The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.
The year was 1934, and the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were ravaging the United States. Illinois had been hit particularly hard, and between 1929 and 1933, 412 banks failed in downstate Illinois. Crops wilted or simply blew away throughout the Great Plains, and communities that relied heavily on farming, like those of central Illinois, suffered immensely.
For those families hardest hit by the Depression, there were only two places to go: the unforgiving streets, or the county poor farm. Poor farms had been set up in the 1800s to support those without homes, the elderly and infirm, or those who couldn’t take care of themselves. The population of the farms declined during the boom years after the turn of the century, but swelled again once the stock market crashed.
The Coles County Poor Farm, located on 260 acres between the towns of Charleston and Ashmore, was no exception, and it opened its doors to the many destitute caused by the Great Depression.
Darby Adar and his daughter Shirley were lucky enough to find their way to the doors of the almshouse on this particular county farm before the superintendent turned others away due to overcrowding. For the first few days after arrival and being assigned a room, Darby wouldn’t let his daughter, almost seven years old, wander the imposing brick building on her own. It was, after all, a new place with new people, and their experience with day-to-day survival on the open road had made him cautious to the point of paranoia.
After about two weeks of living on the farm, however, Shirley made friends with some of the other kids in the building, particularly a girl about the same age named Elva Skinner. Darby had never met any of these other children, but that wasn’t unusual at the time; adults and children inhabited different worlds.
Darby had also developed an interest in a woman named Rose who lived and worked in the building. Her family had died of Influenza when she was a young girl, leaving her in the care of the state for many years. After she became old enough to go out on her own, she chose to stay at the county farm as a nurse’s aide. Darby had lost his wife to childbirth, and the rigors of raising a child on his own had him constantly looking for a new Mrs. Adar. He, like the other able-bodied men and women living there, also helped out around the farm. All of this kept him preoccupied during the day, and so he had less and less time to pay attention to everything his daughter was doing.
At night, Shirley would come back to their room, which they shared with an elderly woman who had been living in the asylum for most of her life. The woman was somewhat feeble minded, but she was very pleasant to be around and could, for the most part, tend to her own needs. Every day, Rose came to their room and administered the old lady’s medication, played cards, or had idle conversation with Darby about where he was from, the weather, or anything else the two thought of.
Soon, winter set in. It was the beginning of December, and the cold winds battered the almshouse mercilessly from across the barren cornfields. There were only a few small trees to protect their modest plot of land from the elements, and the farm was only accessible by a rocky dirt road that was easily rendered useless by deep snow. There was a swing set on the lawn, but Darby forbade Shirley from going outside in the cold to play on it because neither Darby nor his daughter had suitable winter jackets.
This particular day had proceeded pretty much as normal. Shirley ran off to play with her friends, and Darby sat on his cot listening to Rose talk to the old woman about how much they would both like to own a cat. Pets weren’t allowed in the asylum because of the risk of disease and the cost of upkeep, however, there were some strays that managed to sneak in and hunt mice in the basement.
Darby was too engrossed in imagining some clever thing to say to Rose to notice that Shirley had unexpectedly entered the room. His daughter poked around unseen until she jumped up next to him, startling him, and in turn, everyone else. “You scared me half to death!” he scolded her after regaining his composure. “What do you want?”
“Why do we have to sleep in the cold room?” she whined. Their single wood-framed window did its best to keep out the wind, but the winter chill still managed to seep in at night.
“Honey,” Darby replied in his best parental voice as he glanced over at Rose to see if she was listening. “Everyone’s rooms are cold at night. We’re lucky we get to sleep here instead of outside.”
“Elva says it’s always warm where she is,” Shirley countered innocently.
“Well, you tell Elva that she’s a lucky girl,” Darby instructed her. Shirley skipped out of the room and everyone went back to what they had been doing.
“What was her friend’s name?” Rose suddenly asked as she dealt out a new hand of cards. Her voice was largely disinterested, but Darby felt obligated to answer anyway.
“Elva,” he replied. “Elva…” He hesitated because he had forgotten her last name. “Skinnly?” He played around with a few more variations of the name before he realized that Rose was no longer paying attention. An awkward pause followed, and Darby stared nervously out the window. Suddenly, he remembered. “Skinner!” he announced triumphantly.
“Hm,” Rose replied without turning her attention away from the card game. “Elva Skinner? I don’t think I’ve ever met her.”
“Well, I imagine there’s a lot of people like Shirley and me here,” Darby said. “People who are down on their luck and just came here for the winter. I’m sure new people come in and out of here all the time.”
Rose didn’t respond. Instead, she picked up her cards, along with the small silver tray that held the old woman’s medication cup, and hurried out of the room to continue her rounds.
“Talk to you later!” Darby yelled after her. He sighed deeply and stared down at the dirty floor. His thoughts were interrupted by soft laughter. At first, he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but then he noticed the old lady’s shoulders heaving up and down. “Oh, you think that’s funny?” he spat at her.
“Little Elva says it’s warm,” the old lady cackled.
Darby lifted his head. “What did you say?”
“Little Elva is dancing in flames,” she replied with a wide smile.
A confused expression crossed Darby’s face. “You’re crazy,” he said. He shook his head and laid across his beat up, canvass cot.
The old lady fell silent.
Read the exciting conclusion to this story and more in Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today.