Sunday, August 13, 2017

The New Colossus

"Give me your Tired, your Poor, your Huddled masses Yearning to breathe Free."  These words are part of a poem entitled "The New Colossus" and placed with a very famous lady in New York harbor.  In 1886 this lady was given to the United Stated by France in honor of the alliance that stood between our two countries during the Revolutionary war.  I've always wanted to travel to New York and see this Grand Dame but never found the opportunity to do so. Fortunately for me, and my followers, one of her little sisters resides right here in Illinois.

The year is 1951 and the Boy Scouts of America, celebrating their 40th anniversary, are in the midst of a two year campaign called "Strengthening the Arm of Liberty" in which they emplaced over 200 scaled down replica's in cities and town all over the country. One of these replica's is in the small town of London Mills, IL.

Originally conceived by Jack Whitaker of the Kansas City area council for the Boy Scouts, these statues were made by Friedley-Voshardt of Chicago and constructed of sheet copper panels just like the original. It stands 8 1/2 feet tall without the base and weighs 290 pounds. The cost in 1951 dollars was 350.00 plus freight.

This particular replica was officially dedicated on July 25th, 1953 and has held her torch high ever since.  On the day we visited she greeted us from her perch, also a scaled down replica of Liberty Island at the entrance to the city park. It's a quiet, restful spot right on the banks of the Spoon River and stands as a silent reminder that Liberty, no matter where one might find it, still stirs the soul and warms the heart.

So if you ever find yourself bored on a weekend and are willing to make a drive, consider traveling down to London Mills. You may not see the 'Biog Apple' but you Can see the Lady who has welcomed travelers and immigrants to our shores for the last 131 years.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Help save the school

On a recent drive to Spoon River country Little Nick and I, accompanied by Stephen Beatty found ourselves in the village of Maquon. We had gone down to photograph some old schools in the area as well as another stop in nearby London Mills.  We stopped to have lunch at a small restaurant in town, the Feed Store, a building which had been repurposed many times before becoming a restaurant, a historical story all to its own!  While eating we talked with the customers about other places we might check out and a fellow by the name of Jeff Jefferson approached us.

He mentioned he had heard us talking and wondered if we would be interested in a private tour of the abandoned Gilson high school.  Well, the answer to a history nut such as myself was obviously a resounding Yes!  So after lunch we drove over to Gilson for our tour. Gilson is a small unincorporated village of about 250 people and so I was surprised to find out the Gilson school was easily the largest building in town. It sits imposing on a lot of its own and has quite a history.

The Gilson school, also known as the Haw Creek Township high school was built in 1903 and graduated their first class of five students in 1905. In 1928 the school was modified in a big way when a gymnasium was added onto the building, On the second floor! (I can just imagine what class was like downstairs during basketball practice.)  For being such a small town Gilson school was very forward thinking. Theirs was the first to use buses in Knox County to bring children to and from school. They took their students on field trips and introduced them to innovative, fresh idea's to broaden their minds.

But as is the fate of many smaller schools, Gilson fell victim to the Consolidation surge of the late 1940's and the high school closed in 1948. Grade school classes were held their until 1977 and after that the doors were shuttered for good. The building has sat empty ever since with only the Boy Scouts using it as a haunted house every year but even that stopped in 2015. Now it awaits its fate as time marches on and the structure deteriorates. Inside there's obvious water damage , and it could use a couple fresh coats of paint. A new roof alone would cost over $80,000 dollars and for a town the size of Gilson it's hard to make that happen.

The day we visited Mr. Jefferson took Nick and Stephen inside and showed them the class rooms, the old gym (Which is still in remarkably good shape) and even let Little Nick ring the old bell.  It is their hopes to attract outside help to renovate and restore the school to its former glory. Personally with its proximity to the Spoon River valley I think this is an excellent candidate for a living history museum or perhaps a very unique bed and breakfast inn with its original period fixtures and pressed tin ceilings.

So if you ever find yourself down that way and spot the turn off for Gilson consider driving over and snapping a few photo's of the school. And if you close your eyes and listen you just might hear the creaking of the swing set or the tolling of the bell. My thanks to Stephen Beatty and Little Nick for going inside
and tackling the stairs I couldn't do.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

On the trail of Gangsters

Recently my helper Little Nick went up to Chicago and had occasion to go on the Mob land museum tour.  Normally I keep Nick around to talk to me while I'm driving, navigate, carry all the equipment, go into snake infested brush, etc. but once in a while i let him out on his own to see how much trouble he can get into AND to bring me back photo's from his own adventures.

