Going back to Benton; Life meets legend in southern Illinois
If you ask Margaret McIntyre or Crystal Etherton to tell you how life was here when they were young -- and they seem to stay young a long time in Benton, but for Mrs. McIntyre it all happened before the 1920s, when she went to New York to be in the Ziegfeld Follies (for one night -- but she got a nice review in the New York Tribune and a start in show business) . . . well, anyway, if you ask one of these women about being young in Benton, they will start singing and making fun of each other. And that is an accurate representation of what being young in Benton was like.Skip to next paragraph
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The songs are as unfamiliar today as the habit of breaking out in song in conversation. But where these women grew up, in a town of about 6,000 in southern Illinois before World War I, music was a way to stay amused. Mrs. McIntyre's parents, George and Maude Cantrell, were the sociable types every town has, who live in a big house with a piano and a lot to eat, where everyone goes to have fun. ''My father and mother,'' Mrs. McIntyre says, ''were not like a lot of the people in town - 'Oh, you can't do that.' They said, 'You come on, bring them home.' We brought the boys home and we'd dance at home. We played cards and had fun.'' They made it a point to have fun.
''Those were high and far-off times,'' she says with a sigh, remembering how people from all the towns around would converge on one hotel for a big formal dance -- and then get stuck on unpaved roads going home, having to be rescued by teams of horses from nearby farms.
Crystal Etherton, who was married to Mrs. McIntyre's brother, Bob, and lived with him in the Cantrells' house, sings ''Homing'' as an example of what life was all about. That's the song Mrs. McIntyre sang to flirt with newspaper reporters who were in town for the trial of Charlie Birger, a bootlegging gangster who had engaged in a running battle in three counties with the Ku Klux Klan. The reporters were all out in the Cantrells' yard, drinking home brew with Bob, and she came in with a bunch of daisies on her arm and made Crystal play while she sang at the window. ''She had toddled in with the flowers . . . and then to the window to give them a Romeo and Juliet number,'' Mrs. Etherton says. ''It was a song everybody loved: 'All things come home at eventide, da da da da . . .' '' she sings. ''I could hardly keep from laughing.'' Crystal is a small, energetic woman who wears her hair pulled straight up in a bun on top of her head. She still lives in Benton with her second husband and still plays anything you want on the piano. She cackles just to think of what she and Margaret got up to.
Mrs. McIntyre sits on her porch in Long Island and remembers how quiet it was at night, singing in a far-off voice: '' 'A boat down on the harbor, she sails away today,' -- Oh, it was gorgeous!'' the way she heard four young men sing in harmony from the square at night. She has a deep voice, and she projects. Another leftover from her theatrical career is that she is always dressed and made up perfectly, and she makes sure to wear jewelry. Today, we are spending a quiet day by the fire and she wears a camel's hair skirt and a pink top, with an orange sweater over her shoulders. Her lipstick goes with her top, her pale auburn hair is pinned up softly but just right, and she wears heavy beads and a bracelet. She looks like a grandmother sitting by the fire telling stories, but a sumptuous version, like a grandmother in a musical comedy or a play. As a teen-ager in Benton, she and her cousin used to call their uncle at bedtime and ask him to play ''La Boheme'' or ''Madame Butterfly'' on his record player. He lived a block away, and they would listen to it as they went to sleep.
Benton has a strong pull on anyone who ever lived there. They say anyone who ever put his feet in the Little Muddy River will be back. At the same time, it exerted a strong push on Margaret McIntyre. ''I never had any intentions of staying there,'' she says. ''Never. I was such a sissy, I was so bashful, I was so afraid of everything, I don't know how I had the nerve to take the step. I just knew I had to get off. I had a very happy home, I had plenty of money and everything, but I couldn't see anything ahead for me there. I wanted to get out, and I wanted to see what was going on in the world. I did. I haven't missed too many tricks.'' She had a singing career in New York and on the road, and then as a receptionist at an aviation company before she married Otto McIntyre, another Benton refugee, in 1949, after his second wife died.