The Mule: Best Film of 2018?

When 90-year-old Earl Stone loses everything he loves, can he use ill-gotten gains to win it back before the DEA, or the cartel, takes him down?

Written by Nick Schenk and directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, The Mule (2018) was inspired by a New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. The Mule uses true events to frame a much more compelling  story. Bucking the current trend of emotionally monochrome dramas, this film is a rich tapestry of triumph and tragedy, humor and sadness, and guilt and forgiveness.

Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a successful horticulturalist in Peoria, Illinois but neglectful of his family. He finds himself estranged from his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood), but is still admired by his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Mary and he divorce, and after failing to embrace the digital age, Stone’s business falls on hard times. He takes a mysterious offer to deliver a package from Mexico to Chicago. With his newfound income, he rebuilds the local VFW after a fire and helps pay for his granddaughter’s cosmetology tuition. Meanwhile, he frustrates his cartel handler, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) with his unpredictable behavior.

Things get complicated when DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner Trevino (Michael Peña) flip a cartel employee and he tips them off about a successful drug mule known as “Tata”, or grandfather. The unassuming elderly white man with a clean record was able to slip under law enforcement’s radar. At 90 years of age and with the DEA on his tail, Earl Stone is running out of time to reverse his fortunes and reconcile with his family.

The Mule is loosely based on the life of Leo Sharp, a WW2 veteran and Detroit-based horticulturalist and daylily farmer who began working as a drug mule for the Sinaloa cartel after his business fell on hard times. His life of crime made him a millionaire. Sharp was finally caught in 2011 at the age of 87, pled guilty to drug conspiracy, and served one year in prison before being let out due to his declining health. He died in December 2016.

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Weeping Woman of Seventh Avenue’s Dead End

Legends speak of a ghostly woman who wanders the railroad tracks beyond the Seventh Avenue dead end, searching for her missing children.

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Around the dinner table after a hard day’s work, the residents of Sterling, Illinois have been known to whisper about deaths along the nearby railroad tracks and banks of the Rock River. These deaths have occasionally left behind ghosts, the most famous of which is a weeping woman who wanders the tracks just beyond the Seventh Avenue dead end, searching for her missing children.

The City of Sterling was incorporated in February 1857 and is located across the Rock River from the town of Rock Falls. These twin cities are connected by the First Avenue Bridge. Sterling has long been a center of industry in the area, ever since the Union Pacific Railroad, the oldest railroad network in the United States, came through in 1856. Businesses like Northwestern Steel & Wire, Franz Manufacturing, and National Manufacturing followed at the turn of the century. Consequently, the city was once called the hardware capital of the world.

Over the years, the twin life-sources of Sterling—the railroad and the Rock River—have occasionally become a curse rather than a blessing. Some do not respect the silent power of the river and succumb to its undertow. Others, mainly children, have innocently wandered to their doom while playing on the bluffs along the river.

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Old Union Cemetery’s Ethereal Glow

A forgotten graveyard squirreled away in the cornfields of central Illinois makes for good storytelling, and almost all have their ghostly tales. Old Union is no exception. This cemetery first received attention on Troy Taylor’s website, Prairieghosts.com, and he later included it in Weird Illinois (2005).

Though he failed to disclose its location, Old Union Cemetery is clearly marked on cemetery and plat maps available to the general public through the DeWitt County Genealogical Society.

A history of the cemetery is difficult to find, and several sources appear, at first glance, to be fractional or contradictory. Troy Taylor provided a general overview on his website, but Genealogytrails.com, in an excerpt from an article entitled, “The Disciples of Christ History,” filled in some of the details.

According to the article, Old Union Church was established 10 miles west of Clinton on October 13, 1831 near a large, white oak tree. The stump of the tree, and “the gravestones of the cemetery which grew around the house of worship” are “silent sentinels of faded joys and departed glories,” the article opined.

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Tragedy and Lore of Death Curve

At this rural lane’s unassuming curve, a murderess committed “one of the most dastardly deeds that has ever occurred in Henry County.”

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Less than a mile outside of Cambridge, Illinois sits Timber Ridge Road. As motorists travel west along Timber Ridge, they encounter a sharp curve marked by a Mulberry tree and an old, rustic fence that divides two cornfields. This bucolic scene hides a dark history, a history that few would remember if it were not for the ghost stories.

