Sunday, June 15, 2008

Discovering Dickson Mounds

When most people think about huge ancient monoliths, they picture pyramids in Egypt, temples in Greece or Mayan and Aztec structures in Central and South America. They don’t, however, usually look to America’s Native people for such constructions.

But nearly camouflaged across the wide expanses of the American Midwest and South are thousands of earthen mounds, some quite large, that, in their own way, are as impressive as any stone structure built in Athens or Machu Picchu.

Archaeologists believe that the mounds were built over a long period of time, between about 3,000 B.C. and 1,200 A.D. (scientists aren’t in agreement over when mound building started).

The mounds served as burial places for the Native Americans as well as the foundations for ceremonial temples and homes of prominent individuals and families.

Dickson Mounds, located 5 miles southeast of Lewistown, Illinois, is named after the family that once owned the site. It is recognized as one of the best examples of Native American burial mounds and is the site of the Dickson Mounds Museum, which is devoted to telling the story of the region’s earliest inhabitants.

The first people to arrive in the Dickson Mounds area are believed to have been hunter-gatherer Indians who arrived in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. about 10,000 years ago. About 1,000 B.C., a group that has become known as the Woodland Era Indians began to settle throughout the region.

Scientists believe the Woodland people built the first mounds, which were primarily used for burials. According to historian David K. Turner, the Woodland people had a fairly well developed culture with burial practices that included cremation as well as wrapping bodies to preserve them and burying bodies in a face-up position.

Turner said the Woodland people apparently believed in an afterlife and buried tools and supplies with the deceased. He said the mounds have also yielded digging tools, arrowheads and baskets for carrying the earth used to form them.

About 800 A.D., the Woodland Era ended as Mississippian Native Americans moved into the region. The Mississippian people are thought to be the builders of the largest and most impressive mounds in the Midwest, including Dickson Mound and the giant Cahokia (or Monks) Mound in East St. Louis, Illinois.

The Dickson Mound site was a good location because it overlooked the Illinois River and the wetlands of the Illinois River Valley, meaning it was close to fresh water and food. The Mississippians maintained a village at Dickson Mounds until about 1200 A.D., when they mysteriously abandoned the area.

The modern history of Dickson Mounds began in the 1800s, when pioneer Americans began to settle in Illinois. By then, the mounds had blended into the surrounding countryside, resembling the natural rolling hills found throughout the state.

Following the War of 1812, tracts of land throughout the state were given to war veterans. When those farmers began to prepare their land for planting crops, they found a variety of Indian artifacts.

The first white settlers in the area included the John Eveland family, which bought the land at the foot of the Dickson Mounds bluff, including the site of a prehistoric Indian village.

In 1833, William Dickson purchased the bluff and, in 1866, while clearing trees to plant an orchard, he discovered an ancient Indian burial ground. A few years later, his son, Thomas, destroyed a section of a burial mound while building a house.

In 1927, Thomas Dickson’s son, Dr. Don F. Dickson, began carefully excavating a portion of the mound. Dr. Dickson, who was a chiropractor, recognized the importance of preserving the site so he dug around the buried bodies, leaving them in situ, or in place the way they were found.

His work attracted University of Chicago archaeologists, who excavated in the area and established many of the methods and field techniques now standard in archaeological digs.

On his family property, Dr. Dickson uncovered the remains of nearly 250 Native Americans, which he protected, first, under a tent, then enclosed in a museum building. From the 1930s to 1992, the skeletons and hundreds of artifacts unearthed by Dr. Dickson were displayed to the general public in the private Dickson Mound Museum.

In 1945, Dr. Dickson, who died in 1964, sold the site to the state of Illinois. He and his family were employed by the Illinois Department of Conservation to manage the museum, which they did for the next two decades. In 1972, a new museum structure was built on the site, which was designed to resemble the low, squared shape of the original mounds.

In the early 1990s, Illinois state officials responded to repeated requests from Native American groups to properly respect the Indian remains by agreeing to re-cover the burial site and rebuild the museum so that it did not expose the remains to the public.

The result is that while the remains are no longer available for public viewing, the museum’s nature and scope has changed significantly. The revamped facility opened in 1994 with a new focus on the history of the various people who have lived in the Illinois River Valley region.

The museum contains permanent displays describing the history and development of the region, the native people who once lived there and the area’s rich plant and animal life. It also boasts rotating galleries, a well-stocked gift shop and meeting space.

The 230-acre Dickson Mounds Museum complex encompasses the location of two cemeteries and ten mounds. The Eveland Village Site, near the museum building, includes the remains of three excavated ceremonial Mississippian buildings, which can be viewed in the summer months.

An observation deck on top of the museum building offers a good overview of the surrounding mounds, which really do look like small hills. On a bluff top just above the confluence of the Illinois and Spoon Rivers, which is visible from the deck, visitors can see the Larson Site, believed to have been a Mississippian temple town.

The museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and there is no admission charge. For more information, call 309-547-3721, or go to

Monday, April 14, 2008

Unforgettable Forgotonia

Main Street of Fandon, Capital of Forgotonia

Nearly-forgotten Gibson Cemetery, southwest of Fandon

In the late 1960s, Western Illinois was feeling pretty ignored.

Passenger train service to Chicago had been cut. A proposal to build a superhighway from Chicago to Kansas City via the area had failed in Congress on two occasions. Carthage College, which had been in the Western Illinois city of the same name since 1870, was abruptly relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The obvious answer, according to one group of Western Illinois University students, was to declare independence and secede from the state of Illinois.

Thus, Forgotonia (also spelled Forgottonia) was born.

Springfield was no longer the state capital. The capital of Forgotonia was a small settlement south of Colchester called Fandon. The governor was no longer Illinois chief executive Daniel Walker but Western Illinois University senior Neal Gamm.

A few true believers overprinted the name of their new state on U.S. postage stamps and, according to George R. Carlisle, who reflected on the independence movement in a 1998 essay, there were even a few billboards announcing when drivers were entering Forgotonia, including one at Havana.

The new state of Forgotonia encompassed 14 Western Illinois counties including Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Knox, McDonough, Morgan, Pike, Schuyler, Scott and Warren.

Much like a similar independence movement that began in the 1940s in Northern California and Southern Oregon to create the state of Jefferson, Forgotonia was birthed out of the frustration that rural Western Illinoisans felt regarding the urban-dominated state government.

Perhaps the biggest point of contention was roads. Western Illinois residents wanted modern, four-lane freeways to be able to reach Chicago, Springfield, Peoria—even to get from Galesburg to Macomb—but their requests for state funding to build wider, more direct routes, which could boost local economic development efforts, fell on deaf ears.

As James D. Nowlan noted in a September 1998 article in Illinois Issues magazine, “at the time, travelers couldn’t get to western Illinois from anywhere else. There just weren’t any good roads out there.”

While Forgotonia’s founders clearly had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks when they proclaimed their intention to carve out America’s 51st state, they succeeded in focusing attention on serious public policy issues.

The state’s political figures began to take notice of the region’s inadequate roads, lack of rail passenger service and other shortcomings when it came to infrastructure.

In 1971, the state of Illinois finally responded by creating the “Illinois Service” initiative, which partnered with the then-newly established federal train system, Amtrak, to provide state-subsidized rail service between Chicago and downstate communities.

As a result, regular passenger service was once again available between the state’s largest city and Forgotonia cities like Kewanee, Galesburg, Macomb and Quincy. In 2006, that service was doubled as Amtrak began offering two daily roundtrip trains on the Chicago-to-Quincy route.

Similarly, Forgotonia’s roads were gradually improved. In addition to more regular resurfacing of existing roads, State Route 67 between Macomb and Monmouth was widened to four lanes in the early 21st century, as was the road between Quincy and Carthage (which will eventually be extended from Carthage to Macomb). There are also plans to build a direct highway between Macomb and Peoria within the next few years.

That is, of course, unless they forget.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Strange Story of Vishnu Springs

Ghost towns aren’t supposed to be found in the Midwest.

They’re supposed to be forgotten places, perhaps with a few weather-beaten, wooden shacks and crumbling brick storefronts, tucked in a remote corner of somewhere in the American West.

But hidden in the rolling hills of Western Illinois, about six miles north of the hamlet of Tennessee, is a genuine ghost town known as Vishnu Springs. It was established in the 1880s as a health and vacation spa, then largely abandoned since the early 20th century.

And it’s said to be haunted.

According to a paranormal web site,, “Vishnu is an old abandoned township located just west of Colchester. There are feelings of being watched, viewed shadow like beings in darkened corners.”

Additionally, other sources report sightings of a woman dress in black wandering the former Capitol Hotel, the largest and most intact structure still standing.

More serious historians, like retired Western Illinois University English Professor John Hallwas, who has written extensively on the history of Western Illinois, dismiss such talk and are concerned that amateur ghost hunters and curiosity seekers won’t respect the town site.

“The factor that leads to the rise of paranormal stories is usually the fact that people don’t know a lot about a location,” Hallwas told the Macomb Eagle in 2007. “If you were to ask someone who had lived in Vishnu Springs back at the turn of the century or the early 20th century about ghosts out there, they would have thought you were crazy.”

A visit to Vishnu Springs offers a few clues as to why some believe the site might host otherworldly spirits. For one thing, it’s a creepy place. The abandoned three-story hotel stands in a protected hollow surrounded by tall trees.

Even during the day, long shadows stretch across the hotel’s fa├žade, casting it in a state of perpetual gloom.

The site is not open to the public but the local McDonough County Historical Society conducts occasional tours. During one last year, which was led by Professor Hallwas, the focus was on history not ghost stories. Yet the truth behind Vishnu Springs illustrates that sometimes the two aren’t that far apart.

“The remoteness of the place was a determining factor in it being here,” Hallwas noted. “The remoteness was part of its appeal, but it was also a factor that caused the community not to survive.”

