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.

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.

Otto McIntyre, who didn't have much money because his father died when he was young, stayed up all night playing poker and took the train from Benton to Chicago on the winnings, getting a job at Sears, Roebuck & Co. because it was the first place he saw when he got off. He ended up on Long Island, N.Y. When his daughter and her husband passed through Benton and called him in New York to ask what they should do, he said, ''Get out of there, like everyone else did 50 years ago.''

He got out of there, but he never stopped talking about it. Mr. McIntyre's children, none of whom live in Benton, think of it fondly as part of their inheritance. They use southern Illinois expressions among themselves, albeit with Long Island accents, and they still tell stories and quote Mr. McIntyre, who passed on in 1967. They laugh till tears come into their eyes when Mrs. McIntyre tells about her brother, Bob, putting in false buck teeth and wearing his mother's hairpiece and going next door to scare the neighbors one night because he didn't have anything else to do. (The lady of the house tried to speak to him politely, but her husband ran out the back door.)

Being Mr. McIntyre's granddaughter and Mrs. McIntyre's step-granddaughter (this is a straightforward, simple relationship for Benton, where you call your cousin your ''own'' cousin to distinguish him from your second and third cousins , all of whom probably live on the same street), I grew up with all the old songs and fondly remembered practical jokes. I also heard all about getting out of there like everyone else did 50 years ago. But that was told with a kind of ironic affection, which made it much more intriguing than if my grandfather had said he missed it terribly. So, like all granddaughters of immigrants, I had to go back and see.

I didn't know how close I already felt to the place until the cold rainy night when, driving down Interstate 57, I first caught sight of a large green reflective sign just like all the others, saying ''Benton.''

It was a shock. The dateline for all these tall tales: the time my grandfather put something sinister called ''dog push'' on a mule pulling a wagon full of Civil War veterans in the parade, causing the mule to bolt and the veterans to be sprinkled around the square; the time a neighbor came home from a late-night swim with my grandfather's cousin and stepped on the face of her mother, who was sleeping in the hall because it was so hot, causing her mother (who was suspicious of her daughter anyway) to leap from a sound sleep, yelling, ''Virginia's drunk and she's trying to kill me!'' and many others. It was as hard to believe as a highway exit marked ''Yoknapatawpha County'' or maybe ''Toad Hall.''

Stories you grow up hearing, whether they are true or not, become part of a very personal terrain that only the best novels ever reach. There was a kind of invisible Benton already established in my imagination, which made the visible Benton look even less distinguished than it is.

The visible Benton is not something that would slow you down if you were driving across country, except that you would get caught in traffic in the square where the Civil War veterans fell. The square is all asphalt, a traffic-choked intersection of several small rural roads.Out of this rises the courthouse, a rather tall, shapely building on a little plot of grass in the middle. Parking meters have sprouted where farmers used to tie up their horses when they spent the day in town shopping or lazing around. (A city cousin once sniffed, ''I never saw so many overalls in my life. I didn't know there were so many overalls in the world as you have down here in Benton.'') Out of the square go North, East, South, and West Main streets, but it is hard to keep track as you drive around among mixed facades, some of old stone and some aluminum and formica, shop fronts with an unprosperous look.

Maude and George Cantrell's house on North Main, where everyone sang and played the piano, was torn down 12 years ago. ''Whenever I go by where the house was,'' says Crystal, ''I just have to look at the other side of the street.''

There are a few houses left like the Cantrells' -- big dumpy brown brick buildings with frowning dormer windows that look grim because there's no dancing , singing, or card playing inside now. They are set back from the road behind shade trees growing into forests. There are little recently built houses sitting on corners of lots like mushrooms, and nasty-looking strips of stores have cropped up here and there. Looking down a potholed street at these dark houses on a gray day, it was hard to imagine that anything uproarious, funny, or interesting ever happened here.

The town had a period of prosperity around the turn of the century, and on top of that, coal mines were opened up nearby. Besides being the county seat, Benton was considered the cultural center of Franklin County. Even so, not much was going on, so people talked and laughed and had parties. ''We had the bank, the hardware store, and the movie theater,'' my grandmother told me. I thought she meant Benton had those things, but it was her family that had them. Her grandfather was a self-made man who put all his sons-in-law to work in his businesses. Bob Cantrell sold candy bars at the movie theater, and she played the piano with the silent films and melodramas that played there. The family and the town were well off, but in a small-time, country way, until the coal mines opened and lawyers from US Steel and other companies brought a whiff of sophistication.

After World War I, mining slacked off. Then there was the depression, when two of the three bankers killed themselves as the banks failed. Then, in the '40 s and '50s, many mines closed altogether. The coal around the area was judged too sulfurous to burn safely. Family fortunes had been used up or lost in the depression, and Benton was no longer a place to make your mark.