In 1896, Julia Johnson married a man named Clarence B. Markham, and the young couple settled on a farm in Andover Township outside of Cambridge. In nine years of marriage, Julia Markham gave birth to seven children, an average of one every 15 months. There were four girls and three boys, aged from between five months to eight and a half years.

On the morning of Saturday September 30, 1905, while her husband labored in a neighboring field, Mrs. Markham, to quote the Cambridge Chronicle, “committed one of the most dastardly deeds that has ever occurred in Henry County.”

At around 11 o’clock, Julia sent her two eldest children to a nearby spring to retrieve water. While they were gone, she took an ax and swung it at the heads of her five youngest, killing them instantly. When her eldest returned, she dealt with them the same way.

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Leave Your Engine at Home

Winter has me feeling nostalgic for the halcyon days of summer, when my dad and I would make the long drive up to the Chain O’ Lakes in Northern Illinois to rent a rowboat and go fishing.

The Chain O’ Lakes, including Fox Lake, Grass Lake, Lake Marie, and Channel Lake, near Antioch, has offered summer visitors a unique blend of sporting and entertainment since the late nineteenth century.

Possibly the most famous establishment on the Chain is Blarney Island, “Key West of the Midwest,” a bar located a mile offshore in Grass Lake, where over a decade worth of bras, hats, and business cards used to hang from the ceiling.

Blarney Island – June 2002

But the fond memories of my childhood lay a little to the east, at C.J. Smith Resort. Don’t let the name fool you, C.J. Smith’s is not much more than a boat rental near the shore of tiny Spring Lake that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1950s. At least it hasn’t changed in my lifetime.

If you are looking to rent large, gas guzzling speedboats, look somewhere else. C.J. Smith’s offers only top quality 14’ and 16’ aluminum rowboats, with a 6, 8, or 15HP motor for an extra cost. Ditch the motor, in my opinion. The experience is much more rewarding if you row.

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Ridge Cemetery and Mysterious Williamsburg Hill

Williamsburg Hill is the highest point in Shelby County, Illinois and is accessible by 1100 E, a road that horseshoes around the tiny community of Cold Spring. Visitors can pick up 1100 E just west of Tower Hill on Route 16, and it will lead them straight to the hill and its cemetery. Due to its unsavory reputation, this is a place many locals avoid.

As far as I can tell, Troy Taylor was the first person to write extensively on the strange legends of Ridge Cemetery and Williamsburg Hill. He included them in a number of books, including Haunted Illinois (2001), Haunted Decatur Revisited (2000), and Beyond the Grave (2001).

As Taylor explained, the hill that Ridge Cemetery occupies once also sheltered a town, one of the many that sprung up and disappeared in nineteenth-century Illinois. Williamsburg, as it was known, was platted in 1839 by two men, Thomas Williams and William Horsman. Many Horsmans can be found buried in Ridge Cemetery to this very day. The village disappeared in the 1880s as the railroad bypassed its inconvenient location.

The legends surrounding Ridge Cemetery involve occult rituals, spook lights, and the ghost of an old man who disappears upon approach. “There is little evidence to suggest these stories are true,” Taylor wrote, “but once such rumors get started, they are hard to stop.”

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Axeman’s Bridge in Crete, Illinois

There is nothing peculiar about the concrete bridge along Old Post Road two miles east of Crete, Illinois. If a motorist were to drive past, over the trickling waters of Plum Creek on a pleasant summer day, not much would alert this passerby to the Axeman’s gruesome story.

In the woods a few yards to the northeast, however, sits a rickety steel bridge, collapsed into the water. It is tagged with graffiti. For years, local teens imagined this was the scene of a gruesome ax murder. The remains of a home hidden in the trees and the closure of the road leading to the steel bridge have only fueled the legend.

Although landmarks set the stage for this story, the exact history of the area is difficult to determine. According to John Drury’s photographic history, This is Will County, Illinois (1955), David Harner was the first white settler of Crete Township, and a large contingent of ethnic Germans followed.

Early in Will County history, the thick timberland along Plum Creek was called Beebe’s Grove. It was named after Minoris Beebe, who arrived in 1834 along with David Harner. According to an old county plat map, a man named William Vocke owned the property around Axeman’s Bridge in 1909. I have been unable to determine when this bridge closed.

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