights, and the trees and wreaths that appeared in some store windows. “Silver Bells” depicts a city but I always associate it with our small hometown because the song’s images fit well with Vandalia’s holiday style. I recall participating in our church’s Christmas pageant. I’d stand by the altar in my “biblical” bathrobe and struggle to remember my lines amid the red-and-green drapery of Christmas. (“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field…”) Our church was just a couple blocks from downtown (along Fifth Street, which was the earlier alignment of U.S. 51 through town), so church Christmases mix in my memory with downtown cheer.

On Christmas day itself, after I dispatched my toys with a little kid’s eagerness, my parents and I drove east toward Brownstown, Illinois, to my grandmother’s farmhouse–literally over the river and through the woods–for a holiday feast with relatives. The timber beyond the fallow fields faded in the snowy air, and the fence posts of Grandma’s farm were ringed by white skirts of snow.

Besides trips to Grandma’s, my other early memories of U.S. 40 include our monthly or bimonthly family trips to downtown St. Louis (just 70 miles away) for shopping. My parents liked to shop at Famous Barr and Stix, Baer, and Fuller. We’d travel over on U.S. 40 (I-70 still incomplete) and cross what was still called the Veterans Bridge (with its dime toll). But “big city” shopping was a treat rather than a necessity, because a person would shop for pretty well in downtown Vandalia. I remember aspects of the trip to St. Louis, for instance, the “2 Acres Motel” (which is still there) outside Greenville, a set of Burma Shave signs a little further west (near a house that fascinated me as a little kid because it’s L-shaped), a restaurant outside Highland (no longer there, and I can’t remember the name), the slight directional changes at the road joined Route 66 near Edwardsville, and finally the river bridge. As Interstate 70 was constructed, we had to slow down along some stretches of 40 where the road was becoming rerouted.

U.S. 40 once crossed the whole country, from Atlantic City to San Francisco, although today it ends in Utah. But for me, U.S. 40 will always be trips to St. Louis, visits to downtown Vandalia, and trips to Grandma’s house near Brownstown, 75 miles of happy nostalgia.

The Way of Old Roads

I taught a course at University of Akron called “American Highways and American Wanderlust.” Did you know that odd numbered federal highways are longitudinal, and the evens latitudinal? I never thought about that until I studied the subject, even though I grew up on the west-east US 40 and the north-south US 51. Did you know that the even numbers are higher as you go south and the odd numbers are higher as you go west? I’d never thought about that, either. If you want to be in California and you’re on US 1, you’re in trouble. Similarly if you want a southern vacation and you’re on US 10, you better reorient yourself.

With interstates, the numbering is just the opposite. The lower numbers are west and south. I-95 goes down the east coast, I-5 down the west coast, I-90 is up north and I-10 is down south. What about diagonal highways? They’re evens. I lived near US 42 in two different cities; the road goes diagonally from Cleveland, OH to Louisville KY. So does US 62, from Niagara Falls to El Paso. In the 1960s the Saturday Evening Post featured an occasional game within its pages: you were provided a small close up of a national map, and your job was to guess the location. If you knew something about the system of routes, the game was pretty fun.

Beginning around 1915, states began numbering their roads. Illinois developed a system, beginning with (but not limited to) several primary routes. There were four longitudinal roads. Illinois 1 is still there, except that the long curve from Norris City to Metropolis, originally part of route 1, is now part of US 45. Except for portions in the north, the original Illinois 2 is now US 51. Illinois 3 is still there, east and south of St. Louis, but north of St. Louis it’s now mostly US 67. Illinois 4 is still there, although it was originally a Chicago-St. Louis route, mostly replaced by the fabled US 66. (This c. 1920 postcard shows IL 2 meeting the National Road just east of my hometown.)

Several horizontal Illinois roads, too, were more or less in sequence north to south. Moving south, Illinois 5 (now US 20) went through Rockford, then 6 (the old Lincoln Highway, now Illinois 38), 7 (now US 6), then 17 through Kankakee (still there), 8 (now US 24), 9 (still there) through Bloomington, 10 (now mostly US 36) through Decatur and Springfield. The next west-east route, though, is Illinois 16 (still there), followed by Illinois 11 (the old National Road and now US 40) and 12 (now US 50). Then—still heading south—you have Illinois 15 through Mt. Vernon, 14 through Benton, and 13 through Marion and Carbondale.

