Six times each year, aficionados of the culture of southeastern Illinois’s Shawnee Hills open their mailboxes and embark upon “An Adventure Shaped Like a Magazine.” Within the first few pages of the new edition of Springhouse, they encounter these words of assurance: “The Adventure Continues.”
In 2016, the adventure continues under new, though hardly uninitiated, leadership. Brian DeNeal, former managing editor of The Daily Register of Harrisburg, Illinois, now edits and publishes the magazine. He assumed the reins two issues ago from his father, Gary DeNeal. Gary co-founded the publication in 1983 with friends Ken Mitchell and Bill Carr (who still edits the Springhouse website). He directed it, with considerable help from his wife, Judy, for most of its history.
This milestone is characterized more by continuity than by change. Brian has participated in his family’s artistic engagement with the region throughout his life. He and his brother, Hugh, co-founded acclaimed “trashcan Americana” band The Woodbox Gang, of which Hugh remains a member. Brian has often led hikes for the Southern Illinois River-to-River Trail Society, guiding residents and visitors through the region’s natural and cultural landscapes. His familiarity with the Springhouse milieu, combined with his background in writing and editing, makes him a natural fit.
“It’s been understood by the family for many years I would be carrying the torch,” Brian explained.
The seamlessness of the transition probably suits most Springhouse readers just fine.
Residents of Illinois’ southeasternmost counties eagerly disabuse anyone unfamiliar with their region of any inclination to associate it with Chicago or the vast, industrially cultivated cornfields that dominate much of the Prairie State. Springhouse’s headquarters near Junction (population: 125) in Gallatin County is closer to at least six other metropolises than to the Windy City. Southeastern Illinoisans raise corn but also harvest coal, timber, and other animals, vegetables, and minerals too numerous to mention from the region’s hillsides, woods, and waters.
A deeply rooted native of this place where the Midwest and the Upland South overlap, Gary DeNeal is widely considered an eminent interpreter of its culture. Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, calls him “the poet errant of the Shawnee Hills” – an appellation surely inspired by Springhouse’s emblem, a silhouette of knight errant Don Quixote.
I wanted a magazine down to earth – hillbilly, you might say, though not in a demeaning way – a place where tales were retold, and where accounts from folks with grade-school education were published alongside thoughtful articles from writers and scholars. I wanted it to be magazine of substance but also one that didn’t take itself too seriously.” – Gary DeNeal
Speaking of knights, Gary wrote a biography of a regionally notorious bootlegger entitled A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. And speaking of regionally notorious subjects, he and Brocton Lockwood co-authored Shades of Gray, a novel based on developments that followed from the Herrin Massacre of 1922, when union miners killed 20 strikebreakers and guards. Gary has also produced dozens of poems and hundreds of artistic photographs of local scenery – many of which appear, accompanied by musings in prose or poetry, on the Springhouse Facebook page – in addition to countless contributions to Springhouse.
Like much of the best place-based art, Springhouse engages in a dialogical relationship with the region that it serves, simultaneously reflecting and influencing its culture, documenting its folklife while also contributing to it.
“Springhouse is unique for our region as Foxfire is in Appalachia and The Canyon Country Zephyr is for southern Utah,” Brian observes. “Springhouse is southern Illinois history. And the history is alive.”
Gary recalls, “When we first moved into the old house we would later fix up and call home for many years, I saw a door handle made from a shoe sole. Hillbilly workmanship – ha, ha, ha. That was the sort of thing Jay Leno would mention on his late-night show. I saw it as a clever way of making do with the resources a poor person had at hand.
