Our parents told us not to get rid of the dining room mirror.

The mirror with rosewood trim stands on three legs and is 6’5” tall. It has always been bigger than me.
While growing up in Naperville, the mirror was in the corner of our  formal dining room. The mirror was the quiet guest at Thanksgiving  dinners. For my Mom the mirror was a peek into her past when it stood  in the corner of her parent’s dining room in downstate Taylorville.

The January move into my mid-century dream house has been challenging.

Who knew about all the complicated red light signs in Westchester,  Il.?  “Right turn on red must yield to U-turn?” Sounds like some kind of Stormy Daniels manuever. Joe is my 86-year-old Italian neighbor and he’s been bringing  me his left over lasagna and spaghetti from dinner. Now Joe is moving to Florida to go fishing. I’m going to miss my suburban BFF.

And I can safely say I’m done acquiring stuff. Boxes and boxes of  books, records, magazines and CDs are dusty tokens of a lifetime in  journalism. Does anyone want a refurbished tiki bar? After our  parents died in the spring of 2015, the mirror went into storage.

There was no room for the mirror in my Chicago condo filled with  books, records, unread magazines, CDs and tiki bar.

Liberating the mirror from storage is one of the best things about my  move into the mid-century dream house where I can no longer afford  cool mid-century artifacts. My first set of movers took great care in transporting the mirror. They estimated the artifact was more than 100 years old. And the fact my parents once owned this 1952 brick  ranch puts the mirror back in some kind of proper place.

I’ve never been a big fan of mirrors. Neighbor Joe once invited me in  his house. He has way more mirrors than me. I  startled myself just by walking through the front door.

Neighborly offerings.

Neighborly offerings.

Mid-century modern in Tulsa, Ok.

Mid-century modern in Tulsa, Ok.

And for my next move….

I’ve rented apartments and bought a condo. I never owned a house. Before I packed it up I wanted to buy a small midcentury modern ranch house. It was in my DNA. I grew up in ranch houses in Naperville, Ill. (built 1966) and Columbus, Ohio (1959?). My brother owns a midcentury modern ranch house in Nashville, Tn.

It was all a return to forever.

I’ve read the magazine “Atomic Ranch” for years, although I will never have the money to trick out a house like the dreamsicles in Palm Springs, Ca., St. Paul, Mn. and Los Angeles. I wanted to unplug from the noise, grow flowers and sit in the back yard and smoke cigars. I’ve had a rough few years. These ranch houses were part of the emerging American Dream. I wanted to see if such a thing even still exists. It feels like it is slipping away.

The midcentury modern experience speaks to a leaner time. Rooms were smaller and one-car garages were often attached to the ranch. Sputnik type light fixtures blended with lots of natural light. The Greatest Generation was emerging from World War II and the excitement of space age possiblitly collided with frugal ethics. Futurism bequeathed optimism.

A midcentury ranch house had been on my radar for a few years. My Tiki friends Dave Vasta and Dave Krys live in the near western suburbs. I was born in Berwyn and knew that was the bungalow belt. The Daves steered me to La Grange and Westchester for the strong midcentury stock.

Living alone,  I wasn’t looking for a lot of space. I zeroed in on affordable tiny homes in La Grange Park and finally Westchester. I also timed the commute from Chicago—17 minutes one way in rare non-traffic situations. I live in Ukranian Village where I have become an old dude. Presto! In Westchester I’m one of the youngest guys in the neighborhood.

Bob Dylan's Shangri-La Ranch in Malibu, Ca., featured in "The Last Waltz".

Bob Dylan’s Shangri-La Ranch in Malibu, Ca., featured in “The Last Waltz”.

The fine 2006 book “House As A Mirror of Self (Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home)”  by Clare Cooper Marcus mentions a gentleman who grew up in a small town, lived in the city for a long time and was contemplating a move to Arizona.

Each setting represented a different stage of his life. He reflected on who he was in each house and he became  comfortable in the “here and now.” I’m guessing there will be a lot of “now” in Westchester because there’s not a lot as much exciting “here” there as there is in Ukranian Village.

The ranch style was born in California in the 1930s and hit its peak from the 1940s to the early 1970s. America’s emerging dependence on the automobile led to the popularity of streamlined ranch houses on big lots. Streetcar suburbs of the early 20th Century featured smaller houses on narrow lots because people walked to streetcar lines. Westchester  even had a streetcar line and was a CTA (Chicago Transist Authority) connector from 1926 to 1951.

Westchester (pop. 17,000) blossomed through  rows and rows of midcentury ranch houses consisting of symmetrical one-story forms with low-pitched roofs. I adored the modest detailing of the houses that pay homage to  Colonial and English influences. After more than a dozen trips to Westchester talking to neighbors, owners of Greek diners and the folks at Christopher’s Speakeasy, I discovered humility that is important to me. I went to the monthly Friday night fish-chicken fry at the Westchester Community Church. The old timers told me the village is so boring they call it “Deadchester.”

Westchester was founded in 1925 to recreate an English village. I found a red brick house with original decorative iron porch supports and matching shutters of the mid-1950s. The house was nestled back off the street to fit into modest landscaping.

Westchester, Ill. mid-century. They're everywhere there.

Westchester, Ill. mid-century. They’re everywhere there.

I stumbled into a time capsule. I began researching the house. It was built in 1952. It was within walking distance of a grocery store, a neighborhood diner and a small bar, which is all I really need. The house’s street had an odd name. I mentioned to my brother that during the mid-1950s our parents lived on a similar odd sounding street in Westchester. They died in 2015 but our mom kept a meticulous typewritten diary of her life. I checked it out.

It was the same house.
It was hard to believe.
I had to re-read her passage. I have no memories of the house. Our dad worked for Swift & Company and was transferred out of Chicago to New Jersey around 1958. I was born in 1955. My brother pointed out, “You were probably conceived in that house.”

I haven’t shared this story with too many people. I  still don’t know what to think. Emotion did not lead me into buying the house. I am not a fixer-upper and the house was in excellent shape. The modest house had about an amazing  dozen closets which was a perfect fit for my books, files and bobbleheads. Midcentury style is framed by an organic spirit and minimalism. I can try to declutter. An open house leads to an open heart.

My excellent handyman Edmond Fernandez, Jr. was knocked out by the now and then coincidence. He’s repainted the rooms in bold mid century modern colors with Sherwin-Williams names I love. The living room was  “Restless Olive,” the kitchen was “Pink Flamingo” and my office became an earthy orange “Carnival.” Actually, maybe that’s how I should have painted the bedroom. I’ve had a blast visiting mid- century modern stores like Dial M for Modern in Chicago, Pre to Post Modern in Nashville (long before I took this plunge) and the awesome bc modern in Milwaukee.

IMG_8084 (1)

Edmond (L)  and crew member Travis.

Of course 1952 is not all that has been built up to be. The United States tested the first hydrogen bomb at the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. More than 3,000 Americans died from Polio. And midcentury modern was not a better design  in a black and white America. There is no Cinerama nostalgia for minorities and women.

My block is ethnically diverse. My neighbors are African-American, Hispanic and Italian. I recently moved a file from my book “The People’s Place (Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences From the Civil Rights Era to Today).” A plastic, typewritten file card tumbled out of a box. It was given to me by activist James Meredith at a restaurant in Jackson, Miss.

The card listed his ten commandments from the 1960s; “You shall not kill,” “You shall not steal,” but the last one was  timely for the communities we live in: “Every church should take responsibility for each child within 2 miles of the church under 5 years old.” That’s imperative advice no matter where you live.

Westchester is only two miles from the Chef Shangri-La in North Riverside.

Westchester is only two miles from the Chef Shangri-La in North Riverside.

The house will take time to make it okay to live in. I forgot about those pesky village codes and for me, moving has always been like transporting the old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Even though I haven’t settled in, a test vinyl run sounded great in a low ceiling basement with a Nashville RCA Studio B checkerboard floor.

But my work has been framed by a sense of fascination. Was Westchester a far-away place in 1955? Our father always installed a manual wall pencil sharpener in the basement of every house we lived in. Did he install the vintage wall pencil sharpener I found in the basement of this house?  Energy needs time to become focused, measured matter. In days past I retreated to the only chair in the living room.

Dusk became darkness with a turn of the page. I looked out the picture window at old trees on a quiet street.  There were no shadows and I wondered if I was truly alone.







Ray and Wilma Yoder, Cracker Barrel and RV fans (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

Ray and Wilma Yoder, Cracker Barrel and RV fans (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

GOSHEN, IND.—-Ray and Wilma Yoder watch the world roll by from the front porch of their 85-year-old farm house on County Road 34 in Goshen, Ind. While sitting next to each other on a twin rocking chair, Ray and Wilma wave to Amish neighbors who hold tight reins on their horse and carriage. Truckers and cars go too fast for this thin stretch of rural highway about 25 minutes southwest of Elkhart.

You see, Ray and Wilma always move in modest directions.

They met in 1953 in baptismal class at a Mennonite (new order Amish) church about four miles from where they live today. Ray has lived in the same farm house since he was five years old. “Wilma came about ten miles that day in a horse and buggy not knowing it was all going to be worth it,” Ray quips during a front porch conversation on a warm September morning.