I found this information at http://www.n9jig.com. The website http://www.us-highways.com has information about U.S. highways and also links to sites that describe roads in particular states.

Before roads were widely numbered, people relied upon AAA “Blue Books” to help them get around. You’d need a navigator every time you drove much distance in an unfamiliar territory! That’s because roads were imperfectly marked and followed zigzagging, sometimes informal paths. I’ve a copy of the 1915 AAA Blue Book. Here’s part of the directions if you were driving from St. Louis to Vincennes (p. 291):

66.2 7.3 4-corners, church and blacksmith shop on right; turn left and take first right crossing RR.
66.6 0.4 End of road; jog left and take first right, following poles.
70.2 3.6 End of road; turn right across RR. And immediately left, bearing right away from tracks. Go straight ahead into
75.9 5.7. Salem, Court House on left. Keep straight ahead cross R.R. 76.4. Road is direct with poles. Jog left and right, 77.2, winding through woods 81.5 past Xenia (on right—92.8)

That’s actually one of the easier routes!

I found physical evidence of a very old, winding road like this. If you take U.S. 51 north of Sandoval, IL, the modern alignment goes straight north, but you can see seams in the pavement where the road once made a right-hand curve. Then, following that old alignment a few tenths of a mile, the older road makes a left-hand curve and goes north for a mile or less, crossing a narrow bridge. (I love that bridge because of its plaque that preserves the name of the builder, something I’ve never seen on an old highway bridge.) Past a picnic area, that old alignment rejoins the modern road with a left- and then a right-hand turn. Again, you can see the seams in the modern pavement where the curve had once existed. To think that a major highway would’ve once included such an indirect pathway! You have to assume that the original highway routes followed the paths of existing local roads. (Here is a newer post with better photos: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2017/02/old-highway-alignments.html)

Locating very old alignments is interesting. I’ve spotted other abandoned alignments along U.S. 51 near Vandalia. U.S. 40 between Troy and Highland, and near Marshall, Illinois, parallels abandoned and overgrown stretches of roadbed, presumably from the 1910s or the 1920s. One time I found a highway bridge deep in timber. I was scouting the remains of a pioneer town, Old Loogootee in Fayette Co., Illinois. I found a few bricks from buildings, but I also found that narrow bridge fording a stream. There was little evidence of a road there, the old Vincennes Road that became state route 185. The bridge was haunting in its incongruity.

At Vandalia, the original path of Route 40 has until recently been signed Illinois 140 but, for reasons having to do with state and local maintenance, it carries no number at all until the outskirts of Mulberry Grove.  I wish I had a picture of the Abe Lincoln Motel that once stood well within the city limits on the old route (in town called St. Louis Ave.); one of my earliest memories was the small motel (no more than ten rooms) and a sign along the street.  It had not operated for many years as a motel before it was finally razed in the late 1990s.  But just beyond the city limits, an early alignment veers off the old road and makes a curve of several hundred feet.  This is a remnant of the original automobile highway, State Route 11 or National Old Trails Highway of the teens and twenties.  Further east, just beyond Hagerstown, a 1920 Route 11 bridge sits alongside the modern pavement, overgrown with small trees.

A few years ago I found a wonderful book about landscape exploration, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, New York: Walker & Co., 1999. If a person is interested in evidences of 20th century American culture (not just roads but railroads and small town life), Stilgoe is a good author for ideas and inspiration!

Memory Places

Several miles from my hometown, I pass this uninteresting scene: a sign frame next to a mailbox, and a home along the road. But I know that the frame has been there for at least 42 years; it once held a sign for a veterinarian’s practice in the lower level of the home. In 1968 my parents and I acquired a dachshund puppy, whom we named Baron, and for a few years we patronized that vet for our dog’s shots and exams. As I recall, we liked the vet but switched to a practice that opened closer to our hometown. So I don’t know how long the first vet was in practice, but the house is now just a house and only this metal sign frame remains.

