Vandalia native recording images of our city

Someone asked the other day how I found ideas for the articles that appear in this column.

That is an interesting question. A subject can be suggested by a photograph, a biography of a person, the history of a town and even questions from our readers.

Fayette County’s recorded history begins in scattered histories of Illinois, the "History of Fayette County," published in 1878; followed by the "Pictorial History of Vandalia, Illinois," in 1904; and the "Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Fayette County," from 1910.

Newspapers are a valuable source, as well. To these we add writers, such as Mary Burtschi and Dr. Paul Stroble, who researched and recorded Vandalia’s earliest history in their works, using first-person accounts to tell the story of our county.

Films showing Vandalia and her people, community leaders, businesses and schools from 1936 and 1938 have been preserved on a DVD through the efforts of the Fayette County Genealogical & Historical Society.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, known best for her poem, “Solitude,” ("Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone…"), wrote poems about the Hickory Creek bottoms and the Old State Burial Ground while on extended visits to Fayette County.

There is another form in which our history is being recorded…in song.

The first time I remember hearing the song “River Town,” written by a local man, Jesse McClary, was in April 2008 at an outdoor event. McClary is a member of the "Old Capitol Square Dance Club," along with local men Andy Wright, Zach Anderson and Mark Rosenkoetter.

I recently heard the song again and had a chance to sit down with Jesse and talk with him about it, only to discover that it was written about Vandalia.

Jesse told me that after he traveled around a bit (he toured with a band for nearly a year) and lived in different towns, he felt a tug from his hometown.

He said, “After getting out for a bit, the historical aspect of my hometown started to become very interesting to me. I began to study some of the history, and found myself feeling nostalgic about time periods I wasn’t even alive for.

“When I was growing up, the history of the town was always on display. There is a certain kind of American mystique about Vandalia, and I found myself using the nostalgia I felt in imagery to tell whatever story I was telling at the time (through song).”

The song “River Town” begins:

"It’s hard not to drown/In this sleepy river town/It’s easy to get down/In this less-than-a-one-horse town.

"The stores have all closed down/The monuments have burned to the ground/There’s nothing left/Just ashes of what used to be."

I was drawn to what he had to say about our sleepy river town. I questioned Jesse on the meaning behind the phrase, "the monuments have all burned down," and he said those lines were written shortly after the fire at the Depot. The destruction of the Hotel Evans by fire is also represented by these words.

McClary said that, to him, the Depot had special meaning, because when he was young he would daydream about the people getting on and off the train there. Where were they going? Where had they come from?

“River Town” ends with the phrase, "But we’re gonna be all right." How many Vandalians through the past 19 decades of ups and downs, starting with the founding of our town, have uttered the same words – "We’re Vandalia; we will be all right."

Vandalia is fortunate to have a native son whose affection for his hometown shows through the lyrics of the songs he writes. As he shares this music with others, Jesse is telling Vandalia’s story.

One of Jesse’s songs-in-progress is titled "Statue Guards." I identified with the song immediately when I realized it was about our Madonna of the Trail statue. I, too, had lingered around the statue with high school friends in the late 1960s, but had never known that I was a "statue guard."

For more information on the work of Jesse McClary and the "Old Capitol Square Dance Club," visit the group’s MySpace Web site, where Jesse has posted images of "our sleepy river town."

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