Slowly and heavily, August stumbles into September in Du Quoin, Ill. The air is thick, dogs doze in big patches of weak morning shade and the trees, dreary and thirsty, are rows of still sentinels. Noon comes, and along the gleaming, empty track of the Illinois Central in the center of town there is just the long, low roar of stillness, a sharp sense of place. Yet, for all its visual inertia, Du Quoin is alive—a drummer in a checked suit down from St. Louis, his stickpin sparkling, breath of Sen Sen, his bowler tipped for mischief.
It is an odd time in town. Constant and subtle, a certain feeling pervades—a feeling of something kinetic and wonderfully foreign. Traffic, normally just a trickle even when there is a sale on bib overalls, is strung out along Main Street at least once during the day. The hotel, right off the lot of a movie studio, is jammed with people dining regularly and ordering such strange potations as martinis. Police Chief Valley West's five-man department seems suddenly ubiquitous for its size, perhaps only because of its avoirdupois—well over 1,000 pounds. The old man who sits at a certain time under a tree and listens to the sound of each day dying is absent. The conversation is confined to a horse race, and nobody is interested in watching Our Gang make life unbearable for Andy Clyde at the local theater.
Clearly, the town seems perfectly suitable for a Lincoln-Douglas debate and familiar with nothing more hedonistic than a church supper. Forget it—at least for the week of August 30. Geographically obscure as it is (10 miles from Dog Walk and just a hog holler from Crab Orchard, visitors say), Du Quoin is the home of The Hambletonian, the great trotting event for 3-year-olds. Do not call it the Kentucky Derby of harness racing. Such a designation is profane and offends the faithful. Rather, to be socially acceptable and accurate, just say that The Hambletonian is unlike any other event on the sporting scene. A remark of a negative nature, especially one that scoffs at the incongruity of the town and the event, is certain to provoke acerbic comment. So what if Du Quoin has barely been acknowledged by Rand McNally? The citizens still bear up well.
When September comes they are completely resigned to the invariablcs of their annual situation: 1) They will once again be characterized as blue-ribbon bumpkins, and The Hambletonian will be referred to as the "Hey Rube Derby." 2) There will be rumors that the race will be transported to a big city.
But in the frenetic week before the September lull people will spend money—a sporadic occurrence in Du Quoin. Human nature and the state of Du Quoin's economy being what they are, the monetary windfall is not taken for granted. On the contrary, it is welcomed each year as an unexpected inheritance. It is interesting to observe Du Quoin subjected to money. The town's reaction is no different from that of any place else in a similar situation, its inspiration coming from the premise that—as someone once said—the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and proper. In Du Quoin during Hambletonian Week there are a number of things that one can get good and proper, including insomnia and inflated checks. The former is the result of trying to sleep hard by the tracks of the Illinois Central; the checks come after food, about which the kindest thing one can say is that you can never disguise the handiwork of a mess sergeant.
It is difficult to acquire a room in Du Quoin and even more difficult to keep it. "I'm sorry," says the lady at the motel in town, "but you'll have to leave today." But—"Oh, I know," she says, "isn't it just terrible?" But—'"We try," she says, "but all these people in town at the same time. I understand," she says, "but it's just one of those things. A reservations conflict, you know." Some conflict. Four other people are waiting to get into the same room.
After eviction you are advised that there is a nice hotel down the street. The nice hotel down the street is nice. It smells of oldness, and it has personality, but the management thinks it is operating the Waldorf—a two-story Waldorf in the hub of a railroad roundhouse. A room costs $20 a day, and all night trains highball on by the hotel, freights collide with each other and the whole building rattles. Once a resident came downstairs and told the manager: "Uncouple me when we get to Chicago." The manager, who collects jokes, thought it was very funny.
