Tuesday, May 7, 2013
This week, The History Press will release our latest book, “Traveling Through Illinois: Stories of I-55 Landmarks and Landscapes Between Chicago & St. Louis” (you can call it “ttisoilalbcasl” for short—okay, maybe that’s not much shorter really, but I do like that it has the word “soil” in it. You’ll see a lot of that on your drive through Illinois!) Ted and I hope to help travelers see more than soil out there, though. More than corn (did you know that over 4,200 supermarket products and by-products are made from corn?). More than sky (although it is vastly fascinating on the prairie). More than semi-trucks (I personally like the lowboys). More than flat (On trips to Normal I thought I wasn’t normal because I felt the front of my car tilting like I was climbing a hill, even though it looked as flat as a pancake out my window. I finally found out that I had been climbing a moraine and realized I wasn’t abnormal after-all. Well, not about that anyway.)
You have the drive all planned out. Take A highway to B highway and stop for lunch at that place with the great horseshoe sandwiches; but, when one of your stops is not at all what you planned, sometimes those are the best memories. Ted and I thought that one of our stories should be about what life is like in a small town (I have now invited the John Mellencamp song into my head for the rest of the night. “Had myself a ball in a small town…”) but it didn’t turn out at all like we thought it would—it was better.
We had to find an appropriate town in a spot where we didn’t already have a story. The little town of Waggoner seemed perfect. From the highway you can see this old gray wooden sign that looked like it could have been made at Lincoln’s New Salem village and says, “Welcome to Waggoner—Established 1886-- ‘From prairie to farm with pride’.” Well if that don’t beat all.
What’s interesting is that there is absolutely no sign of life anywhere near that sign. It is in front of a crop field next to a gravel road that just disappears far on the horizon. Where was the town? I wasn’t sure it even existed, but they seemed friendly enough to put that sign right next to the Interstate, welcoming all city slickers and other travelers into their little town. I couldn’t help but love this invisible non-existent town! So we chose Waggoner as our poster-child small town.
Ted gave a call to City Hall. They directed him to one woman who then directed him to another and after about 3 phone calls around the neighborhood, his small town story became a Hollywood set. Well, it involved Steven Spielberg, at least. One woman mentioned all the mandatory small town things that small town people do—have dinners at the American Legion Hall, play BINGO, and take afternoon walks on the country roads-- then she completely spins our tidy small town story out of control by mentioning that, “Oh, yes, and Steven Spielberg has visited here.”
She went on to tell the story of how he accompanied his wife, Kate Capshaw, to her grandfather’s 100th birthday party right here in Waggoner. The story took a twist—a different route than we had programmed into our GPS (Game Plan Story)—but through the local citizens better stories poured forth than the ones we had planned.
The best part of writing these books is talking with the people living along our interpretive route. They are the stories. An interview turns into friendly conversation, laughter, and an emotional connection.
As we were writing a book to help travelers see more than cornfields in Illinois on I-55, we were finding unexpected stories ourselves. Each interview humanized that journey a bit more. It wasn’t merely a highway for traveling, it was the front yard of many hardworking, funny, and interesting people who gave their time to tell a few ex-natives their stories. We’re passing them along.