I’ve always been fascinated by mundane sights that have significance, or at least a small story, which passers-by would not know. What kind of sign did that frame used to hold? What is the significance of this place, if anything? Near my hometown, on U.S. 40, is an everyday-looking intersection of the main highway and two country roads. But in pioneer days the place was widely known as Twin Pumps. Two pumps served people and horses traveling on the National Road. For many years nothing alerted you to the history of the place.

As you approach Vandalia from the east across the “bottoms,” you notice how the highway curves a bit to the more recent alignment. But you can also see how the original alignment proceeded straight, since the pavement was never removed. For a few hundred yards, you can drive along the narrow roadbed, which not only had been U.S. 40 but, before that, State Route 11 and the National Old Trails Highway, and even before that, the last, westernmost distance of the National Road. A few businesses stand along the pavement and, until it was removed a few years ago, a forlorn warehouse stood which had originally been a skating rink and entertainment place called Junction Park. My mother remembered going there during her 1930s teen years.  I sensed from her words the memories of happy youthful times spent in a place that, to me, had always just been a junky building beside the river.

A few years ago, I read an essay in which the writer expressed curiosity about a large L that he saw in the mosaic at the entrance of an empty building in Queens. He passed the place on the subway. Those attractive mosaic entryways grace business buildings in small towns, too; I noticed one in Richmond, IN outside of what must’ve once been a clothing store. Research and serendipity finally led the author to identify the name of the department store that had existed in the building he saw. Only the mosaic L signified a nearly forgotten history.

Illinois state route 185 is the road to the place that was once my grandma Crawford’s farm. One of Illinois oldest state funded roads, 185 crosses an area called Four Mile Prairie where many of my maternal relatives settled and lived. As I drive Four Mile Prairie, I think of family stories told as we visited Grandma’s farm. I knew where our family’s peach orchard stood before a 1920s winter killed it; where six sweet apple trees stood beside a fence row, and where the family grew Ben Davis, Maiden Blush, Snowflake, and yellow Early Harvest apple trees; that Grandma set out a group of maple trees during the 1910s. I knew approximately where my uncle found 75 mushrooms one year during the 1910s, beneath a tree across from “the old Frank Crawford place.” I knew where my great-great-grandfather lived during the 1890s, and where cousin Andy Rush’s barns had stood along a certain fence row. All these places were identifiable only by reminiscence.

At the intersection of 185 and the Brownstown Road is an old tree. Sometime during the 1960s, a young man was killed when he crashed his car into the tree. I wonder who else looks at the otherwise nondescript tree and remembers that; perhaps someone still grieves their loss when they pass by this very common place.

A few miles north, in Brownstown, one can still highway-oriented commercial structures like a cottage-style service station building, as well as former restaurants.  But I miss the tourist cabins that hosted U.S. 40 travelers passing through Brownstown.  The old motel had deteriorated for several years before the cabins were removed, but when I was little, the place still operated as a shady resting place for travelers.  I thought the bonnet on the sign looked like it had little arms and legs.

Since moving to St. Louis, I purchased a book about the several U.S. 66 alignments through the city: the original, main, bypass, and city routes. Most of the places depicted in the book are gone. The main route, Lindbergh Blvd, now looks nothing like the motel- and and restaurant-lined highway of the 1950s. Where a motel has replaced another motel, at the intersection of highways 40, 61, 67, and the former 66, a notorious (according to the book) place has given way to one more upscale. I imagine people looking at the postcards in the book and saying something like, “We stayed at that motel during our 1962 vacation to Tulsa!”

Private memories, nostalgia, and highway history converge around locations that have changed.

Roadside Picnic Stops

Along U.S. 51 between Vandalia, Illinois, which is my hometown, and Ramsey, Illinois, which also has family connections, you can find an earlier highway alignment that lies just west of the main road. When I was a little boy, this short stretch of old 51 featured a pleasant picnic area for travelers. Just north of the area was a quaint metal highway bridge that carried you across a stream before the road rejoined the main alignment. U.S. 51 was Illinois State Route 2 prior to 1926, and I wonder if this bridge dates from the 20s.

Back in the days of Rock City barns and roadside cafes, picnic areas were a common sight along the two-lane highways. They were such pleasant areas, basically a small park beside the road. A very nice picnic area once existed along U.S. 40 west of Vandalia, a few miles east of the intersection with IL 140 near Mulberry Grove, and I’ve written here about another such area along 51 near Sandoval, IL.

