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Spoon River Valley

Traveling into the past can be a haunting experience. We never know what we'll find lurking behind the ruins and old monuments, or even the pages of an old book. For Jeff Biggers, traveling through the Spoon River Valley in rural Illinois, the ghosts of the past came alive, just as they did in the celebrated Spoon River Anthology.

Spoon River Valley: Stirring the Ghosts of Edgar Lee Masters
by Jeff Biggers

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I entered Fulton County on a narrow road, forging my way through rows of withered corn stalks and beans. Family farms dotted the roadsides; barns with ornate steeples rose like monuments to another time. But I wasn't searching for the old days. I wanted to find the Spoon River of today. There on the horizon, I saw the vast stands of hickories, oaks, and the beloved river maple trees, afire in their carmine foliage, winding along the Spoon River on this cold autumn morning. But that wasn't all in view. I came to an abrupt stop behind a backed-up traffic jam the length of an L.A. freeway.

Spoon River Valley

Richard Bone: "When I first came to Spoon River, I did not know whether what they told me was true or false. They would bring me the epitaph and stand around the shop while I worked."

Those were the words of Richard Bone, speaking from the grave, written by Edgar Lee Masters. After toiling for years as a lawyer and unknown poet, Masters published his series of poems as epitaphs from a small town cemetery. The Spoon River Anthology was an instant classic.

Richard Bone: "But I still chiseled whatever they paid me to chisel and made myself party to the false chronicles of the stones."

False chronicles? That's what I felt, trapped in the Spoon River Drive, an annual festival that stretches from town to village in a web of 1,000 registered vendors, tacky craft stands, food lines for butterfly pork chops and rib-eye sandwiches, and the longest sprawl of flea markets in the rural Midwest.

For me, Masters' Anthology wasn't a series of craft sales, but told the hidden stories about life in rural Illinois. So, turning away from the traffic, I took a back road to Ellisville, tucked into the rolling hills.

Bonnie: "We baked all day yesterday, about ten hours, and we're still baking today. We're making 360 apple dumplings."

Spoon River Valley

I couldn't resist those dumplings, the smell wafting out in the streets. Here in Ellisville, home of the world's smallest operating library, an opera house, and the first mill on the Spoon River, 80 souls still live in a coal town that once rivaled Chicago in size.

Blacksmithing is not a bygone trade for Roger Lorance, a full-time metal smith. He travels the country exhibiting his work in copper, steel and bronze. Here, Roger pounds out a cow lilly from a steel rod.

Roger: "We'll bring that up to approximately 2,000 degrees, and we'll start work under the power hammer, then I'll refine it by hand on the anvil.

Self-taught, Roger takes part in a thriving association of blacksmiths across the country.

Roger: "It's actually coming back, from almost dying out in the 40s and early 50s."

I turned back to the Anthology for another voice from Masters, the ghost of Marie Batson.

Marie Batson: "You observe the carven hand, with the index finger pointing heavenward. That is the direction, no doubt."

Following Marie's cue, I ambled down the road to Smithfield, where I found nationally acclaimed artisan Robert Wright sitting before his woodcarvings. His ducks looked real enough to quack.

Robert: "I've done over 800 of them. I've done 847 different carvings."

Spoon River Valley

Robert has made his living by carving for over 25 years. He has traveled around the country, winning awards for his decoys.

Robert: "You just start with a block of wood, carve it into the round. There are a lot of different things that go into it. It ain't just the carving. It's the texturing, the fine details, the painting."

I continued onto Lewiston, Illinois, the town where Masters grew up, which is the home of the Oak Hill Cemetery, the setting for his Anthology. And more ghosts.

Marie Batson: "Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley, the weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? All, all, are sleeping on the hill. Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie, and Edith, the tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one? All, all, are sleeping on the hill."

All, seemed to be at the swap meet at the county fairgrounds. But down the road at Rasmussen's Blacksmith Shop, I found Linda Reece, quietly working for a handful of people on her spinning wheel. She spooled the sheep's wool, while cranking the wheel with a foot pedal.

Linda: "I been spinning now for 12 years, or something like; it's quite relaxing. I now teach spinning at New Salem, and we have a good time."

Spinning isn't all. Sitting next to a stack of white cakes of soap, Linda proudly declared she hasn't bought a bar of the stuff over the last decade.

Linda: "I have used my soap, my own soap for probably 10 years. That's the only thing in my shower. I have a regular clientele that come every year to get their supply of soap for the year. I had a little boy come by here today who was here last year. He came by here just to get my soap today."

Spoon River Valley

I continued down the slope of the trees and hills that snaked along the Spoon River. The brilliant fall foliage stood apart from the miles of the flat, harvested cornfields. It reminded me of Linda, Roger, and Robert. Like the real Spoon River today, they sat apart. They are still living the Anthology's pursuit for a rural life, not merely selling its brand-name.

They weren't the only ones, of course. I saw the future of the Spoon River in eight year old John Lane, a professed Public Radio listener. Standing alone in a small schoolroom, he played his fiddle for the passing crowds.

John: "A lot of people come here for the scenic drive, and the woods and stuff. It fits with the old time fiddle."

The young fiddler possessed a knowing, even haunting smile. It made me wonder: Maybe he was that wily ghost that Masters had praised as Fiddler Jones?

I'm Jeff Biggers for The Savvy Traveler, here in the Spoon River Valley.


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