Home is Truly Where the Heart Lives - My Midwest Roots
Every travel blogger needs a home base; a place to come home to and decompress and recharge for the next big adventure. For me, I have a few home bases. These are places I feel that are safe, offer loving environments, and allow me to just be me and recharge my batteries. My main home base is Rome, NY. Not born here, I found my way here on a path of windy turns. I knew the moment I arrived this would be my home. The other is my forever home; Flora, Illinois.
Flora, Illinois is a tiny town in Clay County, and is located in the southern area of the state. The population is around 5,000, and although it resembles most small town rural America today, to me it represents the values of home, family, and community. It's history is vast, with stories that would fill textbooks of a time when industry and agriculture (the main trade) moved through town on the railway, rural America's heart was it's downtown, and no matter where you went, you were greeted with a smile and a conversation of how the family was and what was new in town; a real cohesive community. I lovingly refer to it as "Mayberry".
Although I wasn't born in Flora, my father was and this is where my grandparents and family lived (and still do) for generations after immigrating to the states. Mostly farm land, Flora was along the east/west route of the B&O Railway, and a central hub for the local county residents and where my Great Grandfather was a fireman for the B&O Railway.
Clay County garnered it's name from it's claylike soil, reddish in color and was ideal for growing soybeans, wheat, rye, oats, melons, and peaches, to name just a few. It also was perfect for producing bricks, a staple for most buildings you see throughout town.
Small town social life consisted mostly of school and church events, community events like the county fair and different activities held by the town, library, and family. Life is simple there, and every summer I would return to my Mom and Dad Gilliland's home to visit with them and my grandparents who lived just around the corner. To me, it was heaven. So this is my second home base, and where my son hangs a piece of his heart as well; with my Gilliland family in Flora. It is here I can escape to and regroup when I need to gather perspective. It is here my best friend since 2nd grade still lives. It is here my Dad G., my grandparents, great grandparents, and great aunt and uncle rest in peace. To me it has always been home, and always will be.
Growing up in a small town in the midwest, life was sweet. There was a small but bustling downtown, the railroad whistles rang out in the evenings of passing trains at several crossings, cruising Main Street (driving from one end of town to the the other, often stopping to visit with friends) was a norm for kids as they passed and waved to their friends at the Dairy Queen, and as always, smiles and greetings were plentiful as you knew everyone in town.
There wasn't a heck of a lot to do, but somehow I always stayed busy. My grandfather owned a small insurance company in town and my Dad G. worked at the local Savings and Loan. Active in church and community, our kitchen was a bustle of activity of comings and goings daily with family and friends. A walk to the local dime stores (Jacos and Murphys) or Throgmorton's Pharmacy was a favorite past time, to buy penny candy and a cold Coca Cola from the vending machine in the far back of the drug store. The sodas were located way in the back by the pharmacy and were always so ice cold, remember? Plus this was the ''go to' store for all tennis rackets and equipment.
In the summer, if you didn't arrive early enough, it was often hard to get a court (or wall board) at the East End tennis courts. One of only a few Astro City Rocket Playgrounds in the country, the Kiwanis Park was right next to the tennis courts, and was the location of hours of fond memories of playing with friends and family on the giant rocket slide. Juggling time between the Tastee Freez across the street, the playground, and the tennis courts, the East End was where it was happening in the 70's for kids.
Over on the west end of town stood another location of fond memories; Charley Brown Park. Home to Little Toot, the public swimming pool, the Clay County Fair, the Fourth of July fireworks, a live petting zoo (that included peacocks, rabbits, deer, and even bison), playgrounds, and paddle boats; hours and hours were spent here enjoying summer time.
It's difficult today to go home though because the Flora I remembered is no longer there. Why? Like most small towns throughout the country, retail just isn't what it used to be with Walmart and Amazon monopolizing the market. That's where everyone shops today. Small businesses no longer are the majority in small town American. Downtowns are ghost towns, and even with several industrial businesses in town employing the majority of residents, even the CSX Railway doesn't pass through any longer as it's not beneficial enough to keep the tracks up for the amount of freight it's carrying to and from. I think that has hit me hardest; not hearing the trains throughout the day. Even the neighborhood homes I fondly remember no longer have their pizazz they once did. Homes have fallen into disrepair, with debris littering the front areas. These homes that once were cherished and shone, now just seem to be as tired and forgotten as the downtown today. Like most communities, new homes are being built outside of town and a few homes do still look as amazing as I remember (like my grandparents home below and my momma's), but all the signs of the hardships this town faces today are apparent as you meander down the streets and alleyways of the town I love.
