Contrary to the commonly held belief among many Chicagoland residents, Illinois does not end after you hit I-80.
What does end, however, is the fast paced lifestyle of the city and its suburbs. What begin are the miles of corn and soybean fields and the endless skies that seem to extend forever across the horizon of I-55.
If you drive south for a few hours without stopping, it all begins to look the same if you don’t look too closely. The occasional solitary sign for an Arby’s off a rest stop, haphazard rusty silos standing by dilapidated wooden barns, and dozens of little green signs directing you to this village or that town, population: 500.
I grew up in one of those small central Illinois towns: Jacksonville. (Yes, the same town that Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about). It’s a small city of about 20,000 people roughly forty-five minutes west of Springfield, and if I remember clearly from the history project we had to do in 7th grade, its biggest claims to fame include its history as a hub on the Underground Railroad, the oldest continuously published newspaper in Illinois, and the Eli Bridge Company, which makes carnival rides and has a permanent Ferris Wheel at the corner of East Morton and South Main Street near the center of town. Another fun tidbit: there used to be four churches from four different denominations on each corner of a downtown intersection, but unfortunately, two of them burned down.
But these are all facts that can be easily found on Wikipedia or the equivalent. The magic of Jacksonville (for it is magical, although that could be my sense of nostalgia speaking) lies in the people that make its history and its culture come alive for me, and the slow-paced sense of contentment that saturates the air.
The Carnegie library in the middle of downtown is beautiful, but what makes it truly memorable are the wonderful librarians who enthusiastically fostered my love of reading and let me “work” with them, even when I was clearly underage. And were it not for the efforts of my highly dedicated piano teacher and the many times she took me to performances of our amazing local symphony orchestra, I would never have developed the appreciation for classical music that I have today. My junior high school teachers were the ones who made learning about the Underground Railroad (and other parts of history) exciting, and my friend’s mother, a frequent participant in Grierson Days, our annual Civil War Reenactment, made Jacksonville sound like a much more exciting place than it probably ever was. And I absolutely loved when the older residents of the town, often family members of my friends, reminisced about the days when there was a trolley line downtown and when high school couples in the 1950s would drive around the town square in opposite cars, holding hands (urban renewal in the 1970s divided the plot in half, but I hear that they’re planning on reopening it again).
And although I love the fast-paced energy that defines the Chicago lifestyle, there’s something to be said for the easy-going, “go with the flow” attitude that Jacksonville residents seem to embrace. Even the frequent tornado warnings that regularly plague the town (we’re in the middle of Tornado Alley) aren’t enough to shake their sense of certainty.
Jacksonville was where the combined cacophony of passing trains and Friday night motor races on the speedway lulled me to sleep, where I developed my obsession for real, fresh kettle corn, where wild violets and morning glories grew among the dandelions in the fields by my daycare center, where deer stood in my front yard on my seventh birthday, where a wild turkey once chased my friend down the street, where I rode down Main Street on top of a firetruck after my Scholastic Bowl team won State, and where the end of September meant that the Steam Show (the best fall festival ever) was coming and I would finally get my chance to get the watermelon-flavored teddy bear lollipops that were only available there.
Jacksonville was why I could say my childhood was as close as you could get to enchanted.
When I moved with my family to the Chicago suburbs before my sophomore year of high school, I knew that things were never going to be the same again, and it’s true. It’s been over five years since I’ve moved to Plainfield, and a lot has changed in Jacksonville since I’ve left. Some of my friends are married or engaged; several of them even have children.
Some are working at my old high school, and others, like me, have left town, never to return. In the age of Facebook, I’m able to keep up with the minutiae of their lives, but at the same time, I feel a sort of distance from them that time has forged. It is clear that the real Jacksonville is no longer the perfect Eden that exists in my treasured childhood memories, but that time and place will stay with me forever.
(This story was originally published on North by Northwestern.)