EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, journalism professors at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, traveled Illinois 1 this summer and recorded their journey. For our purposes, their journey started in Danville, but the six-part series will cover the length of the road from its origin near Cave in Rock and its end at the south side of Chicago.
On the Illinois 1 project, under a grant from Verizon, Poulter used an iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 928 cellphone.
LAWRENCEVILLE — At first, I think Bill Cobb is trying to pull a fast one.
It’s late morning on Illinois 1 in Lawrenceville, a town of about 4,300 that sits along the Embarras River about nine miles from Vincennes, which is perched directly across the Indiana border on the Wabash River.
Like most of southeast Illinois, the region is dotted with smaller cities such as Lawrenceville. Mount Carmel, 23 miles south, has a population of about 7,200, while about 8,600 people reside in Olney, 22 miles to the east. Robinson, just 22 miles north, has 6,800 residents.
There are also plenty of tiny villages along Illinois 1, such as Birds, an unincorporated village of 51 about eight miles north of Lawrenceville, and Flat Rock, a town of 415 six miles farther north.
The area also has large swaths of farmland that roll off into the horizon filled primarily with soy, wheat, and corn. Biplanes can be spotted dusting crops under a clear, blue sky.
That’s good news to Bill, whose life is built around produce.
When we spotted him, he was sitting in a white, plastic chair under an oversized red umbrella by a blue Chevy pickup that overflows with sweet corn, cantaloupe and watermelon. Corn and melons spread across the thick, green grass a few feet away along Illinois 1, and a melon cut in half reveals flesh that’s ruby red and particularly appealing to someone baking in 90-degree heat. He knows how to draw people to his corner here, a few blocks from downtown Lawrenceville.
Bill is wearing black sneakers, jeans, a blue-collared shirt, a black ball cap, and a wide, brown belt. Behind thick, brown glasses, his eyes sparkle when he smiles. At times, he appears boyish; at others, he looks frail, bent over and breathing heavily.
He sips coffee while sitting on the hatch of his truck, shaded by the more than 10-foot wide umbrella, a veteran move to keep cool by an experienced seller.
Bill has already apologized that he could not secure peaches when he made his rounds of several local farms that morning.
But that’s OK, because I hate peaches; not so much the taste as the fuzzy texture. Biting into a peach makes me feel as though I’m eating a furry bug, or worse.
As we talk, he invites me to pick out a cantaloupe.
Since I’m not the one who purchases our family’s produce, I’m not sure which cantaloupe to pick. They all look the same to me.
“You need to smell it,” Bill tells me.
I smile at his wit.
No, Bill says, I really have to stick my nose close to the cantaloupe and take a whiff.
I’ve always been deferential to older folks. And Bill, at age 78, makes this 50-year-old guy feel like a kid. So, I comply. But, apparently, I do so poorly.
Bill takes the melon from my hands and rotates it so I can sniff from the circle at the top.
He takes money from another customer, two construction workers buying a few dozen ears of corn and several melons, and folds the bills into his shirt pocket.
Meanwhile, I press my nose to the cantaloupe, sniffing unsuccessfully for an aroma.
“How’s it smell?” Bill asks.
“Terrific,” I lie. I pay for a cantaloupe that looks like nearly every other one, along with some sweet corn that, fortunately, does not require any sort of sense test.
Later, I ask my wife, Betsy, to describe a cantaloupe’s scent.
“It smells cantaloupy,” she says, which is not a help. Perhaps, she’s in on the joke. “They often will smell like nothing. They need to have a good, sweet, cantaloupy smell.”
If it smells “passed,” she says, the cantaloupe has started to deteriorate, which means, in nonscientific terms, the melon will be ewwy and icky.
A few days later, I ask Betsy: “So how was the melon?”
“It was delicious,” she says. Even my 18-year-old daughter, who usually disdains fruit, ate two bowls.
I admit I did not smell anything when I picked out the melon.
“I figured you had some help,” Betsy said, revealing the trust and wisdom that has kept us married for 24 years.
As we stand next to Bill Cobb, all kinds of folks stop by to purchase his produce here on the corner of Illinois 1 and Jefferson in Lawrenceville where he’s been selling produce for more than 30 years, he says. U.S. 50 is about 300 yards away, while the town’s square, where a witch was once hanged for murdering her husband, is just a few blocks away.