Ray and Wilma will celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary on Oct. 11.

Their life has been filled with rewarding turns.

The Yoders are the proud parents of four children between the ages of 43 and 58. In the 1960s Ray became a factory worker at the now- defunct Globemaster Mobile Homes in Goshen before snagging a job delivering motor homes from manufacturer to dealers in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world.

And that was their gateway to becoming octogenarian Americana celebrities.

In 1978 while making a delivery in Nashville, Tn. Ray ate at his first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Briley Parkway by the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Cracker Barrel is headquartered in nearby Lebanon, Tn.

Since then Ray and Wilma have visited all 645 Cracker Barrels in 44 states.

Signatures from Ray and Wilma's fans. (D. Hoekstra photo)

Signatures from Ray and Wilma’s fans. (D. Hoekstra photo)

“It’s so much like the food at home,” Ray says. “The green beans are super good. We’ve not been able to match the meat loaf. Maybe its a little drier.” Wilma adds, “Sometimes mine falls apart but it as near like mine as any I’ve tasted. I like their hash brown casserole. Blueberry pancakes.”

Ray and Wilma are to Cracker Barrel what Willie Nelson is to Wacky Tobaccy.

As Ray and Wilma’s children grew older Wilma began to trail Ray in a second RV so they could make more money on a drop. They would rest at the same time. They would communicate through Citizens band radio.

“I didn’t let her go anywhere without me,” he says while glancing at his bride. “Even with the snow blowing in Wyoming I would look in the rear view mirror and her little headlights would be there. We would pull into a filling station and people would see us talking together. They’d say, ‘Are you two together?’ And I’d say, ‘We don’t get along too well so we have two motor homes.’

And Ray and Wilma laugh at the memories.

The Yoders also planned vacations around Cracker Barrel. For example, when they visited the Grand Canyon they would find a nearby Cracker Barrel. “We never owned an RV,” he says. “We were always in a new one. We could sleep in it if we were en route. But we needed to use rest rooms at the rest area or a Cracker Barrel. The best part of our lives were the years with the RVs.”

Ray says it took about ten years before they realized they had a Cracker Barrel streak going.

“We had a couple hundred of them down,” he says in a country drawl as thick as pancake syrup. “I heard where another restaurant chain had a guy following them. I said, ‘If he can do that, we can do this one. And if you don’t mind Mom, we’re going to all of them’.”

Wilma nods her head in agreement.

“I like to eat,” she says.

Ray and Wilma's team work during a New Mexico road trip.

Ray and Wilma on a New Mexico road trip.

The Yoders do not own a computer. They do not have GPS. They are not on Facebook or Instagram so there’s no social media bragging on their Cracker Barrel quest. “I knew where I was going,” he says. “The Cracker Barrel map would always say what exit to get off at. Its a map filled with 600 stores.”

The hard-hitting journalist might ask if Ray and Wilma have documentation of all their visits.

“I really don’t have documentation,” Ray answers. “Just between me and God. I will tell you we’re not in a lying situation. We didn’t do this to prove anything to anybody. We took some pictures. We did circle each one on the directory map. I’d put a check mark on the map as one we’d have to get.” Once Ray and Wilma visited the Cracker Barrel they would circle the check mark on their map.

I almost used the Freedom of Information act to make Ray and Wilma show me their maps.

I almost used the Freedom of Information act to make Ray and Wilma show me their maps.

Ray explains, “Now that we’re retired from the RV we take our own car. We still like driving and getting out. Is there a rodeo or a concert? We like Western Swing and we can’t find that very easy around here. We’ve seen Asleep at the Wheel at about 25 places and we’re still not tired of them. We came to Naperville (at a July, 2012 Tex- Mex Festival) to see him (bandleader Ray Benson).” There is a Cracker Barrel Old County Store at 1855 W. Diehl Rd. in west suburban Naperville, Ill.

Ray and Wilma have discovered that most Cracker Barrels are alike. “The one in Hilton Head is up off the sand on posts to make up for high water,” he says. “Eight of them are right-handed, all the rest are left-handed.

“Right-handed is where you go in the front door and the dining room is to the right.” In soft tones Wilma admits, “I had a bad experience (in New Orleans) with a new restroom. I was going to the right when I was so used to going to the left.”

Ray says, “We got serious about this in the ‘80s. We got eight (Cracker Barrels) in one day.”

I about fall off my country rocker.

Ray continues. “Someone asked, ‘How do you do that?’ and I said, ‘Don’t eat too much at the first one.’ They were out of the way places but we needed to get them in order to claim them with our
bunch. It was along U.S. 17 in North and South Carolina: Maybe a half an order at (the first) one…Then a coffee to go at the next one… By ten o ‘clock we were at the third one, probably the house salad…The fourth one would be noon hour for meat loaf…The fifth one would have been a sandwich. At that time we liked their grilled cheese and bacon sandwich (sixth)…. Even if you waited until nine at night you’d have the grilled chicken dinner…The eighth, final stop,would be the cider float. The waitress would say, ‘Excuse me?’ And I’d say, ‘You have both ingredients. Instead of doing a root beer do a cider. And they would do it. ” Cider floats are not on the Cracker Barrel menu.

That’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Notable Cracker Barrel celebrities start with gospel-soul singer Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul does not like to fly. She travels to gigs in her luxury coach bus. In 2012 Franklin told me how much she loves
the chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel. In 2011 she signed a plate at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeville Mn. before a performance at the Mystic Lake Casino near the Twin Cities.

“Never met her,” Ray says. “Timing was off I guess. Did she come during the lunch hour? Some of them put on baseball caps and you never know.” Cracker Barrel employees have come to know Ray by his white cowboy hat.

Ray and Wilma’s daughter Doris Copenhaver works at the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles)  in Goshen. In a phone conversation she says, “We didn’t realize how serious they were until the early 2000s. We were amazed. The meat loaf is what got Dad started.  What’s weird is going to one without them. Its like, ‘Well, I know they’ve been here before.’ We also used to go with them when they delivered motor homes. They go to Sarasota (Florida) in the winter so we would eat in the ones near there too.

“This keeps them young.”

The nearest Cracker Barrel to Goshen (pop. 33,000) is at I-80 and Cassiopolis Street in Elkhart. “We go to that one, sometimes for family get together,” Ray explains. “The lady who runs the cash register there, her and her husband used to run the Greyhound bus station across the street. She always knows us.”


The camper van visits RV fans Ray and Wilma Yoder (Photo by Jon Sall.)

Ray maintains the Amish population birthed the RV industry in Elkhart. “They don’t worry about unions,” he says. “One Amish guy will know a neighbor down the road looking for a job and they bring them in. You go to work at four in the morning and work hard at it. And make pretty decent money. Why pay ten when you have five who will do it? I’d say about 80 per cent of the workers were Amish when I started in the RV industry (in the late 1960s).”

Indeed, in June, Allison Yates of Atlas Obscura wrote a story “Why the Amish are Building America’s RV’s (They’re forbidden from driving them, but not making them)” and pointed out the Amish of Northern Indiana have never been as isolated as other Amish communities in America.

Ray celebrated his 81st birthday on August 28. As a surprise, Cracker Barrel flew Ray and Wilma to the Cracker Barrel grand opening in Tualatin, just outside of Portland, Or. It is the first Cracker
Barrel on the West Coast. The Nashville-based chain previously had only ventured as far west as Boise, Id.

“All the employees were waiting for us to make our appearance,” Ray says. “It was different
for two little country kids. I told them I could drive to O’Hare airport (in Chicago.) I’ve done that before. But they came with one of those limo cars and took us to O’Hare.”

Recent storefront (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

Recent storefront (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

As a 17-year-old, Wilma was attracted to Ray for his homespun values. He once ranked third in the Indiana State Table Tennis Tournament and these days he travels to Branson, Mo. for checkers tournaments. “He was a nice person,” she says. “Other boys didn’t have as much character. I thought he was better looking.”

Ray continues, “I was never into alcohol. Not that needs to be brag, but I did enough other things. I had my part of excitement in life. In mid-life you have two or three jobs, you have a little family and you have to work at that. We did that, too. There were no divorces in the Amish church. You pick them and you stay together.”

And that has been the old country creed for Ray and Wilma Yoder as they seen America through the wide open windows of an RV and the comforting heart of a Cracker Barrel.

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

TROIS-RIVIERES, QUEBEC, CANADA—Like all great tiki establishments, the Hotel-Motel Coconut remains true to its original vision.

Gerry and Madelaine Landry opened the Coconut in 1961 in Trois-Riviers (Three-Rivers), a 90 mile drive north of Montreal. They wanted the Coconut to capture the spirit of their Tahitian honeymoon.

Amazingly, the place hasn’t changed much in 56 years

Current owner Valerie Boisvert looked around the dark 180-seat Coconut bar that is loaded with rattan chairs, totem poles, tiki statues and shell lamps. “They brought all this back from Polynesia,” she said.” The Landrys also built a modest wooden bridge and added faux palm trees and portraits of pretty Polynesian women in all of their black velvet glory.

