Tales of Coles County – The Old Miller’s Tale

A reading from the new edition of my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, to be released in October 2020! First published in 2004, Tales of Coles County takes an entertaining look at local history through vivid historical fiction. When four students from Eastern Illinois University are stranded during a violent storm, they seek shelter with an elderly couple who give them more than they bargain for. After one night, the four will never look at Coles County the same way. With each story, they learn more about the place they’ve come to call home. The Second Battle of the Ambraw, the Charleston Riot of 1864, the Coles County Poor Farm, events surrounding the Airtight Bridge Murder, and the Blair Hall Fire of 2004, all are told.

I’m no longer accepting pre-orders because the book has officially been released! Order it today on Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and GooglePlay.

Tales of Coles County: Innocence

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.

As Halloween neared that October of 1980, the typical orange and black decorations appeared in store windows, and pumpkins began to be displayed on porches adorned with fake spider webs. For the students of Eastern Illinois University, it meant a Vincent Price film festival, haunted houses, and of course, renewed interest in the ghost that haunted Pemberton Hall.

There was nothing out of the ordinary going on for one university student and Mattoon resident who found herself in her usual hiding spot, doing what she usually did: writing in her journal. As she sat on her bed reflecting on the past week, only one thing came to her mind: the question her professor had posed before they left class on Friday.

He asked us what the first conscious thought was, Natalie wrote. When our long-gone ancestors were crawling around the underbrush. She paused for a moment to brush a hair off the page. Was it a primitive feeling of love between two of these walking apes? The realization that they desired each other and no one else? She thought for a moment. No, she wrote. Some birds do the same thing. She turned the page.

Was it the first person who realized that they could use a stick to get food? she wrote. No, there are animals who use crude tools too. Natalie looked up at her reflection in the long mirror on her bedroom wall. Was it the first person who looked down into a calm pool of water, and instead of thinking that there was an animal staring back, thought: “is that me?”

Her mother’s voice echoed up the stairs, interrupting her thoughts. “Natalie, honey?”

“Yes?” she yelled back.

“Do you need a ride to school?” her mother asked. “I’m going to be leaving soon.”

It’s about time,” Natalie muttered under her breath. She slammed her journal closed and stuffed it in her book bag. Natalie was a sophomore at Eastern Illinois University, but she had lived in the town of Mattoon for as long as she could remember.

She decided to go on to college to find a way to get away from her parents, who had asserted an overbearing influence on her ever since she was a baby. They are so afraid of me getting hurt because I’m their only child, she thought. She had also chosen to go to college because she had seen too many of the kids with whom she went to high school graduate and then remain in their hometown, getting married and working minimum-wage jobs.

Her mother and she were exact opposites. Her mother, whose name was Kate, was the “popular girl” when she was younger, and she still enjoyed a large group of friends. Natalie’s parents always invited friends and neighbors over to their two-story ranch house, but Natalie preferred the sanctity of her bedroom. She was not the social type. She had never believed she was very attractive. She lacked any feminine curves, and her reddish hair was always messy and dry. She had given up trying to do anything about her appearance a long time ago.

Continue reading “Tales of Coles County: Innocence”

Tales of Coles County: In These Shallow Walls

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.

Continue reading “Tales of Coles County: In These Shallow Walls”

Tales of Coles County: The Charleston Riot

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 1864, and the month of March was just coming to a close. The battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg had long passed, and it looked as though the tide of the Civil War was finally turning in the Union’s favor. The presidential election was still over seven months away, but many believed it would decide the course of war.

Illinois had always been divided on the issue of slavery, and there were many people living in the southern half of the state that still had strong ties to their neighbors in the South. They didn’t want Abraham Lincoln reelected, because they knew he would never make peace with the Confederacy. These supporters of the movement for “peace without victory” were called “butternuts” or “copperheads.” Each faction—Unionists and copperheads—equally despised each other, and these divisions were exacerbated along political party lines.

On that mild spring day of March 28, Oliver Thomas stepped outside of Huron’s Bookstore on the west side of Charleston’s town square, engrossed in that week’s issue of the Plaindealer. The newspaper headlines were still fresh with news of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest’s daring and profitable raid on Paducah, Kentucky the previous week. Oliver was afraid a Confederate attack that far north would inflame the passions of the copperheads, who had been raising a stink over the recent arrival of the 54th Illinois Infantry Regiment in Mattoon. Many of the soldiers were local boys from the county, however, so he couldn’t imagine anything coming of these idle threats.