I remember a gorgeous little picnic area along Hwy. 40 where we stopped during our 1965 vacation to Washington, D.C. This place was down a hill from the highway and was such a park-like area, I ran around and played, delighted. The area must’ve been in Indiana or Ohio, but I’ve not been able to find it during sporadic attempts. After all, so many years have passed; for instance, that picnic stop near Mulberry Grove has been incorporated into a farm and is no longer recognizable. I noticed a few places in Ohio where gravel roads led down the shoulder into a recessed area. Perhaps one of those places was my idyllic childhood park.

Why would you have a picnic along a highway? Well, you’d probably have food and drinks packed for your trip! My dad certainly did; he’d have bottles and cans of soda and food for our trips. One year he fried a big batch of fried chicken to take along for a vacation. I remember my mother was angry at him because he cleaned the kitchen very inadequately prior to our several days away. We stopped at a roadside park–I don’t remember where—to eat our lunch, and I noticed all the messages people had written or carved into the table’s wood.

I suppose today you’d worry about stopping along a highway to relax; the real-life cousins of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit might jump out from the trees. But, of course, you can exit an interstate highway but you can’t stop along the road to lounge and eat. Picnic areas seem as quaint as mom-and-pop restaurants, but they imply a pleasant, unhurried aspect of early- and mid-twentieth century road travel.

When I visit Vandalia I don’t usually drive north of town, but several years ago I happened to be driving that way and I rediscovered this little picnic area, so pleasant during my childhood. The place was quite overgrown. Not only that, but the old alignment was mostly closed to traffic, because the old bridge is, apparently, no longer sturdy enough. It is barricaded, but you can pull off the main alignment and stroll upon the old road. The narrowness of these original alignments always intrigues me, especially after I’ve driven multi-lane interstates for a while.

I took this picture of the bridge. It was a late fall day, and the resulting photo was more haunting than I’d planned. Where does that narrow road go? Actually just up the hill to the old picnic area, where future archaeologists may someday find chicken bones and bottle caps and arcane messages like “Tim + Mary” carved into wood.

Remembered Highway

When we were dating in the early 1980s, Beth and I met in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, to spend Saturdays together. We lived in two different locations, and the small town was about halfway between us. With a mall, an art gallery, a decent downtown, and several antique stores, we could spend a nice day together.

I’ve a small collection of highway signs; since most are 24” x 24” and in so-so condition they’re impractical to collect and display, but they’re fun to me. They’re fun for others, too; for instance, the website http://shields.aaroads.com/ features hundreds of pictures of signs. Looking over that site, I noticed this 1960s photograph from Mt. Vernon which intrigued me (here’s the source link: http://shields.aaroads.com/show.php?image=IL19564601t204600.jpg) I recognized state routes 37 (a favorite highway) and 148, and I knew state route 15 passed through town, but I’d never heard of U.S. 460. I would’ve remembered a U.S. highway there.

Turns out, the road was a major highway at one time. Today, 460 runs from Frankfort, KY to Norfolk, VA, but between 1946 and 1977, 460 began in downtown St. Louis, crossed the old MacArthur Bridge, and traveled across Illinois and Indiana into Louisville before proceeding, along U.S. 60, over to Frankfort and beyond. Here are two other sites, http://www.us-highways.com/ and http://www.usends.com/60-69/460/460.html

I’ve traveled on the now-state highways that comprised this busy, pre-interstate road. The former route of 460 is Illinois 15 from East St. Louis to Mt. Vernon, south through Mt. Vernon on Illinois 37, then southeast on Illinois 142 to McLeansboro, east Illinois 14 to the Wabash River, and then Indiana 66 to Evansville and finally Indiana 62 across that state. Beautiful countryside! I’d also traveled a lot on U.S. 60 in Louisville, not realizing that this spur route had once also been signed along the same highway, en route to Frankfort. Pre-interstate, St. Louis-to-Louisville travelers must’ve taken U.S. 50 and U.S. 150, but travelers also had this more southerly route. I could imagine a traveler requiring much longer to drive 460 than the five or so hours upon the modern I-64, which supplanted the older road.