And while I’ve been to tiki bars from Easter Island to Hawaii to San Francisco, I can’t remember going to a roadside tiki bar with an adjacent tiki hotel. And motel. And an 80-person outdoor Coconut Terrace overlooking the highway and the magnificent Laviolette Bridge that arches over the St. Lawrence River.

The Coconut Hotel-Motel has 37 rooms.

When I visited Trois-Riveres in mid- August, my Room 29 had one door going outside to the parking lot AND another door into the hallway. At first I thought the hallway door was an adjacent room.

Hotel-motel manager David Duhaime explained, “That’s the reason we have hotel and motel. If we had only a door for outside it would just be a motel.”

I love the basic and good nature of Canada.



My little paradise.

The motel dates back to 1958 when the two-lane Quebec Route 138 was the popular route between Montreal and Trois-Riveres (pop. 115,000).The route runs parallel to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The Hotel-Motel Coconut is on the west side of the city. “It used to be a motel with 12 rooms,” Duhaime said. “At one time it was called the ‘Hotel TV’ because it was the first motel here to have cable TV.”


Coconut Bar

Construction of I-40 left Route 138 in the Southwinds, but like Route 66 in the states, Route 138 remains popular with bikers and campers. After their honeymoon, the Landrys morphed from TV to Tiki.

Inside the coconut bar.

Boisvert and her husband Sylvain Carle bought the establishment in 2002. “Everyone knows the Coconut Bar,” she said. “It took us two years to find the money. We met here.  My husband said ‘I love you’ to me thefirst time here.’ We have been together 29 years.


Valerie and Sylvain did make one structural change.

In 2012 they closed the motel restaurant and added, yup, another tiki bar. Located off the modest lobby, the romantic Volcano room offers a small bar, billiards and video machines. The Volcano is drenched in red light. After a couple of tropical drinks you may think you are in a seductive Amsterdam alley.

Complimentary breakfasts for hotel guests are served in the Volcano room to get your day off with a bang. Sylvain is a former chef at the Gueridon restaurant in Trois-Riveres and during November and December dinners are served in the Volcano room. The Volcano does not serve the traditional Montreal poutine (French Fries, cheese curds topped with gravy). In the Volcano room Valerie and Sylvain also diminished Polyneisan music in favor of rock n’ roll. Island music can still be heard between 4 and 9 p.m. in the Coconut Bar.

The way things are going in the states, I imagine more Americans will be finding their way to Canada.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaine.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaime.

Duhaime said, “We don’t get many Americans right now. You are here.  During the week we have people who are working in the city. On weekends we have tourists. Winter we have snowmobilers from everywhere. Two French movies and one documentary have been shot  here. French music groups stay here. Here, even in the winter it is  like summer. It is like having a south vacation.

The Coconut Bar serves 80 tropical drinks, beer and wine.  Highlights include the “Porn Star” (Curacao Bleu, Sour puss and 7 Up,) and the “After Sex” (vodka, banana liqueur and orange mix.)

“Every year we try to make a new drink,” Duhaime said. “At the employee Christmas party they have the challenge to make the best new drinks. The newest one is Coca-Sangria. People like the Zombie, Rainkiller. Some on the menu are from 50 years ago.”

The old drinks have the kick of a good honeymoon,

The Hotel-Motel Coconut tiki bar, Volcano room and Coconut Terrace is at 7531 rue Notre Dame (Route 138) in Trois-Riveres, Quebec. (1-800-838-3221.)  Autumn rates are $85 (American). I received a complimentary “Coconut” lei when I checked in.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area--in Chicago.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area–in Chicago.

Urban camping has spread its wings at the William W. Powers State Recreation Area.

The 580-acre park is the only State Park in the City of Chicago. The recreation area is at 130th Avenue O on the far southeast side of the city. The park’s jewel is the 419-acre Wolf Lake that borders Hammond, Ind., and although it has been described as a “hidden gem,” nearly half a million people visit annually.

Interim Site Superintendent Levi Bray said that at least 60 per cent are minority outdoors enthusiasts, which skews up from national camping demographics. There’s no camping at the park but there’s ample room for bird watching, boating, biking and picnicking. Fishing is a big draw as the lake is filled with bass, catfish, northern pike, hybrid muskie and walleye. Bird watchers can catch blue jays, finches, orioles,
mallards and cardinals.

And there’s Pee Wee the monk parakeet.

Pee-Wee and his newspapers (Courtesy of Levi

Pee-Wee and his newspapers (Courtesy of Levi Bray)

Local lore says a few South American parrots migrated roughly 30 miles from the Hyde Park neighborhood of late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Pee Wee now lives in the park’s business center.

“Someone said Harold Washington introduced these birds to Hyde Park,” Bray explained during a late August interview. Bray began his career with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in 1990 as a Site Technican. “Back then we had hundreds of the parrots here,” he said. “They blew the transformers. (The monk parakeet likes to build nests adjacent to warm transformers.)  It killed them all, except for a couple.”

In January, Bray was assigned as the Interim Site Superintendent at William W. Powers. He had been Ranger at the I&M Canal State Park near Joliet. “When I came back I saw Pee Wee was still there,” he said with a laugh.

Mayor Washington lived in the Hampton House condo building, 53rd neat South Shore Drive, across the street from a small park that included a colony of monk parakeets. He called the birds a “good luck
tailsman.” After his death in 1987, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) tried to remove the parakeets. Hyde Park residents created a defense committee and threatened a lawsuit. The birds won.

Remember when conflict was so beautiful?



Wild Indigo Nature Explorations illustrates biodiversity of outdoors Chicago and offer programs in Cook County Forest Preserves.

Abraham Lincoln visited the future William W. Powers park and Mary Todd Lincoln nearly drowned in Wolf Lake in a spot located near the visitors center.

The State of Illinois acquired an 160-acres parcel of the future park in 1947 and in 1965 the Illinois General Assembly named the area after 1920s Chicago alderman William W. Powers. He used the cottonwood and willow tree site for picnics to feed the needy during the Great Depression.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Bray said. “Actually until I came here for the job, I didn’t even know this existed. We draw a lot of Hispanics. African-Americans. Lots of Polish.”

Wolf Lake is a deep Chicago melting pot.

In 2014 the Coleman Company, Inc. and the Outdoor Foundation compiled the “2014 American Camper Report” through 19,240 online interviews. Their research found that eight per cent of American campers were Hispanic, six per cent were African-American and four per cent were black. (The average age of a camper was 32.)

New minority camping organizations are emerging such as Outdoor Afro, based in Oakland, Ca., Wild Indigo and the National African-American RVers Association (NAARVA), the fastest growing RV organization in the country. NAARVA was founded in 1993 and has nearly 2,000 members.

The North Carolina-based organization hosts annual rallies that includes seminars, fishing, cake walks, pot luck dinners and worship service.

“For the last three to four years, we’ve been growing four to five per cent a year,” said NAARVA president Carolyn Buford in a phone conversation from her Kansas City, Mo. home. “We’ve had a lot of young retirees who have moved to the southern region; Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Our members have motor homes, travel trailers and fifth wheels. The only requirement is that you have cooking and bathroom facilities in your RV.”


Carolyn Buford

Buford’s father was an avid camper. Her husband Luther is a retired Kansas City law enforcement officer. She is retired from information management at AT&T. Carolyn and Luther bought their first unit in 1969. It was a Holiday Rambler travel trailer. They now own a motor home.

“One reason we joined NAARVA is that we had been to a lot of states and we had seen very few minorities,” she said. “It was interesting to hear about an organization comprised of 98 per cent minorities. Even as we travel today, we don’t see a lot of minorities on the road. NAARVA has local clubs and we see more minorities when we camp with our local clubs. We go away for the winter and even though we’ve been going to this particular park for six or seven years people still look at us like, ‘Where did you come from?’ ”
Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas is an avid  camper who can be found setting up shop in Wal-Mart parking lots. “We contacted him we know he bought an RV,” Buford said. “As far as we know, he’s still camping in his RV (he once had  40-foot Prevost).” Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson is a well known African-America RV enthusiast. The Bufords purchased their motor home from Bill Thomas Camper Sales in Wentzville, Mo., the same St. Louis area store that serves Gibson.

Here comes the Judge: (with wife Ginni), Image from Business Insider, Australia.

Here comes the judge: (with wife Ginni), Image from Business Insider, Australia.

Bray said, “Lately I’ve been seeing more African-American people camping. But as a kid I never thought about camping. One of my wife’s friends, they’re big (African-American) family campers. He was in the
Army and I think that’s how he got into it. Every Labor Day my wife’s cousin and their family go to Starved Rock (outside of Chicago.) Its about 50 people.”

Bray, 60,  grew up on a farm between West Memphis and Little Rock, Ark. Bray was speaking the day after the park’s “Aquatic Pet Take Back” event. “This was for reptiles and goldfish,” he said. “No one showed up. I guess no one wanted to turn in anything. But in the past there’s been instances when people brought in alligators. Maybe an iguana is not quite what someone wanted, so they can turn them in here.”

