PRAIRIE DU ROCHER LAYOVER
This morning we headed out of town, down to the American Bottoms where the Fort de Chartres still stands.
Cheryl and Susie had prepared us a lavish breakfast at the The Conner House Bed and Breakfast – we probably won’t need to eat again for days – and Tom and I both settled into our laptops for a while after the feast, catching up on writing and preparations for the towns to come. After that, we gathered up our notebooks and electronics and made our way down to the bottoms.
We had an appointment to meet with former site manager Darrell Duensing, but when we first arrived we ran into the new groundskeeper Tim. After a quick walkthrough of the just-rehabbed museum, Tim brought us out to the garden area that Carol cares for. A little over half planted at this stage, the garden is a bit delayed due to the seepage water flooding out the area for months this year.
As we walked and talked with Tim, we ran into Don Martin, lead volunteer at the site, and he mentioned that Darrell was parked up the drive waiting for us. Tim drove out to let him know we were already on the grounds and bring him in. But instead of riding back in with Tim, Darrell made a grand entrance as he paraded down the path in the period costume of the French Marines, musket slung over his shoulder, and so we made our way over to meet him half way. While we did talk about the specifics of his costume and the layout of the fort itself, most interesting to me was the story of his time running the grounds and the changes that took place over the forty some odd years.
Today, the site no longer even has a site manager or even interpretive staff. There just isn’t funding to support historic sites in the same way as when Darrell actually lived there with his family. I suppose I can’t fail to mention that Darrell also gave both Tom and I a chance to fire his musket—for me the first time to fire a gun! So quite a lived experience of history this day!
We left the fort and went back to town, a few more interactions scheduled for the afternoon. Roy Wirth joined us first, sharing his story of moving from Red Bud to Prairie du Rocher, Illinois to start the local Western Auto store to only have it burn down about sixteen years later…. Roy gave us an understanding of how things have changed in Rocher over the years, through the floods and through the Main Street fluctuations.
He’s had to move out of his house two times over the years due to high waters, and he could count off the number of grocery stores, hardware stores, taverns, restaurants, etc., that Rocher used to have versus the one restaurant and one grocery store they are holding on to now.
Near the end of our conversation with Roy, Gerald Whelan came in as well. A long time farmer in the area, Gerald and his family have been affected by the floods of 1993 and before, not to mention the high water and seepage this year.
Much of his land was too wet to plant. Small farmers are becoming fewer and fewer. His son is helping out with the farm but also has a full time job with benefits at HTC. He is not sure how many more generations will hold onto the land.
Jerry Melliere was our third and final guest at the Conner House that afternoon, born and raised in Rocher and very connected to the community. Jerry is a woodworker and his wife an artist who taught school for many years before retirement. We actually got to meet her later in the evening over drinks at Lisa’s Grill. Jerry feels strongly that no matter what comes with the decertification of the levee, Rocher will survive because it is a village—both as a municipal designation but more importantly in the spirit of the community. The people will band together and support each other, and through that, they will survive even the wrath of the Mississippi River—or more acutely, the wrath of FEMA.
After all our conversations, Tom and I walked the block or two into town for a bite a Lisa’s, enjoying the buffalo wings once again as well as the fries. As we walked out the door to head back to the Conner House, who but Jerry Melliere was directly in our path! He invited us in for another drink, and I suggested Tom take him up on the offer while I go back to the house to get some work done.
I was not home long before I got a text beckoning me back to the bar to meet up with them since Linda, Jerry’s wife, had joined the party, and I couldn’t miss out on this meeting. The evening turned into another longer night of coming to know, and becoming friends, as our time is wont to do on this journey.