Nearly forgotten, the Spoon River Valley re-emerges as a testament to the enduring quality of small town life.
Faint memories of American literature in high school: Little did I know that I would end up living on the western edge of the Spoon River Valley in Illinois, made famous by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.
Masters wrote the anthology in 1915. It is a post American Victorian story of small-town life, told through poems spoken from the grave. These are not always the voices of paragons of virtue; many lived pretty seedy lives. So much for the myth of pure rural life, especially when there’s a dot on the map called Babylon.
The Spoon River is typically Midwest muddy greenish brown. It winds across about 160 miles of Western Illinois through the deep, black prairie soils. The nearly 1.2-million-acre watershed is mainly in five counties and supports hundreds of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, as well as towns and cities and forests and pastures in wide valleys and rolling, low hills.
The valley is a microcosm that manifests the people-driven global changes across the Upper Midwest: large-scale agriculture that employs fewer people, lost factory jobs, an aging population, and on and on.
But then, there is the landscape, sacred because of its natural bounty and the life it nurtures. This is where the First People lived, hunting, fishing, farming, and burying their dead. Its lie between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers offers wonderful opportunities for preserving the landscape and its woods, wildlife and wetlands while promoting sustainable agricultural practices.
The Spoon River Valley is a place where the land matters for farmers, conservationists, sightseers, and outdoor sports lovers: from the farmlands that provide food and biomass for energy to the wetlands of the Emiquon Preserve that are being restored where the Spoon joins the Illinois River near Havana. As a working landscape with varying topography, the valley’s beauty is subtly rich, constantly changing with the time of day and passing seasons.
While it is easy to view the Spoon River’s landscape in a romantic way, it is important to remember that this working land has supported human life for at least 12,000 years. Humans have shaped its prairies and forests for hundreds of generations. The First Peoples, whose vestiges are archaeological, did not use the land all that intensively because of their relatively low population density and survival needs. Now, it is intensively cultivated by relatively few farmers who may work thousands of acres of ground and compete in food and energy markets in a burgeoning world. This is a mixed picture, because farmland that appears bucolic may be degraded and misused.
As it was before the arrival of the first frontier farmers in the early 1800s, the valley today is, for the most part, thinly populated. Some days, you can drive for five or ten miles or more, passing farmhouses, but not seeing many people, perhaps a farmer driving a tractor or a truck.
Sometimes, even the villages seem deserted, except for cars parked on the streets. But then, there are surprises. On a spring Saturday morning in tiny Ellisville, for example, people were flocking to a pancake and sausage breakfast. The village of Maquon flies welcome flags along its boulevard near some small stores and modern gas station-convenience store. The old-fashioned gas station is vacant, with peeling white paint, but clean. Bernadotte, once considered as a possible site for the Illinois capital, has a small restaurant and a rickety, historic 1915 iron bridge that, for the moment, defies the Spoon’s early summer floodwaters.
Every October for the past 43 years, the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive helps the area, almost Brigadoon-like, rise from the autumn mists with valley-wide yard sales and flea markets, historic attractions, and festivals with food and entertainment everywhere you turn. With the autumn foliage, it is a reminder of what was, and perhaps, what could be again.
It is sad that western Illinois was labeled “Forgottonia” in the late 1960s, a name enshrined in faded paint on a barn near Ellisville. A generation ago, there was one of those semi-serious moves to secede from the state. Some residents felt the region (downstate and seemingly far removed from Chicago’s economic, political, social, and cultural engine) was not getting its fair share of the state’s resources. In fact, western Illinois generally has not prospered, and its population has been declining for decades.
Yet there can be a great quality of life here for those who want to live in a small town or city. Like everyplace else, things could be better. But the Spoon River Valley has a quietly compelling character unlike any other place I’ve ever lived. It has a lovely blend of people and a varying landscape that might bore some, but suits me just fine. Being able to cycle or drive its back roads is a constantly changing gift.
That does not mean life is easy here. The dramatic changes of the past several decades have treated our communities harshly. Poverty has risen. But the region’s people are struggling to maintain a semblance of well-being that considers the beauty of the land and the heritage of its people.
From what I’ve seen, residents of the Spoon River Valley’s towns, even with their abandoned buildings, want them not only to survive, but to prosper. Given the wider trends that face rural Western Illinois, many people here seem to act out of a quiet, day-to-day tenacity and courage that deliberately chooses to live in this place at this time.
The choice of people to try to keep their small towns alive is rooted in ties to a distant past, but, with persistence and, perhaps, luck, could build a sustainable future. No one promises that this will be easy. Or even possible.
But it seems many residents of the Spoon River Valley’s communities do not want them to be like the voices of Masters’ characters, dying echoes from the graves of times past. The desire to keep their towns alive is strong, and I hope they find a way to do so.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.