The park is operated under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It is open year round. Bray said, “Starting in October we’ll have duck and geese hunting. This park is really a nice place. The (Cook) county actually just put a campground about 15, 20 minutes south of us.”
In the summer of 2015 the Forest Preserve of Cook County opened Camp Sullivan, 14630 S. Oak Park Ave. in Oak Forest. The park had been used for scouting activities but was turned over to families and groups  for the first time in 50 years. Camp Sullivan is part of the 612-acre Tinley Creek Woods and offers tent camping, bunkhouse rental and a vintage red barn with a climbing wall. Also, in 2015 Camp Shabbona Woods, 15810 S. Torrence Ave.  in South Holland opened with nature trails, mulch tent pads, three season cabins, and yes, even bathrooms and showers.

The Aug. 27 New York Times Travel section reported the explosion in camper culture. Writer Stephanie Rosenbloom said that about 13 million households in the United States planned to camp more this year than last year, according to research conducted  by Kampgrounds of America. More than a million new households have started camping since 2014.

Such massive growth has to embrace the diversity that gives America her wings.



Minor league baseball, Clinton , Ia., June 13, 2017 (D. Hoekstra photo)

Minor league baseball, Clinton , Ia., June 13, 2017 (D. Hoekstra photo)

CLINTON, IA.—America was a different place when I began writing the Glove Compartment 25 years ago. Life is now framed by more jagged edges. People continue to leave big cities for the small and mid-sized cities that define the Midwest League. Where you unlock the doors, you unlock your heart.

When I began traveling in and out of Illinois to explore baseball’s backroads for the Kane County Cougars and the Midwest League, at least the state had a working budget. Just after this Fourth of July, Illinois passed a budget after a two year impasse. The state now only owes $15 billion to doctors, hospitals and other vendors who stayed the course. Who can hold on? And isn’t that part of baseball’s bewitching lure? Holding on to a memory and letting go of a dream.

I have just a few memories of catching weekend stars in the sky summer songs along the Natchez Trace, a pier in Key West, Fla. and on a hot summer night several years ago after leaving a baseball game inCedar Rapids, Ia.. I was driving down a two-lane country road. I pulled over along a random cornfield. I got out of my car and rested on the hood. I looked to the heavens.

At that moment it seemed like all things were possible.

Do you remember that feeling?

So I chose the twin spin of Cedar Rapids and Clinton, Iowa as my column swan song.

In mid-June I saw two games in 33 hours. On a 91-degree afternoon at Cedar Rapids I had my picture taken with the super hyper mascot Mr. Shucks. Back in 1992 mascots like Mr. Met weren’t flipping off fans. The Cedar Rapids Kernels lost to Burlington 1-0 on a swift one-hitter mostly thrown by the Bees’ Erik Manoah.


An outfield fence promoted “Iowa, Corn, Bourbon–Swisher, Iowa.” Indeed further research revealed that the family owned and operated Cedar Ridge Distillery in Swisher won “Best American Craft Whiskey in Show” at the 2016 New York World Wine Spirits Competition.

After a short rain delay the next evening in Clinton, a resplendent double rainbow emerged over the Mississippi River beyond the center field fence. The I & M rails are along the parking lot near the ballpark entrance. Horns from passing freight trains blared into the humid air. This is how it was, this is how it always will be.

When people ask me where to find the root of Midwest League baseball, I always send them to Clinton. The vibe is from 1959. Fans literally sit next to the field. There’s no bleacher seats or grassy knolls at Clinton. Fans huddle under an evergreen grandstand roof creating a micro-community of Clinton (pop. 26,800).

A fine riverfront supper club called The Candlelight Inn is an easy stroll from the ballpark. Don’t miss the restaurant’s detailed riverboat sketches made by the late Roscoe Misselhorn of Sparta, Ill. And now that I have a camper van I have come to realize that the Riverview Recreational Vehicle Park, 9th Ave. and Riverview Dr. has to be only RV park within short walking distance of a Midwest League stadium and the Mississippi River.

The Clinton LumberKings are the Midwest League’s longest-running franchise, dating back to 1954. The brick and cinder Riverview Stadium was built in 1937 with flourishes of Art Deco.

Version 2

I visited Clinton several times during my years of writing this column. One time I took a girl friend and her German Shepherd to see the ballpark the dead of winter. In 2013 Lucas Mann wrote the excellent book “Class A Baseball (in the Middle of Everywhere),” which was based on spending the 2010 season with the LumberKings.

On the evening of June 13, 2017 I only noticed a couple changes from my first visit in 1992. The stadium naming rights now belong to Ashford University. There’s a new sandwich called The Buzz Saw (a tribute to Clinton’s lumber roots) which consists of a burger patty, two chicken strips, pulled pork, two slices of bacon and two onion rings on a pretzel bun ($8). And sadly, there was a security check– for an announced attendance of 817 people.

The LumberKings are an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Clinton beat Beloit 6-3 in a game that started 37 minutes late due to the rainstorm. The George Jones country hit “White Lightning” played over the speakers during the delay and that’s something you just don’t hear at Wrigley Field.

Midwest League baseball offered me respite from life’s storms over the past 25 years.

In 2015 when my parents were in double home hospice in Naperville, I sometimes took a break and drove to Geneva just to catch a few innings of baseball and gather my thoughts. It meant a lot to me for members of the Cougars community to ask how things were going. I will never forget the sincerity that has blossomed in Kane County.

Although I spent more than 30 years working for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Suburban Sun-Times and freelanced for Playboy magazine, I always got a major charge out of a stranger coming up to me at a non- baseball place like FitzGerald’s in Berwyn to talk about something they read in the Glove Compartment. Now, that was destination reading.

I often would bring home the Cougars game day program for my Dad to peruse. He was an avid reader right up until the last week of his life when he died at age 94. Dad’s passion for curiosity was only matched by Cougars season ticket holders Dale and LuAnn Klein, whom I profiled in 2004.

Dale and LuAnn have followed my column for all 25 years—and this is also their last year with the Cougars.

Dale & LuAnn in Cooperstown, NY

By the time you read this, Dale and LuAnn will have relocated from Carpentersville to Crossville, Tn. Since 1986 they have visited 334 minor league baseball parks (including independent leagues) and a May visit to the new ballpark in Atlanta marked their 51st major league stadium.

Dale and LuAnn always took time to e-mail me a note about one of my columns. Earlier this season I wrote a tribute to the late Midwest League president George Spelius. Dale wrote in part, “Great article on George…we knew him and Nancy (George’s wife) well and visited him several times at his office. We even attended his retirement party a couple years ago….” Minor league baseball is a fertile landscape for creating such easy connections.

I caught up with Dale and LuAnn on 7/11/17, the day they said goodbye to their home of 42 years. They had driven seven hours from Carpentersville in their dark blue Dodge Caravan mini-van. It was their 11th straight version of the Dodge Caravan. Dale and LuAnn had stopped in Paducah, Ky. for the night.

“You may remember I am from Milwaukee,” Dale said with pride in his voice. “So now I have seen the Braves play in four home stadiums (the new SunTrust, Turner Field, Fulton-County Stadium and County Stadium in Milwaukee.)

Friends of the Kleins once had a rental unit in Crossville which is how they became familiar with the area near Knoxville. “We work for a non-profit Christian organization,” he said. “We never thought we could afford to move any place. We are going to make more than $20,000 in selling our little house in Illinois and buying one there. We’re getting out of the snow and cold.  The taxes in Tennessee don’t come near to what we paid in Illinois and even gas is cheaper. The main thing is we could sell a house, buy a house and have it paid off. I’m 71 years old. We’re not looking for a mortgage.”

Dale and Lu Ann have been married 37 years. Their e-mail address even begins with dalelu. They are as tight as Whitaker and Trammell.

So in early summer, Dale and LuAnn packed up their 35 handmade baseball scrapbooks, organized by league. They sold most of their Pepsi-Cola memorabalia but kept their collection of more than 300 souvenir plastic ballpark cups. “We packed up our bobbleheads,” Dale said. “We don’t buy bobbleheads. Only what we get at as a giveaway. We only have 40 of those. Over the years we have five or six Ozzie bobbleheads, Ozzie in a Marlins uniform, Ozzie in a Cubs uniform, the rebranded Ozzie. A lot of us didn’t care for the new look Ozzie.

“But you can just blame that on not liking change.”

My Blue Bird camper van at minor league park, St. Paul, Mn. May, 2017

My Blue Bird camper van at minor league park, St. Paul, Mn. May, 2017

Dale and LuAnn’s final Cougars game as Illinois residents was on July 3. As a surprise the Cougars offered thank you and bon voyage on the scoreboard. Dale and LuAnn attended the Cougars inaugural game in 1991. That team featured future Cubs closer Joe Borowski. Dale and LuAnn became season ticket holders on Row T in Section 106 in 2009. “Before Kane County came we had already been to every park in the Midwest League,” Dale said. “The Waterloo Diamonds, Springfield Cardinals, Madison Muskies.”

What will Dale and LuAnn miss about Kane County and the Midwest League?