The din of an unusually robust number of people chatting near the courthouse tore his attention away from his newspaper. He looked up to see several clusters of men gathered around the square. He recognized many familiar faces, but some, who sat on horses near a couple of hay-filled wagons, appeared to be from the countryside. Additionally, there were a little more than a dozen Union soldiers dressed in blue uniforms that ducked in and out of the storefronts or talked with each other on the street. Only a few were armed. Finally, Oliver recognized his friend Daniel, who was standing against a tree near the courthouse, and strode over to him.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Daniel shouted even before Oliver could reach him.

“Isn’t what exciting?” Oliver asked in reply. “What are all these people doing here?” He finally reached the tree, which was in earshot of a small group of four men who stood on the courthouse steps. The quartet included James O’Hair, who was the father of the county sheriff, and his friend Nelson Wells.

“Judge Eden is goin’ to give a speech to the soldiers,” Oliver’s friend replied with excitement.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” he whispered under his breath. Everyone in the county knew that Eden, along with Sheriff John O’Hair, were leaders of the local Peace Democrat faction—Northern Democrats who wanted to make peace with the Confederacy. Eden giving a speech to the soldiers was only asking for trouble. Oliver took note of a Union soldier who walked up to the elder O’Hair. He appeared slightly drunk.

Continue reading “Tales of Coles County: The Charleston Riot”

Tales of Coles County: The Second Battle of the Ambraw

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 summer sun beamed down through the treetops and illuminated the forest floor below, while hidden cicadas buzzed incessantly from their branches. A column of men clad in buckskin slowly coiled its way along a well-worn deer path. Most of the men sat on horseback, but some rode in a small supply wagon in the middle of the formation. The year was 1818, six years before the first white settlers would arrive in the area that became Coles County, and a few remaining Native Americans, most notably the Kickapoo, refused to leave their lands and join the tribal relocation beyond the Mississippi.

Most of the westward-bound pioneers avoided the wild region of east-central Illinois, but some, like John Parker, would eventually stop and erect cabins near large groves or adjacent to rivers and streams. John Parker and his four sons, Benjamin, Daniel, Silas, and James, would, in a few years hence, build a mill (later known as Blakeman’s Mill) on the banks of the Embarras River to service the handful of local farms.

It was near the site of this mill that the legendary Indian fighter General Samuel Whiteside and his Illinois Rangers camped while in pursuit of a Kickapoo, Pottawatomie, and Winnebago raiding party that had stolen some horses and terrorized a group of settlers a week earlier.

The river sparkled as it flowed around a bend in the trees, and it provided a quick drink for the horses of the men as they crossed. The animal’s hooves splashed and clopped on the smooth stones below. General Whiteside rode at the head of the column, with two men at his flanks. He raised his arm and the company halted. “I see a good campsite down yonder,” he announced. “This will be a fine place to stay for the night. These ridges will hide our fires. Have a couple of men search the woods for some grub for supper.”

“Isn’t this whereabouts those surveyors got into that scrap with the redskins last year?” the man to his right inquired.

Whiteside paused a moment. “I do believe so,” he replied, and turned toward the man on his left. “Colonel, have the men set up camp.”

“Yes sir, General Whiteside,” the man, whose name was Robert Forester, replied as he wheeled his horse and headed down the column of men. A bird chirped loudly in the distance as he headed off, and the horses grew uneasy.

Farther up the river, two scouts, Thomas Adams and Douglas Fervor, crawled to the peak of a ridge, one of several that had been carved out of the landscape by small streams flowing towards the river. The southern half of what would become Coles County had been spared from the last great glacial period, and the terrain was much more like that of Kentucky or Tennessee. It was comforting to the settlers who would eventually venture to that part of Illinois, because it reminded them of home.

Thomas peaked his head over a thick log. “That’s a raiding party out there,” he whispered, referring to the group of six American Indian braves that rested about fifty yards from them on the side of a ridge. One of the Indians, near a tree, bent down and seemed to be digging something out of the weeds. A tall man wearing two feathers whistled over to him. The Indian that had been digging pulled up a medium sized turtle and whistled back, the pitch of the whistle varying in different degrees.

