Jonah White's camouflage-wrapped F-350 king cab is parked outside the Calhoun County, Illinois, headquarters of Billy-Bob Teeth, the world's foremost manufacturer of gag molars.
White and his family moved to the "Kingdom of Calhoun" a 37-mile-long sliver of a peninsula bordered on the south, east and west by the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers (rural Pike County sits to the north) and accessible mainly by ferry when he was a small boy. After starring on Calhoun High's football Warriors, the short, muscular White spent his college years at (formerly Southwest) Missouri State in Springfield, with the aim of becoming a game warden or conservation official.
Instead he and a dental-student buddy hit on Billy-Bob Teeth, a hillbilly denture venture that has made White a millionaire and the de facto king of this rugged Kingdom.
"People are kind of behind the times here," White, now 36, says of Calhoun County. "Which is one of its charms."
With a petite Australian wife, four young children and a stockpile of cash, if White wanted to whittle away his days smoking Cubans in a Central Park high-rise, he no doubt could. But then he'd be a world away from his favorite bar, The Palace, located in tiny Hamburg, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi.
A six-mile schlep from White's hilltop manse, a wooden fortress in the neighboring village of Michael with twin manmade lakes stocked to the gills with catfish, the Palace is distinguishable by the mountain of empty aluminum cans stacked out back and by the fact that it's the only watering hole in Hamburg. In fact, in Calhoun County (population 5,000), when a resident of one small town tells another resident of that town to meet him "at the bar," he's most likely referring to the bar.
The Palace is empty when White pulls up in his truck at dusk and promptly orders a can of Milwaukee's Best. The only other customer is the owner's son and White's Calhoun High classmate, Charlie Booth. Booth tells White about a mutual friend who was recently busted by a conservation cop for lifting a trophy buck off a wildlife preserve. Had the poacher refrained from telling everyone and their mother about his prize, reckons Booth, it might have fetched six figures from a wealthy collector. As it is he's liable to get his hunting license suspended for five years, which, in a county where the game warden is considered to be the real sheriff, is tantamount to being placed under house arrest.
While White is in the john which is covered in vintage nude centerfolds; the women's restroom was outfitted with Playgirl spreads until a devoutly religious Korean woman complained the Palace's mustachioed owner, Gary Booth, arrives, toting two large cardboard boxes containing a passel of firearms, the highlight of which is a .357 Magnum straight out of Dirty Harry that the elder Booth proudly passes around. The Palace doubles as a retail outlet for hunters, with six-shooters and six-packs arrayed for sale on adjacent shelves.
"That's why they call it ATF, isn't it?" quips Gary Booth, invoking the acronym of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Just as the Kingdom of Calhoun is a world removed from the Manhattan condo Jonah White chooses not to buy, the county maintains at least a river's breadth of separation from greater St. Louis. In the wake of the '93 flood, when one mainlander proposed bolstering Calhoun's tourism dollar by constructing a toll bridge to St. Charles County, the natives shouted down the idea before concrete was anywhere close to being poured.
"There was never a vote or anything," recounts Bill Horman, the longtime mayor of Hardin whose Main Street barbershop doubles as his executive office.
"But it's gonna come one of these days."
Decades ago most Calhoun County residents made a reasonable living by working the land. Nowadays, according to Mayor Horman, "Cars leave here in the mornings for St. Louis by the hundreds."
They also head to Alton. Called "the most haunted city in America" by Fate magazine and replete with a riverboat casino, cobblestone streets and Colonial homes perched on picturesque bluffs, the burg is, for many a workaday hick, the big city. Here a fortunate few who pulled the early shift can be found sipping Bud Light from frosty mugs as "Cat Scratch Fever" screams through an East Broadway biker bar called the Woodstock Lounge on an unseasonably balmy midwinter Wednesday afternoon.
"Work is the curse of the drinking class," reads a prominent bumper sticker on the face of the fridge that holds the frosty mugs, near where a young laborer is chatting up the bartender, a well-proportioned brunette with a tramp stamp on her lower back. Fortunately for the suitor, he and Ms. Thing both hail from East Alton, so they have a common upbringing to dissect straightaway.
A few blocks north on Broadway at Mike's Ten-Pin, Jim, a twentysomething garbage collector and father of four, is drinking his way through Hump Day. When asked to describe his hometown of nearby Wood River, he says: "All I know is there's a lot of trash."