Bill sells anywhere from 150 to 200 dozen ears of corn a day as well as six bushels of cantaloupes and watermelons. He also sells peaches when he can get them from local farmers.
Once, a guy from South Carolina stopped in trying to offer peaches to Bill.
“I told him, if it’s not local,” Bill said, “I don’t want to deal with it.”
Someone once told him to sell Georgia watermelons, but Bill scoffed, saying they were not as sweet as those grown in Southern Illinois.
Peaches grow fairly well in Illinois, says Diane Handley, manager of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association. Apples and peaches are the top fruits grown in the state.
Illinois is also among the top producers of sweet corn, basil, green beans and popcorn. It ranks No. 1 nationally in pumpkins and horseradish, an herb that is so popular that it requires its own state association.
Typically, Bill sells to both regular customers and travelers along Illinois 1, staying each day until he sells his daily ration, which occasionally means he is done by noon, but which frequently means he stays until 4 p.m. That’s a long day for someone who starts picking up produce at 4:30 a.m. and starts selling by 9:30 a.m., doing especially brisk business on Tuesday and Thursdays during a farmers market on the square.
“They go downtown and price the corn and melons,” Bill says, a twinkle in his eye, “and then they come here to buy from me.”
Bill refrains from heading to the square for such markets since he gets to sell his wares here without paying rent, although he pays the city a $10 fee for the right to sell here in town.
Usually, his wife Rita helps, but she always heads back home around late morning to watch “Days of Our Lives.”
Some might say Bill stalked Rita before they married more than 45 years ago.
At least, that’s how it sounds when he recounts the story for Brian and me.
After 14 years of marriage, Bill’s first wife sought a divorce and custody of their three sons and one daughter. After a while Bill, who worked at a gas station, decided he needed a wife. So he told a close friend: “I’m hunting for another woman. Do you know any available women?”
Indeed he did, a gal named Rita who worked at RCA in Bloomington, Ind., and who had, incidentally, also just divorced.
So Bill drove over to her house and waited for Rita to return home from work. At midnight, Bill noticed Rita’s porch light had been turned on, so he walked to the front door and knocked.
Understandably, Rita was startled. “If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to come at a decent hour,” she said.
Rita had enlisted a neighbor to serve as a chaperone, or perhaps as protector, against the weird fellow who stopped by at midnight, which in 1968 probably seemed more bizarre than it might today.
Eventually, the neighbor departed, but Bill and Rita kept talking. Bill learned that Rita had married an American soldier who was serving on a base in Germany. After moving to Southern Illinois and giving birth to four daughters, she sought a divorce. Two weeks after this conversation, Bill and Rita married. Later that year, they moved to Germany, living there until returning to Lawrenceville in October 1970. In May, they celebrated their 45th anniversary.
In the interim, Bill has managed a Checker gas station a few blocks from this corner and has driven semis across the country for three regional trucking companies. He retired earlier this year, in part because a titanium disk inserted into his back has made it difficult to walk or to stand for long periods. But, each summer, he still sells produce here in Lawrenceville, even if the locations have changed through the years.
Before we depart, Bill’s son-in-law, Pablo, stops by, driving a mass transit mini-bus onto the lot, where the small white building sitting 30 yards behind us previously housed both a Mach 1 gas station and a pawn shop. We talk about soccer, especially the Malaga Football Club that plays in Spain’s La Liga premier division that reached the quarterfinals of the 2013 UEFA Champions League, losing by a goal to runner-up Germany’s Dortmund — an impressive feat lost on most American sports fans
But Pablo doesn’t care because he loves living in Southern Illinois. “I’m from Spain,” Pablo says. “But I am an American.”
Pablo selects a cantaloupe that, apparently, is ripe without sniffing, and he smiles as he walks away with it, which catches Bill’s attention.
“Pay?” Pablo says. “For me, this should be free since you’re my father-in-law.”
“For you,” Bill says with a wide smile, “three-fifty.”
Pablo smiles, pays Bill, and departs in the mini-bus, waving as he does so.
Before we leave, I notice a tattoo peeking out from Bill’s left sleeve, so I ask what it looks like.
Bill tugs up his sleeve, revealing an arrow through a heart with the name Rita emblazoned inside it.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Bill says, “but we’ve had a real good life.”
Brian asks for the secret to a happy marriage.
Without pause, Bill replies: “Just do what mama says.”