by Julie Keck
I’ve lived in Chicago for over 10 years, but I grew up in a tiny village called Millstadt, IL. Last weekend I went home for 4th of July. Since small town living is a part of TILT, I thought I’d share some of my own small town pics and memories.
Millstadt is about 20 miles east of St. Louis. When I was a kid, there were only about 2,ooo people living there. It had (and still has) only one traffic light (a flashing red one), lots o’ churches, a few divey bars, one grocery store, and an elementary school (my dad and I had the same kindergarten teacher, Miss Mary) but no high school. The town was small, but it was mine, and it suited me just fine.
My family actually lived about 10 minutes outside of town amidst farmland owned by my grandfather, his father, and his father before him. My grandfather’s parents spoke German; my grandpa and his sister Florence spoke it in dribs and drabs. I clearly remember my Aunt Florence saying grace before family dinners in German, but my dad says she was just talking really fast.
The house I grew up in is slowly being reclaimed by the wilderness. My parents live in a newer, nicer house on the other side of the driveway.
When I was kid, my dad would make us stack wood (physical labor…what?) on weekends and then take us to Billy Maserang’s gun shop. (I wrote more about Billy’s here). My sister and I would get lost in the candy aisle, and my dad would talk politics at the counter with Billy. My dad knew everyone in town (and still does). He can’t go to the store or the post office or the gas station without falling into conversation with someone. When I was a kid, it bothered me. As an adult, I admire it.
As far as I’m concerned, Spikinger’s Fish Stand is (and has always been) the best place to eat in Millstadt. There never have been too many options. No McDonalds. No Hardees. Maybe a weekend fish fry at a church or the VFW hall. A Subway sub shop moved in about 8 years ago, and people are still a little suspicious. A pizza place took over (quite a while ago, actually) where the old True Value hardware store used to be, but it seems like people are just as happy with the pizza nuked at Casey’s convenience store on the edge of town.
There’s a spot by the old bakery (the one where my great-aunt and my uncle both worked) that has been resurrected as a few different sit-down restaurants through the years. My favorite incarnation was the Cree-Mee, where they served hamburgers and hot dogs and ice cream. There were probably a few other things on the menu, but I was too picky to notice back then. When my grandma and grandpa took my sister and me to the Cree-Mee, my grandpa would always get a hot fudge shake. My favorite was the banana split, because it seemed so grand and so special. I don’t remember getting it too many times, but I bet I got it more than I recall; my grandpa was a big softie.
Now there’s a little ice cream place called Happy Days that serves, among other things, 24 flavors of soft serve. I have no idea how they accomplish this. What I do know is that a soft serve cone on a hot Southern IL day isn’t always the best idea. This might be why the woman at the counter offered me a cup when I bought the one in the picture above. Just out of view in this pic: my 4 nieces crying in the minivan because they hate their shakes and want my cone. Thanks goodness I didn’t give in on that one.
Since Millstadt is so small, I attend a high school in a bigger town: Belleville. Belleville Township High School West was the same school where my dad, all of his brothers and sisters, and my grandpa went. (My mom, for the record, went to Belleville East. This seemed like a REALLY big deal when I was 12.) The place where I went to school was sold to a community college after they built a bigger school on the edge of town. My little brother went to my school for one year and the new one for three.
The church I used to go to, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ (I wrote about my dad teaching Sunday school there here), is still there but very different. My dad’s parents also went here (my grandma still does once in a while), even though there was another small United Church of Christ just up the road from their farm. St. Paul’s, smack dab in the middle of Belleville, was about a 30 minute drive.
Why the longer trip? There’s some story about how my grandpa got into a fight with the pastor and pulled his whole family out of the church and off to St. Paul’s. I like to imagine that there was a physical fight. But my grandpa, a huge wall of a farming man, just wasn’t that sort of guy. The pastor he parted ways with: David (Sledgehammer) Rasche‘s father. True story. The whole debacle wasn’t enough to keep my grandpa away forever, though. He never gave up the plots he bought at the UCC church near the farm, and now he’s buried there.
This is the convenience store where my dad would stop after church to pick up smokes and potato chips. Actually he’d often send me or my sister in to get them. And they sold cigarettes to us even though we were little kids. Ah, the good old days.
My dad’s old office building is gone, razed and replaced with a parking lot for the funeral home across the street. I spent many, many evenings in the back parking lot in the backseat of my parents’ car hitting my sister and waiting for my dad to be off work. We only had one car, so my mom would drive into town to pick him up at the end of the day. Dad always seemed to be working 30 minutes later than he said he would, and once in a while we’d get to go inside to see his secretary and get a piece of candy. Usually we just had to stay in the car. Songs like Baker Street and Right Down the Line take me right back to those carsick evenings.
In addition to seeing the sites of my old hometown over 4th of July, I also saw my family. But THAT is for a whole other post…