Bartender Anne and bar back Glenn are the only employees on hand at the Ten-Pin, which plays host to an Allman Brothers cover band every Sunday night. The surfaces are extraordinarily clean for a standard blue-collar tavern a byproduct of the iron-fisted ways of Mike's elderly mom, Bonnie, a thimble of a woman who lets a ray of sunlight in through the front door when she enters to "A Whiter Shade of Pale" playing on the jukebox.
As she disappears into the office in back, Glenn, who'd been recounting a tale of reconciliation with his adult daughter after seventeen years of estrangement, sneaks out the front, leaving Anne to absorb the night's marching orders from Bonnie. When the owner's mother (mercifully) leaves, Anne pours tequila shots for everyone in the house, on the house.
Meanwhile, trash-slinging Jim has commandeered a taxicab to shuttle him home to Wood River, a small oil town at the elbow of State Routes 3 and 100, the latter a shimmering scenic byway that extends from Alton through the northern portion of Calhoun County; the former a bleak strip of asphalt that traverses the hardscrabble municipalities of East St. Louis, Brooklyn, Venice, Granite City and Hartford.
Ferguson Avenue, Wood River's main drag, boasts more than its fair share of places to imbibe come sundown. Among the least cheery of these haunts is the Nite Train Lounge, where if you don't know anything about roofing, you're not going to get a word in edgewise. That said, there's plenty of cheer in the beer as is typically the case when it only sets you back six bits a pop.
At downtown's western edge is a mysterious gray structure dubbed The Stallion. It ostensibly opens for business at four, and yet when a prospective customer attempts to open the front door at around five on a Wednesday, it remains locked until an older gentleman wearing a tracksuit and beret loudly announces through a glass peephole: "I don't want to buy an ad!"
"Just want something to drink," replies the thirsty customer. At this Tracksuit Dan unlocks the door as the larger of his two dogs a Great White Pyrenees named Guido barks loudly near the bar.
"Shut up, Guido!" Dan scolds in a thick East Coast accent.
Pouring a generous amount of Worcestershire sauce into a salty bloody mary, Tracksuit Dan explains that his front door remains locked at all hours because he doesn't want people waiting for the bus to Alton stopping into his dimly lighted establishment just to take a whiz. They often arrive in pee-happy packs of three or four, he says, and even Guido can't scare them away.
Happy hour is especially quiet today because Dan's not hosting billiards league in the back room, and one of his best customers just lost his job, forcing the bloke to drink cans of Stag in his garage instead of sampling from the collection of dusty liquor bottles at the Stallion, which, with its murky fish tanks, overgrown indoor foliage and scattered notepads, resembles a basement den. Times are tough, but that's de rigueur for Tracksuit Dan, the son of a New York City janitor. Dan was stationed at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville shortly after graduating high school and hasn't left the area since, despite his trenchant assessment of the St. Louis region as "the armpit of America."
Another reason the Stallion's door stays locked at all hours is so Dan's ex-wife, whom he accuses of smashing in the windows of multiple automobiles and throwing glass ashtrays at him, stays off the property. Dan's happily remarried to a much younger woman now, and his ashtrays are all plastic.
Not counting the two highways that enter Calhoun County from rural Pike County to the north, there's only one way to access the Kingdom directly by car, and that's the Joe Page Bridge. The span, which crosses the Illinois from Greene County to Hardin, is said to be the largest vertical lift bridge (the structure's center section ascends rather than splitting) in the world.
Seeing as how the Page Bridge sometimes freezes over in the winter, there are days when, if you want to get into Calhoun County, you must board one of two car ferries that cross the Mississippi River from Missouri or choose from two ferries that traverse the Illinois: one at the south end of Pere Marquette State Park, the other north of Hardin in Kampsville.
To understand why such isolation suits Calhoun and its residents, consider that the Kingdom is named after former U.S. Vice President John Caldwell Calhoun, one of the early nineteenth century's foremost advocates of slavery and states' rights. Calhoun, a South Carolinian who also served in the U.S. Senate, was known as the "Father of Nullification," a hard-line libertarian concept centered on the belief that a state can reject any federal law it perceives as unconstitutional.
The attitude Senator Calhoun showed the feds is similar to the frosty relationship between his namesake peninsula and outsiders in general. While visitors can rent a few riverside stilt houses for summer getaways, there's only one formal hostelry, the homey Hardin Hotel, and it's got just nine rooms.
