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.

38 comments:

Lindsey Wellenkamp said...

I was so excited to come across your photographs..living in Beardstown we often overlook some of the things you took the time to photograph.

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I love these photos! I just ran across a great resource for midcentury items. I thought you would enjoy! www.objectsintheloft.com

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objectsintheloft.com is pretty fantastic. It reminds me a little of a vintage-furniture store I saw on Beverly Blvd. in Hollywood, just down the street from the CBS studios.
It was closed when I saw it, so all I could do was look through the windows. ...not that I could afford anything in there anyway!

David Moeller said...

While stationed in the Sinai Desert, Egypt I questioned one of the new guys about where he was from. I being from Davenport, Iowa, knew a few little towns as he replied, “from a little town in Illinois.” I never could have guessed Beardstown, IL. I was fortunate to have a mother from Beardstown and family still living in Beardstown; and was able to reply, “Oh, you’re a Beardstown Tiger?” The look was priceless. You have a very valuable blog going here, and if I can ever submit any old photos I’ll make sure to send them your way.

David Moeller

deathwind1 said...

Makes Me Want To Drive Back There This Summer---I Dont Know How Many Relation I Still Have In Tis Town But At One Time There Was Many---I Would have To Go Into My Mother's Cedar Chest To Find All the Names But Two I Do Remember--REBMAN--BLACK--My Grandmother's Maden Name Was--MESSERER--My Great-Great Grandmother's Name Was SOHPIE MESSERER---I Am Retired So I Do Have Lots Of Time---Thanks For The Pictures

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful pics! I grew up in B-town, and as far back as I can remember, that is the sign that was over the bowling alley. I am 50.

Anonymous said...

I was very exited to see the photographs of my home town! I would agree that the many towns I have been through Beardstown has many unique Buildings that I hope will stand and be taken care of for many years to come. Once you have grown up there your heart never leaves. I have many relatives that still live there including my parents and I do have a chance to visit, but never really stop and take in the history like I should. The pictures and history that you have included will make me more aware of taking the time to realize how important the history of Beardstown is. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your blog/site as well. I am currently the website designer for the Beardstown Houston Memorial Library ( http://www.beardstown.lib.il.us ). I am always looking for new resources for Beardstown history, so I'd like to include a link on our site to your blog if I may.

Thanks and keep up the great work!

Matt Hobrock
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Beardstown Houston Memorial Library
email: beardlib@sbcglobal.net

Mary Anne Dotzert Babic said...

Just happened upon this site and was amazed at the pictures. I grew up in Beardstown and have not been back in a long time. Was sorry to see some of the buildings gone. The Arrow restaurant always had the best fried catfish - my aunt was a fixture there! Our class graduation party was held above the bowling alley in 1965. I remember that sign as always being there. My Dad and Mr. Beatty were great friends and had coffee together every Friday night. My grandfather worked the railroad and also the flour mill and my mother worked at the Glove Factory.
It was a small town, but a great place to grow up. I hope the rest of the buildings remain for future generations.

Anonymous said...

I taught at the high school in the late seventies and absolutely LOVED the town and it's people!!

My husband and I would go to the Arrow restaurant every Friday for the best fish dinner around!

Judy said...

Love your photography...although I'm from a more southwestern region of the US, the pictures definitely bring to mind my own early years growing up in TX. Nice job - very nostalgic. Judy, Henderson, Nevada. http://sweetcottagecharm.wordpress.com/

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I live in Beardstown and I love it I hate it sometimes but I do still love it my children live here also and they appriciate it also



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I played in a rock band above the old bowling alley...late sixties, early seventies. It's a great town but in that era it was the only place we had to bring "protection" along with us to get our equipment and bodies safely out of town. Two thugs a night at five bucks a pop.
Nice town...just had its rough moments .. (or maybe they were just commented upon our musicianship)
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Boy, you get some real whack-jobs leaving assinine, unrelated comments on your site here. I just wanted to say the sign on the bowling alley has been there since at least 1954, according to my parents, both from Beardstown. (they tell me their first date was at that bowling alley)...

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