I have roamed the continental United States –sometimes with nothing but a rucksack strapped across my shoulders. Like St. Paul, I know what it is to go hungry and what it is to be well fed. Those times I have been well fed were at the Mom and Pop diners off dusty highways in sleepy rural towns. The people who run these diners know how to feed a body to contentment with food that is sometimes from farm to table. And the further west you go the thicker the food and the generous the portions. If you chat up people and tell them a good story sometimes you might be fed. Like the wandering Druids of ancient Scotland, Ireland, and Wales who played music while singing their poetry, the quality of their food and board were determined by the quality of their storytelling.
This weekend, I went to Galesburg, IL with Ronnie to visit her parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Galesburg is forty miles west of Peoria on I-74, and is the last exit before I-74 becomes I-80 and takes you to Davenport, IA. The town is small and, from what I’m told by my father in law who grew up there, is slowly dying. Galesburg was a booming town due to the brick factory. However, like all businesses after economic globalization, the brick factory was moved to a different location where cheaper wages could be paid. Without this primary source of income the economy of Galesburg was wrecked. But the people of Galesburg are not going gentle into the night. The culture and history still lives at Maid Rite Diner.
Maid Rite is owned and operated by two ladies who have been there from the beginning. The diner is on the side of Highway 150, and the parking lot consists of loose gravel kicked up by the cars and trucks turning off the road. Ronnie has been going here since she was a child. Though they live in Bolingbrook, IL, her parents go to the Spoon River Drive Festival held every year in early October. Ronnie’s dad grew up eating here, and Maid Rite was the first stop on the way to the festival. Ronnie wanted me to try the diner, but worried I would hate it because of my aversion to rural areas due to who I am and how I dress. I had no such apprehension. I’m going to a diner I’ve never been too, and I was excited.
The area was small, but every inch was utilized to make the most out of the tiny space. The first third of the perimeter was outlined with tables for two, the second third was a counter with circular red stools bolted to the floor, and the final area was an island where the meat is steamed and sandwiches prepared. Before we sat down, Ronnie and I went up to one of the ladies to place our order.
On the walls are black and white photos from the late 19th century telling the story of Galesburg’s beginnings. In the corner on the far right is a bookshelf with yearbooks from Galesburg High School going as far back as 1923. Ronnie and I went through the yearbooks from the late 1940s to the early 1950s looking for her grandparents who were just as sassy and attractive in their late teens as they are in their eighties.
I noticed most of the patrons who pulled themselves up to the counter had thin, white hair whose words were wound in the rhythm of the constant turns off Highway 150. They kept mostly to themselves, and sometimes they would talk to the young guys who sat across from them.
Like any other place where people meet they spoke of what is happeing in their lives, and how they see the world compared to the stories their parents and grandparents told them. Ronnie told me this is what everyone in Galesburg does when they go to Maid Rite. I took in the conversations, the pictures on the wall, and the yearbook collection ranging ninety-four years. I looked at Ronnie, “So if I really want to know about Galesburg, I need to come here to talk to people and listen to their stories.” She shook her head, “Yes.”
But isn’t that anywhere, though? Sure, you can read books by historians or snippets from old newspapers, and you can get as close to the objective facts as you can. That objectivity is important, but the story is only half spoken. To feel the emotion of history you will have to ask people who were there. Their story is not the truth with a capital T, but it is their truth as they experience the changes in their community. Maid Rite isn’t a diner. It’s a piece of holy writ preserving the story of a community so future generations can understand their modern story in a historic context.