In 1997, when it was proposed that the Alton-borne federally sanctioned scenic byway along Highway 100 be officially extended into the Kingdom's portion of the Great River Road, 803 county residents signed a petition opposing the designation. As a consequence, surefire road improvements and tourism dollars never washed ashore. The Father of Nullification would have been proud.
Yet while casual human traffic has largely been stymied, wilder creatures have entered the Kingdom in droves. Specifically, the deer population has flourished so dramatically that hunting now rivals farming as the county's main economic engine.
"We've always had ducks," says Mayor Horman of Hardin. "But ever since all those deer and turkey came 30 years ago, [hunting] outfitters have been coming in here from all over Hell."
"This is Calhoun County," adds fake-tooth tycoon Jonah White. "It's always hunting season."
White's pronouncement is supported by the Saturday-afternoon happy hour at the Michael Tavern, which sits on the north side of the peninsula along Highway 100 (this portion of the county gave the go-ahead for the aforementioned federal byway designation). As Charlie Daniels blares from the jukebox and dollar frosty mugs of Stag bubble over, one hard-of-hearing hunter with an extremely hoarse voice shows off a set of black-and-white wildlife photos to a camouflage-clad couple. At the pool tables, a couple of burly younger men shed their rain gear to reveal a pair of crisp white wifebeaters, while folks start to dish up chili from a crock that's been placed along a wide railing not far from a meticulously woodworked bald eagle.
The only reminder that this isn't a packed West Virginia roadhouse is the Kurt Warner jersey on the bartender's back.
A few miles down the road sits Louie's Kampsville Inn, a large blue restaurant/bar that neighbors a dock where cars board the free Kampsville Ferry to Carrollton in mainland Greene County (the two public ferries to Illinois are free, while the privately operated Missouri-originating pair exact a small toll). In the bar, a group of strapping duck hunters, one a ringer for ex-Cardinal Mark McGwire, orders a round of Busch cans while Flava Flav's VH1 reality dating show pipes in on the TV set overhead. Meanwhile, the restaurant portion of the Kampsville Inn is packed with catfish-craving Caucasian families (Calhoun County is 99 percent white and about 50 percent German), dispelling any notion that the Midwest is a region best skipped by seafood aficionados.
The great flood of 1993 all but wiped out tiny (population 650) Grafton, Illinois, which rests at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Unlike nearby Calhoun County, however, Grafton's re-emergence has been more of a cultural awakening than stubborn retreat to status quo.
"We were really hit hard in the flood," says Richard Mosby, Grafton's mayor. "We lost 150 structures and a third of our population. From that day on, we knew we had to bring some people back, and we've tried to be progressive about it."
Essentially what Grafton has done is to embrace its own natural wonder. Atop the Tara Point lookout, the critical mass of sailboats weaving through virtually uninhabited forestland in the wide confluence below gives you the impression you're on a secluded Pacific isle. Newfangled condominiums and wineries dot the highland; downhill, in warmer months, tanned patrons of a riverside cabana called the Loading Dock adopt a Grand Caymanesque mindset, ingesting Coronas and beer-battered halibut while yachts and fishing trawlers cruise past.
But things can also get a little dirty down there.
"You've seen our large and not unattractive piles of mud around town," Mayor Mosby quips. "They're there because a 200-slip marina is going in this spring. The first set of docks is on-site but not set in place yet. It will all start happening very quickly, which will change the complexion of our community. And that's good."
Only on the surface of its Main Street corridor does Grafton become distinctly Midwestern.
At noon on a Sunday at Senger's Tavern, a gaunt old man with three-day stubble nurses a cold Busch at a corner barstool. On the walls: a plethora of mounted taxidermy and a street-sign replica that reads "Bullshit Blvd." Senger's ceiling tiles are covered in permanent marker musings; and its weekend bartender is a sweet grandmotherly type who cautions a hangdog patron against pouring too much Jim Beam hot sauce in her bloody mary.
As happens often on sunny Sundays in Grafton, two motorcycle couples roll in, dressed in black leather. Enthralled by the looks of the aforementioned mary, the bikers order four more, heavy on the hot sauce.
A half-mile upriver is the Wild Goose Saloon, whose parking lot is packed with Harleys. When the weather's nice, the Goose's stilt-supported deck offers an Illinois River view unrivaled in the lowlands. Indoors there's a big-screen TV tuned to a sexy country-music pool party wherein it's revealed that "tequila makes her clothes fall off."
