There's not much left in Bible Grove these days. The grocery and tire stores have closed, and even the post office is gone. But one event that keeps this unincorporated town of about 200 people on the map is its opry, where people have gathered to make music every Saturday night for the past 20 years. It's nothing formal, just kids and old pros who sit down side by side to play country and gospel music.
Bible Grove is located about 220 miles south of Chicago where the eastern and western borders of Illinois are defined by the Mississippi and Wabash rivers. To get there, take I-57 south to Effingham, then take U.S. 45 south into Clay County. The road winds past farms and oil fields and over gently rolling hills. This time of year, the winter wheat is still green, stands thigh-high, and billows in the wind. About two miles south of Hord turn left on Bible Grove Road. After the double S curve--where legend has it that locals found a Bible in a tree, hence the town's name--you've arrived in the metro Bible Grove area.
The opry itself is worth the drive from Chicago as a lesson in time travel, a return to a simpler life-style. People still trust each other in Bible Grove, and who you are matters more than what you do for a living. It's the kind of place where all the locals know their neighbors--perhaps too much about their neighbors.
At the weekly opry the talent ranges from mighty good to fair. Anyone with an instrument or passable singing voice is welcome to join in, and audience members frequently step up to the microphones to share some wholesome Hee Haw humor. Don't be afraid of being an outsider at the opry; the musicians are used to visitors from across the U.S. and even a Canadian or two. If you don't find a crowd at the opry house on a Saturday between 7 and 10 PM, it must be Christmas.
Although Bible Grove's opry is among the oldest in southern Illinois, similar gatherings take place in nearby Flora Friday and Saturday nights, in Sailor Springs on Fridays, in Xenia on the first and third Saturdays of each month, and in Edgewood on Friday nights. Further west, try stopping in Kinmundy on the fourth Saturday of the month. Most oprys take place in civic halls; just ask, or look for a crowd of parked cars.
The ultrabasic town of Bible Grove has no motels or cafes, but Effingham (population 11,900) more than compensates with accommodations ranging from the locally owned Paradise Inn Motel to the familiar chains: Howard Johnson, Days Inn, Best Western, Holiday and Ramada. Many are near the interstate or railroad tracks, but you can still get a good night's sleep.
The Trailways Restaurant (217-342-2680; open from 6 AM until 9:30 PM and until 10 PM on weekends) is on route 45 just north of the junction of I-57 and I-70. It may not be the fanciest place in town, but you can get a three-piece country-fried chicken dinner including three of the side dishes (salad, slaw, applesauce, fruit cocktail, corn, baked beans, french fries, whipped or baked potatoes) for $4.65. Their hickory-smoked rib dinners start at $4.95.
Another local favorite is Niemerg's Steak House (217-342-3921) on Fayette Road off exit 159. Its coffee shop is open until 2 AM; biscuits and gravy go for $1.65, luncheon specials for $3. Unlike most Effingham restaurants, Niemerg's has a cocktail lounge adjoining the dining room. The fare is standard American, including slabs of homemade pie.
Oddly enough, there's a decent seafood buffet for $9.75 every Friday night (all night) at the Union 76 Truckstop (217-342-3914) on the frontage road off of West Fayette Avenue.
South of Effingham, Ingram's Log Cabin Village (618-547-7123; open from 10 AM to 5 PM) is one mile north of Kinmundy. This collection of 16 pre-Civil War log buildings is the culmination of 25 years' work by Erma Ingram, who arranged to have the buildings moved to the site, sometimes from as far away as 40 miles. ("Without any state money!" she'll tell you.)
Admission fees range from $1.25 for adults to 25 cents for young 'uns under 12, but visitors must abide by the rules hand-painted at the entrance: "No smoking, no drinking, no bats, no balls, no bows, no arrows," and so on.