“Then along came Springhouse,” he continues. “It is best never to speak in terms of vision – even though I think there was one – and yet that crude door handle refuses to leave my mind. I wanted a magazine down to earth – hillbilly, you might say, though not in a demeaning way – a place where tales were retold, and where accounts from folks with grade-school education were published alongside thoughtful articles from writers and scholars. I wanted it to be magazine of substance but also one that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
The eclectic contents of the last two issues that Gary edited suggest that his original conception of Springhouse persisted throughout his tenure. They include articles by regional writers on coal miners’ superstitions, a dropsy remedy, the Pope County community of Renshaw, and the Confederate underground in Civil War-era southern Illinois, as well as appreciations of Bill Plater (“Cactus Pete”), who hosted programming on regional television station WSIL, late-19th-century Louisville-based poet Madison Cawein, and Kent Haruf, who is best remembered for his novels set in his native Colorado but taught Brian and other aspiring writers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in the 1990s.
They also feature an idiosyncratic meditation on obituaries by the Rebel Without Applause, a cantankerous contemplative (“Beneath the ragged attire I ain’t nothing but a philosopher”), as well as a report of the Rebel’s subsequent unexplained disappearance (!). “From My Kitchen Window,” a recurring segment, offers recipes curated by local foodways authority Dixie Terry. Also included are republications of an excerpt from a Henry Rowe Schoolcraft travelogue and poems by William Ernest Henley and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; original work by several poets; and photographs, essays, and ruminations by Gary and Brian.
The first two issues edited by Brian diverge little from Springhouse’s long-established orientation. They encompass reminiscences of life at Johnston City High School in the 1920s and Hardin County’s short-lived, experimental College in the Hills in the 1930s. Submissions discuss two Saline countians who fought for the Union, General Green Berry Raum and Private John H. Parks, as well as two antebellum occurrences: the execution of an African American abolitionist on a Mississippi River island alongside southwestern Illinois and promotional initiatives of Democrats and Whigs in Lincoln’s Springfield. Also featured are republications of an article by local 19th-century entrepreneur George Escol Sellers examining pottery from a Native American cemetery near the Great Salt Springs in Gallatin County; a late-19th-century anatomical analysis of the gar, a fish abundant in the Saline River; and a 1946 commentary on Old Stone Face, an iconic landform near Equality, by a local high school science teacher.
Additionally, the Rebel Without Applause reappears (thank goodness!) with curmudgeonly anecdotes of his recent trans-Midwestern bus trip, during which he failed to convince a fellow passenger that we wasn’t an aged Elvis Presley, and a pedestrian trek through the Shawnee Hills and its complex metaphysical reverberations. Articles by Brian discuss a new dulcimer band based in Equality, an early-20th-century Hardin County hypnotist’s plan to avoid premature burial in case he inadvertently hypnotized himself and appeared dead, and marks made by visitors and inhabitants over many generations around Pope County’s Millstone Lake. Brian and Gary contribute photographs, commentaries, and combinations of the two.
Given the multifariousness of its content, how does Springhouse maintain any sense of unity? The answer lies partly in the magazine’s focus on a specific region, southeastern Illinois, though its geographic purview often expands to encompass other parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. A more significant factor is its defining aesthetic character, which reflects a synergy between the region’s cultural ethos and Gary’s artistic sensibilities.
Gary’s contributions to Springhouse frequently convey an undertone of wistfulness (not to be confused with sentimentality). Many of his photographs feature expansive vistas, often depicted at dawn or dusk or in cloudy or foggy conditions. The passage of time and relationships between the ephemeral and the enduring are prominent themes in his writing. His vocabulary and syntax frequently suggest the presence of the past, and he varies the complexity of his sentences so that the ornateness of some accentuates the starkness of others and vice-versa.
These traits manifest themselves in his recent photo-text essay, “Proud Remnant.” The black-and-white photograph features a tree trunk, devoid of branches and leaves and split jaggedly in two. The trunk is silhouetted against a vast, mostly cloudy sky dappled with patches of faint sunlight. The text reads,
In storm and out, its topmost branches served as perch for many far-seeing birds, but sooner or later the crash had to be.
It happened last autumn during high wind.
What remains is but a remnant of former grandeur, a gnarled grandeur to be sure, but grandeur just the same.
Even the remnant is worth more than a glance. Birds still use it for a perch.
Just as often, Gary’s writing is whimsical, reflecting a distinctive outlook on its subject matter and a zany sense of humor.
