Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Lord Speaks in Mysterious Ways: Quincy's 'Jesus Tree'

It takes a bit of faith to see the so-called Jesus Tree, located in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Quincy.

Maybe quite a bit of faith.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a cemetery worker was strolling through the cemetery grounds when he stopped to look at an ancient birch tree. The tree, estimated to be more than 150 years old, had a protruding knot on one side.

As the worker looked at the tree he saw, for the first time, that the growth and surrounding darkened bark resembled a life-sized, bearded, longhaired man in a long robe, standing with his arms wrapped around a lamb---clearly the image of Jesus Christ, he thought.

At first, he kept his discovery to himself but then decided he had to share it with others. Word quickly spread about the miraculous image of Jesus on the tree and stories soon appeared in the local media.

Within a short time, thousands of visitors were stopping by daily to view what became known as “The Jesus Tree” or “The Good Shepherd Tree.” A nearby guest book recorded more than 30,000 signatures.

The cemetery responded by roping off the area around tree, primarily to keep true believers from striping off pieces of bark to take home as souvenirs.

These days, the number of people wanting to see the Jesus Tree appears to have dwindled. Still, it’s said that the best way to view the image is to stand 15 to 20 feet away from the tree at the northeast corner of the roped off area. From there, you can clearly see the big knot, which, from the right angle and in the right light, does appear to look like a person holding something. If you stare long enough you begin to see eyes and long hair in the bark.

It could look like Jesus. Or just a tree with a big knot on its side.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Where Wyatt Earp was born—or not

One of Illinois’ most famous native sons is a man not usually associated with the Land of Lincoln. Legendary western lawman Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Ill. on March 19, 1848, the fourth of six children of Nicholas Porter Earp and Virginia Ann Earp.

The place Earp is believed to have been born is a two-story, pioneer Greek-Revival style house at 406 3rd Street (however, a local Monmouth College history professor has argued he was born in a different house).

Regardless of whether he was actually born in that house, which is officially known as the Wyatt Earp Birthplace and Museum, he certainly didn’t initially spend a whole lot of time there or in any other home in Monmouth. Less than two years after his birth, his father announced plans to move to California but made it as far as Pella, Iowa (about 150 miles west of Monmouth).

By 1856, the Earp clan was back in Monmouth, this time residing in a house at either 409 or 411 South B Street (historians aren’t sure about this, either), before returning to Pella in 1859.

The peripatetic Earps apparently finally headed out to California by wagon train in 1864. About five years later, Earp cropped up in Lamar, Missouri, where he took a position as the town constable, his first stint as a lawman (ironically, about two years later he fled amidst charges he had stolen money from the community and was a horse thief).

Earp’s ties to Illinois, however, weren’t completely severed. By 1872, he was living in the Peoria area, apparently operating a brothel with his brother, Morgan.

Both brothers were arrested in February 1872 and charged with “keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame.” The two Earps were picked up again a few months later at the same house of ill repute and then shifted their business to a floating whorehouse on the Illinois River.

In August 1872, authorities also broke up this operation and it is believe that the Earp brothers soon left the area for good.

Of course, after that Earp went on to become one of the West’s most renowned lawmen.

His later exploits as a deputy marshal in the lawless town of Dodge City, Kansas, and his role in the infamous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 made him famous. He died in Los Angeles in 1929 at the age of 80.

As for the Earp Birthplace and Museum, in 2007 its owners, Robert and Melba Matson, who have fought long and hard to persuade the world that their house is the real deal, put the popular attraction up for sale (they’ve retired in Arizona).

So far no one has met the minimum asking price of $100,000 but the owners remain optimistic. In the meantime, the museum is open daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Additionally, the museum hosts an annual Wyatt Earp Day in late July.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Purple Martin's Majesty

People in Griggsville really love purple martins.

They like the birds so much that more than 5,000 birdhouses line the city streets and in the town center they erected a 562-unit avian high-rise, which serves as home to hundreds of the blue-black birds (members of the swallow family) that are valued for their alleged ability to allegedly consume 2,000 mosquitoes per day.

The town is so enamored with the birds that it has proclaimed itself the Purple Martin Capital of the Nation. The claim even appears on the town’s water tower.

Griggsville’s purple martin-mania can be traced to 1962, when the local Jaycees were trying to combat a persistent mosquito problem—in the summer months Griggsville is a magnet for the bloodsuckers because it’s near both the Illinois and Mississippi rivers—but hesitant to use increasing amounts of chemical pesticides.

A local man, J.L. Wade, suggested that purple martins might be the answer because they eat nothing but tons of flying insects and, at the time, were an endangered species. Also, he knew that the birds don’t build their own nests but like to inhabit manmade structures.

Wade and the Jaycees consulted with ornithologists and developed a two-story, aluminum bird abode, which became known as the M-12K house. The design was so successful that Wade, who previously manufactured TV antennas, began commercially building the structures; his company is now known as Nature House Inc.

