Local History and an Economy of Back Roads

I had one of the most delightful overnight stays I've had in my recent memory just under two weeks ago when I stayed at Rose Inn in Elizabethtown, Illinois. Rose Inn was founded in 1812 as the McFarlan Inn. More information can be found on the historic hotel here.The inn supposedly is haunted, in fact, the seventh most haunted inn in the country; I learned that the morning after my stay in Sarah's room, a tranquil lilac-colored chamber with a generous queen-sized bed and a sparkling white bathroom with clawfooted tub. I had a meal a stone's throw from the inn at a quaint floating restaurant on the Ohio River.

On Facebook, I shared pictures of the inn and its picturesque setting on the Ohio. As I recall, the post got two or three likes, not nearly as many as I get if I post a picture of myself, which I seldom do. I posted about my experience in southern Illinois because I wanted others to have the experience at least vicariously. I push for the experience despite knowing that beds and breakfasts are not for everyone. I once spent a small fortune renting two rooms in a Mississippi bed and breakfast for the weekend, a room for me and my daughter and a room for my sister. Thank goodness the room for my daughter and me had two beds because my sister, despite the fact of the expense to which I'd gone, bunked with us. It was the first time that I realized that my older sister is afraid of ghosts. I'd never even thought of the possibility.

I felt no ghosts at the Rose Inn or at the Mississippi bed and breakfast, and I've never sensed any at any other inn where I've stayed though I don't discount existence of energies that inhabit other dimensions who traverse our own. The innkeeper at Rose did forewarn me that I might experience something, and though the forewarning was followed by an expression of doubt the look on her face contradicted it. Still, she says she's never seen ghosts there, but she's also never slept in one of the rooms.

Well, this blog post isn't really about the Rose Inn though I could not say enough good things about the experience of staying there; it's really about America's back roads and the nation's back roads' histories. I intentionally traveled through southern Illinois though plenty of caring friends have chastised me with their body language if nothing else not to do so. It seems there is something holy about traveling interstate highways--the relatively generic rest stops, the speed, the lack of scenery. Nothing to slow one down; nothing to distract one from just getting there.

The Interstate might as well be a metaphor for modern life, paved over, smoothed-out connections--none of the difficulties of small-town life and small-town relationships,the segregations--class and race--the stratification of money, different sides of the tracks, old families, the stalwarts, and other old families that never will belong to First Baptist or First Methodist. I have friends in Mississippi, black friends, who you could not pay to ride the back roads as I do. They think me incredibly naive and credit my openness and deep interest in exploring neglected courses to the fact that I am not a Southerner by birth. I too credit this fact and my grandfathers who risked life and sold property as the price for my innocence.

My grandfathers made an investment in the future, in the mindsets of their descendants, and also I think unwittingly in a future economy that would follow the one in which America manufactured and sold its engineering to the rest of the world. That economy--industrialism--is not entirely gone. We still invent things though we outsource their manufacture. Whatever economy is to come and stay for a while will depend on invention not so much of things but ideas, and, needless to say, the space for their dissemination will be the Internet. But, the question some may be asking is what will drive creation of ideas? There may be many answers, or there may be a few, but I myself get inspired both on back roads and in the small towns connected by them. I also am naive enough, optimistic enough, despite failure of my friends to "like" my post, to believe that there is some way to interest people in local history, in a past when American culture was exponentially more diverse than it is today, a time when every town was full of good quilters, someone who kept bees, providing the area's honey, and someone who might have fashioned in the course of a day's work a gadget that would more easily scale fish. As one of my senior Mississippi cousins remembers, "lots of folk knew how to make a living"--in the early twentieth century, when he was a boy. He too left Mississippi in his youth, living for a short time in Detroit and in Youngstown, Ohio before returning south. Maybe he missed the community, the family who made sorghum molasses, "stuff," he says, "you can't get now." Actually, you can, if not from that same family. I've bought sorghum and molasses made by locals, in a number of small towns including in Ripley, Mississippi and in Holly Springs. These can be found at roadside stands and at second-string grocers that have, in the Walmart era, somehow managed to hang on. Still, my cousin's point is not lost on me. The availability of locally-made and hand-made goods used to be a given. Unfortunately, most of those goods went the way of the migrants who moved up North and the national grocers who came in, offering fewer and fewer locally-made goods over the years to the point where now, no matter how small the store, say an IGA near DuVall's Bluff, Arkansas, one is hard-pressed to find anything on the store's shelves that was packed at a facility within a hundred miles.

But while the possibility of a return of the local market may be uncertain, the rise of heritage tourism--historic sites and museums, for instance--and the information that is a necessary part of this offering is not uncertain. A few years back, I worked at a local history museum, a novel concept to me when I applied to work there, but within weeks I was familiar with the town fathers and the things that they had made. The museum carried P.D. Beckwith's famous Round Oak stoves and James Heddon's fishing lures, both products once made in Dowagiac, Michigan. I never really learned what was so special about the lures, but I do know that there is a market for them, a group of active collectors. This is the kind of people we have become even as we speed down interstates. There is a Heddon museum as well in the town though you'd only know about it were you a serious collector, and if you were you'd go out of your way to find it, to speak to the people who run it, and maybe you'd stay in town a night or two that you might take in the atmosphere of the place that inspired the making of the beautiful, intricate objects whose real purpose was to help people catch fish. Pursuit of knowledge concerning the history of odd invention happens all of the time. I've seen it in person, and I've seen it on the Internet, where people search even the most obscure topics.

All of this leads me to ask, finally, who will be the writers, the historians, of the things that most of us think no one cares about but for which there is in fact a niche market? We can rely on lay historians, and they will undoubtedly be of good service in this regard, and, if we were wise, we would also rely on undergraduate students, who can get their feet wet right where they are--in the college towns where they gather in great numbers, sitting in lecture halls bored out of their wits because of failure to connect to distant history or what seems distant. Rather than thumbing their phones within their short pockets to check for messages they could be creating a body of knowledge that, like iron stoves and wooden hand-painted lures, will be around long after some of us suppose it has disappeared.

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