Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mission Trip Time

It's time again for Second Baptist Church's mission trip to Ukraine. If you want to follow our journey check out the mission trip blog at

Monday, April 21, 2008

Region Still Rumbling with Minor Aftershocks

We're on our 18th aftershock since Friday's morning 5.2 magnitude earthquake up near Mount Carmel, Illinois.

I was in a recliner this morning at writing down some ideas for a screenplay when I felt the chair underneath me begin to move. Ironically I had just started a scene with the word "rumbling" to indicate the start of a roof fall in an underground coal mine.

The U.S. Geological Survey's website isn't the easiest to navigate, but here's the page that lists all of the
Check out this aftershocks as well as Friday's earthquake.

Friday, April 18, 2008

80th Anniversary of Birger Hanging Saturday

Tomorrow, April 19, is the 80th anniversary of hanging of Charlie Birger, Southern Illinois' most famed gangster.

He was the last man executed by hanging in Illinois and by all accounts most deservedly so. Officially he was sentenced to death for his role in the conspiracy to murder Joe Adams, mayor of West City, Illinois, but was responsible for a number of other deaths, including that of Lory Price, the first Illinois State Policeman to die in the line of duty.

I grew up hearing the family stories about Birger and his hideout, Shady Rest. My grandmother's family, the Angels, lived less than a half mile away from the site to the northwest.

There were stories of gangsters passing counterfeit money in my great-grandparents' store, of Birger offering my grandmother and another friend a ride into Crab Orchard, the offer of medical help for my grandmother's baby sister, and the plaster dog my grandmother and her future husband won at the grand opening of the barbecue stand Birger had established right along the hard road between Marion and Harrisburg.

It wasn't until junior high did I learn about Paul Angle's book, "Bloody Williamson" and Donald Bain's "War in Illinois" since republished as "Charlie and the Shawneetown Dame".

None of the books included my family's stories, but they proved to me there was something real to them.

There was a cheesy western song written after the hanging. Southern Illinois' "original, caustic acoustic band", The Woodbox Gang, has resurrected it and made it sound cool. Here's the video from their performance last fall at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The 'King' and 'Little Egypt'

Josie Brooks, owner of the Book Emporium in Harrisburg, recently auctioned off on eBay a 12-year-old American Weekend section of the Daily Register that contained my cover story on how Southern Illinois became known as Egypt.

I saw the sale, bid on it and as I was just notified, lost. I didn't really need it but I haven't been able to find my copy the last time I looked. It really doesn't matter because the original article is posted here.

An expanded version of the story is posted on the wall in the basement of the SIU Student Center near the craft shop as part of a larger display on Southern Illinois and the Egypt theme.

The item on eBay led to a night of Internet surfing searching for Little Egypt references. Here's my favorite and it's also why Will Griffith, the late publsiher of the Egyptian Key magazine back in the 1940s disliked the name "Little Egypt" rather than just "Egypt".

Note: I realize that the Coasters released this song in 1961 and Elvis did it in 1964 in the movie "Roustabout", long after Griffith died, but Little Egypt the dancer had been around in one form or another since 1893. There was even a movie about the dancer titled "Little Egypt" in 1951.

For more on the dancers named Little Egypt, check out the Wikipedia article. It seems fairly accurate.

In the whole debate over Little Egypt versus Egypt, I prefer Egypt as the historical name for Southern Illinois, but Greater Egypt for modern usage.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Governor Considering Entry Fees for Parks

Lee Enterprise's Kurt Erickson is reporting that Gov. Rod Blagojevich may push entry fees for state parks in Wednesday's budget address.
Although the final touches are still being made to the governor’s latest spending proposal, officials acknowledge they’ve considered imposing entrance fees at state parks as a way to balance the budget in tough financial times.

Details of what those fees might be were not available Monday and it’s not clear whether they would affect users of all of the state’s more than 100 state parks, forests and natural areas, most of which are located in downstate Illinois.

That may not actually be a bad thing, depending on the details.

Our system of state parks and historic sites are in crisis. Staffing levels at the various sites are at the lowest levels in decades. The Historic Sites Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has lost around 40 percent of its staff in the last six or seven years. A number of sites are simply mothballed and barricaded off from the public.

I understand the desire of keeping free admissions so that everyone can participate regardless of income, but it's becoming increasingly clear that free access equals no access when there's no money.

In Southern Illinois in the counties along the Ohio River there are five IHPA sites and absolutely no state employees.

The Department of Natural Resources faces similar struggles with state parks though not as severe.

Like the current proposals from the U.S. Forest Service for fees on the Shawnee National Forest it's not the overall concept that's worrisome, it will be in the details.

I made this argument a decade ago and have repeated it ever since now through three governors: It's ridiculous to take a site such as the Old Slave House (which was once privately operated with admissions) and keep it closed because there's no money for staffing yet while there's enough interest to draw large crowds that would pay to enter the facility.

The same admission price wouldn't work for all sites. A market driven approach based on interest and operating costs much like California's approach should be used. There it costs much more to visit major sites such as the 115-room Hearst Castle ($20 to $30 for adults depending on the tour and the season) than it does to visit the Gold Rush museum at Sutter's Fort historic site ($4 for adults).

In Illinois there could be one price for Lincoln sites in Springfield, or one ticket for parks and sites in other tightly knit areas.

If the governor moves forward with this it's also time to look at merging the Historic Sites Division of IHPA with the Division of Land Management in DNR as well as the state museums into one site-based agency.

This may be brought about due to budgetary constraints, but there's larger problems out there that could be solved at this time if a big picture approach was taken.

Maybe we'll be surprised Wednesday. I just hope the issues of parks and historic sites will finally be addressed.

Cross posted on the Illinoize politics and public policy blog at over at Capitol Fax and the Williamson County Tourism News blog.