Despite all this, there are few complaints by visitors to Du Quoin, and correctly so. The fleecing is executed in a painless way by pleasant people with a fine sense of humor. They apologize with a smile for their truck-stop menus with Cadillac prices and for their facilities or lack of them, and after a while there is the feeling, as one visitor puts it, "that you are making a very unique scene." On departure one is pricked by regret. But he is certain that the Rubus Americanus is practically extinct, and that he might be the only one left. He is also confident that he has admirably fulfilled his charitable obligations for the year, and strongly in favor of The Hambletonian remaining in Du Quoin—a view that is now supported by a regiment of newspapermen and horsemen. There still are some who would like to see the race held elsewhere, but they are mostly slickers with private axes to grind, and they do not disturb Don Hayes, who, through his own industry, his father's vision and the prosperity of Coca-Cola, is the custodian of The Hambletonian.
"Actually," says Don, "Bill and I [Bill is the son of Don's brother Gene, who, before his death a year and a half ago, was co-promoter of the event] are just carrying on where my father left off. He never did see The Hambletonian come here, but it was his dream all his life."
W. R. Hayes's contribution is best measured by the grounds on which The Hambletonian and the Du Quoin State Fair are held. The trees—about 3,000 of them—are fat and tall now, and the 1,400 acres roll away into brilliant patterns of small lakes and green grass. It was not always like this. Only 34 years ago the land, which was once the hunting ground of Kaskaskia Indian Chief Jean Du Quoigne and his tribe, was a pock-marked, grim profile of waste, the remains of the Black Gold strip mine. In 1931 W. R. Hayes purchased 800 acres and began the slow, tedious restoration of it. To date, the Hayes family has invested more than $2.5 million in the grounds, the Du Quoin State Fair and the promotion of The Hambletonian.
W. R. was a large man who looked more like a justice of the peace than a businessman with a booming Coca-Cola franchise and a dairy business. He was, one who knew him says, a "showman, a visionary, a realist, astute businessman, avowed champion of southern Illinois and a widowed mother's devoted son, who sold soda pop after his father was killed in a coal-mine accident when he was 6." The description smacks of a silent movie characterization, and it certainly would have embarrassed W. R. He did not care to bathe in the limelight, though he secretly enjoyed tiptoeing around it; he was extremely fond of show people and show business. W. R. Hayes was a dreamer who somehow managed to cling to his Midwest practicality, and a gambler who would not bet a nickel on a horse race.
To many people he was both dreamer and gambler when in 1940 he took his first step toward acquiring The Hambletonian. That year W. R. built the track that is now considered one of the finest and fastest in the country. But Du Quoin was still as unattractive to horsemen as a strip mine. Besides, Goshen, N.Y., redolent of age and tradition, had been the site of The Hambletonian for 26 years. So W. R. began chasing another dream. He would win the race—The Hambletonian—first.
Dr. H.M. Parshall—old "Doc" Parshall—had been a crack driver and trainer for years when W. R. hired him with the understanding that winning trotting's top prize was the objective. The experts said that Parshall, then in his 50s, was through, but Hayes thought otherwise, and he backed up Parshall with his soda-pop money. In 1948 Hayes and Parshall went to the fall auctions. Parshall advised Hayes to purchase four yearlings, which he did. He also parted with $26,000 for them—an astronomical figure in those days. In the group were a little red pacer named Dudley Hanover and a trotter called Lusty Song. In 1950 Hayes, then 73, went after The Hambletonian. He won it with Lusty Song. A few weeks later he won the Little Brown Jug with Dudley Hanover. It was the first time an owner had won the premier trotting and pacing races in the same year. W.R. died two years later. In 1957, when The Hambletonian Society decided to move from Goshen, Gene and Don Hayes won the open-bidding contest and brought the race to Du Quoin.
