Saturday, October 31, 2009
Day 34: Bloody Williamson
Cedar Grove to near Bunscombe, Illinois. 20.7 miles/527 total
Saturday, October 31, 2009
It's cool and breezy this morning and quite sunny, as I leave from the construction company parking lot in Cedar Grove, heading down through Marion and down to just north of the little town of Buncombe.
Very shortly after I begin the walk I enter Marion, population 16,000. Marion was founded in 1839 and named after the old Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, after whom Marion County also was named. Just a word about Francis Marion. He was considered a hero by the Americans in the first few decades of the 19th century, as having fought tenaciously and well against the British in his native South Carolina, where he was known to employ tactics that resembled modern guerrilla warfare. He was the model, loosely, for the Mel Gibson character in the movie The Patriot. Back in the 50s Walt Disney resurrected the Swamp Fox’s legend and created a television series that ran for eight episodes from 1959 to 1961. It starred Leslie Nielsen as the Swamp Fox, which seems a little bizarre, considering how much Nielsen is associated today with the farcical comedies of the Zucker Brothers, like Airplane.
Marion is a thriving city, although the old downtown is a bit empty. But hell, who really cares any more about these old downtowns? The only reason they ever thrived was because they were where the roads converged. Yet people keep wringing their hands and wondering how they can revive city centers, long after their relevance has disappeared. Most of Marion's commercial activity takes place out by the intersection of Illinois Route 13 and I-57, including a mall, many large stores and tons of restaurants and fast food places. It’s not too pedestrian friendly out there, but who really walks these days anyway?
North of the city proper, I come to an embarrassment of cemetery riches. Large cemeteries on both sides of the street. One is the Oddfellows Cemetery. Here lie the odd fellows. That was always a strange name for a group, I thought. It puts me in mind of a poem by Greg Farnum, which goes like this:
Our lodge is much renowned for its good works.
We call ourselves Asshole Bastards of the World
So as not to seem immodest.
Right next to the Oddfellows Cemetery is Rose Hill Cemetery, and on the other side of the street, another large cemetery. In the latter is the Goddard Memorial Chapel, erected in 1918 and dedicated the next year. Donated by Leroy A. Goddard. Handsome little building. Next to the chapel lie J.W. Pillow and his wife Myrtie. I take a shortcut through this thriving necropolis over to Route 13, and east a few blocks to Market Street, so I can walk through the old town center, as irrelevant as it may be.
I’m traveling south on Market Street. Ahead of me looms a tall tower in the town square of Marion, where, it seems to me, the courthouse ought to be. Maybe they moved it. In the middle of the town square stands the Tornado Memorial, a tower some 60 or 80 feet high, that commemorates a tornado that struck the town on May 29, 1982. On a stone in front are listed the names of the ten people who died in that tornado. Seems like it's tempting fate a little to build a tall tower to commemorate a tornado. On the southeast corner of the town square is Marion's spiffy new civic center, which has won an architectural award.
South of the town square Market Street is still made of brick, and it's lined with the large houses of the early prominent citizens of Marion. Here’s an Italianate house from about the 1840s. Most of the rest of the houses date from the first two decades of the twentieth century. And, just so you don’t think you’re in some hoity toity place that puts on airs, cheek by jowl with these stately homes and neat bungalows is a single wide trailer with an huge pile of unsplit wood in the front yard, along with a wrecked school bus and a couple of trucks and a few mangy dogs barking out back. So much for zoning.
Pulling out of Marion, back on Route 37, I’m looking at ten miles of hills until I come to the next community of any size. About nine miles south of the city center, three miles west of Route 37, lies the United States Penitentiary at Marion, which today houses about 900 inmates. It was built in 1963, to replace Alcatraz. For some time it housed a unit where inmates were kept in solitary confinement for most of the time. John Gotti spend the last years of his life there, and other gangsters did time there, too, including Nicodemo Scarfo from Philadelphia, James Coonan of the Westies of Hell’s Kitchen, and Nicky Barnes, the Harlem drug boss. And Pete Rose spent a few months here, back in 1990-91. Today there are a number of Arabs being held in Marion.
Several miles south of Marion I come to a graveyard with a really perfect name—Freedom Cemetery. If there’s one thing that can be said of the people who lie here, it’s that they are completely free. Free from pain and suffering, free from disease and addiction, free from debt and worry. I know the cemetery probably was named for the nearby Freedom Baptist Church, or maybe this little area was once called Freedom, but that doesn’t matter. The name is appropriate. Here are the tombstones of the Courtneys, the Wrights, the Kelleys—including Rev. Otis Kelley—and one of the Fisher parents, whose little boy Johnnie Lamar Fisher was born and died on the same day, August 6, 1961. I sit atop the Fisher stone, whose rough cut marble top is still a little damp from two days of rain, and look around me at the peace, the quiet, and the freedom.
This is Williamson County, which was named for a county in Tennessee. It was once known as Bloody Williamson, due to several outbreaks of violence—the Bloody Vendetta of Southern Illinois in 1876 (the subject of a 2006 book by Milo Erwin and John Musgrave); the Carterville Massacre in 1899 (involving the killing of blacks by whites); a coal strike in 1906; and the Herrin Massacre in 1922 (involving the gruesome killing of a number of scabs by local striking coal miners), to name just a few. Lots of action here in Williamson County over the years.
Down by the sign for a recreation area called the Lake of Egypt, I go into a place called King Tut’s Restaurant and Lounge, which includes a gas station and convenience store. Soon afterwards I enter a spot on the road called Pulley’s Mill, which might have had a little activity once, but now consists only of a couple of closed businesses and the Pulley’s Mill United Pentecostal Church, with Pastor Jerry D. Huckleberry.
I leave Williamson County and enter Johnson County. Small world: according to the internet, this county was named in 1812 for Richard Mentor Johnson, then a U.S. Congressman from Kentucky. The next year Johnson served under Gen. William Henry Harrison in the Battle of the Thames, in Ontario, where he claimed to have killed the Indian chief Tecumseh in hand-to-had combat. Richard Mentor Johnson went on to be vice president under Martin Van Buren.
The sign says Welcome to Goreville, home of the Blackcats. It’s a village of about 1000. The streets of Goreville have little cat’s paws on the signs. I stop in at an antique mall and buy a straight razor. A couple in the store had seen me on the road up by Marion, and I tell them what I'm doing. They advise me to go to Metropolis, Illinois, where there's a gigantic statue of Superman, and a gambling boat on the Ohio River.
At just under 19 miles I come to a historical marker. It says that Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark and his troop of 170 volunteers passed near this spot, called Buffalo Gap, in July of 1778, on their way to capture the British post in Kaskaskia. This attack, and a later one in Vincennes, Indiana, prevented the British from invading Kentucky, and secured the Illinois territory for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. This was quite some time before Clark's brother William joined Lewis for their expedition out west. Next to the sign is an older stone marker placed in 1913 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. I sit on this one to eat a snack. Turning my rear end to the D.A.R. is a way of honoring my mother, who always said that she could have joined, but decided not to in order to follow the example of Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1936 resigned from the D.A.R. in protest when they wouldn’t let the black singer Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall. My mom (who, by the way, was Eleanor Roosevelt’s seventh cousin) figured that was as good a reason as any not to bother joining the D.A.R.