Brian’s perspective seems similarly colorful and no less individualistic. He remarks, “When in a jam I first ask, ‘What would Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius do?’ Next I ask, ‘What would desert anarchist Edward Abbey do?’ and probably act somewhere in between.”
As that juxtaposition implies, Springhouse draws upon not only regional folk culture but also a wide variety of other influences, including more canonical facets of the humanities, and integrates them in various ways. Interspersed among discussions of quilt patterns, river pirates, and local insects, readers find allusions to and quotations by figures ranging from Homer to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Blake to Søren Kierkegaard. Gary’s writing, in particular, regularly synthesizes the vernacular and the cultivated.
Gary’s formative literary influences included books about Geronimo and Jim Bridger in the library of his one-room school in Rudement.
“I read these books over and over, because, of the dozen or so volumes that constituted the library, they were by far the most interesting. I largely credit these two books with my wishing to be a writer,” he observed. “The bad part is, my so-called intellectual foundation for such a daunting endeavor was very shaky, for interesting as Jim Bridger and Geronimo were, they were escapism only. We lived too far from the Harrisburg Library for me to get a library card.”
Subsequently, Gary turned his attention to the work of William Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, Elmore Leonard, and H. Allen Smith (whose early childhood took place in southern Illinois). Writers from whom he draws inspiration today include Illinois historian Paul M. Angle, Darcy O’Brien, Robinson Jeffers, James M. Cain, Francis Thompson (especially “The Hound of Heaven”), William James (specifically The Varieties of Religious Experience), Peter Matthiessen, Hart Crane, Robert Service, and Truman Capote.
Brian describes his path into writing: “I wasn’t much into reading until about fifth grade when I discovered David Morrell’s First Blood in a stack of books in Dad’s hog barn. Most parents probably wouldn’t let their fifth-grader read a book like that. It was much more violent than the movie, but that was the first time I realized that authors could let their imaginations go free. I think I’ve read the book six times and it never gets stale. That gruesome novel led to my interest in horror fiction and then philosophy and finally to a bachelor’s degree in English with a specialization in creative writing. Kent Haruf seemed to light up at some of my most bizarre offerings, short stories I was almost embarrassed to share with my classmates because of their dark subject matter.”
Both Gary and Brian cite editors with whom they worked – Dan Malkovich of Outdoor Illinois and Illinois Magazine and Terry Geese of The Daily Register, respectively – among their formative influences.
Although neither Brian nor Gary specifically mentions Robert Penn Warren as an influence, Springhouse’s content sometimes resembles his work in style, substance, and spirit. Springhouse has published articles by regional historian Ronald Nelson about the provenance and context of the disturbing oral-tradition narrative on which Warren based his long poem, “The Ballad of Billie Potts.” Warren initially believed that the folktale came from western Kentucky but later learned that it originated across the Ohio River in Hardin County, Illinois. It has historical connections with an actual Potts Inn that was located there, though, as Nelson explains, those connections probably are more tenuous than many local residents have supposed.
Other material published in Springhouse that Gary considers especially significant includes articles about the Crenshaw House, also known as Hickory Hill or the Old Slave House, in Gallatin County, the history of which is highly contested and vigorously debated; a series by local historian Mildred McCormick about Depression-era life in Pope County; and content omitted from Darcy O’Brien’s Murder in Little Egypt and Gillum Ferguson’s Illinois in the War of 1812 for reasons of space.
What does the future hold? Perhaps the most significant development of Brian’s tenure so far is his creation of a Springhouse Facebook page, which already has copious original content and almost 800 followers. Thus, the shoe sole-handled door has been flung open, offering anyone with access to the Internet a captivating view of the Shawnee Hills and a guided tour led by some of the region’s most seasoned interpreters. The Adventure Continues.
Matt Meacham is program coordinator for access with Illinois Humanities. He is a fifth-generation native of rural southwestern Illinois. His professional background includes experience in teaching, journalism, music, and folklore.