“We’re going to miss the people,” he answered in a heartbeat. “We have friends on the staff and in the stands. We will miss Clinton, Iowa because we love biking there. We get a hotel and bike on both sides of the river. We met you there at that real hot all-star game (June, 2009). We go to the Clinton banquet every year. We’ve been to the sawmill museum there. But there’s a lot of season ticket holders and a lot of people do this. Don’t make it sound bigger than it is.

“We’re not the only ones.”

But that is exactly what I will miss about the Cougars and Midwest League baseball.

It is a special place where the only ones are everyone.


Mark Hamburger (Courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)

Mark Hamburger (Courtesy of the St. Paul Saints)

ST. PAUL, MN.—It was opening night of another renegade season for the St. Paul Saints. The Saints were celebrating their 25th anniversary as a franchise in baseball’s independent leagues, a place where there is still a flicker of light between nearly closed doors.

On May 18 a sell out crowd of 8,294 filled CHS Field in downtown St.Paul in 52- degree weather. Fans were motivated in part by a Mary Tyler Moore tam giveaway. Moore, who died in January, played a Twin Cities based television  news reporter the hit television series “Mary Tyler Moore.” The  show’s theme song promised she was “gonna make it after all.”

The Saints beat the Gary SouthShore Rail Cats 5-2 on a masterful pitching performance by Mark John Hamburger. The blond long-haired 30-year-old right hander struck out eight, walked none and did not give up an earned run in 8 1/3 innings. After the game I picked up my blue tam, wandered about the park and said goodbye to the fun-loving Mike Veeck, who owns the Saints along with Marv Goldklang and “Team Psychologist” and actor Bill Murray.

My camper van was parked behind the center field fence. The game had been over for 45 minutes. I looked through the flicker of light between the nearly closed  center field fence.

About a dozen fans were still in the ballpark. And Hamburger was standing along the first base line signing autographs. For every last fan. This wasn’t a media grab. There were no cameras and no sportswriters around. This was the home team’s starting pitcher.

This was something special.

Mark Hamburger, all in a day's work (Dave Hoekstra image)

Mark Hamburger, all in a day’s work, after winning the home opener 2017.  (Dave Hoekstra image)

“I just look at it as a deeper thing,” Hamburger said in a thoughtful late June conversation when I returned to CHS Field. “I’m really that last kid. If that last kid gets a signature signed…… Most guys will sign five and ‘See ya,’ but if you’re that last kid and someone waits for you it has to be a good feeling for him.

“When it comes down to it, what is my job title? I’m an entertainer. I even question it sometimes when I’m pitching. I get so into it that I get mad. But that’s my ego trying to show people I can do something, when in actuality if I lose that game the fans still appreciate my vigor and how hard I’m trying.”

Hamburger has been trying and trying.

In 2012 he made it to the major leagues with the Texas Rangers. He owns a 1-0 major league record with six strikeouts in eight innings. A native of St. Paul, he has had two tryouts with his hometown Minnesota Twins. Two years ago he auditioned for the Chicago Cubs.His agent has been Billy Martin, Jr.–the son of the late Twins-New York Yankees manager. (Martin recently became a coach with the American Association’s Grand Prairie Air Hogs and can no longer represent players.) Hamburger drives a 1989 Oldsmobile station wagon around the Twin Cities.

Hamburger also failed two drug tests because of his affinity for marijuana. The Houston Astros released him in February, 2013 after he flunked his second test. He received a 50-game suspension. Hamburger
spent 30 days at Hazelden (in Minnesota). He is now as clean as Laura Petrie.

“It made me take a step away from my life,” he said. “Reorganize. Spend time alone. Self reflection is huge for me.  I chose to go to Hazelden. I still had insurance through major league baseball so for $40,000 treatment I paid a $200 deductible. My insurance for big league baseball ended two days after I got out of treatment. It was a big blessing.

“I would be in my room at night time and it was, ‘Why are you mad at this?’ ‘Why are you mad at that?’ I had to go through it. No one had to ask me that question. I was going through my life until I realized I couldn’t hold on to the anger anymore. I couldn’t hang on to the need of money. The need of being in the majors. Or, ‘Why did that person wrong me?’ It all welled up. I said, ‘I don’t know who I’m giving this to, but I’m done.’ I let it go. And the next 25 days I just floated. I had gotten rid of the past. People get depressed because they hold on to something. If they can find out how to release that…..”

Hamburger stopped and turned around to look at the Northern sun shining through the office window.

He gathered his thoughts and continued, “It was like a physical purging. I started crying. I don’t see tears as a person being sad. Whatever it is, it is coming out. It came to the surface. I had to make a decision with what it was.”

Mark John Hamburger, feeling free

Mark John Hamburger, feeling free

Hamburger debuted in St. Paul in 2013. He went 6-8 with a 3.26 ERA,striking out 120 batters in 149 innings. He returned to organized ball in 2014, moving up the ladder from New Britian (Class AA) to Rochester, the Twins’ Class AAA affiliate where he was 4-4 with a 3.79 ERA. Hamburger went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA for Rochester in 2015.

He returned to St. Paul in 2016 and has been lights out. Hamburger was 12-6 with a 3.29 ERA for last year’s Saints and won the American Association All-Star game. This season he is 8-1 with a 2.88 ERA.

His left non-pitching arm has a long diamond shaped tattoo with details that include family members and close friends. The artwork was done by his friend Milo Alfring at Black Sage Studio in Evergreen, Colo. where Hamburger makes annual off season visits.

“The diamond has a thousand facets,” he said while looking at his arm. “Each facet is covered with dirt and tar. It is the job of the soul to clean each one until they shine brilliantly just like the colors of the rainbow. That is my life goal. Not to achieve money, house, car, retirement.” He stopped to collect his thoughts. Hamburger wanted to make every word count. He continued, “I will stay the same no matter what I am given or no matter what I lose. I wake up every morning and I have something I can work on. At the end of the day I polish a little bit more.

“My ability to deal with you,” and he looked me straight in the eyes unlike many interview subjects. “I can’t be good to people if I don’t know what’s going on with myself. So every day I’m trying to work out my interior so that no matter what happens in my exterior, who knows what can happen? You whole life can change in one second.


A strong arm.

“The only way I can deal with that is by working on myself.”

Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t the only Twin Cities related icon to pass over in 2017. Robert Pirsig, the Minneapolis-born author of the 1974 spiritual best seller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” died in April at the age of 88. In “Zen,” he wrote, “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Hamburger is also a devotee of yoga, something he has been doing since 2009. “I definitely went into yoga deeper after getting sober,” he said. “But yoga has always been there for me as my workout besides lifting weights. It is kind of like my church. Some days it would be a way to get rid of something. Some days it would be ‘I’m here enjoying my friend next to me’. I’m pretty loose with what happens the day of my start. I don’t like to have any set things. Because if you have set things and one falls through…..”

For example, Hamburger is no longer overly set on returning to the major leagues.

“So much goes into it,” he explained. “I’d love to play at the highest level. Would I like to be able to play in big stadiums and be able set a life for myself money wise? I would. But now that I’ve come across personal happiness the need for external happiness doesn’t matter as much as my inner soul. I would love to go to the majors but if it didn’t feel right with where I was at in my life, I would say no.”

In a phone conversation Saints manager George Tsamis said, “Mark could be pitching at AAA right now. He’s throwing 90, 92 miles. He wants to be starter. He always wants to pitch the whole game He will pitching in our all-star game in a few weeks (July 25 in Ottawa, Ontario) in front of all those scouts.”

It has been reported that Hamburger turned down one major league deal as a relief pitcher. He does want to remain a starter. He is a huge fan of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige and brings Paige’s baseball card to the ball park on the day he pitches. He used to carry an original Paige baseball card in his wallet.

“I heard I can’t get out lefties,” he said. “I’ve been winning a lot of games which means I’ve been getting out more lefties than I don’t. I disagree with a lot of thing people say, like ‘We see him as a reliever.’ Well, you’ve never given me the opportunity to start with a big league baseball. Starting with a big league baseball as opposed to Triple AAA baseball is completely different. The movement of an AAA baseball or our baseball versus the big leagues is tremendous. Could I be successful as a big league starter? Maybe. I guess I’ll never know unless the right person sees me.”

Mark Hamburger big league baseball card.


Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906-1982) liked to say, “Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.”

“Satchel Paige is everything I want to be, except he left contracts all the time, which back then I can imagine,” Hamburger said. “He was one of the best pitchers of all time. His quotes, his life style, the fact he pitched two, three games a week. There was no pitch count back then. Are you kidding me? I’m not a fan of pitch counts. The most I’ve thrown this year is 130 something. Pretty light load.”

Attention TheoJed: sign this guy now.

Hamburger continued, “I’m not a fan of limiting people. Limiting yourself is the worst thing you can do.” Last year Hamburger broke the American Association record for complete games in a season (7) and led the league in innings pitched (158 2/3 innings).

He does not see any doors being closed.

