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”

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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”

The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County, Part 3

SmilingMikeWelcome to the exciting conclusion of “The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County.” As MysteriousHeartland.com and MichaelKleen.com prepare for the upcoming release of the new edition of The Legend of Pemberton Hall, I thought it would be of interest to my readers to share with them the story of how I became fascinated with Coles County, Illinois. Join me for this three part article and take a journey through the recent past. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Ashmore Estates

Not long after I predicted a dismal end to Ashmore Estates in the June 2006 issue of the Legends and Lore of Coles County, a man named Scott Kelley, who owned a local computer company, contacted me and informed me that he had plans to rent or even purchase the property. Scott first became interested in Ashmore Estates around ten years earlier. Scott, a longtime operator of haunted attractions including the local haunts at Elsinore Farm and Rockome Gardens, believed the institution would make an excellent haunted house. The Kelleys purchased the property from Arthur Colclasure in early August and immediately began renovating. To finance the project, they offered flashlight tours of the interior for five dollars a person, and volunteers helped clean up the property and the interior of the old almshouse.

The EIU publication Pulse apologizing for plagiarizing my Legends and Lore of Coles County website.
The EIU publication Pulse apologizing for plagiarizing my Legends and Lore of Coles County website.

That October, for the first time in its history, the doors of Ashmore Estates were opened to the general public, and people who had swapped stories about the building for over a decade lined up to get a look inside. On June 8, 2007, the Kelleys asked me to come and speak about the history and folklore of Ashmore Estates at an overnight event. That was my first real speaking engagement. I stayed for pizza and the movie White Noise, but I left before midnight. Thanks to Ashmore Estates and the Legends and Lore of Coles County, my reputation in the county grew. On October 22, 2007, I gave a presentation on local ghost stories at the Charleston Middle School and my picture made the front page of the Times-Courier the next day. When I first began to explore Coles County, I never thought the interest would take me that far, but there was even more to come.

Continue reading “The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County, Part 3”

The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County, Part 2

SmilingMikeWelcome to Part 2 of “The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County.” As MysteriousHeartland.com and MichaelKleen.com prepare for the upcoming release of the new edition of The Legend of Pemberton Hall, I thought it would be of interest to my readers to share with them the story of how I became fascinated with Coles County, Illinois. Join me for this three part article and take a journey through the recent past. Read Part 1 here.

Tales of Coles County

Fascinated by the county’s history, I browsed through archives of the Daily Eastern News and the nearly 700-pages of William Henry Perrin’s The History of Coles County, Illinois (1879). It was the summer of 2003, and I was back home in Prospect Heights working at the River Trails Park District. Picking up garbage at six o’clock in the morning gives a person a lot of time to think, and as I sweat, mowed lawns, and pruned my way through the hottest months of the year, I got an idea for a book of historical fiction stories based on past events in Coles County. I distinctly (if not fondly) recall picking empty bottles of Corona and cigarette butts out of the playground of Willow Trails Park, while conceptualizing the stories I would tell in Tales of Coles County, Illinois to pass the time.

The cover of Tales of Coles County, 3rd edition chapbook.
The cover of Tales of Coles County, 3rd edition chapbook.

I had just come off a terrible experience with print-on-demand publishing. Impatient as always, I sent my first two novellas and a collection of short stories to a company called Xlibris, and I did not have money for their editing services or any of the dozens of other extras that traditional publishers offer as part of their regular business. Consequently, my books went unsold to all but a few loyal friends, and as 2004 rolled around, I decided that I would go into the publishing business for myself. I learned how to make chapbooks by dissecting The Vehicle—the EIU English Department’s publication for student poetry, fiction, and photography.

Chapbooks, traditionally, are four to forty-eight pages in length and consist of a regular 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper folded over and bound together by stitching or staples. They were very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries when printing was expensive and time consuming. Today, pamphlets and chapbooks can be printed for pennies on the dollar. At 5 or 10 cents a page (at an average print shop), you can make dozens of pamphlets for very little cost.

The cover of Autumn and Winter, one of my first novellas.
The cover of Autumn and Winter, one of my first novellas.

I sold my first chapbook, The Distance of Sorrow, for five dollars. The Distance of Sorrow was a sixteen page story that I expanded into a “special edition” and hawked to my dad’s friends and coworkers. In that form, and with all the “special features” included, the booklet ran exactly 42 pages. Its special features included author commentary, deleted scenes, and alternate endings. The response was positive.

Continue reading “The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County, Part 2”

Tales of Coles County Comes to Lake Land College

On Wednesday, February 12, I had the distinction of being the featured speaker at Lake Land College’s “Tacos & Tales” event. The event was a huge success, attracting over 40 students hungry for both knowledge of local folklore and tacos. I was told it was one of the best turnouts yet for that particular program. Better yet–for the first time, my name appeared on a marquee! Lucas Thomas, Student Activity Board Chairman, was a wonderful host–even delivering the 12 green M&M’s I jokingly requested. Lake Land College is located in Mattoon, Illinois. You can check out some photos from the presentation below.