Immediately there were the expectable protests about poor accommodations and worse restaurants. The most serious complaint, apparently, was that the prestige of the race would suffer because no sensible member of the press, radio or TV would care to expose his tender hide to the dreadful southern Illinois summer. To be sure, the weather has not become any more inviting, but attitudes have changed. Newsmen covering the race now consider it more of a vacation than an assignment, and horsemen call Du Quoin the "Country Club of the Grand Circuit." The explanation for the change is obvious. One walks into one of the two Hayes homes that are the unofficial headquarters during Hambletonian Week and finds oneself swimming in hospitality, which in this case is composed of equal parts of bourbon and uncontrived graciousness. Amid the clicking of billiard balls, organ music and the talk of races run long ago, the social side of a sport's season reaches a peak. No one is certain whether W. R. would have approved of all this. Wearing rimless glasses and an imperious expression, he looks down from his picture on the wall with a censorious eye. "Oh, he wouldn't mind," says Don Hayes, "but sometimes I wonder what he thinks about having a $125,000 race right in his own backyard."
Still, it is not the race that one most remembers, but the background for the race: the town and the fair, a yellowed, cracked pencil drawing of another time. Give or take a few defections to and from Pinckneyville over the past year, the population of Du Quoin is 6,600. In a way, there are two Du Quoins. First, near the empty tracks and the roaring silence of the soggy afternoon, there is the Du Quoin of the imagination. The mind wanders, until a picture evolves:
Farmers, their faces like scuffed shoe leather, their jaws working in slow harmony on chewing tobacco, are sitting on the steps of a grain elevator. There is a hotel, and in the lobby the manager—who looks like Guy Kibbee—is napping behind the desk, his snoring adding counterpoint to the creaking of a slow-turning ceiling fan. On the crumbling old sheds near the railroad tracks there are circus posters, their bright colors faded. There is a drugstore, cool and dark inside. Wireback chairs encircle the tables, which have tops of cold marble. The man behind the apothecary counter is bald, and he is wearing a blue serge, lint-littered vest, and he has rubber bands around the middle of each arm to hold up his long sleeves. But you really don't have to look inside to tell it is a drugstore. Just walk by and there is the aroma in the air of root beer and cigars and ice cream. In the picnic grove a band is playing. Bugs dance in the yellow light of the pavilion. Children are playing tag, while parents are just listening to the chopping of the flat trumpets and the sepulchral beat of the bass drum: "Oh, He walks with me and He talks with me. ..."
But all of this is the Du Quoin of the imagination. There is no such place today. "That was a long time ago," says Stanley Hestand, the town poet, who used to compose verses on the linotype machine when he worked for the Du Quoin Evening Call. "It was a fine time. Ah, but there was another time, too. A good time also, although some of the good sisters of the church might disagree."
Undoubtedly they would. For once, when the land embracing it was dotted with productive mines, Du Quoin danced to a thousand foot-stompin' fiddlers, and vagabond evangelists descended on the town, spouting: "It's the devil and me—and no holds barred!" They considered Du Quoin a profitable obligation on their itinerary. Harlots, gamblers, flimflam artists and other assorted scoundrels besieged the town, and occasionally a few of the East St. Louis gangs would drop in for a bit of "walking-around money."
Du Quoin was one of the Big Rock Candy Mountains in southern Illinois, and then suddenly, as if someone had turned the lights out in a dance hall, it was all over. Now the earth is not generous anymore, the people are poor and the young do not stay. The profiteers, having ravished the land, are gone, and the worked-out strip mines encircling Du Quoin like so many ant holes have become a wreath of sad memories. As to the farmland, in most parts of southern Illinois it is worth about $150 an acre, compared to $600 an acre in central Illinois. Despite the efforts of the Hayes family and others, Du Quoin just sits there, a slain flower on the side of a dusty country road. "The people have never recovered from the mines and the Depression here," says a young doctor in town. "Talk about the Peace Corps. They ought to send the Peace Corps here."