Later that year, the Jaycees installed more than two-dozen of the distinctive green and white houses, attached to tall aluminum poles at 100-foot intervals along the community’s main road. However, the service club’s crowning achievement was erecting a tower of martin manors rising 70-feet high and featuring 562 apartments.

The giant avian condo attracted hundreds of the little birds and thrust Griggsville into the forefront as the country’s most purple martin-friendly town.

These days, the town and the purple martins have settled into a comfortable state of co-existence. The birds find convenient, welcoming quarters when they hit town (they winter in Brazil) while the townspeople gain a natural predator that devours pesky flying insects including dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, June bugs, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, wasps and flying ants.

The community also sells plenty of t-shirts and other chotchkies labeled with a silhouette of a martin and the words, “America’s Most Wanted Bird.”

Of course, 5,000 birdhouses and a comparable number of birds (and bird guano) beg the question—do those little aluminum abodes come with bathrooms?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Casbah on the Mississippi

One of the more unusual sights in the historic town of Quincy is a two-story Moroccan-style castle that overlooks the Mississippi River.

Located south of the downtown, the structure known as Villa Kathrine was erected in 1900 by a wealthy local eccentric named George Metz.

Metz’ fortune was inherited; in fact, he never worked a day in his life. His father, William, was a successful local pharmacist. After his mother died in 1897 (his father had passed away four years earlier), Metz embarked on a two-year tour of the Mediterranean and Africa.

When he returned, he began planning a private residence that would incorporate the architectural style and design of the Mediterranean/Northern African buildings he had admired during his travels, Specifically, he wanted to re-create the look of the Villa ben Abhen in Morocco.

IN 1900, Metz purchased a site on a bluff south of State Street (now known as 532 Gardner Expressway) and began working with a local architect, George Behrensmeyer, to design the plans for his dream house, which, it is said, was named after his mother (although, weirdly, her name was spelled Katherine).

He shared sketches, notes and drawings he’d made during his journeys with Behrensmeyer, who incorporated many of the concepts into the final plans.

A year later, the structure was completed at a total cost of $7,000. Despite its exotic look, the house was constructed using local materials, including local limestone in the foundation.

From the outside, Villa Kathrine certainly has nothing in common with the other turn-of-century Victorian and Queen Anne mansions in Quincy, which boasts a sizeable inventory of such homes.

On its north end is a tall, rectangular tower topped by a large dome while at the opposite end there is another, similar-sized tower, decorated with diamond lattice work and capped with a small minaret decorated with red and white stripes —said to resemble the Mosque of Thais in Tunisia.

Mediterranean-Arabic furniture, artifacts and antiques, which Metz had purchased during his travels, were used to furnish and decorate the house.

Few photos of the house’s interior exist so it’s not known how it originally was arranged or appeared.

A very private person who never married, Metz, however, was no shut-in. A 1908 Quincy Daily Journal article noted that the Ladies of the Round Table, a Quincy women’s social club, were given a tour of the residence by Metz, who “told them all about the treasures in it that he had gotten in Algiers.”

Metz main companion for many years was a 212-pound bullmastiff, named Bingo. According to reports, Metz bought the dog, said to be the biggest mastiff in the world, in 1900 in Denmark.

When Bingo died in 1906, the enormous canine was said to have been buried in Metz’ rose garden, wearing a diamond-studded collar. In later years, after the house was abandoned, fortune hunters dug up the grounds in the hope of locating the collar.

Historians, however, believe the story of the jeweled collar is apocryphal since there’s no record Metz ever purchased such an item.

In 1912, Quincy grocer Archibald Behrens and his wife persuaded Metz to sell his home to them. At the time, Metz was 63 years old and his family was concerned about him living alone in the two-story house. Behrens and his wife said they loved the house and all of its furnishings and promised to be good stewards.

The Behrens, however, were merely fronting for a local railroad, which wanted to tear down the house and use the site for a railroad yard. In return for their role in the purchase, the railroad promised the contents of the house to the Behrens.

Once Metz vacated the house, however, vandals carted off many of the antiques and furnishings. It’s said that the Behrens ended up with only a single rug.

By 1913, when Metz visited the house with a reporter from St. Louis, he found it in sorry condition with most of its beautiful furnishings gone. He vowed never to return, although he did nearly two decades later, only to be saddened by the sorry state of his dream castle.

After selling the house, Metz moved into the Hotel Newcomb in downtown Quincy and, later, the Lincoln Douglas Hotel. He died of pneumonia in 1937.

Interestingly, the railroad never built its railyard and the house sat vacant for several decades. In 1939, it was partially restored and during the next decade passed through several owners. In 1955, the Quincy Park District obtained the villa and surrounding property, which became a neighborhood park.

Starting in the 1970s, local preservationists began an effort to restore the castle to its original splendor. In recent years, the house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to renovate the structure, which is now home of the Quincy Tourist Information Center, which offers daily self-guided tours of the villa.