Sunday, October 22, 2017

Macomb, Illinois

Not only is an October bicycle ride invigorated by Halloween decorations, 

it is also spiced with a variety of displays celebrating autumn.  

Pumpkins are a centerpiece of most.

The Carnegie town of Aledo commemorated the fall season at every intersection of its business district with a classic or vintage bicycle of some sort accompanied by a homemade doll and some fall accoutrement.

Someone in this small town had a bicycling consciousness, as the bike theme was reflected in its bike racks as well, not only in front of the library, but throughout the town.  

Even though the library was built in 1915 towards the end of the Carnegie bequests, by the time he had doubled the number of public libraries in the country to over 3,000, it still identified itself as a "Free Public Library."  Not only was civic pride on display in Aledo, so was pride in being a librarian with a "Librarians are heroes" poster above a book shelf.  Though the library hadn't been expanded since it was built, the town had grown large enough to attract a McDonald's and a Walmart.  I haven't seen too many lately, so I actually felt a jolt of pleasure at seeing them, remembering occasions on this trip when they provided me with provisions or an ice-filled drink or WIFI when I was in need.  It came as a surprise that these monolithic franchises could give me a positive reaction when I had been conditioned to feel otherwise.  They didn't exert enough magnetism though to lure me in.

Aledo further distinguished itself with a statue of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse, as the town was home to the Roosevelt  Military Academy from 1924 to 1973.  It was my second encounter with Roosevelt this week, as he had been to Freeport in 1903 to dedicate a monument to the Lincoln-Douglas debate in its park. The town also puts on a rhubarb festival in June and an antiques festival in September.  It was refreshing to come upon a town with such vitality, as all too many are on the wane.  I had hoped to fuel up on hotcakes the morning after Aledo in either Biggsville or Stronghurst, both within twenty miles of where I had camped in a forest, but neither had retained a morning dining establishment. 

Biggsville was big enough to have a bank and a Horse and Carriage Museum, but no diner, or Carnegie.  I thought I was in luck in Stronghurst, but the cafe had a "Closed" sign on it, and not just for that morning, but for good.  An old-timer told me it had closed eight months ago.  "These small towns are drying up," he lamented. "We used to have five grocery stores and five gas stations, now we just have one of each."  When I told him I had been hoping for some hotcakes, he said he would invite me to his house and have his wife cook me some, but they just got back from visiting a daughter in Virginia and their larder was bare.  Then he asked if I had heard that Bobby Knight had given a speech to a booster group over on the other side of the Mississippi in Burlington, Iowa the evening before.  There was a story on it in the morning newspaper. "Did he say anything about Trump?" I asked.

"The paper didn't say, but it did quote him as saying that if any of his players had knelt during the national anthem, he would have kicked them off the team.  He also said he had stopped watching the NFL because of it."

I asked him what paper the story was in, as I was headed to the library in La Harpe and would read it there.  We were talking outside the lone grocery store as I was eating some cornflakes.  He said if I were going to be around for a few minutes he'd go home and get me the paper.  When he returned, I offered him three of those hefty black rubber cords that truckers use to secure loads that I had picked up along the road to redistribute. They don't have as much flex as bungee cords, which I use to secure my tent and sleeping bag to my rear rack, so they aren't of much use to me, but I still can't resist picking them up. I had already given one to a woman I'd chatted with.  He gladly accepted them all.

A strong south wind had kept the temperature above sixty during the night, For the first time in nearly a week I didn't have to begin the day with tights and gloves and a wool cap.  But I had to ride into that wind.  My legs have the strength now to keep at it with vigor in stints of over an hour.  I was keeping at the pedals for even longer spells to try to make it to La Harpe before one in case it had an early Saturday closing time as small-town, rural libraries sometimes do.  I arrived five minutes before one as a guy was lugging a container of books up the steps of the small library.  "Are you about to close?" I asked.  

"The library ordinarily closes at noon today," he said, "but I'm doing some extra work.  You're welcome to come in."