Behind the bar, bumper stickers abound, some tender ("There are no strangers here, just friends we haven't met"), some cheeky ("Since I've used all my sick days, I'm calling in dead"). One witticism perfectly captures the modern-day river town's laidback ethic: "Grafton, IL: A quiet little drinking town with a serious fishing problem."
"There're some people who would say that's the way it is," Mayor Mosby acknowledges. "Some people fish, some drink. Some do both."
The drinking-fishing hierarchy is inverted in little Nutwood, where there are two bait shacks for every tavern meaning there are, literally, two bait shacks and one tavern in this middle-of-nowhere Jersey County community fifteen miles north of Grafton on Highway 100.
"Nutwood is definitely a one-bar town," explains Jonah White, who has welcomed a handful of the hamlet's residents to his spread in Michael for the erstwhile Billy Bob-a-Palooza festival. White no longer hosts the annual bash, which featured up to a dozen live bands and kegs galore, on account of one camped-out inebriate's sleepwalking off a dock in the middle of the night two summers ago. A security guard making out with a female reveler nearby dove in to rescue the wayward lush after catching the errant dive out of the corner of his eye (White hired off-duty Calhoun County cops to maintain order).
With their pipeline to the Kingdom clogged, Nutwood residents make do with the fare at the no-frills Nutrock Saloon, a squat rectangular structure that signals the town's presence to passersby. At the entry of the saloon is a man with a large hunting knife holstered to his belt. A pool table is crammed into one corner of the edifice basically a double-wide stocked with liquor and the jukebox's heavy-metal tendency is counterbalanced by Scrubs on a small TV set opposite the eight-ball sharks.
In contrast to St. Louis, where even the most chi-chi bars have a tube or two tuned to ESPN, non-sports programming reigns supreme in the sticks. At the Palace it was Roseanne reruns. And at the Meppen Tavern, a mossy A-frame near the Batchtown cutoff that stands as Calhoun County's answer to the Nutrock, the TV's tuned to Jaws 2, while conversation among the predominantly female clientele is dominated by the latest plot turns in Days of Our Lives. A short drive down the road at AJ's Bar & Grill in historic downtown Brussels, where a big-ass Confederate flag flies out in front of the mayor's office, all eyes are on the Martin Lawrence vehicle Nothing to Lose (why Tim Robbins signed on to play the sidekick in this crappy buddy flick remains one of cinema's all-time head-scratchers).
AJ's is where Big Red begins his daily rounds. A corn-fed twentysomething whose metabolism has yet to get the best of him, Big Red announces to his half-dozen or so fellow bar patrons that his goal for the night is to "get some pussy." When talk in Big Red's circle quickly turns to tractors, a mustachioed gentleman a few stools down polishes off his 75-cent draft and announces that he's going to go home, lie on his couch and "turn the heater up to 90."
Red reappears a few blocks away at the Wittmond Hotel, a circa-1847 gift shop/bar that ceased functioning as an inn a few years ago. Here he regales a slightly younger, livelier, more feminine crowd with a boozy tale of how he's "been on a 21-day bender," while the bartender bitches about how similar the new Diet Pepsi and Pepsi cans are. At the other end of the bar, probably the prettiest girl in town in town gossips about how one of her betrothed friends was more than a little receptive to the advances of a strange young gent at the Argosy Casino in Alton the other night.
"Who was hittin' on who?" a pudgy middle-aged eavesdropper halfway down the bar inquires, to no avail. Glory days; well, they'll pass you by.
The one establishment in Calhoun County that actively seeks to eschew the television-as-afterthought format is Straight Home, a Hardin sports bar that serves its beer in NASCAR-themed "Rusty's Last Call" glasses and shares a parking lot with Billy-Bob Teeth's world headquarters. By Calhoun County standards, the relatively new Straight Home (not to be confused with the Granite City establishment of the same name) is a yuppie bar. It's also family friendly, as evidenced by a preadolescent girl playing Big Buck Hunter while her father fires down a Beam and Coke.
Must be Dad's weekend.
Stuffed with the prime rib at Mel's Riverdock at the other end of town, much of Hardin retires shortly after sundown. But where there's a Kingdom, there will be characters, which explains why the Corner Tavern just south of the Page Bridge is just beginning to generate steam around eight-thirsty on Saturday. Here the same pool players from the Michael Tavern pass under a giant woodworked set of tits above the front door, intent on continuing the day's hustle.
And as a succession of Kelly Clarkson power ballads dins from a set of speakers behind the bar, a couple of mainlanders take their leave for the night's final ferry, lest they be stranded in a Kingdom not their own.