December 04, 2023

Farm & Food File: The road to the end of the road

The first names were common in the last century: Clara, Woodrow, Elmer, Ethel. The last names, Anglicized over time, mostly reached back to Germany and France with a few stopping short in Ireland and Scotland.

All were neighbors up and down the single-track, thinly-rocked road that ran a few miles from an ancient limestone bluff on the northwest to the fescue-clad levee a rifle shot southeast.

The road was older than Illinois, a path worn bare by moccasins between Cahokia up north and the French settlement of Kaskaskia to the south.

At least until 1881, when the Mississippi River claimed the nearby Kaskaskia River’s more eastern channel to give the old road a new end, the Mississippi. Seventy years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a second new terminus, the big-shouldered levee.

To us it was just Roots Road, a route between a village worn down to just a sign on an abandoned railroad that went past a nearly-hidden tavern and some family farms to go, literally, nowhere. It was short, dusty, and it held our whole world.

At one end lived Frank and Clara K., he a leathery, thin farmer and cattleman of German stock; she a chatty, apron-wearing mother of six who sold eggs to neighbors for “walking-around money.”

Their son, Gary, carried his father’s confidence and his mother’s humor. He took over the farm until his too-young passing in 2004.

Down the road and to the right stood Roots Tavern, a low building designed to be exactly what it was, an out-of-the-way watering hole miles from any prying prig. A knotty-pine bar ran its length and was rarely uncrowded day or night, Sunday to Sunday.

My mother disliked it, its proprietor, Russell B., and his brother, Elmer. My father, however, found Elmer, who farmed and drove a truck for a nearby rock quarry, great company because both were avid talkers and slow beer drinkers, two ingredients for a hearty laugh and a long friendship.

From there, a short walk took you to two aging gentlemen, George W. and Peanuts B., who lived in a two-story, shingled house. I never learned Peanuts’ given name, but he was a whiz mechanic who could fix almost anything that burned gas.

George’s mother, reportedly, had family ties to the indigenous people who had farmed our land generations before us.

Another half mile or so towards our house lived three farming bachelor brothers, Woodrow, Tanny and Elvin L. They were as French as Napoleon, but their family had been in Illinois long before the small Corsican became Europe’s big man.

Tanny was the silent one, Woodrow the homebody cook and Elvin the always-smiling, always-waving extrovert.

Nearby was Emil M., a retired farmer and Walter Brennan look-alike, and his wife Ethel, who was always wearing her Sunday best — pearls, red lipstick, heavy face powder — every Saturday when I pedaled my bike to her house to buy our family’s four dozen eggs. Two unmarried sons, Ivan and Harold, lived with them in the small, sturdy farmhouse.

Two years ago, while on a visit to southern Illinois, I came across Ivan — Harold died in 2003 — mowing the lawn near the only home he had ever lived in.

I asked him about a grave I had just encountered at the nearby cemetery that appeared to be a days-old baby his parents had buried in the early 1920s.

I was correct, he confirmed. “But,” he added quietly, “it’s just one of four babies they buried before my oldest brother was born.”

Barely a half-mile from where Ivan related that unpowdered fact stood our house, an often-flooded, sweltering oven in the summer and drafty deep freeze in the winter.

Not quite a mile beyond our milking parlor the road abruptly ended where Earl Gene P., the baby brother of our hired men Jackie and Howard, lived for decades with his large family.

Today, all those farms, homes and people — save the tavern and Ivan — are either burned, bulldozed or buried. The old road, now all-weather, passes through only corn, soybeans and whispering ghosts.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

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