But talking to Crystal and the people who knew my grandparents, that same sense of small-time prosperity and well-being crept up on me again. They remembered my grandparents as people who left: Ott McIntyre, to them, was a faintly notorious personage who had already gone to Chicago; and Margaret Cantrell was a glamorous, tall woman in big hats who came down from New York.Most of Benton stayed put, if they could. People who lost jobs in the mines moved, but they have been coming back to retire, and they constitute 62 percent of the population.

And as they did in the palmier days, when the only worry was what to do in the evening when you were 21/2 hours from St. Louis, people in Benton are still having fun. They still have parties, though not under the brows of the big brick houses anymore. They go to the Elks' dinner, the country club, and the Boneyard Boccie Ball Club. There aren't that many tricks being pulled, but people still tell stories on each other. There is a sense of the richness of human experience and the enduring foolishness of one's neighbors. In essence, Benton life is going on as it always did.

Over the years, Benton hasn't grown rapidly, or decreased either, according to George Moore, a former high school math teacher and friend of the family. ''I don't know whether this speaks well of it or not, but neither of us,'' he says, referring to his wife, Sis, ''has ever left here and I don't intend to, I'll say that. . . . Why, I love Benton better than anything in the world.'' Crystal, George, and Sis are together to talk about old times, in accents that are disconcertingly like my grandparents'. Getting to know my grandparents as a child in Long Island, I had always assumed that they and only they talked with that partly Southern, partly Midwestern twang. The theater has given my grandmother's voice a bit of polish, but the twang is still there -- underneath rather a handsome accent. I think of it as old-fashioned, elegant, and countrified, but that's because to me it still belongs to my grandfather, who walked with a cane and was so snappily turned out in gingham suits in the summer and woodsy tweeds in winter that even as a four-year-old I could tell he had style.

George Moore has his own style, a narrative style. He talks formally and well, as if to a large group of people, which probably comes from teaching math in high school. But amid his very proper oratory lurk all sorts of ironies, jokes, and four-letter words. He has a sense of occasion, telling a story that introduces me to Benton:

''Jim Snyder was staying at our house and living there and worked for a local coal company at the time as a coal salesman. And as I said a while ago, my mother was rather strait-laced,'' he makes a small pause around ''strait-laced, '' so Crystal can whoop at the understatement, since Mrs. Moore had a reputation for being a touch tyrannical. ''And Jim came in, I don't know what time of the morning or night or anything else.'' (A gentle drop of the voice here for us to appreciate how bad Jim had been.)

''But the next morning my mother went in to rouse him and here in bed with him was, presumably, a hussy of some kind because she had a wig on and curly hair. And my mother almost passed out, but managed to get a hold on the bedstead, and 'Why, Jim Snyder, what do you mean?!' '' -- this in a tone of utmost menace. And, after a pause: ''It was your grandfather Ott in bed with him with his wig on. That is my first recollection of Ott McIntyre.''

This didn't surprise me, considering what I had heard about Ott McIntyre, some of it from Ott himself. He always started his stories by saying, ''Why . . .'' and then would follow a great tale, sometimes truth, sometimes fiction, about foxes and people and horses and mules that bolted and who fell off. The Boneyard Woods was a sinister place in these stories, where people always got into trouble. It was a place where, years ago, people left dead animals, because it was away from everyone's house. ''Crystal says you're going to the Boneyard Woods,'' my grandmother kept saying in a rather loaded tone of voice, as I prepared to go to Benton. She was talking about the Boneyard Boccie Ball Club, where I was to visit with Sis and George Moore. When my grandparents were children, the Boneyard Woods was a forbidden place.

After some probing, people say they weren't allowed to go there when they were children because the ''foreigners'' lived there and it was a rough neighborhood. The foreigners were Italians, Russians, Poles, and other immigrants who came to work in the mines. They lived in the Boneyard Woods because they could walk from there to the Hart and Williams Mine. There was a lot of prejudice toward them, so the community was self-contained. Evelyn Page, whose father, an Englishman, came to work at the Orient II mine, then the biggest in the country, said her father's accent was mocked and she felt like an outsider as a little girl. Bentonites looked down on foreigners, coal miners, and on farmers, too, for that matter, she said.

The Ku Klux Klan was strong in Benton in the '30s, as it was throughout southern Illinois. During Prohibition the Klan and the bootleggers fought a war, the Klan posing as a moral force against the evils of liquor. But George Moore recalls that, in Benton, ''Half the town was in the Klan,'' and when I asked him if they joined up to defeat alcohol, he said ''No, they were bootleggers, too!'' During this period the Boneyard Woods gained notoriety because the Europeans all made their own wine, and Bentonites from the right side of the tracks would go down there to buy it from them. The Boneyard Woods brings up the dark side of Benton life -- not so much murder and mayhem as small-town prejudice.

