Lost In Memory

LIKE MANY SMALL AMERICAN TOWNS, Hull, Illinois, the town where both my parents were raised and where I spent so many childhood summers, is disappearing. For Hull, the death knell rang 16 years ago when the flooding Mississippi breached the dikes to reclaim, for a while, its flood plain and much that had been built there. The valiant efforts of the townspeople and farmers to protect and rebuild their homes were legendary, but that generation has now largely moved away or passed on, and many of the newer people have been cheated of memories of the “band in the park, let’s have a parade” kind of place the little village of 550 once was.

None of my relatives lives there now, yet I couldn’t resist a short pilgrimage one cool, drizzling and drab day a couple years ago. Because of the weather, the streets were mostly empty. So were many lots, where sturdy bungalows, many built by my contractor grandfathers, once nested. (Some had been replaced by aluminum houses.) Worst of all, my grandmother’s bungalow, the center of all my childhood Illinois memories and the backdrop for scores of old family portraits, was for sale. Cheap.

Every Midwestern town has its gathering place, and I hoped I might find welcoming life and shared memories at the cafe at the north end of town, but rush hour had passed and the cafe was deserted. From the dry shelter of a nearby warehouse three curious faces watched my arrival, and I recognized one as that of my cousin Jeff, who happened to be in town that day. When the introductions were made and I was accepted as an insider, one man asked what it was like to return to the town after so many years. Thinking back on my grandparents’ house and a time when a Brinkmann-built bungalow was a source of pride for both the owner and the builder, I said it bothered me that people apparently no longer cared about such legacies. Most of the houses had survived the flood, but evidently town memories had not.

The owner of the warehouse and the cafe, a big, Grizzly Adams kind of guy, waved off my laments and disappeared into his office, then came back holding a short board hanging from a wire on the back. Without showing the front, he explained that after the flood he had had to rebuild some of his building’s walls, and when he did he discovered a treasure on a wall of the original structure. “You’re wrong to think nobody cares,” he said. “I was so proud to see who built this place that I cut this out and hung it on my office wall for all to see.” He turned the board around to reveal the builder’s signature: F. H. Brinkmann, 1946. “It’s been on view for 15 years now, so you might as well have it.” He handed me the trophy, which now has a place of honor at American Bungalow’s Twycross House.

America’s small towns are dying, we’re told. Driving through some of them makes you feel as though you’ve arrived to see the big parade the day after it happened. But it did happen, and as long as there are those of us who remember, who hear the music and feel the beat of the drums, there is hope that the Internet, home offices, small organic farms and the human hunger for community will help us find the parade that leads us back to small town America.

Looking forward to hearing from you,





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