Craft

The Lincoln panel at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown

KELVIN SAMPSON/DICKSON MOUNDS MUSEUM/For The Pantagraph

As we were reminded in putting together this week's GO! cover story on the 50th anniversary of the Spoon River Scenic Drive, not all is brightly colored foliage and quaint river views in Fulton County.

To this day, the event's most famous literary connection — Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 "Spoon River Anthology" — remains a bitter pill to swallow for Fulton County residents whose relatives provided the book's character grist.

"My grandfather would turn over in his grave if he knew I was working for him," said Scenic Drive veteran Donita Ridle, who used to assist with the annual stagings of the Masters book in Lewistown's Oak Hill Cemetery, which was name-checked in the book.

"He called it 'tomfoolery,'" Ridle says.

Masters wrote the poems in "Spoon River Anthology" as blank-verse epitaphs issued forth by buried denizens of a graveyard in Spoon River, Ill., a fictional amalgam of Masters' childhood stomping grounds of Petersburg (in Menard County) and, most clearly, Lewistown.

Although most of the denizens were given new names, the citizens of Lewistown immediately detected their real-life counterparts.

And they weren't especially happy about it.

In a 1994 Pantagraph interview, Spoon River Drive co-founder Marjorie Boardner, who died in 2016, said that though she admired Masters' work and the mythology he created, she admitted that "he's such an old liar as you read him. He wrote nasty things about local people, and their descendants still object to what he wrote."

Her contention: Though Masters claimed his characters were fictional composites of real people, on other occasions he admitted that the characters were blatant counterparts of people he knew, "especially in Lewistown ... he had people speak from the graves about their lives. It was kind of a gloomy way to go about it.

"He starts out the book with the bad guys, and gets more mellow in the middle, and there's a few good people by the end."

Shirley Swango, another longtime Scenic Drive participant, recalls that her uncle "gave my dad a copy of the book and he called it 'the awfulest book I ever read.'"

Kelvin Sampson, of the Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, admits that Masters' notoriety among locals seems to be fading with the passage of time.

"I think the town overall, especially in the last 15 to 20 years, is becoming less and less connected to the grudges held from generation to generation. But there probably are a few people left who still consider him a real bastard."

As far as the Spoon River Drive itself, "it (the book) isn't really a big part of the drive anymore," especially since the play performances in the cemetery ended with the death of its director several years ago."

Even so, Oak Hill is still a go-to destination for grudge-free fans of Masters the poet and writer.

The cemetery is the final resting place for 60 characters with counterparts in the book, with around 40 of the graves designated as such. 

In 2015, the centenary of "Spoon River Anthology's" publication, an interpretive panel on Master' life was installed near the cemetery entrance.

Also at the cemetery is a second interpretive panel, "Looking for Lincoln," which details another contentious Masters relationship ... with the legacy of our 16th president.

"Masters' father and grandfather knew Lincoln personally, and he grew up in Petersburg hearing people telling all the standard Lincoln stories," says Sampson. "His opinion of Lincoln was not a good one."

When Masters moved to Chicago, he met fellow Illinois poet Carl Sandburg.

"Then, of course, Sandburg wrote his glowing biography of Lincoln," says Sampson. "And that ticked Masters off, since he wrote the book without telling him. Masters felt like he was more qualified to write Lincoln's biography because of his family connection."

Turnabout was fair play: "So Masters turned around and wrote his own version of Lincoln's biography, 'Lincoln the Man.'" 

Move over "Spoon River Anthology."

"It's really 400 pages of negativity that slaps him terribly," says Sampson.

At the same time, he adds, "it helps show that Lincoln really was just a man, not some ultra-special character ... he was a politician like any other, and people were people: They liked him or they hated him. Masters' perspective was a common one among some folks and supporters of Douglas."

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com.

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