Southern Illinois two-lane countryside south of U.S. 40 and east of U.S. 51 shines in my memory: country drives with Beth, drives by myself, and earlier, antiques-hunting trips with my parents. Studying old maps to discover the route of 460 makes me nostalgic for that area, truly “landscapes of the heart”. Perhaps I’ll take a couple days this winter or spring to reconnect memories and country vistas.

A Leisurely Drive on U.S. 40

This photo is an intersection of U.S. 40 and a local road in east-central Illinois, a (to me) peaceful view noticed during this next, pleasant road trip.

When I attended school in the East in the early 1980s, part of the trip home was along I-70 between western Pennsylvania and the family home in Illinois.  Of course, I didn’t have much thought about revisiting that route in the future.  But when our daughter attended college in Pennsylvania—and my wife and I live in Missouri—I rediscovered that interstate during car trips to and from her school.  The drive is more fun now, however, because it’s part of my daughter’s life rather than part of my insecure younger self’s literal and figurative journeys.

Nearly any interstate, at least in the Midwest, dares you to find scenery that’s compelling.  I love interstates for their speed and convenience, but taking the older roads is more fun whenever I’m not in a hurry. During these recent college-related trips I’ve enjoyed pulling off I-70 and sight-seeing along U.S.40: the National Road milestones and bridges in Ohio, as well as the numerous examples of 20th century highway businesses–motels, filing stations, garages, neon signs, and the like–along the old road in Indiana and Illinois.

During a recent summer trip, I took my time getting home so I could scout out such places.  I like to kick my sandals off in the car and, sometimes, I hate to put them back on, if I think no one will mind.  Surprisingly, most folks don’t seem to.  Making my way West on I-70 on a warm morning, I left the interstate at Terre Haute and followed highway 40 through the city and across the state line. My sandals were reliably abandoned on the floorboard.  Just over the border, one notices stretches of sections of old pavement beside the modern highway, and even a rare stretch of brick roadbed. I think of these as “shards” of the earliest automobile highways, in this case, part of the transcontinental National Old Trails Highway which was superseded by the U.S. highway system in 1926. As with ghost signs, I’d love to peak back into history and see these cracked, 1910s roadbeds when they were new and innovative highways for “newfangled” cars.

Downtown Marshall, Illinois, not far from the Indiana border, has interesting business architecture; George R. Stewart’s classic book US 40: Cross Section of the United States of America (Houghton Mifflin, 1953) featured a photo of a pretty downtown block.  Wanting to get a contemporary view, I parked my car and sighed with happiness as my heels made gentle thuds upon the sidewalk.  I padded around the town square and took pictures of the quiet downtown. In Stewart’s photo, there is one more building on the left (no longer there), the middle building (now plain brick) was painted, and the building on the right had a cornice at the very top which read “1889 Graebenheimer Building.” Unfortunately the antique stores were closed on Monday.  I worried about the pleasant grocery store, not far from downtown on Illinois 1, which surely gets competition from the Wal-Mart north of town.  I visited the store, where the cool linoleum felt good on my feet after the warm sidewalk of downtown.  As I pushed the cart and selected items for the trip and for home, the manager greeted me with a smile.

Illinois Route 1 is an original state highway from 1918.  The highway ran from Chicago to Metropolis, but when U.S. 45 was established, the portion from Norris City to Metropolis became U.S. 45, while another road down to the Ohio River became signed as Route 1.  If you look at a map, you can see how Route 1 would’ve passed through Eldorado, Harrisburg, Vienna, Belknap, and Metropolis.  These towns are familiar to me from a happy time in my life in the 1980s—and the pastor who married my wife and me was from Eldorado—but they’re quite a bit south of Marshall.

West of town, a traveler who has already forsaken I-70 can also forsake the modern pathway of U.S. 40 and drive the still-older alignment of 40 toward the village of Martinsville, Illinois. Usually these older alignments rejoin the main highway after you’ve passed through the town. But the first time I visited Martinsville, I became a little worried when the road didn’t quickly rejoin the modern U.S. 40. Instead, that oldest alignment took me all the way into the next little town, Casey, for an interesting six-mile section of narrow highway beside farms and rural businesses.  According to A Guide to the National Road (ed. by Karl Raitz: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), this original and still usable stretch of the original alignment is unique in Illinois, where most of the longer stretches were replaced when the highway was realigned and upgraded in the 1940s.