Bear with me a moment while I digress on a rant that I feel touches so many communities like Flora all across the country. More than 30 minutes off of I70, Flora doesn't beckon visitors as it once did. There's nothing that brings traffic to the town. Working in the Planning Department of the City of Rome, I saw how our city struggled to keep it's vibrancy after the closing of Griffiss Air Force Base, and I'm delighted to say this trend has not occurred here in Rome as it has in so many other communities. I believe the vision of our community in Rome and willingness to think outside the box of those in charge, together with the support of our leaders and funding that was necessary to keep us viable, is what has kept our community flourishing. I see this could be the same for Flora if the community wants it to happen. I know that Flora has gems it can capitalize on, and I find it tough seeing them disappear one by one.
A few years ago while riding around Flora, I discovered the International Shoe Factory. This huge building sat vacant for years, and in my mind I saw huge potential for the community with this building. Sadly though, it's potential was not the vision of others and this building has recently been torn down. This could have been the center for something great that could have revived this community. But without the vision and funding, and support of local, state, and national leaders (and this is crucial to supporting small towns like Flora) small towns like Flora find that decaying infrastructure is being eliminated due to safety concerns. I understand that, but it still saddens me. This occurs way too often in communities all over America. These once thriving industries, that were once staples to the community, are disappearing one by one. Their history and potential right along with them disintegrate as they become a pile of debris. It's tough to watch, and ideas bounce around my head constantly trying to come up with imaginative ideas to save this dying little town. If we could bottle up what I remember most about Flora, and market it to the rest of America...we could build it again...and they would come. Just like The Field of Dreams!! I know this for a fact. Check out this article about what Pawtucket, RI and what my friend Herb Weiss and his community has accomplished!!! They have taken abandoned mills and made them into incubator space for artists and small business development. I know this could be a key to revitalizing Flora, and so many other communities across America once again!! But they need help and funding to make it happen!! I hope one day they will be able to make this a reality in my little town. Okay, rant over...now back to my trip.
One of the things I remember most about summers at home in Flora was always watching the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball every night. Still at 97 years old, my momma never misses a game. Both my son and I grew up loving Cardinals baseball. All throughout his childhood we would make a point to go see them play when we came home. This year would be no different. Having two games to choose from the week we were to be home, we chose the second game of the week, which was a day time game. Good thing, because the night before the game was cancelled due to tornados (another normalcy we midwesterners get used to). And to make the time even more special...the St. Louis Blues just clinched their spot in the Stanley Cup the night before! So that day we were joined by a few from the team, and we were able to cheer them on and celebrate with the team members on their win! The game was great...our seats perfect, and although we didn't win, we did have a great time as my family drove in from Iowa, Chicago, and Kansas City to see the same game and have dinner with us. One day, Cards...we will see you win a live game and see the fireworks after!!! One day.
A trip to St. Louis wouldn't be complete without a stroll over to the Gateway Arch, a National Monument and often referred to as the Gateway to the West. This spectacular building is a true destination. Although we didn't arrive in time to take the lift up to the top this time, just seeing this massive structure leaves you in awe. You really must take the time to take the tram up to the top. Would advise to call ahead though to make sure the times on the website are updated. The site told us it was open until 10pm, only to arrive and be told it closed at 6pm with the final tram leaving 45 minutes prior. Was really disappointed as we were unable to come back the following day, living out of town and all. So if you are passing through, I highly recommend the stop as it's definitely worth the experience as the views are spectacular of the city and the Mississippi River.
Another fun past time I love to do when going home is resale shopping with my best friend since second grade, Mandy!! Whoo hooo!! So off we went to check out the new shop in the old Country Squire store called Rustic Treasures Antiques and another of my favorites, the resell shop called The Country Closet. I found a few good deals at both locations, as well as several I wish I could have purchased or had space for. If only I had a place to put one of these old gas pumps. Remember when we pulled up to a gas station, someone came out, and they checked your oil, washed your windshield, and pumped your gas? Yep, the epitome of Mayberry! Those were the good ole days!!! (does saying that make me old now?) Seriously though...wouldn't that gas pump look cool on a back patio or vintage porch!!!
I find I'm so nostalgic when I go home. Is it that way for you as well? As a photographer my bestie knew I would love the old photos they have displayed at the new hospital, so off we went to reminisce about the good ole days via photos.