Nevertheless, there is still a certain aura about Du Quoin that makes one look somewhat disapprovingly at his own way of life. There is a fine simplicity, a dim beauty to the town, though it is not a beauty that can be pointed to or held up. It is made of a hundred things heard and seen and felt: the flutter of a dark window shade on a hot afternoon, the houses with long wide porches with rockers and boxes of flowers, the big rooms of the houses filled with old furniture, the bats fleeing the chimney of the train depot as the sun goes down, the sound of balls being racked in the pool hall down the street, the desert quietness of the streets at night and the voices...
From a porch: "I vow, boy, you come back here right this minute. Your father will hear about this."
In a bar, Stanley Hestand reciting poetry: "This one, friends, is called Farewell to My Favorite Trotter: 'The fire that lies in Darn Safe's eyes/Is the spark that endures and intensifies./When the man at the gate gave the trotters the call/Darn Safe was ready to trot through a masonry wall.' "
In a store: "Mrs. Brown and her husband passed through town the other day. On their way back to St. Louis. Understand he's doin' right well up there."
Under a tree: "Ain't no work here, boy. Hasn't been for a long time."
Bartender John Alongi: "Gordon MacRae was in here once. Said I gave him the best glass of beer he ever had."
From a boy on the sidewalk: "Hey, I know you, Mister. You're Andy Williams. You're a singer! You're at the fair."
The fair, of course, is where everyone is. It is the most electric part of Hambletonian Week and the part most synonymous with the origins of harness racing. The county fair, long ago described as a pagan outbreak, is hardly a disappearing rite of rural life; the 400 U.S. fairs with trotting races drew 3.5 million people last year, and heaven knows how many others there were. There are two kinds of fairs, the sprawling, brassy, commercial ones and the small, brassy, noncommercial ones. Du Quoin is somewhere in between, not quite commercially repellent and not quite an authentic link to those of another day celebrated in musical comedies. Du Quoin presents top entertainment—George Burns, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton—but also the carny man, desperately stalking his mark in a dusty corner of the grounds. It is, however, far from being a pagan outbreak. Gamblers and scarlet ladies and pickpockets steer clear of Du Quoin and the Hayes Fair Acres during Hambletonian Week, leaving the self-righteous only the sight of small boys puffing furiously on cigarettes behind the tent where Mongo, The Fattest Man in the World, reigns in a supine position.
Out on the fairgrounds in the morning there are the sounds of birds chirping, chicken legs and bacon frying and the distant crack of a hammer. Soon the barns awake, and then, like the striking of a match, everything seems to come alive. A radio is turned on in one of the stables, and gospel music blends with the squealing of pigs from behind the barns. Everyone is busy around the stables. Grooms are pitching hay, lugging pails of water and shouldering sacks of feed. The trainers are meticulously preparing their horses for workouts. In monotonous cadence the horses clip-clop around the track, suddenly pounding down at you and then fading into small figures as they move along the backstretch. The trainers watch for a long time and then, one by one, they disappear along with their horses into the recesses of the barn area. Morning crawls toward noon. The beat of the fair increases.
The midway is still lifeless, but there is much more to Du Quoin than entertainment. The drama of the livestock shows is beginning to build. In the cool shade of the sheep tent men kneel in a line, their sheep by their sides, and the people in the small patch of stands gaze solemnly at them. The exhibitors, wearing straw hats, blue cotton shirts and white suspenders, kneel almost motionless. They are reticent men with initials like J. R., C. B. and R. D. for first names, and one wonders why it is that rural people so often use this form of nomenclature. Finally, after closely inspecting each animal, the judge is ready to make his decision. The eyes of the men do not move from the eyes of the judge. When he makes his decision, clapping chases the cathedrallike quiet. The winner accepts his blue ribbon, but he does not smile. The losers just shake their heads, look suspiciously at the judge and walk off into the hot sun.
The fair is a place for competition. It is evident everywhere you go. In the halls of the grandstand elderly women fuss over their needlework and their quilts and their pies and cakes, and they always seem painfully aware of the young woman down the hall who has just sprung a magnificent piece of pastry on them. It's not the pastry—it's just that she is so young.