*              *                *                          *                         *                          *                             *                                *                  *

Mark John Hamburger was right on time for our pre-game conversation. He had been on the field dancing with the Saints’ pink and white mascot Mudonna T. Pig for a video tribute to a St. Paul television weatherman. (The Saints’ live ball pig is named “Alternative Fats”). Kids love Hamburger because he is always up for anything. He has fun.

Hamburger is known as “The Mayor of St. Paul.”  His father Steve is a graphic designer and printer who took over his own father’s business. Hamburger’s mother Cheryl is an interior designer and stay at home mom. He has an older brother Paul and sister Michelle. The Saints pitcher lives with his parents.

Mark Hamburger in Paradise (L), with apologies to J. Buffett.

Mark Hamburger (L) in Paradise, with apologies to J. Buffett. Check out the no-fun guys on the bench.

“I don’t have my own home,” Hamburger said. “I was born in Shoreview, about 15 minutes from here. I’ve lived in the same house since I was born. The fact that I returned and I’m playing here isn’t random. For me, this (the Saints) is the real reason of  baseball. I can’t say that for other people. And where you come from calls you.”

Hamburger knows home is where the heart is. He owns two camper vans.

* In 2014 he bought a 13-foot 1967 FAN (Franklin A. Newcomer) manufactured in Wakarusa, Ind. For the past two off seasons he has been restoring the vintage trailer with his brother. FAN was in operation between 1957 and 1980. Hamburger purchased the tin-can trailer in the Catskill Mountains. “Just going to get it was the most wonderful time,” he said. “The small towns of upstate New York are amazing. I’m not going to polish it. I like the rustic outside. But we will be doing a lot of mods on the outside, a roof rack and custom canopies. I’m guesstimating it will be done by September.” The FAN van will become his home.

* In Australia he has a Ford Transit Van, a cousin of the one that I drive. Mine is blue with a silver canopy, his is white with a purple canopy. Hamburger’s ride has solar panels, a 160 liter water tank and outdoor shower. “Stove top but no fridge,” he said. “The fridge pulled too much from the solar. They have some pretty nice coolers that stay cold for a couple days. The solar panels are amazing. Being able to live without having to plug in is great.”

Hamburger guesses his Australian van is about 17 feet long. “I actually sleep diagonally,” said Hamburger, who is 6’4.” He added, “There’s so many other ways to sleep. I have a hammock. I have a tent. Once I get back to Australia I will reconstruct it a bit. I actually want to get a tent that goes off the back so when you open the double doors  I can have a tent and my own little foyer.”

Karma worked in Hamburger’s favor. He finished the winter league with a 1.90 ERA, the the lowest in the ABL (Australian Baseball League). He pitched the Melbourne Aces to their first ever grand final series where they lost to the Brisbane Bandits, the reigning ABL champions.

“The main sponsor for the Aces asked me if I was coming back next year,” Hamburger explained. “I said I’d love to. He said, ‘We know you’re only making $200 a weekend and we’d like to help you out.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just love this place so much.”

The Aces knew Hamburger was restoring a van in Minnesota. They asked him if he saw any wheel dreams he liked around Melbourne. And he had.

“They called me up on my birthday (Feb. 3),” he continued. “He said, ‘Do you want to go to Sydney?’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘You know that trailer you sent me the picture of? I talked to the guy who owns it and I’d like to buy it for you.’ Hamburger first said he couldn’t accept the transit van.


A gift from Australia.

“I didn’t want to owe him anything and I didn’t want to put logos on it,” he said. “This was going to be my home and not some team project.” The team insisted he take the transit van as a gift. Hamburger broke down in more ways than one. “I was so humbled,” he said. “On my birthday? Of turning 30?  A true blessing. I don’t have a home. And this guy, on my 30th birthday purchases me my first home. My last three weeks in Australia were bliss. I lived up and down the beaches. I had my stove. Cooking eggs. Fruit. And going to the ballpark and playing baseball.”

Hamburger has also played winter ball in Mexico, Puerto Rico and a teetering Venezuela.

“I was in Venezuela twice and the last time was 2016,” he said. “Right when I left they grounded planes. The bolivar’ went out so you couldn’t spend bolivar’ anymore. It was interesting to see things escalate a lot, but it also made me thankful to live here. I loved Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela. The baseball was great the money was great but I couldn’t connect with people. I’m fluent but you can’t get to the depth of someone. You have to be engulfed in the culture for years to learn someone’s heart in another language.

“Australia is the only other place that had winter baseball. A couple years ago I thought it could be my second home. And when I went there all this occurred. They bought me that Transit and apparently this was my second home.”

How did Hamburger get into van life?


“My sister told me about these gentlemen who wrote a book on minimalism,” he said. “With her life, a car payment, her apartment and she was living off of $18,000. I looked at my spending. I had so many clothes, so many different things. Once I purged those things I felt so great. I guess that’s how my life has been the last couple of years. Instead of buying stuff to feel better it’s letting go. Having the practice of letting things go in my life, it just kept happening more and more.

“Solitude is big for me. I think I’m an empathetic person so recharging by myself is something I need.”

He has an eye for the unique when on the road in the American Association, a league that takes the Saints through Gary, Ind., Lincoln, Neb., Wichita, Ks., Sioux City, Ia. and even Kansas City, Mo. “When I get into town I find a co-op, a good grocery store,” he said. “Take my meal money and get all the food I need for the three days I’m there. Sometimes I find a yoga studio. I always cruise around town to find flea markets. You can find gold in the Goodwills in some of those small cities we go to.”

“I do go solo a lot. After ten years of doing this, you usually have a roommate or go solo. I like going out with the guys but I spend ten hours a day with people. So when I wake up I like to be on my own for the first few hours.”

His 50-year-old manager Tsamis observed, “Mark is always happy and he gets the job done when he’s out there. He rides his skateboard, longboard, whatever you call it, everywhere. He flies on that thing. I haven’t seen that before. I’m not a big rules guy. You want them to show up on time, play hard and care about winning. The long hair is not a big deal. If would have asked me that question, 10, 15 years ago, I would have been against the long hair. It doesn’t matter.”

In professional  ball Hamburger’s journey has taken him through Clinton, Ia., Frisco, Tx. and Tucson, Az. But one of his best memories is embedded around the oil fields of Bakersfield, Ca., the land of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. In 2010 he compiled a stingy 1.77 ERA with 18 saves for the Bakersfield Blaze, but the meaning of his time with the Rangers affiliate goes beyond the numbers. “We had a game canceled because a huge dust storm blew the entire parking lot onto the field,” he said. “We couldn’t see our left fielder. I played the two best frisbee golf courses of my life just outside of Bakersfield. And I saved a dog. That is is the biggest moment in my baseball career.”

Pitching down under, 2017

Pitching down under, 2017

One of his teammates found a malnourished boxer-mastiff mix behind the team batting cage. “He was under a year old and 80 pounds,” Hamburger said.

“Broken femur. I put the water to him and he didn’t move at all. He just looked at me. After about ten minutes he lifted up his head started getting water. I realized I could pet him. I picked him up and brought him to my place.” Hamburger and his teammates named the dog Blaze in reference to their ball club.

“The next six days we were at home and I brought him in front of the fans,” Hamburger recalled. “I said, ‘Hey guys, this is our dog, we found him but they’re going to kill him if we can’t save his life.’ The fans raised $750 and anonymous donor paid for whatever they didn’t cover because it was on the news. So we got him femur surgery and found him a permanent family. He was the most beautiful dog I have seen. He never made a noise. I wish I could have taken him. He must be 160 pounds right now.”

Hamburger has met a litter of characters throughout his baseball career, but the first player that comes to his mind is St. Louis Cardinals reserve first baseman Jose’ Martinez whose journey began with the Chicago White Sox before stopping in independent league ports like Rockford, Ill. Martinez played 887 minor league games with 11 different minor league teams.

Hamburger and Martinez were teammates in Venezuela. “I basically say what he said every day,” Hamburger said. “He’d laugh–ha, ha, ha–and I’d go, ‘How ya doin’ Jose?’ And he’d go, ‘Outstanding looking! I’d go ‘Outstanding looking?

Outstanding looking man with a van.

Outstanding looking man with a van.

“And (former Rangers teammate) Josh Hamilton. My second outing was in Fenway (Park). I ran past him in the outfield. He spit and accidentally hit me in the leg. I turned around and he wiped it off. It was like, ‘I’m in Fenway and Josh Hamilton spit on me! This is the best day of my life’.”

Hamburger played some high school baseball at Mounds View High School in Adren Hills, Mn. During his senior year he was noticed by a Twins scout who came to see another pitcher. “I was pitching 86 or 87 at the end of the game,” Hamburger said. “I had more strikeouts. Less pitches. He came over and asked me what my GPA was. I told him and he said, ‘Maybe you should go to school.’ He was right.” Hamburger enrolled at Mesabi Range Community College where he went 11-0 with a 0.65 ERA. “He saw me after college at an open tryout for the Twins at the Metrodome,” Hamburger said. “In two years my velocity went from 87 to 92, 93.” The Twins signed Hamburger in 2007.

His pitching repertoire now includes the somewhat underhanded “submarine splitoon” and the “slurvy slurve.”