“Those are Kickapoo,” Douglas whispered. “You can tell by the whistling. They’re the only tribe around these parts that does that.”

“What do you think they’re up to?” Thomas asked with concern.

“Looks like they’re finding dinner,” his companion replied as he angled himself to get a look, “just like us.” Then, he added when he could see the whole group, “This is a little party. The fact we can’t see the rest of ‘em worries me.”

Continue reading “Tales of Coles County: The Second Battle of the Ambraw”

Shades of Gray: Apparition at Ghost Alley

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

Dayton Lisafeld had listened attentively to the tour guide all afternoon, despite the unrelenting summer sun beating down on Fort Monroe and Chesapeake Bay. The stone walls of the fort were even hot to the touch, but they had withstood the test of time since Simon Bernard, a former aide to the great Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, designed them nearly two centuries ago to be the strongest in North America.

The tour guide was a woman in her early thirties with a pear-shaped body and curly brown hair. She possessed a sunny, even charming, disposition, despite her uncomfortably tight khaki shorts and the rivers of sweat that ran down her forehead. She told the assembled group about how Captain John Smith had built Fort Algernourne in 1609 at the present site of Fort Monroe, and how the current fort, upon completion in 1834, was known as the “Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay.” She stopped to explain that the name was an allusion to the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the “Pillars of Hercules” in Greek mythology, before moving on to Fort Monroe’s role in the Civil War.

Dayton shifted nervously and waited for the tour to finish. His parents and he were on vacation and had spent the night at the Chamberlin Hotel on Old Point Comfort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just southwest of the base. That night, as his parents were settling down to bed, he decided to go for a walk in the cool night air. Because Fort Monroe was still an active military instillation, he had to be careful as he walked the deserted streets. That’s when he saw it—the thing he desperately wanted to ask his tour guide about, but he was too embarrassed in front of his parents, the Asian couple with the sunglasses, the fourth grade history class and their teacher, and—most importantly—the three girls who were already giggling and pointing at him.

“This was the only fort in the South that never fell into Confederate hands,” the tour guide continued. She could see the fourth graders were getting restless in the heat, so she moved the group closer to the Casemate Museum and the shade. “From here, Major General Benjamin Butler ordered that all slaves who escaped to Union lines would be considered contraband and not returned to their former masters. Can anyone tell me what this order was called?” No one raised their hands. “It was known as the Fort Monroe Doctrine,” the tour guide explained without losing her smile.

Dayton’s mind drifted back to the previous night. He was walking not far from where the tour group was now, on the other side of a cluster of military apartments. It was dark, almost pitch black. The moon was just a sliver and hidden behind wispy, gray clouds. A street lamp buzzed and hummed, and its soft, bluish light barely illuminated the lamp itself. Dayton got a chill, and he stopped. Something in the back of his mind—nothing more than a feeling, really—warned him not to continue down that street.

He looked at the apartment windows. They were all dark. Not a single person was awake. That was strange enough, given that it was only—he looked down at his cell phone. It was already past midnight. When he looked back up at the street, a cool breeze drifted past and he caught a whiff of the ocean. He no longer felt alone. The street was as empty as it had been before, but now that feeling in the back of his mind grew more insistent. That primitive primate’s brain that warned his distant ancestors of a predator’s approach told him to run.

So he did. He ran from the narrow avenue until he was safely back at the hotel.

“Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner here, in this building, for two years after the war,” the tour guide related. “Now, I’m going to take you into the museum, where you will see a recreation of his cell. The conditions of his imprisonment were terrible. Kids, try to imagine if your bedrooms looked like this!” A few of the adults laughed.

Continue reading “Shades of Gray: Apparition at Ghost Alley”

Shades of Gray: Incident at Belle Island

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

The early afternoon sun baked Belle Island, causing the water of the James River to retreat from the bleached boulders in the rapids along the northern edge of the island. From the perspective of the picnickers on the east side of the island, the ruins of a distant hydroelectric plant gleamed white. Summer and Anna May Long, 13 and 12 years old, played with their younger cousin, Humpy Andrews, in an open field. A short distance away, Humpy’s parents were busy trying to light the coals in their portable grill, while his uncle Cooper sat on a nearby picnic table, strumming his favorite acoustic guitar, a Gibson J-45. A dozen other relatives stood and talked, or made themselves busy preparing the picnic tables for dinner.

