EAST ST. LOUIS TO PRAIRIE DU ROCHER
We woke, said goodbye to Edna and Reggie and hit the road. Tom set out on foot from the house after studying the map and reciting the directions aloud. I thought for sure he’d make it easily to the transition until I started driving the route myself. What seemed like a straight enough path “on paper” turned out to be a maze of twists and turns and sometimes confounding street signage. After waiting at the exchange point ten minutes longer than expected, I knew he had gone off course, but there was nothing I could do. He didn’t have a phone on him, and if I retraced my steps, he’d likely be on another path. I just had to wait… Eventually, I see him running up the street behind me, apparently having gone a mile out of the way at one point, but finding his way back. I jumped in gear, and the streets of East St. Louis transitioned quickly into the rural landscape of southern Illinois. The run and ride to Prairie du Rocher, Illinois was 50 miles. The headwind made it feel much longer.
Our route took us along Bluff Road on the Illinois side. The vast floodplain of the American Bottom was on our right as we made our way south. Soybeans and corn fields stretched on for miles. Rich agricultural land protected by the levee. Well, sometimes protected by the levee . . . As I hit the last ten miles into “Rocher” as the locals call it, I saw a warning sign saying “mud on road”—it soon became clear, and for the remainder of the journey, that water had been up here until very recently. I also got a small relief valve from the headwind and lingering distance to town when a fabulously cool air started in on me as I approached the steep bluff on my left. The actual namesake rock being mined in these parts was keeping a cool 60 degrees blowing out of the quarry.
We landed at Lisa’s Market Street Grille to meet Carol Kuntz for lunch. She’s knowledgeable and passionate about the history of the “Rock Prairie” – from the native populations to the French, British and American eras. She’s in charge of the garden at Fort de Chartres, which sits on the bank of the Mississippi, just down the road from town. The old French Fort is well preserved and well cared for by folks like Carol, Don Martin, Darrell Duensing, and Tim the new groundskeeper—people we’d meet over the course of our stay.
After lunch we took a walk down to the Creole House for a private tour by Colleen Schilling of the Randolph County Historical Society. Her tour gradually transitioned from a historical tale into a personal story of how she lived the first 10 years of her life here, sans indoor plumbing. She showed us her old bedroom and her mom’s kitchen. We ended our time with a trip to the herb garden, maintained by Colleen. Not just for show – the plants are all useful for cooking or medicinal purposes. A local resident plucks a few leaves of Feverfew when a migraine headache comes on.
We said goodbye to Colleen and made our way over to the The Conner House Bed and Breakfast. We checked into our room and settled into our new home/office for the next two days. Cheryl and Steve Steibel, former owners of the B&B who were subbing for the new owners Connie and Dan, showed us around and made us feel comfortable. Arrangements had been made for our “local voices” to join us at the Conner House for conversation over the afternoon, and so as if we were back at home, waiting for company, the doorbell started ringing.
Ray Cole, the Village President, was first to arrive. He’s not from the area originally, but has settled in and gotten involved in civic matters. The biggest issue Rocher seems to be facing right now is the possible decertification of its levee, which would in effect turn the town back into a flood plain forcing people to get or increase their flood insurance at great cost. The cost to shore up the levee is upwards of $50 million, out of reach for this small community, and even if attainable, would offer no guarantee that FEMA would still not decertify it. The struggles between the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and local government and citizens seems ongoing and uncertain as to a resolution.
Feelings on this issue of the flooding and levee certification can be heard from most residents in Rocher. After speaking with President Cole, Dave and Pat Reinhold joined me as well as Leonard Derouse. Together with Cheryl and Steve as well as Susie from Sparta—also helping out with the B&B while we were in town—the whole group went round and round talking about their roots in Rocher, farming for the Reinhold’s, owning grocery stores for Leonard, the years of experience with the 1993 flood then the last several years of high water and seepage across the bottomland. Everyone feels connected to this small community, and wants to see it protected and the history live on.
Each individual has a story to follow up on and parse through, so we set up shop in the informal dining room—our “office” according to Susie—and downloaded data, still processing days past and building up too days to come. The deep work will have to wait for when we “rest,” and that is still more than 60 days down the road.