Hamburger laughed and explained, “You got the eephus pitch. That’s kind of my slurvy slurve. I’ll try to make my body look like it is going as hard as it can and then at the last second slow down, release it and try to throw a 55 mile an hour curve. I actually struck out one of my good friends the other day, Reggie Abercrombie (former Houston Astro and Florida Marlin) on a 64 mile an hour slurvy slurve. And he laughed.”

Most important, Hamburger is having fun.

“I asked our GM (Derek Sharrer) if during the fifth inning sometime when I’m pitching if I could run in the stands and grab a kid’s cheeseburger,” he said with a warm smile. “Take a bite of it and give him a hat? I’ve learned that the more I’m here, the freer I become.

And I feel better being free than being rich.”

Our Springfield friends coming to FitzGerald's (far left Ruell Chappel, Nick Sibley, Abbey Waterworth, far right Donnie Thompson and the late great Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums--

A few of our Springfield friends coming to FitzGerald’s in Berwyn (from far left Ruell Chappell,  Nick Sibley on guitar, Abbey Waterworth, far right Donnie Thompson (and there’s the late great Bobby Lloyd Hicks on drums).

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—The unadorned beauty of American regionalism can be heard in the songs of Abbey Waterworth. The 20-year-old musician is majoring in History and minoring in Museum Studies at Missouri State University (MSU) in Springfield. Her voice is as pure as mountain rain and filled with the promise of the morning sun. Waterworth is on the fast train to be to the Ozarks what a pop-country Dolly Parton is to Appalachia.

Waterworth came up with the idea to make her latest recording “Rose Bridge,” a sincere tribute to music that was created in the sticky flotsam and jetsam around Springfield.

Waterworth sings and plays banjo, Donnie Thompson (Skeletons, Morells, Steve Forbert) guests on lead guitar, the late Bobby Lloyd Hicks sits in on drums and former Ozark Mountain Daredevils John Dillon and Supe Grande guest on mouth-bow and spoons respectively–lending that cute Ozark touch. The album was recorded at Nick Sibley’s studio in downtown Springfield and Sibley filled out the record by playing drums, bass, harmonica and keyboards. He hired trumpets, violins and cellos for finishing parts.

Around Springfield clubs and coffee houses, Waterworth is backed by her band NRA (Nick Sibley on guitar, Ruell Chappell on keyboards and Abbey), and NRA will headline the Springfield Jamboree at 8 p.m. June 1 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.

Springfield Jamboree2

Donnie Thompson and Waterworth will open the evening with an acoustic set. “Rose Bridge” features covers of the Brenda Lee hit “I’m Sorry” (written by Springfield’s Ronnie Self), “The Letter,” (written by Springfield’s Wayne Carson), “Blue Kentucky Girl,” the Loretta Lynn-Emmylou Harris hit written by Springfield’s Johnny Mullins and even the pop-rock hit “Sugar Shack,” written by Keith McCormick, who had lived in Springfield since the early 1970s.

All those Springfield songwriters are dead.

“I wanted to know everything I could about where I came from and where this music came from,” Waterworth said during a conversation in Sibley’s spacious studio. “My interest in music history became an interest in art history and history of culture.”

I wanted to know if her college peer group is curious about her roots music interest.

“No,” she answered quickly. “I told someone last year I was studying history and might minor in Ozarks History and they were like, ‘Really, Ozarks History?’ That sounds like the nerdiest thing.’ But that’s what pumps my heart. Every time I talk about it, it fills me with joy. People in my age group aren’t really considering where they came from–yet. I’m not sure when that happens or why I have thought about that forever.

“Maybe it is because my family was from around here and I was never displaced like lots of people were when they were young. Oral tradition lasts three generations. A lot of music and culture is being lost because oral traditions are going away and people aren’t recording it. Especially in this area, there’s lots of untapped history. It’s still kind of a secluded region and it especially was 50, 60 years ago.”

“It is an area people don’t think about.”

The album is named “Rose Bridge” as a tribute to one of Si Siman’s publishing companies. Siman was a co-founder of the Ozark Jubilee concert series and ABC-TV show that in the mid-1950s was the first to broadcast country music across America–from the since-razed Jewell Theater in downtown Springfield.

“Rose Bridge” was named after Si’s wife Rosie and Wayne Carson’s wife Bridget.


Sibley said, “Abbey is only twenty, but has an encyclopedic knowledge of music of many genres and periods. She has an amazing voice. No auto-tune was used on this CD. She plays guitar, banjo and bass. She wanted to do her own interpretations of the varied types of songs that have come out of the Ozarks. Some were worldwide hits. Some are local favorites. And one is totally unknown–that would be mine.”

Sibley, a former member of the Springfield pop-rock-country-punk-surf band The Skeletons, wrote the novelty song “Cheesey Bread” for “Rose Bridge.” It’s just a few tracks ahead of the “Top Gun” Academy Award winning song “Take My Breath Away,” written by Springfield’s Tom Whitlock.

“Rose Bridge” is Waterworth’s second independent CD. Her 2015 acoustic self-titled debut includes Sibley originals, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree (popularized by the Grateful Dead) and an honest cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”

NRA has been playing around Springfield since 2014. The Nick Sibley-Ruell Chappell partnership began in 1974 when they debuted at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield. Chappell is a Springfield native who was a mid-1970s member of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and in  1989 was a cast member of the popular musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

A native of El Dorado Springs, Mo., Sibley has been writing and producing jingles for companies across America out of his Springfield studio. Sibley built the studio out of the shell of a former warehouse and has owned and operated the space since 1981.

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Brewer and Shipley of “One Toke Over The Line” fame have recorded at Sibley’s studio and Brad Pitt did movie voice overs there. “He still owes me forty bucks,” Sibley cracked.  “He was home for Christmas and he came to record on a Saturday morning. This was twenty years ago. He told me to send the tape to Miramax in New York and I never got paid. (Original ‘Newlywed Game’ host) Bob Eubanks did an ‘American Express’ commercial here.”

Sibley does spots for Lay’s Potato Chips, Bass Pro Shops and O’Reilly Auto Parts among others. Bass and O’Reilly are headquartered in Springfield. Ozark Mountain Daredevils Steve Cash and John Dillon laid down the original “O-O-O’Reilly” vocals, charging the company one dollar. “We do about 200 O’Reilly commercials every month here,” Sibley said. “I did the music 15 years ago. They come in and record in Spanish and English.” Sibley’s studio is just two blocks away from the late Lou Whitney’s studio.

Nick SIbley in his studio

Nick Sibley in his studio

Springfield’s music history is deeply rooted in NRA.

Chappell worked for Si Siman, playing on country records produced by Siman and Wayne Carson. NRA’s repertoire includes Sibley originals like “Albino Farm” (a true story about the 1930s albino Sheedy family that farmed at night outside of Springfield), the lite-country anthem “Life in the 417″ (Springfield’s area code)  and the irresistible 2017 pop anthem “Bang-Bang Summer.”

Waterworth explained, “There’s something about these older songs that people made for the sake of making art. That’s what folk tradition is. People making this for the pleasure of sharing, That’s one reason I’m drawn to it. It wasn’t set up for commercialism. I had the pleasure of playing ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ for Johnny Mullins’ wife and she was so happy that somebody was still interested in it.”

Waterworth works part time in Archives and Special Collections at Missouri State. She transfers old recordings into videos for the Gordon McCann Ozarks Music Collection.

McCann audio and video taped more than 3,000 hours of regional fiddle  music, house parties and compiled 200 notebooks filled with lyrics and transcriptions of conversations. McCann, 86, is a Springfield native who spent his youth floating on johnboats on rivers in the Ozarks. “We’re putting his videos on YouTube so they’re accessible,” Waterworth said. “It’s Smithsonian level stuff.”

And of her essential “Rose Bridge” recording Waterworth explained, “I wanted to show people all of the beauty that comes from this area that we don’t think about. And maybe get people to discover more. You don’t have to go to St. Louis or a bigger city to hear good music. This area has made a lot of music. Whenever you play a good song and people realize it was written here, they’re surprised.

“They don’t think that kind of greatness  can happen in their hometown.”


Abbey Waterworth is from Clever, Mo, in Christian County about 20 miles south of Springfield. The clever small town name reminded me my interview with the then-unknown Faith Hill, who was from Star, Miss.

“Not much goes on in Clever,” Waterworth said. “There’s a Murfin’s Market, the local grocery store and two gas stations. It was a farming community for a long time and now people are drawn to the school systems there.”

Waterworth attended Clever RV, a consolidation of five one-room school houses. “Yes, it sounds like something from a camping trip,” she said. “It adds to the ‘hillbilly value’ a little bit.”

Her mother Connie has been a successful stay at home mom. “My Dad (Bryan) has driven a truck as long as I can remember,” Waterworth said. “He hauled diesel fuel for Burlingt0n-Northern Santa Fe. Railroads were a big part of Springfield’s economy at one time.”

