A Tribute to my Roots
My characters Abby and her friends in Every Hill and Mountain are from the northern part of the state, and when their search for clues takes them to southernmost part of Illinois, they feel like they’ve arrived in a foreign country to be explored with interest. (Or in Ryan’s case, with disdain.) In a way Abby’s right. Just as there remains a great divide between the North and South in general, so there is between northern and southern Illinois. If you don’t believe me, read Herbert K. Russell’s book, The State of Southern Illinois.
The region is nicknamed Egypt or Little Egypt from the time in the 1830s when a drought up north forced people to go “down to Eqypt” for grain just as Abraham’s family did in the Bible. Southern Illinoisans must have loved seeing their northern neighbors as humble supplicants. Just as the bankers at Shawneetown Bank must have loved turning down a request for financing from an emerging little town up north called Chicago. The bankers said the town would never amount to anything since it didn’t have access to a good river. I must have heard that story a dozen times when I was growing up. There’s no word on how they felt when news reached them of the new canal connecting Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River.
Abby, John, Kate, and Ryan arrive in Equality, Illinois during its annual salt festival and have lunch at the Red Onion Restaurant. I enjoyed a very tasty hamburger there myself when I visited last summer while researching for the book. (My dad would have described the burger as larrapin’ good, I’m sure.) The restaurant’s truly there , but salt festivals are a thing of the past. And Anderson’s is no longer a general store there on Lane Street. I’m not sure if The Baptist Hour, sponsored by Otis Carter Hatchery in Eldorado, is still broadcast over WEBQ radio. But I included these and other details to make the setting a combination of things past and present—things I recall from my childhood and things from my parents’ day.
My mom went to a little country school called Hickory Hill near Equality. Just a stone’s throw away was the the Crenshaw’s mansion also called Hickory Hill. It was built in 18xx and has been known as the “Old Slave House” since anyone can remember. It is also sometimes described as the most haunted house in Illinois. Growing up, I heard whispered stories about Hickory Hill. It wasn’t until I was grown that I learned what went on there on the third floor of The Old Slave House. I learned even more details when I read Jon Musgrave’s Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw while researching for Every Hill and Mountain. Like Abby, I was shocked to find out that… well you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
My dad and his family lived Out In The Hills. (It sounded capitalized when he talked about it.) By that I mean they lived in Eagle Creek Township near Equality. As far as I know, there’s no local bluegrass band called Eagle Creek, but there ought to be. And if there had been in the 1940s I’m sure my dad would have been a member of it. And Grandpa Woods? Well, he really did make moonshine out behind the house in the old days.
My dad graduated from Equality High School, but before that he went to Kedron School in Eagle Creek Township. The school and Grandpa Woods’ farm were leveled by the coal company. (You can read about the effect coal mining has had in the region in Jeff Bigger’s book Reckoning at Eagle Creek.)
In their later years, Grandpa and Grandma moved to town where he built a little house covered in gray asphalt shingles, the one I fondly remember visiting when I was young.
The Disclaimer in the front of the book says this:
This is a work of fiction. Any references to real people, events, institutions, or locales are intended solely to give a sense of authenticity. While every effort was made to be historically accurate, it should be remembered that these references are used fictionally.
Yada, yada, yada.
Oh, the disclaimer is accurate. It is fictional. But I hope this story rings true to the region and the people–my people. And so as a tribute to all that, I dedicate Every Hill and Mountain in memory of my dad Earl Woods.
You can download an excerpt from Every Hill and Mountain.
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