Friday, October 23, 2009

Day 28: The Teutonic plague

Montrose to Watson. 18.5 miles/407.5 total

Friday, October 23, 2009

I leave the grain co-op in Montrose, Illinois, heading through Teutopolis and Effingham, down to the little community of Watson.

One of the things the internet said to see in Montrose was the stately home of a prominent early citizen by the name of Wiwi. I guess this is it here in the middle of town, at the main intersection. A two-story brick house painted white, dating from about the middle of the 19th century. It’s not really much to look at, but I’ll take a picture anyway.

It rained for about 36 hours before this morning, and although it’s not raining now, the skies are the color of lead in front of me and the ditches along the road next to the fields are full and flowing fast. The wind is blowing right at me from the west, at about 20 mph. The skies ahead do look a little lighter, though. Maybe we’ll even have a little sunshine by afternoon.

On the roadway I see something that looks like a particularly badly massacred animal—nothing but pink and white flesh. But on closer examination I see that it’s a pound of sliced bacon that has fallen out of someone’s car. I guess I can’t count that as road kill.

No sooner had I said the word sunshine than it started to rain. Five soggy miles later it has finally stopped again, as I enter Teutopolis, population 1600. Ahead in the distance is the tall slim steeple of the church of St. Francis of Assisi. Teutopolis was settled in 1839 by some Germans who came out here from Cincinnati. Apparently they were Roman Catholics. As I get closer to the center of the village I can hear the bell in the church tower chiming out the quarter hour. By the way, the church is lit up brilliantly at night.

German names are everywhere here, in the fifth or sixth generation after the original settlers. Weber’s Hardware, Wessel’s gas station, Schmid Auction and Real Estate, Habing Furniture, Probst Auto Body, Siemer Milling Company, Feusting’s Garage. Blue-clad Madonnas decorate front lawns.

The tower of St. Francis dominates the town in a way that churches dominate little places in Europe and French Canada, but much less so in the mainly Protestant Midwest. I approach the handsome red brick structure and read the cornerstone. It says the church was established in 1851 as St. Peter’s, but dedicated in 1860 to St. Francis of Assisi. And, just as if I were in a European country, I can’t resist going in and taking a few photographs. It has a magnificent gilded altar, and a number of stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life (and afterlife) of St. Francis. There’s another intriguing window, depicting Father Junipera Sera converting Indians in California. Down in the bottom corners of the window is some text, and a rendition of a photograph of an Indian by the name of Gabriel Tualamo, chief of the Tualamo Indians, father Sera’s first convert, whom he baptized in Soledad, California. “Now [meaning 1889, when the window was begun] he is in the poorhouse in Salinas, California, and supposed to be between 132 and 142 years old.” Then it says that old Gabriel died in 1890 in the Monterey Hospital at the reputed age of 150 years. Something tells me this guy didn't have a birth certificate.

In spite of the beauty and old world charm of this church the maintenance men inside talk with a twang that brings me back to reality.

As I pass Wessel’s Fast Stop filling station, I can’t help but whistle the Horst Wessel song, from the days of Nazi Germany. It’s really a nice tune, all schmaltzy and Germanic, that makes you think of boat excursions down the Rhine. In fact the tune was well-known when Horst Wessel, a low-level Nazi, put words to it in 1929 or so. Wessel was subsequently killed by an unnamed Communist hero, and the Nazi party made a martyr of him, and an anthem of his song. Today the song and its tune are banned in Germany and Austria. So it’s a little like whistling Dixie, I guess, except that we didn’t have the courage to ban that one.

This makes me wonder to what lengths the folks of Teutopolis must have had to go to prove their patriotism during the two world wars, especially the first one, when anti-German jingoism rode high. Out at the edge of town there’s a fairly new war memorial, on which the names of the two dozen war dead of Teutopolis, as well as those who served and lived, are chiseled. This is probably a good way to see if Teutopolitans are still as German as they once were. Sure enough, the surnames, from the time of the Civil War to the present, are 80 to 90 percent German.

But here’s something odd. The name of their school team is the Wooden Shoes. You’d think their name would be the Teutonic Knights, or something, and indeed that might have been the case once. Here’s how I think they got stuck with this ridiculous name. People from outside the town knew them as “Deutsch,” or German, and that got rounded off to “Dutch” (just like the Pennsylvania Dutch). Then in the 20th century, in an attempt to be as non-German and inoffensive as they could be, they went ahead and adopted one of the trite symbols of the actual Dutch people. “Hey, everybody, look at us. We’re Dutch. We’re harmless!” This is so weird and typically American, and so, well, stupid, that it just has to be the explanation.

Teutopolis is, in any event, a very tidy town, which bespeaks both German and Dutch sensibilities. And it’s probably more German, to this day, than Holland and Zeeland, up in Michigan, are Dutch.

At 7.5 miles I enter the City of Effingham, population 12,400, which is pretty huge for this part of the state. Effingham, the city and the county, are named for Edward Effingham, a British general who resigned his commission rather than fight against the Americans. So he gets points for that, and gets a place named after him.

Effingham calls itself “The Crossroads of Opportunity.” I’m not sure what that means, except that the name Crossroads of America was already taken. It is indeed a crossroads. It’s where Interstates 70 and 57 intersect, one going east-west and the other north-south, each having superseded earlier highways, U.S. 40 and 45. Also, it is, or was, where the Illinois Central and Pennsylvania Railroads cross. And I guess it’s where opportunity intersects with opportunity. I know that up where the interstates meet, north of town, there is opportunity galore for fast food joints, hotels, strip malls, and truck stops.

