Home-grown inspiration

Clockwise from top left: Freeport debate memorial; Ottawa debate memorial; Ottawa ‘radium girl’; Dubuque Mark Twain (Sharon’s photos)

There’s no place like home.”

– Dorothy Gale

If it’s fair to define home broadly — as the whole Midwest — I’ve been looking around my back yard a lot lately.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to set some mysteries in the places I know best. I think there’s a lot of hidden charm in areas I can drive to in a day or less. This summer, I started doing serious research in those areas, especially around the upper Mississippi — Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. I’ve made a few trips to collect experiences, maps and tourist publications. I’ve talked to people I’ve met along the way. And I’ve made a point of stopping in places I’ve taken for granted to take pictures of things I usually just pass by.

In Dubuque, Iowa, I sat with Mark Twain on his bench at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Some of my kids had already been there, but I hadn’t. In the few hours I was there, I only got through half the facility. I need to go back for the rest.

I also spent a day with family in Ottawa, Illinois. I have no idea how many times I’ve driven by Washington Park, glanced at the Lincoln-Douglas fountain and statue, but never stopped. This time, my sister and I parked the car and walked to the memorial of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. We took pictures, then strolled out of the park to visit another statue.

Many have read the book Radium Girls by Kate Moore, or seen the play or movie based on the book. My parents grew up in Ottawa, where the story began. And much of the family is still there. In 2011, the city erected a bronze “Radium Girl” at the corner of Clinton and West Jefferson streets, just a few blocks from the park where the debate is memorialized. Local sculptor William Piller created the statue, after his daughter, then in eighth grade, began asking local officials to commemorate the tragedy of the women who died from radiation poisoning after working at the Radium Dial company.

And, having finally stopped to photograph the Ottawa debate site, I decided it was time to do the same in Freeport, which is close to where I live. Debate Square is between the public library and the city’s favorite ice cream shop. On a pleasant summer night, couples sat in benches around the bronze, talking and eating cones.

The site of the second historic debate, the encounter between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas remains significant because that was where Douglas established what would become the “Freeport Doctrine,” an attempt not to eliminate, but to restrict the spread of slavery in U.S. territories. In 2020, Douglas’ statue at the capitol in Springfield, Illinois, came down, while Lincoln’s remained. Still, their debates were an important milestone in history of the state and the nation.

The 1858 debate tour stops were Ottawa on Aug. 21; Freeport, Aug. 27; Jonesboro, Sept. 15; Charleston, Sept. 18; Galesburg, Oct. 7; Quincy, Oct 13; and Alton, Oct. 15. (And that is a clue about which were the important cities in Illinois in the 19th century. Notice anything missing?)

I’ve added visiting the rest of the Illinois debate sites to my “to do” list. Why not? Maybe I’ll write a book set in each town.

All that is to say, I’ve been finding lots of inspiration for stories close to home this summer.