Rose Savko, who grew up in ''the Boneyard,'' said the neighborhood wasn't as wild and rough as people said it was. (George Moore heard of someone getting drunk there and shooting off a friend's necktie, but that was before Mrs. Savko's time.) She remembers it as a self-sufficient community, where you heard Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and Italian spoken, but little English, and where you didn't need to lock your door. She came up against prejudice in school, though some teachers went out of the way to help the ''foreign'' children, and has come up against it ever since. ''They always let you know who you are. (In Benton) whoever you were when you were a child, that's who you are now,'' she says.

Most of the foreigners' children moved away, and the neighborhood is now what Rose Savko's Italian mother would have disparagingly called ''an American neighborhood'' -- full of poor whites. Those who haven't moved live in different parts of town, working as lawyers as well as coal miners. The only remnant of the old place is the Boneyard Boccie Ball Club, started for Italians in the '40s.

In Benton's contrary style, Italians and WASPs seem to have traded places, rather than integrating completely. Crystal says there are more ''foreign'' than WASP names in the Country Club roster, and Rose Savko says the Boneyard Boccie Ball Club membership is now 95 percent WASP.

Sis and George Moore go there every night from 8 to 11 to see their friends, and one night they took me. Sis Moore is as stylish as George. Like him, she's tall and lean, and she talks slowly and makes fun of George in a gentle way that makes them seem very romantic. Being with them is like being at a small party. They picked me up in their long, low cream-colored car and we swung off through the rutted streets of Benton. Their glamour, and a feeling that there was fun to have, took over and it was like slinking through Paris by night to a swanky bote.

The Boneyard Boccie Ball Club doesn't live up to the sinister tone in my grandmother's voice. No shots ring out, if they ever did, and the animal bones are no doubt underground, fertilizing the trees. It is a little house in a field. Inside is a bar, an oversize TV set, and groups of people sitting around tables.

The atmosphere at the club is so close it's familial, which must look clannish and cliquish from the outside. It is also warm and amusing and probably sustaining. The place is abuzz with gossip, jokes, and laughter. Greetings and retorts fly from table to table. That day, a picture of George raking leaves had been on the front page of the Benton Evening News, so people gave hollers about his celebrity, to which George replied, in his most ironically prim math-teacher voice, that he had ordered 1,000 extra copies.When someone comes in or leaves, there is a flurry of halloos and put-downs.

And when we have settled down at the table and people really get talking, they turn gossip into an art form. They recall trips they've taken, and talk about friends passing on and getting along without them. They tell old family jokes. There are all kinds of disasters and all kinds of love. The small-town handicap of everyone knowing your business is well known. But after listening to several chapters of Boneyard Boccie Ball Club talk, you feel that these people are connoisseurs of Benton goings-on, rather than critics. Everyone seems to savor the weird twists of the human situations and find them amusing. This talk is comforting, even when it touches on the darker sides of life.

Even the most outrageous story is told, not in tones of outrage, but with a kind of ironic sibling affection. Probably because so many people are related -- a lot of people are known as ''Sister,'' ''Sis,'' ''Aunt,'' and ''Cousin'' somebody-or-other. Everyone seems to have stayed at one time or other at everyone else's house or taken care of someone when they were in trouble. They have seen each other at their worst, as you do in a family, and at their best. These are people who have spent at least 50 years talking to each other, and still have things to say.

Crystal says that George's father and a cousin, who lived across the street from each other and ran a store together, could never get enough of each other's company. In fact, they ''loved each other so good . . . you'd go in there to get a loaf of bread or something and they'd just say, 'It's right over there' '' instead of getting up to help. ''They wouldn't quit talking.''

My grandmother remembers that the shoppers weren't any more ambitious than the grocers. ''They had rocking chairs where they were in the back, and people would come in and get them a good chair and wouldn't buy a thing. They would just sit there and talk.'' That's how it is now. This isn't so much a town that dwells in the past as a town that won't quit talking. About itself, about the people, about growing up here. There's an unwritten literature that goes back as far as anyone can remember and is still being worked on.

The night before I left, I remarked to Sis Johnson that I had gotten confused by everyone telling me who I was and wasn't related to (''Well, he was an uncle to Margaret, but of course you're not really kin to Margaret, so that wouldn't make him anything to you, but I think his sister married your great-grandmother's second cousin . . .''). Sis Johnson, whose gravelly voice has in the course of the evening been over a lifetime of calamities and triumphs without mincing a word, smiles and says, ''Well, at least now you know why your grandfather kept coming back.''

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