As vital to the fair as competition is the fact that it is a meeting place for old friends who do not see each other often. Hundreds of families, the same ones every year, journey to Du Quoin, and they live in tents and trailers on the periphery of the fair. They usually stay for the entire week, much of which is devoted to the exchange of gossip and just looking. The men look longingly at the farm machinery on exhibit and the women look at each other. The boys just stare big-eyed at the stateliness and strength of the draft horses and the skill of the men controlling that strength. The old men, tired from the sun, wander the halls, browsing through the pamphlets at the various booths and inspecting everything from contour chairs to the display of caskets. Some peer inside the caskets or sit on them while others tap on the sides. None, however, engage in conversation with the man at the burial booth.
Afternoon is also time for racing, a kind of racing devoid of pomp and pandemonium and frenetic jockeying for the mutuel window. Much to the consternation of some, there is no betting, but this is not the reason for the unemotional atmosphere; rather, the spectators, many of them farmers, are just content to watch the animals perform, to see a demonstration of "heart" and speed and strength. Indeed, the crowd usually appears uninterested until the horses flatten out at the top of the stretch, and then there is just a low hum, a voice, like a high note on a trumpet, quivering: "Here he comes, boy! Here he comes now!" The Hambletonian is different, but only because the crowd—annually about 35,000—is somewhat different. There are many "city people" here for this race and, naturally, "being city people" they are much more vocal. But it is the farmers who sit in small pockets, the race long over, the evening shadows blanketing the grandstand, savoring and discussing with scholarship each moment of The Hambletonian.
By dusk the midway is in full swing, breathing new life into the fair. The night is touched by a soft, warm wind and scented with wood smoke and the aroma of barbecue fires. The thin trail of dust that is the midway is packed with people, and the air is torn with sound, a different sound at every few steps—the crack of a rifle in the shooting gallery, the gay yet melancholy tootle of a calliope, the deep growl of the Ferris-wheel motor, the hollow pop of wooden bottles being hit by a thrown ball, the screams of young girls being jolted by twisting rides and the brag and bluster of the pitchmen. "See Mongo, the fattest man in all the world! See Margo, Margo, the untamed girl raised by a wolf pack! Folks, this man will amaze you by rubbing a burning torch over his anatomy! Girls, ladies and gentlemen, girls! Straight from the Copacabana in New Yawk!" A handful of people gawk at the stage, their faces lined with sheepish grins. The girls, their hair like small clouds of yellow straw, stare vacantly at the audience. "Friends, come right in," says the little hustler on the stage. "There's nothing to be ashamed of, friends! There's nothing finer in all the world than a pretty girl!" The crowd is still small out front, and soon the show starts with only a dozen people."Once," says an old man operating a game near the stage, "there were suckers around as far as the eye could see, but now the only suckers are us people still looking for the suckers."
By 11 o'clock the crowd is almost gone. On the midway a man is carrying a little boy over his shoulder. The boy is sleeping, his dusty cheeks stained by dried tears. One hand is around his father's neck and the other, clutching a bale of cotton candy, dangles down the man's back. A light rain begins to spray the grounds, and the stragglers run for their cars. One by one the concessionaires begin to turn out their lights. Soon all you can see are the colorful stuffed animals hanging in the pale light of one booth and the eerily motionless horses of the merry-go-round at the far end of the midway. The day is dead, and it is time for the carnival men to hustle each other with a deck of cards or a pair of dice. "I don't know how you fellas can play cards," says one kibitzer. "Weren't no money around here today."
The end of the fair seems to come quickly. One morning about 5 o'clock you wake up and look out the window into the half-light, and the midway is ready to move down the tracks of the Illinois Central to the next town where, again, nobody will believe Margo was reared by a wolf pack. Out at the site of the fair one senses a great void. A thick ground fog blankets what was once the midway. A man, his head down, searches for lost coins. Du Quoin is once again 10 miles from Dog Walk and a hog holler from Crab Orchard. The odd time in town is over.