With the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge looming in the background, Anna May tossed Humpy’s favorite baseball cap to Summer, while Humpy jumped to try and catch it. “Humpy! Humpy! Humpy Andrews!” she teased. Anna May was a head taller than her sister. She had long blonde hair that her mother kept saying was a bit too long, but she refused to have it cut.

“Give it back!” Humpy squealed. “I’m telling!”

“Tattle tale!” Summer replied. The cap fell a few feet short of her hands and she scrambled to scoop it up before her cousin could beat her to it. In contrast to Anna May, Summer’s hair was cropped short. She was much more of a tomboy. She wore a light blue t-shirt featuring a character from her favorite cartoon: Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. ‘The bun is in your mind’ was stenciled underneath the illustration.

“Hey, Summer!” Anna May shouted. “I bet Humpy is too scared to go in the woods. Humpy, ain’t you a scaredy cat?”

“Am not!”

Summer stuck out her left hand to block Humpy while she hid his baseball cap behind her back with her right. “Didn’t you know these woods are filled with the ghosts of Yankee prisoners? Some of them are still lurking on this island. They don’t know they is dead.”

Humpy struggled to retrieve his cap. “That ain’t true, is it, Anna May?”

“I’m afraid so,” Anna May replied. “But if you don’t want your cap back, then you can just wait out here while we explore that creepy ol’ power plant down yonder.”

“What? That ain’t fair! I wanna come with!”

“You sure, with the ghosts and all?”

Humpy hesitated.

“Let’s go ask Mamma,” Anna May said, and she took off running toward the picnic site while Humpy struggled to catch up. She ran up beside her sister and leaned in close. “When we get to the ruins, you hide and we’ll give Humpy a good scare!”

Continue reading “Shades of Gray: Incident at Belle Island”

Shades of Gray: Specter of the Past

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

English had been spoken in Hampton Roads for four hundred years, ever since the first British colonists arrived in 1607 on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. During the Civil War, the tranquil water of this natural harbor was the scene of a skirmish between the first American ironclads, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. Late in 1862, Union General George McClellan seized control of the natural ports at the mouth of the James River with an army of over 100,000 men, not very far from where Rita Mae presently walked.

Rita Mae, however, knew nothing about those historic events. Her mind wandered to thoughts of college in the fall and the fun she would have when she finally moved away from home. Both her parents were employed at the nearby Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. They had moved out to the suburbs to escape the congestion around the base.

That particular weekend, her parents were away at a conference and Rita Mae was on her way to pick up beef fried rice from a Chinese takeout in a strip mall not far from the subdivision where she lived. The driver of a gray Bronco honked as he drove by, and she smiled politely in return. It was a boy she had met at a party several nights before, but she did not remember his name.

None of the buildings she passed had been there before she was born. Eighteen years earlier, farmland had stretched for miles around Hampton Roads. Then the sprawl came. Land that had been owned by one Virginian family for centuries disappeared under parking lots and model homes. No evidence remained of the dirt roads once trod on by hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers between the mouth of the James River and Richmond. Every once and a while, however, a tobacco plant poked through the dirt in an undeveloped lot—it was all that remained of the rich tobacco fields that had fed the area’s economy for centuries.

A giant Willow Oak stood behind the strip mall. Rita Mae had walked or driven past it a least two dozen times in her life, but she never noticed it until that day. That particular day, a neon orange ribbon was tied tightly around the circumference of the tree, which must have been nine to ten feet at its base. It had been there a long time, and Rita Mae suddenly remembered playing near it as a child. She felt drawn to it. Her stomach churned and a tear streamed down her face. Startled, she quickly wiped the tear from her cheek and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.

She was alone.

The feeling became more intense as she stepped closer to the tree, but that feeling seemed to be pulling her toward it. Her shoes pushed aside the gravel, twigs, and broken glass at the edge of the sidewalk. Something twisted deep in her stomach and she had to brace herself against the rutted bark. As her fingers explored the deep crevices in the Willow Oak’s skin, a bright flash enveloped her mind. She wondered if she was dying as the sky grew white and the breeze melted away.

* * *

Continue reading “Shades of Gray: Specter of the Past”