I recently finished reading Stu Fliege's, Tales & Trails of Illinois, which is a collection of often little-known historical events and personages. The stories are concise and well-written, and cover the full range of the state.
Two stories caught my attention. One was, "James Buchanan Eads and His Wonderful Bridge," and the other was, "Quincy's Pioneer in the Sky."
James Eads was born in 1820, and by the age of eighteen he had acquired what "formal" education he was going to have - an education that came from being allowed to read an employer's voluminous library. And with that knowledge in his head he went out to work on the Mississippi River where he became fascinated with salvage. Despite being told it couldn't be done he designed diving bells - successfully. For the Civil War he designed steam-powered, armoured warships to patrol the river. Then, this man, who had no engineering training, except for what he had taught himself, and what the Mississippi itself had taught him, decided to span that river so that St. Louis could have a bridge. He did it, using techniques then never truly heard of, and the Eads Bridge still stands today.
The other tale was about Thomas Scott Baldwin. He was an orphaned boy, who started gaining his fame when in his teens by doing high dives into the sawdust piled near the Mississippi River. He was agile and daring, and soon won a place for himself in a traveling circus. He moved on to balloons, then the first parachutes, trained the military in balloon use, flew dirigibles, and then airplanes. And passed at the age of 63 safely on the ground.
What caught my imagination with these two stories is that these were two individuals who had only the conviction of their skills and their creative ability to attain their goals.
Stories of individuals dreaming the "impossible" and then achieving it are necessary - they teach the children and remind the adults - that the creative spark, combined with determination, are vital elements in achieving just about anything. These individuals might be said to be creativity in its purest, most potent, form.
While I don't know who the current educational favorites are I know that after a while the same names and the same tales start to become tuned out. They are no longer really heard.
There are many forgotten pioneers who could offer potent tales. So I thought I would do my part in calling two, Mr. Eads and Mr. Baldwin, back into the limelight.
As I pursue my history research for various programs I stumble upon interesting, and odd, tidbits that are (at least to me) too interesting not to share. So I have decided that monthly, and maybe even more often if I find something I can't wait to share, I will add these tidbits to the blog.
The first tale comes from John W. Allen's Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois. In his chapter on, "Folklore," he has an entry on, "A Phantom Funeral," which he collected from some of the older inhabitants at Prairie de Rocher.
One of the elderly ladies went onto tell of an occurrence that happened to her on July 4th, 1889. She was helping a friend keep a vigil over the friend's dead baby, and they were sitting out on the porch trying to catch a little cool air when the informant saw a funeral coming down the road, which was unusual since it was near to midnight. They counted 40 little, matching wagons, which were followed by twenty-six horsemen. None of which made a sound. Nor did anyone come back down the road later. The only other person to see the strange procession was the informant's father was awake - due to the howling of his dog.
The elderly lady went onto to tell the author that a friend from DuQuoin later came visiting, and after hearing the strange tale said that her daughter had told her of a story about Fort Chartres. The story that a man, "who was most important of all," was murdered in an ambush to stop him from continuing his work. And after he was killed that his men went to Kaskaskia to learn what to do with the body.
They were told that he must be buried at midnight in an obscure cemetary, without any lights. They were to go on a full moon since that was to be their only light. And that it can only be seen by 3 people on a July Friday night, with a full moon, and only between 11 pm and 12.
On the most basic level this story reminded me of the many tales of phantom funerals that are in Great Britian, which would not be surprising as beliefs traveled as well as people. And it also echoed in my mind some f the elaborate precautions found in dying wizard stories.
I tried to find out more about the story.
Here are some of the sites I found:
On Troy Taylor's site (http://www.prairieghosts.com/fort.html) he mentions the theories that it was either an officer killed by a merchant, or that a young British officer was killed by a French officer. And that the secrecy was due the need to keep hostilities from breaking out.
Yet, to me, neither of these quite fit. Or at least don't fit with the story given to the informant by the friend from Du Quoin. This is not mentioned on Troy Taylor's site.
Some other sites are Military ghosts - http://www.militaryghosts.com/chartres.html, and The Odd Midwest - http://dailyabuse.typepad.com/odd_midwest/ghost_stories/ (this one does mention the secondary story).
One of these days I would like to research this story further, and maybe take a trip to Fort Chartres - though not necessarily on a July 4th, with a full moon.
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.