Feature: Down in Eagle Creek
Last year, in the Sierra Madre canyons in Mexico, I labored in the corn fields with a Tarahumara Indian, as part of a travel story. After weeding the fields, I returned to our cabin to read a letter from my Uncle Richard in Kentucky.
Our family homestead, down in southern Illinois, was gone. The old pond, the four plum trees, the corn fields, and the 200-year-old log cabin, were all buried in a crater, two hundred feet deep. A coal mining company had bought the hollow where my mother's family had lived for two centuries and blasted away our home.
"A part of our lives that only exists in our minds now," Uncle Richard wrote my mother, "will be completely erased when we die, as if it never existed."
I was born in the Midwest, grew up in the Southwest, studied on both coasts, and then lived and worked abroad. I had not been back to southern Illinois in 25 years. But Eagle Creek, the community stitched into the highland forests of the Illinois Ozarks, had always represented a way of life for my family, who were deeply connected to the land, the forests, and a network of relatives.
Richard: "You're kin to most people in this graveyard."That was my Uncle Richard, a tall, peaceful man, who now lives across the Ohio River in Paducah, Kentucky. It was a little eerie, standing in the large family cemetery, just down the road from the old homestead. I had spent most of life far away from family. Now I walked these hills with my parents, brother, nephews, cousins, and my uncle and Aunt Jerretta. Over the ridge, under a huge oak tree was the tombstone of the first person in our family to enter this rugged wilderness: "Elder Stephen Stilley, 1765-1841, born in Somerset County, Maryland, he came west as a pioneer Baptist preacher."
Our ancestor Stephen Stilley, a grandson of Swedish immigrants, was the first missionary in this region. His daughter married another homesteader, who built the log cabin that my mother and uncle grew up in. Aunt Jerretta had tracked down the history.
Jeretta: He homesteaded land close to the Garden of the Gods, in Saline County, Illinois. He had at least 160 acres, and part of it stayed in the family until 1998, when they sold it to a mining company.Neither Southerners nor Northerners, separated from the lowland Midwestern farm culture by the craggy Shawnee plateau, our family enjoyed its own hundred years of solitude in this hollow. My Mom and Uncle Richard were the last ones to take part in an old country way of life as kids. We packed up and drove deep in the forests of oak, maple, gum, beech and dogwood trees. My uncle recalled one of our forefathers' traditions: making sorghum molasses from sugar cane at a horse-drawn mill.
Richard: "They'd take it up there and run it through this mill and squeeze the juice out of it. The cane would go in and it would be green, green juice, while it went down to the baffles, it would cook for a while and it would turn brown, and then it got to the right point, and that's where the cooker had the most important part - he had to know when to take it off - when it got right, then they would drain it off into these containers."In the lean times during the war, sorghum was a main staple for the family. Without electricity or running water, their lives revolved around acts of self-sufficiency. They canned food from the garden, lived off the farm, made their clothes, quilts, toys, and soap. My uncle remembered the big event of hogging killing time.
Richard: "My job was pulling the hair out of the hog. The hair is real wiry, like wire nearly. This meat had to last for a year. We had an extra room on the house, just a little side room that Dad would put a layer of salt down, put a ham down, cover it with salt, and it would stay good. And potatoes, they would take an area and cover it with dirt and straw and put your potatoes spread out. You'd have this hill with potatoes in it and they'd stay indefinitely. The way you kept your milk good, was that you put it in a gallon jug, put a rope on it, and dropped it into the well, where the water temperature was colder."Winding up the hills, we passed abandoned houses and farms, as the forest thickened. More family stories, even secrets, started to emerge with the territory.
Richard: "Remember I was telling about Uncle Tom robbing that bank? The money's supposed to be hidden right over here somewhere."
Another person: "We have an extra hour to look, don't we?"As we made our way through the back hollow to the old homestead, my Mom remembered walking through the forests to a one-room school house. She and her cousins spent hours in the fields, staring at the clouds and blue skies, telling stories around the cabin porch.
Jean: "There was this big high porch. We played under the porch a lot, it was shady under there, and we had a big sand box. It was a real log cabin. You could see the big logs."
Richard: "Look straight ahead, Jean."
Jean: "Go slow, Doug. This is Dallas' house right here. His is still here. We've made ice cream in that yard so many times. There's a barn out there that we played in; there's a creek we'd jump and fall and get wet. Alfred built that house, and ours was up on the hill...oh, look at that."The green hollow and plateau, all the trees, had been swept away by the strip coal mine. A dark lunar expanse unfolded in the valley, filled with huge front loaders and trucks. The coal companies call this mountain top removal.
Richard: "First time we come, where we pulled in back here, was a drop off, a couple of hundred feet deep. You could look down and see them working down there, looked like little toys. And they kept moving on farther and father."We got out of the car and cautiously made our way through the ruts and rocks and broken earth, as the wind swept the mountain top. Huge trucks rumbled on all sides.
Jean: "I see piles of rocks and scraped off ground, where, right in here used to be our house, I guess. I can't believe this. Look at that."
Richard: "All you see is slate, rock, clay. But it's not the same place. It certainly isn't home. Now that the old homeplace and the land is gone, the whole thing's gone. The old school is gone. There's nothing the same anymore."It was all gone. The cabin, the sassafras, the songs of the whippoorwills. Each of us picked up a slab of sandstone and put it into the van. At first, we wanted to ring the neck of our cousin Leon who had sold the land. But when we visited him at his new place, we got the full story.
Leon: "Bout every three days they'd set off a blast and shake you out of the house, almost. They run me crazy for about six months, and they come along and tore it down."The coal company had gnawed away at the edges of the area, setting off explosives, until at one point the home shook so much that the dishes fell onto the floor. And then the explosions cracked the well. Leon had no choice.
[Sound of porch bell ringing.]That was my 2-year-old nephew, ringing the porch bell that had always been at the cabin. Leon had saved it. It reminded me that our family story still rang on. Given meaning by my uncle and Mom and Leon, our heritage was not gone with the strip mine. It was still alive in their stories, and our own lives. And, it was still alive in Eagle Creek, at the site of our homestead.
Climbing back into the car, we all recalled an incredible surprise at the homestead. Behind a massive pile of rocks and mud, a patch of corn huddled together, growing out of the rubble in defiance of the coal mine, as if determined to live on. My Mom and uncle had gazed at it with a mixture of awe and family pride. I realized I'd needed to make this journey to see that wonderous sight.
For the Savvy Traveler, I'm Jeff Biggers, down in Eagle Creek, southern Illinois.
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