Wren Bridge was gathering area for years

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By The Staff

Gary Dycus, from New York City, an occasional Leader-Union reader, e-mailed me recently about a story in his family where his grandmother (Susan Jane Nodine Fair) sold a pig in order to buy her daughter, Lena, material for a silk dress to wear to a special Wren Bridge fish fry. The dress was green and Lena had gorgeous red hair.

Gary wanted to know who organized this social occasion, how long it ran, how it was advertised, what the people did, what the entertainment was and whether pictures survive.

In August 1919, when Myrtle Reed was killed by a falling branch at the annual Wren Bridge Fish Fry, the article said that the event had been celebrated for some time.

Myrtle and her mother, Mrs. Anson Reed, were sleeping in a tent at the site when a storm came up. A large tree fell on the tent occupied by the girl and her mother, striking the girl on the head and face, killing her instantly. Her mother escaped injury.

Researchers and historians have not yet placed a year on the beginning of the gathering on the east side of the Kaskaskia River near the Wren Bridge.

In Jess Sarver’s book, “As It Comes To Mind,” he told where Johnny Burrus had his sale so he could help run the fish fry, held annually at Wren Bridge. The occasion Jess was talking about included a visit from then Gov. Len Small (governor between 1921-1929), and it was estimated that 20,000 people came that day.

In 1923, the annual fish fry held at Kaskaskia Kamp near Wren Bridge was held Aug. 1-5. An advertisement promised good speakers and plenty of music. "A fine place to take your tent and camp, or you can rent one from C.F. Lee. Fresh fish served daily."

By 1924, the fish fry at the Wren Bridge campgrounds had become an "institution" – drawing larger crowds with each succeeding year. Democratic day was celebrated on Thursday, and state and local candidates for office were present. Friday was Republican day, and Saturday was Klan day. Fighting Bob Evans of St. Louis was present Saturday and spoke to a big crowd.

In 1927, the "Kaskaskia Kamp" opened for the season in mid-July, with the fish fry being held the first weekend in August. Lee and Burrus were the proprietors, and provided a natural swimming pool and checkroom. If you did not have a bathing suit, they would rent you one. Lunch was also provided, and soft drinks were available for the thirsty.

Beulah Burrus Frailey and Paul Burrus contributed a wealth of information about the early days of the fish fry through an article written by Beulah’s son, Nelvin Wilson, for the Ramsey News-Journal in July 2006.

In the article, they told that "just east of the old Wren Bridge, there was a roadway north up through the big trees. There was a food stand there that measured about 20 feet by 40 feet, with wood-hinged windows. These windows were raised up each morning for the customers to get their food and drinks, including fish, hamburgers and cheese sandwiches, Orange Crush, Grapette and other drinks, and Tango, Babe Ruth and Clark candy bars.

Large five-gallon ice cream containers were packed with ice and salt, and brought from Vandalia. Ice was hauled each day from Justin Hugh’s ice house in Herrick.

A platform stage about 3 feet high was made of rough lumber with concrete blocks for steps. Seating was rough lumber on concrete blocks, and a Delco gasoline engine powered a generator for lights at night.

The restrooms were some distance north of the food stand, and were cleaned early each morning by the "honeydippers," before the crowd arrived. They were limed instead of flushed.

There were bathhouses for both ladies and men, with a room in between where you could check your clothing and valuables. You were given a wristband that contained the number of your basket. The check basket was 15 cents, and to rent a bathing suit was 25 cents.

About 1924, a picket fence was set up so that entry to the bath houses or change rooms was through the check room only, so customers had to pay to change whether or not they wanted to rent a suit or rent a basket.

This same year, Charlie Lee built a large, screened-in dining hall that was rented out to organizations on a daily basis. The organization would then make food to sell to raise money.

The fish fry would last about a week, with entertainment like boxing matches by Leo Adams, Ivan Burrus and others, including some from Chicago, and other entertainers such as tap dancers, orchestras and motorcycle stunt drivers. There was also a merry-go-round run by "Old Man Allen" northeast of the food stand.

One of Beulah’s early memories was being allowed to ride the merry-go-round for free, since her dad was one of the organizers. When "Old Man Allen" felt the little 5-year old was getting sleepy and might fall off the horse, he would put her on the bench seat of the merry-go-round and the free rides continued.

The rest of the summer, after the big fish fry, there were also large crowds camping in tents and swimming and fishing, as people spent their summer vacation there with a good water supply at the spring.

Johnny Burrus had a dog named Noodles. Just to be ornery and wake up the campers, Johnny would talk through the camp at 5 a.m., calling out loudly "Here, Noodles," with Noodles walking at his heels.

A number of local men, including Paul Sarver, Nelvin Wilson, Leroy Buck, Carl Miller and Billie Beck, have worked so that the clean spring water is piped to the site so all can get a drink. Sign the guest registry and rest awhile at the picnic tables provided there.

Easter sunrise services have been held at the large cross erected at the site a few years ago. Ernie Bennet used his high-hoe to move a monstrous stone to the site in July 2006, upon which the original metal sign from the 1898 Wren Bridge has been attached.

I do not have the date of the last fish fry. However, today there is still activity at the Wren Bridge.

"We offer no rides, no shows, no admission, just cool bubbling water, rustling leaves and a soft breeze with a hard seat," said Paul Sarver.