After I took a photograph of the library he said, "The next time you come around, that Douglas Fir won't be here. It's dying and we've got to cut it down.  We don't know how old it is, so I'm going to have a contest to guess its age.  I know it's not as old as the library, but it's mighty old."

He asked if I'd noticed the books on the sign in front of the library.  Two of the books were among the top five most banned books--"Catcher in the Rye" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

We sat and talked for nearly an hour as he narrated his life story, which included time in Galena and Freeport and other places I had recently visited.  He had been the director of the library for a little over a year after working in academic book stores in Lincoln, Nebraska and Evanston and then at DePaul in Chicago.  "I was one of those evil guys who bought used textbooks for two or three dollars and then sold them for a lot more," he said.  He was eventually driven out of business by schools allying with Barnes and Noble.  He had moved to this area to be with family and had been working at the local Casey's when the job at the library opened up. His sister is the librarian at a nearby town and has been his mentor.  It pays a bit more than Casey's, but he is only paid for 24 hours a week, though he puts in a lot more time.  He supplements his pay with social security and a few lawn jobs, but voiced no complaints other than not being so well-treated by Casey's.  The library he likes a lot.

As we talked, the director of the local history museum stopped in, drawn by my bike, to invite me to the museum.  It had some Lincoln memorabilia, as he had family that lived in the area, including a relative by the name of Abraham Lincoln, who is buried in a nearby cemetery.  The town has two plaques relating to Lincoln, one at the site of a church where he gave a speech after one of his debates with Douglas and another at the house where he spent the night.  

The museum had the marble top from the Methodist Episcopal church pulpit that Lincoln had stood before.  "You can put your hands where Lincoln's hands rested," he enticed.  Before I left the library I asked to fill my water bottle.  "You don't want to use the water from the faucet," the librarian warned,   "We occasionally have boil orders."  He pointed towards a cooler with cold water and then offered me some chocolate chip cookies he'd make himself.  "You look like you could use the calories," he said.

The historian was even more talkative than the librarian.  He engages in Civil War reenactments and also doubles as Lincoln reciting the Gettysburg address.  I asked if the town had a French heritage, not only based on its name but also by the historian's lush mustache such as the French are prone to. The town came to be known as La Harpe simply by happenstance.  It's original name was Franklin, but when it applied for a post office, it learned there was already a Franklin in Illinois, so it had to choose another name.  Whoever was filling out the papers at the time came up with Le Harpe.

He went on and on with one fascinating  tale of local lore after another.  After a spell he asked me to sign the register.  The last person signed it five days before and was from Alaska.  Even though I was under pressure to get to the Carnegie in Macomb twenty-two miles away by five, and didn't want to trigger another prolonged dissertation, I couldn't help but ask about the Alaskans.  And off he went on another tangent that might not have had an end if I hadn't curtailed it.  It included the historian's two trips up the Alaskan Highway, once with his dad and another with his two teen-aged daughters and his wife and how he paid $20 so his women folk could shower after going without for three or four days.  I would have been happy to have him regale me with even more if I hadn't had two more hours of hard riding ahead of me into a strong wind, racing to beat closing time and then sunset time.

On my way to Macomb I passed a display of pumpkins and gourds for sale on the honor system, my second of the day.  The first had a secured box with a lock on it for people to put money in.  

This one just had a plastic jar and also no prices on anything, allowing people to pay whatever they wished.

Macomb is a university town, home of Western Illinois.  I passed it as I entered the city of 20,000 residents from the north, climbing a couple of steep hills after being on flat terrain much of the day.  I made it to the Carnegie, a block past the town center, just before five, with an hour to spare it turned out.   It was two stories high and hadn't had a significant addition until three years ago, attached to its side.  It had had a smaller addition twenty years before to increase the children's section.  The interior of the library had been fully modernized, not even retaining the standard Carnegie portrait, so it offered no sense of going back in time as most Carnegies do. At least its exterior fully captured the Carnegie aura and honored its benefactor with a simple "CARNEGIE" in the facade over the door under the much higher "Macomb Public Library" under the roofline.

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