Categories
Commentary Saudade

What Happened When I Tried to Start a Newspaper in Central Illinois

Freedom of the press is in serious trouble when a handful of self-appointed gatekeepers can so easily banish a news publication from store and library shelves.

In the summer of 2012, I briefly returned to Charleston, Illinois (where I had attended college) to help set up a monthly print newspaper. It failed spectacularly. The unexpected resistance I encountered taught me hard lessons about the limits of free speech and journalism.

Starting a newspaper is not easy. It takes hard work, travel, time, and financial resources. Still, it can be successful and rewarding with a receptive audience. Central Illinois is highly rural and conservative in temperament. Neighbors might be content to gossip on their front porches, but they’d rather not see the latest scandal plastered in the headlines.

For most of my life I had a naïve understanding of the role of the press. I imagined most newspapers shied away from controversy for any number of reasons, ranging from placating advertisers, adherence to a particular political or social agenda, or simply out of a lack of desire or resources to track down hard stories. I never thought pushback from self-appointed gatekeepers played a role.

Now I understand the blowback some of these news outlets face for reporting controversial events can be intense and make it difficult to conduct business.

Categories
Photography Roadside America

America’s Cup Coffee

Ghost sign for America’s Cup Coffee superimposed over a Coca-Cola sign on the side of Pat’s Lounge, 2019 Western Avenue in Mattoon, Illinois. America’s Cup Coffee was a brand of coffee grounds sold by Peoria wholesaler Oakford & Fahnestock.

Categories
Historic America

The Lynching of Adolphus Monroe

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

In the nineteenth century, “lynch law” reigned. The most infamous incident in Coles County occurred in the early morning hours of Friday, February 16, 1856 when convicted murderer Adolphus Monroe was lynched by a mob of angry citizens.

In October 1855, Adolphus got into a drunken altercation with his father-in-law, Nathan Ellington (who was the first county clerk), and gunned him down. Ellington and his wife, Fannie, strongly disapproved of their daughter Nancy’s marriage to Adolphus, who had a reputation for drinking.

Ellington confronted Adolphus about mistreating Nancy, and according to local historian Nancy Easter-Shick, Ellington struck Adolphus with his cane. Adolphus drew a small smoothbore pistol, shot him twice, and the two antagonists continued their mortal struggle on the floor. Adolphus was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged on February 15, 1856.

Categories
Mysterious America

The Lafayette Avenue Ghost

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

In the winter of 1907-1908, a black-shrouded ghost startled residents of Mattoon’s west side. It began in December 1907 (formerly a time of year when ghost stories were popular) when residents noticed a diminutive figure dressed head-to-toe in a woman’s dress or gown, face covered with a hood, appear on the south side of Lafayette Avenue near 23rd Street around 7:00 p.m.

At least three times a week for several weeks, the figure walked west to 24th Street and back before vanishing as mysteriously as it appeared. Then, as now, this was a sparsely-populated neighborhood north of the Peoria, Decatur, & Evansville Railroad.

In the Journal Gazette, one man described being followed by the ghost, which emerged from the shadows behind a tree late at night. “I walked about fifty feet past Twenty-third street on the south of side of Lafayette avenue, when the ghost, or whatever it is, stepped out from the shadow of a tree and followed close after me as far as Twenty-fourth street, where it turned around and went back again,” he said. Others who were followed claimed the ghost never came within 20 feet.

Categories
Mysterious America

The Murder of Kenton Gene Ashenbramer

The following is an excerpt from my book Tales of Coles County, a collection of history, folklore, and true crime from one of the most interesting counties in Illinois. Order it in paperback or Kindle today.

Clarence W. “Jack” Ashenbramer (1909-1996) and his wife Helen Grace returned from a weeklong vacation to their home at 920 Piatt Avenue in Mattoon at around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 27, 1972. Their son’s red 1967 Ford Fairlane with a white stripe was not parked outside.

When they entered the back bedroom where their 34-year-old son Kenton Gene Ashenbramer was staying, they made a sickening discovery. He was lying across his bed with multiple stab wounds, a knife nearby. The horrified parents called police and an investigation was launched.

Kenton Ashenbramer was a former Marine with three children who worked at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and had lived in Mattoon since 1955. On Saturday evening, August 26, 1972, he met two 26-year-old women, Ann Cole and Shirley Mae Moutria, at a bar called Club Oasis, 1406 Broadway Avenue in Mattoon.

Categories
Saudade

A Freshman’s Lament

My first semester at EIU at the dawn of the new millennium wasn’t quite what I expected.

As a newly minted 18-year-old at Morehouse College in 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

That must be why, in the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, hangs a large portrait of the building’s namesake covering his forehead with one hand in a gesture of either bewilderment or exasperation.

On Orientation Day the summer before my freshman year at Eastern Illinois University, my fellow prefrosh and I nervously and excitedly shuffled into the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union ballroom to watch a video addressing our fears of dorm life and living away from home for the first time. “EIU doesn’t have dorms,” it assured us. “It has residence halls.” The freshman in the video anxiously dreamt of having a nightmare roommate, but when they finally met, they became best friends.

Categories
Announcements

Where to Order Tales of Coles County

Legends live right outside your door!

The 6th and final edition of Tales of Coles County, Illinois is finally here! If you already own a previous edition, or are hearing about it for the first time, this is the one to buy! 232 pages of hidden history, ghost stories, legends, and lore from one of the most fascinating areas of the state!

Where to order:

Tales of Coles County, Illinois is divided into three parts: Tales, Legends and Lore, and Hidden History.

‘Tales’ 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.

In ‘Legends and Lore’, Michael Kleen reveals over a dozen hidden stories from the from the area’s past and present, including ghost stories, folk tales, and other legends and lore. When did a poltergeist terrorize one rural family in Pleasant Grove Township? What is the real story behind the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon”? Why do they call one stretch of road “Dead Man’s Curve”? The answers to these questions and more can be found in this definitive volume.

‘Hidden History’ examines events some believe are better left unremembered. What is the history of Coles County’s ghost towns? What were some of its most infamous murders? What happened in the Tornado of 1917? Never-before published information about Mattoon’s battle with Prohibition and even a local chapter of the KKK is inside.