Casey is a more comparatively substantial town in this area (pop. 3000).  On the outskirts, an enormous red Pegasus stands atop a large pole above roadside businesses.  The symbol for Mobil gas must’ve belonged to a filling station, which no longer exists, and the sign remains, incongruous and lonely.  Driving into downtown Casey, I parked and walked among the shops and several empty storefronts, typical of small towns along the road. Along with patronizing those open businesses, one can appreciate the local heritage revealed in the commercial architecture.

Driving several miles west, I arrived in Greenup, a town named for a pioneer surveyor who also helped found my hometown. As quiet as Marshall’s downtown, Greenup’s business district is interesting and unusual because of the balconies along the street.  Still barefooted, I strolled the main street for a while, took pictures of business exteriors, and also checked out a gift store where I purchased some nice “country crafts.”

Much farther down the road, as I made my way along the old highway, I stopped at St. Elmo, IL, in my home county. St. Elmo, probably named for a popular postbellum novel, is a (to me) very familiar village a few miles east of my hometown. As I strolled toward one of the antique stores, I spotted a Mesker facade on the front of a downtown building and took a photograph of the identification. These cast iron business facades were manufactured by the George Mesker Co. in the 19th century (see http://www.gotmesker.com) and can still be found in area communities. Vandalia once had several Mesker facades but because of downtown fires over the years, only three or four remain.

I was interested in 20th century American culture (highways, railroads, and small town life) long before I read Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe, but his book provided recent inspiration for me to regain my earlier hobby of photographing interesting small town architecture. In the case of this favorite stretch of U.S. 40, I have other books, too: not only George Stewart’s but also A Guide to the National Road, edited by Karl B. Raitz (Johns Hopkins, 1996). I was so pleased to discover that one of the authors footnotes my own book on early Vandalia, but of course the book is more than that single sentence: many communities along U.S. 40 are highlighted, photographed, and described in relationship to the pioneer highway as well as the modern federal highway.


When federal and state highways pass through towns and cities, the roads are identical with local streets. This is not the case with interstate highways. But I like to reminisce about the older roads as they still wind and turn through communities. One of my favorite series of highway “jogs,” for instance, is in Pana, Illinois, where northbound U.S. 51 becomes Poplar Street, turns east four blocks on First Street (which is pretty), turns north a block on Cedar St., turns east again on Jackson St. for a mile or so, and then returns to its northerly path. (I also love the slight turn the highway makes a little ways north, at the undulating landscape around the turn to Dollsville, IL) You don’t get that kind of local commonality with interstates; you just rush along to get where you’re going. Most days, that’s what I want.

I share my late father’s odd habit of studying maps for no particular reason. Back home in St. Louis, I ordered a 1950s city map from eBay because I wondered where the older highways had been located in the city, prior to the interstates.

This map revealed a fact that I’d always read about in Route 66 histories: the St. Louis versions of old 66 were several, including the main route, the city route, and the bypass route. Today, U.S. 40 is also Interstate 64 straight through St. Louis (locals, in fact, don’t even call the interstate “64,” they call it “Highway 40”), and U.S. 50 follows the southerly route of Interstate 255. But 40 and 50 once followed the city and county streets and also had alternate routes; 50, for instance, was additionally signed “Turnpike 40,” and U.S. 40 was also signed “City Route 50.”

Manchester Road, a major west-east street in St. Louis, is locally commemorated as an early path of Route 66. This map, however, revealed to me that Manchester Road was also U.S. 50 through the city. U.S. 50 is still a transcontinental highway, from Ocean City to Sacramento–unlike routes 40, 60, 70, and 80, its route has not been truncated in the West–and was the subject of a Time magazine cover story a few years ago. In Nevada, 50 is “the country’s loneliest road.” How interesting to see that a street I regularly travel had, at one point, been part of that highway.

