Southern Illinois is nestled between two of the biggest rivers on the continent. Historically, regular floods of both the Ohio and the Mississippi left the region covered deep in silt, fantastically fertile soil. Until the early twentieth century, most of our country’s wheat was grown here.
Settlers arrived here early, brought in by the rivers and the trails made by migrating bison. A longstanding family feud, the Bloody Vendetta, claimed hundreds of lives. Prohibition era gangsters and bootleggers crisscrossed the area, and it was at the center of the chilling Reverse Underground Railroad.
Coal was discovered here in the 1880s and quickly became big business. Mine owners from then into the early 1900s scoured Eastern Europe for cheap labor, and brought many immigrants to southern Illinois. It was noted in 1915 that “a person standing on the steps of the courthouse in Harrisburg (the county seat of Saline county) can hear a dozen different languages in as many minutes.”
One of those early mines was the Big Muddy, where the mine owner built a company town and populated it with workers from Slovakia. These were Russian Orthodox people, and in 1913 they built a church dedicated to Saint Iosaph of Belgorod. Sixty families made up the parish, and the church had two bells that, when rung together sounded “foreign and mysterious” to quote one man who grew up here in the thirties.
It was eerie, bumping over the railroad tracks into the town of Muddy. Maybe the people who live there are content as they can be, but we know only what we can see until we learn otherwise.
Now home to about seventy souls, the town is dominated by a concrete coal tipple built in 1923. It processed coal from the Big Muddy mine until the mine closed for good after the historic Ohio River flood of 1937. Other nearby operations continued to provide employment, but the population of Muddy began a long slow decline.
We wandered around the tipple, from which coal was loaded into railroad cars. A nearby brick building, maybe a house or an office, had one wall partially blown out. Down the road was the Orthodox Church.
Neatly cut grass and a well kept cemetery surrounded it, but it was clearly closed for good. We discovered that it is part of the diocese of Saint Louis, two hours distant. Once a year a priest and a contingent from the St. Louis church come to celebrate a service on behalf of the church and those buried here.
Since the sixties the shuttered church has been cared for by a brother and sister who grew up in the parish. We emailed the priest in Saint Louis, hoping we might be able to talk with one of them. “No,” he told us, “they’re both in their nineties and no longer live nearby.”
“Soon,” he said, “we’ll burn the building down and bury the ashes, just as we would for a person. It’s our custom.” So the church will go the way of the mine, the dance hall, the union picnics, and so many other memories that were born here. We continue to make our own memories as we go, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to hear the echoes of another age out here, off the beaten