Camping, Lewistown IL, Mysterious Mounds and a Spirited Poem

The inspiration for a weekend camping trip can come from very unusual places.  Long a fan of the poems by Edgar Lee Masters, I was thrilled to see the play The Spoon River Anthologies pop up with a local theater group.  We thoroughly enjoyed the performance.  Upon reading the playbill that night, I saw that Lee Masters was an Illinois native.  A camping road trip was born.

Let me fill you in on the play for those who haven’t had the good fortune of experiencing it yet.  The play is based on a series of poems written postumastly by the citizens of a small town on the Spoon River.  The poems are  a masterful weaving of the interconnected hearts of a small town; their secrets, worries, wrongs, guilts and loves.  The entire performance takes place in a darkened graveyard–townspeople standing behind their graves, opening their hearts alone (perhaps too late) to bring healing and richness to the stories of small town life.

image  This is the first of the poems/monograms:

The Hill

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown,
the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud,
the happy one?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate
and Mag—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
with venerable men of the revolution?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.

Edgar Lee Masters

One of the stories that always stands out for me is the philandering husband who stands behind his grave in shame and agony because his syphillis causes his daughter to be born blind.  When the daughter takes her turn to speak, she tells of a happy life and of the gifts her blindness brought her and how she was able to view her small town and really hear the hearts of those around her.  Beauty, it seems, really is in the eye of the beholder.  It’s a metaphor for travelling too.  One might only see an average American small town on first glance, but look a little deeper and you’ll find the well runs deep.  Sometimes the small roads lead to bigger places in the heart.

I was fortunate to grow up in a small town in Michigan with a beautiful Victorian Garden cemetery just a mile or so from home.  So many hours of my childhood were spent walking our dogs or riding my bike in that cemetery.  So many creative writing assignments were created from the names on the tombstones.  This love of graveyards  lingers with me still and gives me a kindred feeling for Lee Masters.  So, I was thrilled to have the chance to visit the real Spoon River Cemetery in Lewistown.  The town Historical Society has plaqued the stones on which the characters were loosely based. (Note:  No dogs are allowed in the cemetery)

Small Lewiston has another claim to fame–Dickson Mounds.  This old farm was taken over by the state and a museum created there.  There are many interesting artifacts displayed (but nothing like the original number of un-sanitized finds displayed in the photos of the rustic museum Farmer Dickson opened when he discovered the artifacts and skeletons.)  There is interesting information here on the mini Ice age that went through the region in the mid 1800s, too.    This area has many, many mound sites scattered along the waterways.  I always find such calm in these places, imagining the ancient peoples and why they chose to build these great earthen mounds.  Note:  Call the museum before going, as Illinois budget woes have closed many parks off and on.

It is interesting to note that about 30 minutes from Lewiston in Hoopeston Il, were camp Ellis once stood–a work camp for WWII prisoners.  The “workers” “employed”at the local canning factory.image

Lee Masters’ home (a short drive to Petersburg) can also be toured, but call ahead to be sure it is open. Lee Masters was a prominent attorney as well as play write and worked with Clarence Darrow at one point. He is an interesting character.image

In visiting Lewistown and Petersburg, you will find yourself in the heart of  Springfield’s Abe Lincoln history but I’ll save the Lincoln trail visits for a future blog post.

There are several camping options in the region.  The most convient is Webb’s  Valley View Campground-a private RV park in Lewistown.

I hope this post will inspire you to let a childhood pastime or a favorite poem inspire a trip towards your own bliss in the near future.  Safe travels.

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3 thoughts on “Camping, Lewistown IL, Mysterious Mounds and a Spirited Poem

  1. Thank you for the Spoon River Anthology trip review! I would like to take a road trip to all the Lara Ingles Wilder homesites. Thanks again, interesting trip!


    1. We were up in MN last week and passed some LIW sites that reminded me to look for the pictures from our foray into the world of the Ingalls. I’d like to write up that trip in January when I have more time. I need to find my pictures of our trip to their home in central Missouri too, where she and Almonzo were older. Fun stuff.


      1. Looking forward to that post. I have a book that is a collection of her newspaper column she wrote for the hometown paper when she and Almonzo (sp?) moved to Missouri.


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