By Thy Rivers
By Jean Rabe
Starved Rock had been done to death, and yet here I was. Rather, I was at the “Gateway to Starved Rock,” as the speck on the map labeled Utica touted itself. More precisely, I was standing in the city-owned cemetery: Oak Hill.
Early on this fall morning a ground-hugging fog curled around the tombstones and made the place at the same time eerie and mystically beautiful. The air was cool and crisp and I drew it deep into my lungs before reaching down and tracing the Masonic symbol on my father’s stone. The rosy marble was slick with dew.
He and my mother were buried side-by-side, him preceding her by thirteen years. Next to them were her parents.
I was an only child, and I’d not come here to pay my respects in well more than a few years. I had only a scattering of “shirt-tail relatives” remaining, none of them in the area, and so I suspected that no one else had paid any respects in the interim. I lived in Wisconsin now and I traveled for work and to visit friends. I’d had little use for coming here to visit those who couldn’t carry on a conversation and less for spending money on flowers for the dead. My mother once told me that flowers were for the living, and that had stuck with me all these years. But a nagging sense of guilt had managed to finally tug me back.
I propped the evergreen wreath between the stones and glanced over at my grandparents’ graves. I told myself that next time I should bring two wreaths, even though I suspected “next time” might be another several years away–if ever.
A good part of my family tree was buried here, judging by the number of times “Collins” had been etched on stones in this section. On a previous visit I’d walked through much of the place and noted the names. The cemetery had opened in the mid-1800s and covered about one hundred acres of hilly land at the edge of town. A groundskeeper had told me there were twenty thousand graves—well more than twenty times the current population of Utica.
On my stroll I’d also noted that a good number of people had been buried here in 1918, though they’d not been casualties of WWI. The influenza had taken them that year and had been especially rough on infants.
And a good number of people had lofty monuments, angels rising out of the fog with arms open wide and Romanesque columns stretching toward heaven, expensive markers . . . none of them saying “Collins,” however. My family tree had modest financial roots.
The stone I lingered at was small and nearly hidden by the mist.
My parents hadn’t lived in Utica, and I recalled coming here only a few times with them when I was a child—one a brief trip to a museum no bigger than a small pole barn that had some Indian trinkets. Like me, my parents had been born and raised in Ottawa, a larger town a little more than a dozen miles away with a theme song that echoed in my head: “Friendly City USA.” I doubted anyone had written a song about Utica.
My parents had bought the Oak Hill plots when they were alive, and I’d never thought to ask them “why Utica?” Ottawa had cemeteries. Maybe they had wanted to spend eternity with relatives that had also staked out plots in this place. Or more likely the land was less expensive here.
Things tended to be cheaper in small towns.
And places didn’t come much smaller than Utica.
I’d “googled” Utica on the Internet a few days ago out of curiosity and a need to recheck the map for driving directions. At the last census, the speck had recorded 977 residents, roughly 650 per square mile. A little more than half the population consisted of married couples, and the median age was 39.
I was a dozen years past the median age.
The senior writer for “Midwest Tourist,” I’d told my editor I was coming here to do a piece on Starved Rock. She pointed out that the place had been “done to death.” I vowed to find a fresh angle that would wow her. Actually, I was just looking for a way to write off this guilty trip to the cemetery.
I’d booked a room at The Landers House, from what I could tell Utica’s only bed and breakfast. It was within walking distance of the few blocks that passed themselves off as the downtown. The woman who took my reservation said I was in luck, as she’d just had a cancellation only moments before.
I couldn’t imagine any place within a stone’s throw of this speck being booked to capacity.
But the bed and breakfast was indeed filled, and when I checked in last night the woman at the desk explained that nearby hotels were all booked too.
I hadn’t heard that anything special was going on at Starved Rock State Park, though it was possible the “fall colors” had lured the tourists.
“It’s not the park,” she’d told me. “It’s the burgoo.”
I touched my father’s stone again, left the cemetery, and headed downtown.
I figured since I was here and supposedly working on a tourism piece I might as well investigate this “burgoo.” A quick look around, I told myself . . . the downtown being so small that any look around would be brief . . . and then I’d head across the river to Starved Rock and search for my “fresh angle.”
Lord, but this town . . . this “dink-burg” . . . was small. It was the kind of small that if you blinked too long while driving through, you’d miss it.
South of Utica the Illinois River meandered. I’d somehow in my youth committed all sorts of area trivia to memory, including about this speck. Once upon a time, somewhere in the 1830s, Utica had been perched on the banks of the river. Persistent flooding and construction of the Illinois-Michigan Canal had coaxed it to move just a bit.
