Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Favorite Place

In rural Fayette County, Illinois, a large flat area called Four Mile Prairie is traversed by state route 185. My blog header picture was taken at the eastern end of the prairie, while this photo was taken about halfway across the prairie. Several of my ancestors settled Four Mile in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s. My grandma Crawford lived on a farm near Four Mile; she attended the Four Mile Church and traded at the Four Mile Store. She and about 20 ancestors and many other relatives are buried in the Pilcher Cemetery at the north side of the prairie. I remember the many summer days when Mom and I traveled 185 out to Grandma’s farm for part of a day.

Route 185 follows the path of the pioneer Vincennes Road that connected to the old National Road (U.S. 40). In 1918 and 1923, prior to the federal highway system, the Illinois government authorized several “State Bond Issue” routes. 185 (that is, its alignment south of U.S. 40) was the last SBI road; its comparatively narrow width alerts a traveler to its origins in the early days of automobile travel.

The first family vacation that I remember was 1961, when I was four. We traveled to Chattanooga and Rock City, the famous park once advertised on roadside barns. My folks drove a 1960 Cadillac (with fins) back then. I’ve a clear memory of approaching the timber depicted in the photograph; from here, 185 makes a slight curve and so, from the standpoint of the prairie, the road seems to disappear. For our vacation, I assume we took 185 to IL 37 and eventually U.S. 41 down to Tennessee. In later childhood years, I’d such vague memories of that trip, and since I was unclear as to where Tennessee was, I thought of that highway curve as a kind of imaginative portal to the Rock City park.

I learned to drive at Four Mile. 185 was lightly trafficked and so was a good place to practice. Dad was an impatient instructor. He was a trucker, he knew driving. Unfortunately I was a shy kid, intimidated by his disapproval whenever I let the clutch out too fast.

Once I got my license, I made my first major solo trip when I visited a girlfriend in Farina, IL, at the southeast corner of Fayette County. I had a seen-better-days 1963 Chevy. Talking my parents into letting me drive there was a challenge. Apparently the intersection of 185 and 37 was dangerous; many people have been killed there, my folks solemnly warned.

When I got to the intersection, I had a clear view of both directions; one just needed to be careful, I thought, and not take chances. I had an image of a highway in a cartoon where the character sees that the road is empty in both directions, but when he steps out to cross, a big truck suddenly appears and squashes him flat.

I enjoyed pursuing genealogy as a teenager and the summer when I was seventeen, 1974, I copied all the inscriptions at the Pilcher Cemetery and tried to locate graves of relatives in other area cemeteries. Of course, I love the freedom of being able to drive. An essential aspect of my discovery of the pioneer generation was “filling up,” and I carried into my genealogical forays the smell of fan belts and tires hanging from the ceiling of the local Mobil station, and the smell of “regular” on my hands. Reasoning that I didn't need shoes to spend a summer morning outdoors, I liked to do these research trips barefooted.

Nearly every time I’m back in Fayette County, I visit Four Mile. Grandma was religious in a way which was forever influential with me: she wasn’t “showy” about it but did good without fanfare. She bought me a Bible dictionary that I still use in my work. A distant cousin of my grandfather Crawford was a Christian writer, and Grandma had some autographed copies of his books. Her quiet faith and religious interests, the historical roots of our family in that location, country highways, and the rural prettiness of Four Mile all sentimentally converged, and I developed lifelong interests in history and religion. Visiting Four Mile is nostalgic but also a peaceful reminder of my life’s many blessings.

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