Big Town, Small Town


This weekend I had the unfortunate pleasure of visiting my grandmother’s family in Griggsville, Illinois. A pleasure because I genuinely had a good time meeting and getting to know my out-of-state family and the people of the small 1200-person township in South Western Illinois, about 50 miles west of Springfield. Unfortunate because I had to make this homecoming under the purpose of a family death; my Grandmother’s brother had passed away and she had to go up there to take care of family business

I’m not going to lie, it’s a long trip. I went up through Lexington, KY, up past the confusing jumbled mess that is Louisville, KY, the bottleneck of the nation. I drove three times around the city before finally getting pointed in the right direction and progressing up towards Indianapolis, IN and then West towards Springfield. Get a map if you need to. I’ll wait.

My Google Navigation on my wife’s traded Incredible 2 got me to the front door of the bed and breakfast where we stayed, unbelievable to my Grandma. I made the trip in 10 ½ hours. The first things I noticed when I got to the farm were the stars. In Knoxville, we must have many more lights and clouds and trees covering up the stars in the sky. Up in Griggsville, it was as if the sky were opened up and we were standing directly underneath it unimpeded. I swear I could see the Milky Way galaxy, a darker, almost cloud-like swath of white, on a clear night. The picture I tried to take looks like a fully black canvas, or unexposed photo paper.

Griggsville, Illinois was founded in 1833 by my 6-great grandfather, Daniel Dean. He founded the town and he was the first mayor. A fiery bearded man, he was a farmer and made a community of farmers to share resources and help split expenses up among the township, or something like that. I really don’t know what he did, but I know what he didn’t do: shave. The man had a beard on him like an 1849 gold digger: rough and unkempt. His picture was paraded down the streets of Griggsville accompanied by the words, “Remember our Heritage.”

Arriving for the first time in downtown Griggsville, the town of my family, the town of my ancestry, felt like a homecoming without the singing, which really isn’t much of a homecoming at all. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m someone, like I’ve got a place here, like I can make a difference. The small population doesn’t concern itself with modern luxuries like computers and wireless Internet, much to my disheartening. I had to settle for Verizon’s extended network, which still did allow me to make and receive calls, and use data. We’ll see if they hit me with a roaming charge.

Making my way around downtown Griggsville was lonely. I walked off on my own, away from the family, to get a feel for the small town. There weren’t many people walking around, but those who were seemed to know each other. I noticed a girl walk a long way to briefly visit a bar, then go off on her way again, which I thought was odd. What happened in those brief minutes? Why come such a long way if only to stay for such a brief time? Somethings not right here.

When I saw my great-uncle Norman’s house, it was much more modern than I expected. I envisioned a white farmhouse, surrounded by rows of cornfield. There were plenty of those in Griggsville, but not this house. This was a basement rancher like any other suburban house in a semi-dense downtown neighborhood. The sidewalk sat up closer to the house than I thought it should. People shouldn’t get that close to their neighbors. And it’s not like there is a lot of traffic to warrant a health fear of walking near the road. I glanced over once and saw two young teenagers enjoying each others company, then kissing. Young love is so sweet, I thought, and here of all places must be heaven.

My great uncle Norman was a collector of antiques. The antiques he had were old machines and inventions used to make a man’s job easier in times before computers and electric implements, things like a popcorn shucker, made smaller to handle the tiny kernels of popcorn shaved off into eager bowls for popping. The littlest things make for the most beauty, relatively speaking.

The receiving of friends is a blur. I met so many people I can only tell you about the one’s that stick out distinctly. First and foremost is my Grandma’s cousin Robert Sleight, who has visited me in Knoxville recently, which I found to be most agreeable. Hanging out at Bob’s house felt like Griggsville could even be home, like this could happen for me, and for the family. We found a front quarter of deer meat on his golf cart turned hunting cart, painted black to hide better.

It was open season and hunters were migrating to Griggsville to pick off the deer that roamed the corn fields and surrounding forests. There was a whole economy in serving the hunters, hotels and lodges. My own bed and breakfast had been often home to a weary hunter, sure to leave his muddy boots outside the door. The owners of the house and adjoining apartment were a late middle aged couple who were part time farmers and hospitality hosts, bringing in out-of-towners to stay in their home for the night. They had original breakfast items, always good and always plentiful. I ate well of pancakes and hard boiled eggs, washed down with orange juice and coffee.

Griggsville was the Purple Martin capital of the nation, claiming purple street names as a nod to the mosquito-eating bird. The Purple Martin could devour up to 2,000 mosquitoes in a day, making me thing that a health population of these birds would be nice for Knoxville on a hot summer day. Their tall birdhouses decorated the city square and surrounding houses, offering nesting places for the birds, absent the weekend I was there. I was told that there was a place in South America that all of the Purple Martins retired to every fall and winter, which was the capital of the world in population of these birds. Maybe this distant retreat encompassed the world’s Griggsvilles, the world’s homeland of ancestry and heritage. Maybe this bird devoured the record of any historical authenticity and created a haven of second place small towns, one for every nation, so no one felt left out.

Small towns can be big business if you’re in the business of making money. Griggsville, I was told by my grandfather, had several millionaires, made with good seasons and and high corn and soybean prices. But no one seemed wealthy. The most obvious tell of well-to-do farming families were nice sunglasses, used to hide the faces of wives wanting to avoid the hot, arid sun, beating down on hot October days.

The gift and the curse of the curious is the need to ask questions. Wherever I go in life, I bring my curiosity desire to learn, and farmland is no exception. I had several misconceptions corrected during this trip, most of which had to do with important things like nutrition and a farmer’s responsibilities. I had heard corn had no nutritional value. I don’t believe that any more.

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