Friday, February 16, 2007
Beardstown, Illinois: January 2007
Let us now dig Beardstown, an Illinois River town that’s faded some since its heyday but is still holding its own.
Beardstown was first settled in 1819, and it’s best known as a stop on the young Abraham Lincoln’s law circuit and as a great place to grow watermelons.
Jazz vibraphonist Red Norvo was born in Beardstown, and for a time in the 1980s the city was also known for the Beardstown Ladies, an investment club made up of seniors who were known nationwide for achieving unusually high returns on their investments until a close look at their bookkeeping revealed that they were, whether intentionally or accidentally, fudging some of the numbers.
I first visited Beardstown in September 2000, and at the time it struck me as a particularly rough-and-tumble place. I took a few photos, and I didn’t make it back for just over six years. A lot of the mid-century landmarks I’d photographed were gone by this time, but I also found a few I hadn’t seen before. One, in fact, despite its obvious age, appears to have taken up residence in Beardstown since my last visit.
Beardstown has had a bowling alley at 218-222 West Main for over sixty years (it appeared in the city directory in 1943, but not 1939), and it has a pretty wonderful vintage neon sign. I’m just not sure if the sign itself has been here that long. Wouldn’t I have taken a picture of it on my last visit, since I photographed an arguably less interesting building right across the street? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Or maybe—just maybe—the sign wasn’t there. It’s entirely possible that the Peacocks, who have owned Beardstown Bowl since 1998, fitted it with a “gently-used” sign from another town. Or maybe I ran out of film last time I was in Beardstown, and just forgot about it. Either way, it’s definitely the city’s coolest piece of neon.
Upstairs from the bowling alley—which was bustling with high school kids on a field trip when I stopped in—is the Riverview Restaurant, accessible by elevator or by a narrow spiral staircase in the bar. The back wall is all windows, facing the Illinois River with its landmark drawbridge.
The building I had photographed across from the bowling alley, incidentally, is an old Coca-Cola bottling plant built in the ‘50s. Its Coke days were over by 2000, but I didn’t take note of what it was being used for back then, if I could even tell. It’s now been transformed into an arcade and skating rink, and the Coca-Cola logo bas relief is still visible, thankfully. I’m including my photo from 2000 here because it shows the logo in greater detail.
On the next block, above the Main Street Tap, someone is leading by example: If you’ve got a broken window, board it up with civic pride!
Watering holes in and around Beardstown have sported some intriguing names. The Sazarac has been going for over 70 years in different locations under different owners, and it’s named after an ancient and relatively obscure cocktail that apparently originated in New Orleans and was originally made with absinthe. A mile east of town was the exotically-named Bal Tabarin nightclub. The original Bal Tabarin was a legendary hot spot in Paris (and the subject of a movie made in 1952, when Beardstown’s version was already up and running), but I think it’s likely that the small-town Illinois version took its name secondhand from San Francisco’s Bal Tabarin, a popular watering hole in the first half of the last century.
Two of the saloons found in the 1915 Beardstown directory are still serving drinks over eighty years later: The Mile 88 (formerly Ira Howell’s, the Capitol Bar and then the Nook) and Looker’s (formerly McClain & Buck’s, Baker’s, and the Arrow).
But back to Main Street: Beatty Hardware was also along this stretch. Below is a photo from the store’s advertisement in the 1915 city directory, along with a photo I took in 2000, when the store was out of business but a beautifully-lettered sign still decorated a window. It’s gone now.
A prominent downtown landmark is the old Quaker Oats advertisement painted on the side of a building. It’s been touched up since I took the fall 2000 photo on the left, but—as you can see in the 2007 photo on the right—a handsome old building across the street has been demolished since then. It was one of several structures in Beardstown faced with a distinctive dark-gray brick I’ve seldom seen elsewhere.
The downtown neon roundup concludes with a pair of vintage signs placed by fraternal organizations.
Situated around the picturesque town square (seen in the title picture at the top of this entry) are an array of shops and restaurants, along with the old Carnegie Library that now serves as a City Hall annex. (The present library is a new, prairie-style building at the edge of town, and it’s one of the most attractive small-town library buildings I’ve ever seen.) I love finding remnants of long-gone businesses, and the doorways of a hair salon and a dollar store on State Street still bear the stamp of a former occupant.
There’s another business district spread out along 4th Street, containing several businesses serving the town’s large Hispanic population. There’s also the old Princess Theater, a sturdy black-brick edifice that’s been closed for years but still appears to be in pretty good shape—at least on the outside. The marquee close-up is from 2000; the other photo from January 2007.
A nearby gas station, despite its humble wooden construction, apparently tried to update its look to suit the Streamline Moderne era by adding a curve here and there.
Closer to the edge of town is a tiny house with a winch and several blank tombstones in the back yard. As the rusty old sign leaning against the house reveals, it was once a sales office for monuments.
My favorite vanished Beardstown landmark (at least I think it’s vanished; I’m pretty sure I remember where it used to be) is the old Starlight Drive-In sign. It remained on Arenzville Road long after the drive-in theater was closed and demolished. I could certainly be wrong, but I think when I took the following photos in 2000, the drive-in site had become a pig farm.
...A pig farm with a kick-ass sign.
That’s what I came away with after a day in Beardstown, digging in the library and walking around looking for pieces of the past. If anyone’s got any enlightening back-stories for any of the places pictured or mentioned above—or any corrections--I’d love to hear ‘em. An encyclopedia entry may boil a town’s history down to an Abe Lincoln sighting or two, but the stores, theaters and bars are where the people live, work, and play, and they contain a town’s real spirit. Their stories shouldn’t be lost.