Of the photos they had on display, one was her grandfather's coffee shop (top photo above), several were from the hospital, some were old buildings throughout town, some were old stores (like those above), and one was of "Ford Town USA". What is that you ask? Well on September 24, 1960, Lee Iaccocca gave every resident in Flora, Illinois a vehicle to drive for a week. What?!!! Can you imagine that today?!!! My momma remembers this fondly as her brother, my Uncle Norman, was mayor at the time and knew that this was about to happen, and didn't share what was going on to her chagrin,. She tells of a Ford representative coming to the house and asking her if she could drive any Ford in the world which one would she like. She thought it was a ploy to sell her a vehicle so she kept telling him she didn't need or want a new car, and after being super persistent she just agreed to any ole one just to get rid of him. Little did she know that had she said a convertible or something fancy, she would have gotten to drive that for the week, just like her brother did! I'm sure Uncle Norman (who was sworn to secrecy) didn't live that down for a bit. What a sight it was though. Every car was white, so that after the week of use it could be easily touched up with paint. Dragging Main Street was a daily occurrence in Flora and what a sight it was when every car that week was white. Some even ended up buying what they drove. From what I understand after speaking to a lady at the hospital, someone in town still have their vehicle and it's in mint condition. Would love to see it! Wouldn't you?!!!
Flora has a few really cool touristy things to do that I would recommend, as well as a few really good restaurants. First, if you like Mexican food...definitely go to the east end to La Fuenta Restaurant! It was delicious and a very good value.
For things to do, you must go to the Flora B&O Depot. Here you can browse the museum and learn a little of the history of the railroad and the town. Although the train no longer passes by, it sits along the route the train used to take. The roundhouse no longer is there, but it sat within this area many moons ago. I always love going in there as I mentioned earlier, my great grandpa Charlie Whitmore was a fireman for the railroad. So going in there I often wonder if I'll see him in anything they have on display. Going through a few of my grandmothers things recently, I came across his certificate of retirement and I think I will be sending it on to the museum to display. I still have to sort through the box of photos, but who knows...he may be one of the gentlemen in the photo below, and I may have a few more gems to share with the museum. In the collage below I must note that the photo of the train and sign that says 'Veterans Walk' are no longer there, but the other photos were from my recent visit to the museum.
Another really cool place to visit is the Smith Mill. Only open a couple times a year through open houses, this privately owned mill and museum, is amazing. Bob Smith has collected over the years hundreds of tools, equipment, and parts for farming, woodworking, automotive, blacksmithing, etc. and displayed them on his property for his enjoyment and those that visit. It's a spectacular place that you must visit if you are in town. So keep an eye on their Facebook page for the next open house.
For such a sleepy little town, time sure did fly by with things to do. Visiting friends and family, games with Momma and puzzles, resting, and walking, before I knew it, it was time to leave and make our way back to New York.
No matter how old I am, I always hate leaving my momma and saying goodbye. I remember as a child my momma would say, "Kathy if you don't eat your breakfast you can't go"...and I would reply..."I know". That's how I still feel today leaving this angel of a woman!
But I did. Through teary eyes I hugged my momma and made my way down the street to take one last look at my grandparents home as I was leaving town. Seeing the new owner outside, I stopped and introduced myself. I thanked him for taking such good care of my grandparents home and told him that I know my Grandmother's smiling knowing it's in such good hands. Without hesitation and in true southern hospitality, he invited me in to meet his wife and see what they had done to the house. Mr. and Mrs. Bahrns, thank you. You made my heart smile seeing it and recalling so many days there with my grandparents. You have done a wonderful job restoring it to today's standards. Exchanging emails, I promised to send him some photos of what it looked like back in the day so they could see. Then I made my way out of town once again.
Because this trip was all about family, I made a point to stop in to Columbus on my way back through to see my children and grandchildren and collect some hugs!!! Although short, it was a sweet little visit and one that will have to last until I have more time to stay longer!! Just look how they've grown!!! So very proud of them!!
Now back at my main home base in New York with my batteries charged up, a refreshed perspective, and hugs to get me through till the next time I see my family, this vacation was very much needed. I love my midwestern roots. I love that life there is sweet and simple and at a slower pace than I'm accustomed to. I love the history and the memories it evokes every time I return home. I love how when my best friend, Mandy, and I get together it's like it was just yesterday. I love how community and church are the center for everyone there. I know things have changed since I was a kid, some for the good and some not so good, but the parts that I love never change. It will always be a haven for me. I'm very blessed to have a wonderful eclectic family that loves and supports me in whatever I decide to do. And I love that I have a home base that gives me a place to regroup, a place called Flora, Illinois.
“Families are the compasses that guide us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter.” – Brad Henry
Till next time my friends.