Chicago is rife with stories of mobs and mobsters, of shootouts and gangland slayings. Of crime bosses and G-men trying to take them down. Fortunately for us the hey day of the gangster has (mostly) passed. But there are still a few reminders of that former life if one knows where to look for them.

Al (Alphonse) Capone is THE name everyone thinks about when you think about Chicago and gangsters. Born in New York in 1899 he quickly fell into the lifestyle of crime and in his early 20's had relocated to Chicago where he was a lieutenant of a major boss who retired when a bullet came too close for comfort and turned over his operation to Capone. During the 1930's and Prohibition Capone used his close association with Mayor William Thompson to enjoy a relatively safe life. It was only after the St. Valentines Day massacre that his reputation became  tarnished and led influential citizens to brand him as 'Public Enemy #1'.  Pursued by the equally famous Elliot Ness he was finally convicted
for tax evasion and sent off to prison.  Two spots on the tour he was known to frequent were the Uptown theater  which had tunnels underneath the street that allowed him to enter and leave unseen to other destinations including the Green Mill  cocktail lounge which Capone's gang had part ownership of. There was a special booth reserved just for him that gave him clear line of sight for anyone entering the building.

John Dillinger was a notorious gangster whose crime spree through the midwest lasted until 1934. Styling himself as a modern day Robin Hood, he robbed banks seemingly at will, was chased by many a lawman and was imprisoned twice. But he escaped both times. He's only known to have committed one killing in his career, Between himself and a police man in East Chicago, Indiana.  His reign finally ended on July 22nd in 1934 when federal agents cornered him outside the Biograph Theater, betrayed by the infamous Woman in Red.

Earl (Hymie) Weiss was an early Chicago gangster who was a rival of Capone and reputedly was the only man that he ever feared.  Born in Poland and growing up in Chicago he and a friend, Dean O'Banion along with 'Bugs' Moran started the North Side gang and competed with Capone for its share of illegal booze, prostitution and other activities.  He was gunned down outside Holy Name cathedral  on October 11th, 1926 by two men with a sub machine gun and a shotgun. In a bit of irony, he's buried in Mount Carmel cemetery, the same place as his bitter rival, Al Capone.  

While a lot of our history is enriching and pleasant to reflect upon, other parts of it are not.  Many thanks to Nick Bouslog for this special edition of Off the Beaten Path.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The trains at the station

Illinois has a rich railroading history that began in 1842 with a fifty nine mile track that ran from Springfield to Meredosia. From that humble beginning the next 40 years would see that original trackage grow to an astounding Eight THOUSAND miles! By 1856 That one small railroad had been joined by Nine others as well.

One of those railroads was the Chicago & Aurora that came to Mendota in 1853 along with the Illinois Central. The Illinois Central was a 'land grant' railroad, the first of its kind. The term meant that the right of way for the trains to run on had been granted by the government rather than purchased by the railroad itself. The land grant was made possible thru the actions of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, who was working as an attorney for the Illinois Central at the time.

Mendota soon become a major rail roading town with hundreds of passengers and freight cars moving through every week and in 1854 a large brick freight house was built which still stands today. The advent of the Civil war saw rail traffic increase dramatically and by 1870 a total of thirty nine trains a Day were stopping in Mendota.

There's reminders of that glorious past everywhere in town. The old freight depot is today called the Whistle Stop cafe (Currently up for sale). The current depot  houses the railroad museum and Amtrak waiting room. Even Lake Mendota was once known as the railroad pond because water from there was brought in to service the old steam locomotives.

On a recent drive I went up to Mendota, IL. where they have a nifty railroad museum both inside and outside.  Inside they have artifacts of the towns long association with railroading as well as a scale model layout of how the rail yard would have looked in the 1930's.  Outside they are fortunate to have several actual pieces of rolling stock including:

*A locomotive & tender of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy built in 1923

*A caboose built in 1911

*A Milwaukee Road passenger car built in 1938

*And a Golden State dining car built in 1949

They even have a motorized car used to inspect the tracks

So if you ever find yourself in need of something to do, consider driving up to Mendota one weekend and soak in a little of Illinois railroad past. The museum is open Sat and Sun from 12-4. Admission is a suggested donation of $3.00 for adults and 2.00 for students.