But my trivia cache didn’t include anything about Utica’s “burgoo,” even though a poster proclaimed this year’s festival as the 40th annual.
I left my car at the bed and breakfast, as I couldn’t see a vacant spot anywhere downtown, and I walked toward the rural cacophony—a mix of conversations, laughter, and music.
The colors struck me like I’d run into a brick wall—people dressed in their brightest casual finery, eye-popping reds and brilliant blues, a smattering of greens and cheery yellows, and the occasional pastel purples and day-glow pinks on little girls. There were far more people milling in the street and on the sidewalks than the census had claimed, and none of them were standing still.
They swayed to various tunes—a bluesy piece seeping out the door of a tiny tavern, soft rock spilling from a huge boom box on a card table, something farther down the street that resembled polka. Faintly, through it all, I heard a folksinger strumming on a guitar and offering his version of what the Illinois General Assembly had adopted as the state song a few years before I was born. “By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois,” he sang. A trio of women nearby joined him. “Comes an echo on the breeze, rustling through the leafy trees.”
“And its mellow tones are these, Illinois,” I found myself finishing.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my story was here, not in “done to death” Starved Rock State Park.
My story was this don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it-speck-of-a-town that had somehow managed to attract a boisterous throng of giggling, chattering, singing, happy people to drink in the fall and chug down burgoo.
I returned to the bed and breakfast and grabbed my camera and notebook. During the next several hours I filled all the pages and exhausted the memory card on my digital.
I filled my stomach, too, though at first glance I wasn’t going to try the stuff, as it looked like an ugly mash of . . . goo.
It’s a spicy “pioneer stew,” one of the chefs explained as I leaned close for a sniff.
It didn’t smell awful.
Burgoo was more of a notion than a recipe, one of the stirrers told me. In huge kettles—I had no earthly idea where they found cooking vats so big—they’d mixed in beef, chicken, pork, and perhaps mutton, and added lots of vegetables, an assortment of spices (probably all the spices in quite a few kitchen cabinets), and who-knew-what-else. It had cooked for hours before the first bowl was served.
Burgoo . . . it might have been some twisted pronunciation of barbecue or bird stew, or a word derived from “bulghur,” a French name for a long-cooked, well-seasoned stew, or even some corruption of a gruel concocted by sailors during the 17th century.
In decades past in this country the idea had been to make a brew with whatever meats and vegetables were in hearty supply—which meant opossum, squirrel, rabbit, venison, geese, and other game from the hunt.
An elderly man who claimed to have been at every one of Utica’s burgoo festivals explained to me that if the stew is particularly good you can stand a spoon in it. This year’s offering qualified.
It didn’t taste half-bad.
In fact, the more I ate of it, the more I wanted to eat. I stopped at the fourth bowl and passed on the condiments I could have added: chili powder, cider vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce.
I swayed to the music.
I browsed the craft tables and purchased an assortment of pretty dust-catchers that I had no earthly idea where I would display.
I basked in Utica’s friendly, wholesome atmosphere and realized that all these people—these hundreds of people—weren’t really here for the burgoo.
They were here for the fall crispness and the fellowship, the folksinger who offered up another rendition of “By Thy Rivers,” the women who proudly displayed their knitting, the flea market where a myriad of bargains were to be had, the children who raced down the sidewalk, and the old-timer who happily showed off his pocket-sized, long-haired Chihuahua.
The burgoo was merely an excuse for their party.
My main story would be about this wonderful stew-birthed-fair and would include next year’s dates—held on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend, and a list of nearby hotels and bed and breakfasts. I’d warn the reader to arrive early to find a place to park. The sidebar would be about Utica’s restaurants and taverns and wineries, about the annual upcoming appearance of the Chicago Police Bag Pipe Band of the Emerald Society, the late October Utica Community Fire Protection District Fish Fry, and the much-anticipated American Legion Post’s Veteran’s Day Parade with a flyover by the Lima Flight Team.
I would give my editor a lovely slice of the rural Midwest and give the readers a reason to come to this enchanting speck on the map.
The next morning, my stomach still churning from everything I’d eaten and drank the day before, I stood in the cemetery again. If there’d been a fog, it had burned off well before I arrived.
I bent and traced the Masonic symbol on my father’s stone and adjusted the wreath so it didn’t obscure my mother’s name.
“I’ll be back next year,” I told them, reminding myself to bring two wreaths and to see if I could find a new angle on Starved Rock. “I’ll be back to see the long-haired Chihuahua and watch the children race. To sing ‘By Thy Rivers’ and buy a few knickknacks I don’t need. To eat the burgoo and visit you. I’ll be back.”