The highlight among these antique-furnished buildings is a stagecoach stop where such notables as Abraham Lincoln and Jesse James are said to have rested on the way to Saint Louis from Terre Haute. Be sure to sign the guest book and join the ranks of James's great-nephews and a third cousin who have recently visited the village.
Ingram has reserved the last two weekends in September and the second weekend in October for crafts festivals where 100 artisans (often costumed) will sell their wares. Come fall, the towns of Flora, Louisville, and Clay City sponsor festivals to celebrate the harvests. Because many young people move away from the area to get jobs, these festivals often double as town reunions. They feature lots of arts and crafts, hog roasts, funnel cakes, pork burgers, and, yes, toilet races. Flora's festival, the biggest, is scheduled for September 4 and 5 this year, Clay City's is September 12, and Louisville's is October 30 and 31.
If you've ever wanted to see, much less buy, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, stop in at Robert "Satch" and Judy Briscoe's Spotted Acres Farm (618-662-2018) outside of Flora. They can also sell you fainting goats, miniature horses, and peacocks. The farm is located off U.S. 50; head east past Wal-Mart, then turn north onto the country road near the Dairy Queen. The farm is approximately one mile up the road: just look for the camels, llamas, and emus. Be sure to call ahead, especially if you're only interested in browsing.
Flora is the town that made the news several years ago when the mayor, the sheriff, and a local newspaper editor produced their own rap video, "Is We Is, or Is We Isn't / Gonna Get Ourselves a Prison?"--an attempt to persuade then-governor Thompson to build a prison there. In the video, the editor wore a barrel and the mayor borrowed a white Cadillac and dressed up like Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard. All they wanted was a prison. All they got was a sympathetic sister city, Susanville, California, and an appearance on Good Morning America.
Aside from their weekly oprys, Flora will host two bluegrass concerts this year (July 10-11 and September 11-12) in Charley Brown Park on the western edge of town. These events attract out-of-state and local bands. Contact the chamber of commerce at 17 N. Elm St., Flora 62839, or call 618-662-5646 for details.
As long as you're in the area, stop by the county seat in Louisville to get some Clay County-brand bacon at Mike's Market, 133 N. Church St., just off the town square (618-665-3151; hours are 7:30 AM to 6 PM Monday through Saturday). Bring a cooler along and pack it with the best bacon on the planet at less than $2.50 a pound. Save some room for pork steaks, barbecue pork chops, or two-inch-thick stuffed chops. Mike's meats and sausages can make you lose your taste for the stuff sold in grocery chains.
Two blocks east of Mike's Market is a replica of George Washington's Mount Vernon. It is not open to the public, but the house--never inhabited--is visible from the street. Its owner, John R. "Johnny Bob" Harrell, is the leader of the Christian Patriots Defense League.
Next stop on the small-town anomaly tour is on the way back to Chicago, at Tuscola, about 25 miles south of Champaign. In this small farming town of 4,100 people sprawls the Four Seasons (217-253-2302; hours are 9 AM to 5:30 PM Monday through Friday and from noon to 5 PM on Sunday), an enormous and most elegant clothing store; it's like finding a Neiman Marcus in Podunk. It's worth a stop to see the plumes, vases, mannequin displays, and the color-coordinated racks of clothing under acres of bright lights.
Afterward, satisfy postshopping hunger at Monical's Pizza (217-253-4749) on highway 36 west of Four Seasons. Their luncheon deal, a delightful thin-crust eight-inch pizza, salad, and large beverage, costs only $4.24. It'll be your last cheap meal before crossing the Cook County line.
Finally, a general note: Although Bible Grove and its neighboring communities are only 200 miles from Chicago, the culture is decidedly southern with its own dialect. The weather is always about 10 degrees warmer than Chicago's, so bring your sandals and tank tops (note: you won't see many men wearing shorts). Not much is open in the small towns on Sundays, except for discount stores and some restaurants. And don't be surprised if other drivers wave at you when you drive down country roads. It's considered rude if you don't wave back.