According to Hallwas, Vishnu Springs traces its roots to the mid-1800s, when a man named Ebenezer Hicks began purchasing property around Tennessee. Hicks eventually owned more than 5,000 acres, including a parcel, called Section 7 of the Tennessee Township, which contained a small natural spring.

Sometime in the 1880s, Dr. John Aiken learned of Tennessee Springs, as it was originally called, and became convinced they had medicinal powers. He leased the property from Hicks and began selling bottles of the spring water as a health tonic for everything from bladder inflammation to diseases “peculiar to women.”

It was also about this time that the name was changed to Vishnu Springs. According to the nonprofit Friends of Vishnu Springs, which maintains a web site (, there are two explanations for the unusual name.

One version is that Dr. Aiken chose the name to honor the Hindu God Vishnu, who is the preserver of living things. Dr. Aiken thought the name reflected the healing nature of the springs.

However, the other take is that Ebenezer Hicks’ son, Darius, who, in 1886, inherited the springs, named it after reading a book that described the discovery of the ancient, lost city of Angkor in the jungles of Cambodia. Angkor’s water comes from the river Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu in the Hindu religion.

Apparently Dr. Aiken’s health elixir did not make him a wealthy man and he moved on. But Darius Hicks thought there was something special about the spring and, in 1889, began developing a resort-health spa on the site.

In 1889-90, the younger Hicks erected a fine three-story hotel at a cost of $2,500. About the same time, Hicks also married Hattie Rush, a widow from Missouri with three children. Hattie Hicks was apparently not a well woman and it is believed she came to the area to take advantage of the springs medicinal qualities.

In addition to building the hotel, Hicks subdivided the land around the springs, plating a town site consisting of about three blocks containing 30 lots, which he began to sell.

Within a few years, Vishnu Springs had been sufficiently built up that it included the hotel, several stores and homes, a livery stable, a racetrack and a photography studio. In 1895, a post office opened inside the hotel. There was even regular wagon service between Colchester and Vishnu, known as the Vishnu Transfer Line.

But a series of misfortunes helped to push Vishnu Springs into decline. The first occurred in the early 1900s, when a horse-drawn merry-go-round was installed to amuse the children of spa guests. The clothing of the man who operated the ride became ensnared in the device’s mechanism and he was crushed to death. Following the accident, the merry-go-round was never used again.

Additionally, in 1886, Hicks’ wife, Hattie, died from Bright’s disease (a kidney ailment). Hicks quickly remarried—but scandalized the community by wedding his own step-daughter, Maud, who was 26 years his junior. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one but Maud died in 1903 while giving birth to their third child.

Shortly after, Hicks hired Nellie Darrah to watch his children and take care of his house. Apparently, Hicks and Darrah struck up a personal relationship and it’s believed she became pregnant with his child.

In June 1908, after Hicks told Darrah he would not marry her, she apparently sought to terminate the pregnancy. Later newspaper reports noted there were complications from the “criminal surgical procedure” and she was rushed to a hospital in Keokuk, Iowa.

Hicks received a telephone call that apparently notified him of these events. He told his nine-year-old son, Reon, that the boy could have his pocket watch, and then scribbled a suicide note asking that his children by raised by a cousin and stating that he knew he was about to become involved in a scandal but was innocent of the claims.

As the boy was walking to the barn, he heard a gunshot, rushed back into the house and found Hicks on the ground in a pool of his own blood. He died a short time later and was buried in the family plot in Friendship Cemetery in Tennessee.

“Hicks’ departure doomed the town,” Hallwas said. By the 1920s, the community was abandoned. However, in 1935, Macomb resident Ira Post, who had visited the spa as a child, purchased the site and restored the old hotel.

For the next two decades, Post used the property as a retreat for his family and friends. After his death in 1951, the family kept the springs open for three more years before closing it due to vandalism problems.

During the next several decades there were at least two attempts to revive the community. In the 1960s, the Post family leased the hotel and surrounding property to Alfred White and Albert Simmons, who announced plans to re-open the hotel and offer food and live music. The project, however, never came to fruition.

In the early 1970s, the hotel was rented out as a kind of commune for a group of Western Illinois University students and their friends. The group held music festivals, gardened and raised livestock to pay their expenses but after about a decade the effort was abandoned.

In 2003, Olga Kay Kennedy, a WIU graduate and the granddaughter of Ira Post, donated Vishnu Springs and 140 acres around the hotel to Western University with the understanding that it be developed as a wildlife sanctuary. The university, which has closed the site to all visitors, is currently developing a master plan for the site.

In recent years, the relative mystery surrounding the remote springs coupled with the tales of ghostly sightings has made it an irresistible attraction for local teens and WIU college students, particularly around Halloween time. In fact, on Halloween evening in 2007, police reported arresting more than a dozen individuals trying to gain access to the site.

In the end, it’s hard to say if Vishnu Springs truly is haunted—if you believe in such stuff. However, if it is, the ghosts seem to be fairly polite and quiet—no reports of crazy apparitions, strange lights or rattling chain noises—but that’s what probably what you would expect in a proper Midwestern ghost town.