Today, my paying gig (yes, I know it will shock my fellow writers that I have a job to pay the bills) took me to Peoria. Because of where I had to go, the best way to get there was not down Interstate 74, but to take Interstate 39 down and drive cross-country on mostly two-lane roads.
I had not been into that part of Illinois before, at least not on the ‘back roads’ like I was using today, and outside of getting lost a couple of times, it was quite an enjoyable drive. I drove for miles with the Illinois River within view, dove through a lot of attractive ‘hill-and-dale’ ad saw some quite nice places. I drove past “Hardscrabble Road” between Chillicothe and the ‘hopefully’ named Hopewell. I cross Brown Run Creek which looked quite like any other small creek, and cross the aptly-named Sandy Creek that seemed to be filled with sandbars. I drove past the wistfully named Magnolia, and got lost at the tiny town of Sparland. And because of the roads I was using, I crossed the Illinois several times.
I visited the town of Henry in search of a bathroom, not knowing that several could be found just a few miles away in the larger town of Lacon. Henry was something of an eye-opener.
You approach it over a multi-arch steel bridge that soars over the Illinois, it being a major artery of commercial shipping. Even today, the river sees huge strings of barges carrying bulk cargoes of pretty much anything that can be loaded into said barges, so keeping the river available for traffic is not a small consideration. Henry fronts on the Illinois, and sports a small marina and boat ramp for people who want to take advantage of the broad waters of our state’s namesake river. It has a waterfront grain facility that, today, had a barge tied up for loading. Beyond that, the down town of Henry stands, lined with substantial brick buildings that look to date from early part of the 20th Century.
Sadly, many of those buildings are vacant, and the ‘main drag’ has a distinctly ‘down-at-the-heels’ feel to it. Perhaps it no surprise that the bridge you cross to get to it is covered in flaking paint with large and well-rusted bare spots showing everywhere. The deck, as you drive across it, has a crumbling appearance, like it hadn’t been repaved for a few decades. Henry doesn’t have a grocery story, or a convenience store, not even an old-fashioned gas station. It does have a friendly, if mostly empty, coffee shop who’s proprietor took pity on a desperate traveler in need of the use of his ‘facilities’.
Back on the road, headed towards my destination, I passed through Lacon, and the contrast was stark. Here I approached from the land side, and though the sign lists Lacon’s population as only about twice that of Henry, the town itself was bustling, even though it was not yet nine in the morning. Most of the buildings in downtown are occupied, people were out doing their business, and the feeling was of a small town that was busy with getting on with life. Leading out of town, at least in the direction I needed to go, the road again crosses the Illinois. The bridge itself is not markedly different from the one at Henry, another multi-arch steel thing that looked as though it had been run up out of a catalog. Here, however, the bridge was freshly painted and the deck pavement was as smooth as if it had been laid only a few months ago.
Do the things around a town reflect the attitude of the people living in it…or do things like old bridges and worn-down buildings make people doubt the worth of a place? I don’t know, but I can’t help but wonder if the folks of Henry were to put pressure their local state representatives for a much-needed face-lift to the bridge that is the gateway to their town, it might not get more people interested in visiting. Who knows, maybe more visitors would bring businesses back to those empty store fronts, and maybe a sense of life back to their town.
Who knows what might happen next.
I do know that I hope all those fine folks find a way to bring some good fortune their way, to them and all the other small town struggling across Illinois and America at large.