Well within the city limits but still on the outskirts of the real city, I pass Oakridge, a municipal cemetery. The names on the tombstones, recent and old, are mostly English—Smith, Hickman, Adams, Cooley, Holmes, Hickok, Webb. So it looks as if Effingham resisted the Teutonic plague pretty well.

Two beautiful angels kneel atop the pillars on either side of the main gate to the cemetery. And when I say beautiful, I mean just that. You don’t usually get this level of reality in a stone sculpture in a graveyard. They manage to look gorgeous, sad, and asexual, all at the same time.

So far, the courthouses of Illinois have been less grand and ostentatious than those of Indiana. The Effingham County Courthouse stands at Jefferson between Third and Fourth Streets. It's a three-story Victorian job, built in 1872, faced with dark red brick and trimmed with coin courses, rounded lintels, cornices, and modest columns, all painted the color of butter. The mansard roof is shingled with wood, and atop that there’s a shingled tower, trimmed in the same butter-beige, topped with a clock. Up close it’s just a trifle dingy.

To my disappointment, when I get up the steps a sign on the door says it’s closed, and that the courthouse has moved to a new location, a block west on Jefferson. I check several doors, but the building is locked. I proceed down Jefferson and come to the new county courthouse. It’s just past the jail, and connected to it. It’s an indescribable modern thing, with big gun metal columns. Probably built during this decade. Although it lacks the charm of the old one, I’ll bet the regular users—judges, lawyers, clerks—appreciate it. No doubt the old courthouse’s interior was getting decrepit and cramped. One can only imagine the bathrooms.

The rest of the downtown of Effingham doesn’t look too bad, as small American city downtowns go. A few vacant buildings, of course—that can hardly be avoided. There’s a large baseball card and sports memorabilia store at one corner. I go in and emerge ten minutes later with an Al Kaline card from 1973, his penultimate year.

After downtown I turn south on Raney Avenue, and head through the Effingham business and industrial park. Over by I-57, greeting motorists coming up from the Bible Belt, is an enormous cross, probably over 150 feet high. I don’t know who built it, but somewhere I read that it's there to remind people of the Christian heritage of the city. Right. Like people are going to think, “Gee, I wonder what religion they practice here? Is this a Muslim city? Or maybe it’s full of Zoroastrians.” I just hope the city didn’t have anything to do with it. That would be an egregious violation of the first amendment. (You know it’s a lawyer talking when you see the word “egregious.” We’re about the only ones who say that.)

From the bridge over the railroad tracks and the old National Road, I get a good view of the cross, all white and geometric against the grey sky off to the west, above the warehouses and machine shops and places that ship and receive, but don’t give you any indication of what they do. The cross looks like the Washington Monument with stubby outstretched arms.

At the end of Raney Avenue and the business park, the road narrows to a strip of asphalt-covered gravel, with no trucks, running through fields once again. This isn’t part of the business park, but in a way it should be, because no matter how much other business Effingham does, this right here is its real business—corn and soybeans.

Suddenly I’m in the country, and I can walk down the middle of the lane, as the howl of truck tires on concrete fades away. It’s so bucolic and almost timeless, that with the exception of the occasional passing vehicle and the utility poles, I could imagine myself walking here a 150 years ago, and even with the poles, maybe 60 or 70 years ago. The fields themselves would be the same, just less densely and efficiently planted. And the trees—maybe not these trees, but a previous generation of trees just like them, would line the borders between fields.

At last I see some patches of blue in the sky, as the sun goes in and out of view. After about five miles of walking on this country road I arrive at the city limits of Watson. For Watson to call itself a city seems grandiose. It has about 700 inhabitants. Teutopolis, with 1600, in only a village, which I think is appropriate. I don’t know what you have to do to become a city in Illinois. In some states you have to petition the state legislature for a charter. Maybe here in Illinois all you have to have is the consent of the governed and no objection from anyone else. Well, I’m in the city now, although nothing much changed after I passed the sign.

There’s nothing much to say about Watson. It has a post office. It has a Fast Stop gas station. It has a water tower. Most of the houses are trailers. It does have a nice civic center—a large pole barn, and an outdoor pavilion and ball parks and a playground. That's where I parked the motor home.

I stopped at the cross on my way back in the motor home. It’s about a half mile off Raney Avenue, hard by the expressway. It’s 198 feet high, and 15.5 feet square, made of a structural steel skeleton built in Indianapolis, trucked here in pieces and assembled, then sheathed with vertical sheets of white steel siding. It sits on a round concrete base about fifty feet in diameter. Around the circular base are black granite stones with each of the ten commandments on them, with buttons you can push at the commandments to get a series of 30-second homilies on each one. There’s a visitor’s center where you can watch a short video on the construction, which took place in 2001.

The official name of this cross is The Cross at the Crossroads, and it was built by a private nondenominational group in 2001. You can purchase a brick with your name on it, as a donor, for a hundred dollars. A bit I saw on the internet compared it to a cross in Groom, Texas, and said it might be the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere. The article used the phrase “tacky majesty” with reference to the Texas cross. That fits.

On that somewhat bizarre note, I end my day.

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