Margaret's Musings: All in my mind’s eye and other curiositiesIn late October I found myself traveling the complete 390-mile length of the state of Illinois. A transit I have made many times. The moment I enter Illinois, my own version of a Ken Burns documentary starts rolling in my mind, a unique blending of the current reality with rare family and historic photos.
By: Margaret Ontl, Hudson Star-Observer
I already had a good start on my column for this week before I attended this year’s Veterans Day program. Stop reading and turn to Commander Charles Altman’s speech on page 2-3A. It is an important message. (Note: Some of the speech has been excerpted and apperas in the attached online link as well.) Not only did he share with humor his personal story but painted a bigger and brighter picture of the United States than a lot of fellow citizens believe. Take the time.
In late October I found myself traveling the complete 390-mile length of the state of Illinois. A transit I have made many times.
The moment I enter Illinois, at Cairo, the southernmost point, my own version of a Ken Burns documentary starts rolling in my mind, a unique blending of the current reality with rare family and historic photos.
My mother’s birthplace is not far from the southern tip of the state. A tiny burg called Christopher. As an adult I started to visit there in 1988. No family members live there but passing through always means a stop at the cemetery to visit my grandparents’ graves and to walk among the headstones that tell the story of the Italian immigrants who arrived around the same time as mom’s family.
The names, Antonelli, Basolo, Bianchini, Giacomo, Gallo and Nava were all contemporaries of my grandparents, the Maddios. They are a few of the Italians, most were born in Italy, who came to Illinois seeking a better life. Martin Basolo and George Antonelli had stores and were known to have made and drunk wine with my grandfather. Mr. and Mrs. Bianchini took in my mother after her parents died. Mr. Nava died along with three of his children while trying to save them from their burning home. His photo and those of his children were attached to the headstone, and after 83 years, are still clear and visible.
Two general observations: The United States is a land of immigrants. While the country is facing many challenges, as long as people scramble to live within our borders we must still be doing something right. The second one is that the modern trend towards cremation, burying grandma in her flower bed or winding up under a flat grave marker is taking away a valuable part of recorded history.
At the time my grandparents arrived in southern Illinois, coal mining was one of the largest industries in the state producing 73,920,653 tons of coal and employing more than 88,000 men, my grandfather being one of them. It was boom time — he later went on to become the town baker.
The town and surrounding area is now one of the most depressed areas in the state. The coal mines are all but closed, but not because the coal is depleted. Southern Illinois sits atop 211 billion tons of bituminous coal which is said to have a total heating value greater than the estimated oil deposits in the Arabian peninsula. Every time I visit I recall my interview with a 95-year-old coal miner named “Blackie.” That was in 1988. He shared his story of immigration from Italy and working in the mines located around Christopher. The problem with southern Illinois coal is the sulfur content, which causes acid rain. You would think in today’s technological age, when you can be connected to the world via your ‘Smart phone,’ scientists could come up with an economical way to clean the emissions.
After leaving Christopher, spotting old, rusting pump jacks is a favorite pastime. They are called nodding donkeys because of the distinctive slow arching motion which brings Illinois black gold (oil) to the surface. They sparingly dot the landscape until you reach the Champaign area.
Along the way we pass the ‘world’s largest cross,’ this time stopping to visit it. Whether you pass it at night or during the day, it is an imposing image located adjacent to the interstate in Effingham, Ill. One man’s vision is now a reality. The base of it is surrounded by the Ten Commandments. It is 198 feet tall and 113 feet wide, made of 180 tons of steel.
Finally we arrive at Normal for a brief stop on the grounds of the ISSCS, the orphanage where mom grew up. Many of the buildings are still standing from that time. The historic photos are overlaid on them in my mind. Mom in her archery class or my aunt Navy posing for a painting on bench that is still there.
A friend called to check on our progress, I surprised her by being delighted to be in Illinois. “Illinois is horrible, I hate driving through it is so boring,” was her comment.
For me nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the state is essentially flat with the highest point, near the western Wisconsin border, at only 1,200 feet above sea level. It was described in the 1922 Bluebook as a great plain gently sloping to the south.
At one time most of it was prairie, beginning with the Big Foot Prairie which starts a few hundred feet from my parent’s home, two miles north of the state line, and extends as far as the eye can see into Illinois.
It is the expanse of prairie turned farmland that I travel through for the remainder of the transit. My documentary continues with striking silhouettes of grain elevators, silos, barns and wind turbines.
All of my family’s history lies in Illinois from the deep south to Chicago where my dad’s father arrived as a young man from ‘The Old Country’ (Yugoslavia) after his mother came first to secure a job and raise enough money to send for her two sons. The nearly 400-mile journey is filled with family history even if some of it is stored only in my mind.
As a final note, my grandfather, Peter Maddio, adopted his new country and returned to Europe to fight in World War I as a member of the United States Army.
Thank a veteran today for his or her service, regardless of era.