My own favorite section of U.S. 50 is the ten-mile stretch between Sandoval and Salem, Illinois, about 45 minutes or so from my hometown. This area is farm land, numerous small houses, the village of Odin, IL, and a few small industries. When I was a kid, my parents made country drives to this area to shop for antiques, for instance the Lincoln Trail shop at Odin, which is still there. Another antique store, on the north side of Route 50, looked promising but was open “by chance or appointment.” Unfortunately, the store was NEVER open when we chanced by. Its perpetual closure became a family joke. Sometimes we stopped at a mom-and-pop hamburger place in Sandoval, at the north side of town across from an old motel (pretty and southwestern-looking in its day) at the 50-51 split. You waited forever for your burgers but they were so good!

I’m sure I was bored and restless on these country trips, but they shine in my memory. U.S. 50 connected to the “home roads” IL 185 (via IL 37) and U.S. 51. But the highway was a Sunday drive away; we lived in another town, and the houses, businesses and churches along Route 50 were other people’s countryside. In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in this “distant” rural area. Homes along the road had nice yards like mine, but behind those yards were cultivated fields, and beyond the fields were lines of deciduous timber. To me, the landscape incorporated pleasant aspects of town and countryside, both cozy and spacious. (The landscape along nearby U.S. 51, including the area in and around Vernon, IL, provides a similar nostalgic mix of highway, farm, timber, and home.)

I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than the Sandoval-to-Salem highway, but that road was enough like–and close enough to–my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled. The word describes well nearly any highway of happy personal associations.

(These pieces were written during the past several months for paulstroble.blogspot.com, although one was originally written for an Advent collection of Christmas memories.)

Read Full Post »

Ghost Signs

Last month an afternoon show called “Show Me St. Louis” featured a report about “ghost signs.” Those are the fading painted signs on the side of brick buildings, identifying the business or advertising a product. Such signs were often painted atop earlier signs and as time wears away the paint, the two or three signs overlap. The reporter found several examples of ghost signs around St. Louis, including a barely-visible ad for a bread company along with a drawing of a baseball player holding a loaf of bread. On the side of another building, the reporter found two signs, one atop the other, for different brands of beer. The more recent ad was barely readable but, of course, was more readable than the earlier sign underneath. Some of the featured signs–variously for shoe stores, blacksmiths, and other businesses and products–were from the early 20th century.

The story made me look at this picture above more closely. This sign is in St. Elmo, Illinois, in my home county. I took the photo ten years ago; it hangs in our house as a pleasant small-town scene. The ad for Mail Pouch tobacco is still very readable, and I’d noticed that the tobacco ad covered a previous sign, which I can’t decipher. But on closer inspection, I realized a third, earlier sign can be discerned beneath that previous sign (the faint “GO” or “60” right above the “UC” of “pouch”). What were the two older advertisements?

Here’s a picture of the side of a dry cleaner in our hometown. Taken by one of my classmates, this picture appears on the “Vandalia Memories” page of Facebook. I’ve seen this ghost sign all my life and I don’t ever remember it being readable; nevertheless the word “Shoes” is still clear. Ghost signs always make you wish that you could peak back into history so you could see the original message.

Elsewhere in my hometown is a Mail Pouch ad on the back of a building on Fifth Street, and also an ad for Brunswick Tires on the side of the old Craycroft building, once an auto dealership, on the south side of the railroad tracks on Fifth Street. One of my very earliest memories was a building of some sort on Sixth Street, also on the south side of the tracks. A billboard was attached to the north side of the building over a painted ad for Coca Cola; even though I was quite young, I noticed the distinctive cursive C that had not been covered by the sign.

Below is still another sign which I noticed in Pennsylvania this past summer. The electric sign of the old furniture store has seen better days, but the ghost sign was still pretty readable: this furniture store was “Greensburg’s Finest!” The position of the electric sign made me wonder if the ghost sign had one owner’s name, and then perhaps the business changed hands and the electric sign was installed with a new owner’s name covering that portion of the painted sign.

I should look to see if anyone has published a book about ghost signs. I do have favorite books about advertisements that appear on barns: David B. Jenkins, Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Free Spirit Press, 1996) and William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns: Vanishing American Landmarks (MBI Publishing, 2004). Old signs like all of these are pleasant reminders of times past and are, literally, vanishing Americana.

Read Full Post »