Her great grandparents were from St. Louis and moved to Competition, about two hours north of Springfield. Her great-grandmother played guitar until she had a family. Waterworth’s grandfather was a barber who bought a 1937 Gibson and learned how to play it for rural Friday night house parties.  “They would go house to house every Friday night and play music,” she recalled. “Mostly bluegrass, but they’d play Ernest Tubb and old folk songs. He loved Jimmie Rodgers. I heard all that. My Dad learned guitar from listening to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Dad would get on his bicycle and ride down to the Nixa Trout Farm (in Nixa, Mo., outside of Springfield) where the Daredevils practiced. He would listen to their practices. My oldest brother learned how to play and then my second brother learned how to play. I was the last. So there really wasn’t an option.

“It was something I felt I had to do to be part of the family.”

Music filled the halls of the house in Clever and plenty of CDs were packed for family road trips. “I grew up on bluegrass but I love the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones,” she said. “I started singing when I was seven and started guitar when I was nine. Then I picked up banjo.”

Waterworth has been singing as long as she can remember. “My family needed a singer.” she said. “We had a guitar player, a bass player and a mandolin player. My brother told me I was singing melodies before I could talk. When I was growing up the Dillards were a influence. Some of them lived around here. As I got older, I got into John Hartford, who was from St. Louis and who played with the Dillards and then Gillian Welch–she was a huge influence. But there was a point where all I did was listen to music that I hadn’t heard before.”


Nick Sibley and friend.

Nick Sibley’s sense of a musical pop hook is in the rarefied air of Nick Lowe or Marshall Crenshaw. His playful approach to songs about cornbread and buried cats reminds me of Chicago’s Chris Ligon. Sibley’s hilarious true story about a Missouri undertaker, “Don’t Be Drinkin’ No Beer While Your’e Working on my Mama” has been recorded by Ray Stevens but has yet to be released.

“You write a song, open it up and then the song appears,” Sibley explained. “I come up with the germ of an idea and let it unfold. Look for rhymes. I feel I find a song more than I write.”

Sibley inherited an eye for detail from his mother Peggy Thatch Sibley while growing up in El Dorado Springs, an hour south of Springfield. His father was a grocer, his mother is a piano player and painter.


Mrs. Sibley’s art.

“She paints pictures of bridges and flowers and all kinds of stuff,” Sibley said. “You see her prints at Wal-Mart. I’ll go into a hotel room and find my Mom’s painting on the wall. Let’s say bird houses are big this year. She will do a series of bird houses. She paints photographs of those styles but she aspires to loosen up and be more expressive.

“I find myself writing the same way she paints. In order to fight that I’ll throw some more paint on the canvas. It’s contrived random. Do I rhyme where it should be or don’t do a rhyme? People who do it for real, that’s genius stuff. Me? I pretend to be a genius. I write jingles. That’s what I do.”

“About every three weeks, TV stations coast to coast, north to south fly me in. California to New Jersey. They bring their clients in   every hour and a half. They tell me about their business for 30  minutes or so and I find some germ where I can write about something.  They leave the room for 20 minutes and I write their jingle. A jingle is 30 seconds  long. And you want to say something good about the client. They come in and I play it for them. If they like it, I come back here and produce it with real singers and stuff. Then the TV sends me a contract.

“ I’ve written thousands and thousands of jingles. The client takes it home. He says, ‘I know you’re an expert, but my daughter thinks it should sound more like this.’ You’re always pleasing the lowest common denominator, just like in popular music. That’s what you’re going for.”

Sibley’s approach is not unlike what hot pop (Taylor Swift, Lorde) songwriter Jack Antonoff told the New York Times earlier this week: “The heart and soul of pop is newness, excitement, innovation. The music business is built on chasing that ambulance–‘someone did it, let’s go that way.’ I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to be away from it.”

Antonoff should move to Springfield.

Sibley came to Springfield in 1971 to study marketing at Missouri State. “But Springfield bands would come to El Dorado Springs every Friday and Saturday night,” he said. “They were big stars to us. They knew all the right chords to the songs and I would be the guy standing by the PA watching them play That’s how I met Lloyd (Hicks, all-world drummer. He was the drummer for Lord Mack and the Checkmates. Supe (Michael Granda of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils) came to my town.

The late Wayne Carson

The late Wayne Carson

“The first studio in Springfield was started by Si Siman in 1968. It was called Top Talent. That’s where Wayne Carson (The Box Tops, Gary Stewart, etc.) did his demos and it became kind of a party place. Then Si said, ‘I’m outta here.’ He told me when I was going to build this place, ‘You’re going to regret it.’ Because I’d be using musicians (laughs). About 1972 Si sold his studio to a group of investors whose core group was local preachers. They made a gospel studio out of it. They’d do an album a day on Saturdays and  Sundays. I knew everybody who played in every band in town.

“For me, Springfield music was like collecting baseball cards.”



“I want to pick up where Theodore Ohman left off,” Foss declared during a mid-May conversation at his cafe in Mount Morris. “HIs goal was to put these in every school across America. And that’s what we’re doing. I just had a couple come in and buy a Constitution to donate to the Oregon School District. Our country needs this. New plates have been made and we want to offer these to the American public. Our constitution is important.  I’d like to see these go to the schools, attorney’s offices.

I’d like to see these go to the current occupant of the White House.

Foss sells 26” by 40” reproduction prints on parchment for $99 each at Shipping is free.

“We started doing research,” Foss said. “I started calling a lot of places to authenticate. I had never seen anything like (black ink) on glass.” Wisconsin appraiser Mark Moran worked with the Antiques Roadshow series. Foss paid for the appraisal and Moran estimated the Declaration lithographs created from Ohman’s plates at $650 each. For his Declaration lithograph, Ohman used an engraving plate from 1823 and the last negative of the original Declaration before it was permanently sealed in the National Archives in the early 1900s.

No one knows how Ohman made copies of the Constitution, but Foss  discovered more than 10,000 Constitution copies in the crates. Those were done in 1953. “We believe he got sick and passed on and was never able to distribute the Constitution,” Foss said. “Theodore Ohman had two kids who are deceased. He started his printing business in Memphis, Tennessee and move to Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he passed away. His printing plates, negatives, positives and maps went up for auction in Fort Lauderdale. A gentleman in De Kalb (Ill.) purchased all of it. And it was brought to his printing business here. He passed away, that estate sold and  this stuff got moved from one warehouse to another warehouse.

“And it got forgotten.”

HERE is a nice trailer from videographer Melissa Tassone:

Foss, 57, is owner of McKendrie Street Cafe, a sandwich and coffee shop, ironically on 500 Evergreen Dr. in Mount Morris (pop. 3,100). He also owns the Below Zero ice cream and smoothie shop in downtown Mount Morris. Below Zero is across the street from the community band shell that features Wednesday and Friday night summer concerts.

Mount Morris is a cozy borough about 35 miles southwest of Rockford and 100 miles west of Chicago straight out on Route 64 (North Avenue.) A Mount Morris welcome sign on Route 64 says, “Let Freedom Ring!” Mount Morris is the home of the Illinois Freedom Bell, located in the town square. I have spent some time in Oregon, a small town about five miles east of Mount Morris, but I had never been to Mount Morris. If you want to pull the strings of a Mount Morris resident, just call their town a suburb of Oregon.

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)


PEORIA, Ill .–The earth moves but it doesn’t shift quite as fast in Peoria, Ill.

As you roll into Peoria on I-74 across the Illinois River, you are met by a humble skyline that consists of the 50-year old Mark Twain Hotel, AFL-CIO headquarters and Caterpillar headquarters. Nestled beneath all that faded promise, like nuggets of gold in a stream, is Jim’s Steakhouse–or Jim’s as locals call it.

 Jim’s has been around since 1960. The late Peoria Chiefs owner Pete  Vonachen, his baseball bud Harry Caray and Peoria native Jack Brickhouse were Jim’s regulars. I’ve been going to watch Midwest League baseball in Peoria since 1985 when future Cubs Hall of Famer Greg Maddux played for the Chiefs. How could I miss Jim’s?

Jim’s is at 110 S.W. Jefferson, in the lower level of the six story  Janssen Building. Diners walk off a gold elevators and enter a hallway filled with hundreds of autographed celebrity photographs. It is the Peoria Pump Room. There’s photos of late Peoria native, singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon and Elton John. There’s Larry King and Fabio (I presume they weren’t dining together). The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

IMG_6380But most of all, there’s lots of pictures of baseball players: Peoria natives Joe Girardi and Jim Thome (a Jim who still comes to Jim’s regularly), Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and scores of others. If there is a metaphor for the song of Peoria, I’d say it is Jim’s.

Tim Comfort, 61,  is the owner of Jim’s. His father Jim started the famous restaurant. Jim Comfort owned the not so famous saloons Comfort Lounge and Circa in the Peoria area before opening the steakhouse in 1960 in the Junction City Mall, north of Peoria. Jim’s moved to its present location in 1992, which is a ten minute walk to the beautiful Dozer Park, home of the Chiefs.

Jim and his brothers all worked in the restaurant growing up.

That’s how life is in Peoria. The earth moves slow, until something like the January, 2017 announcement that Caterpillar was moving its headquarters to Chicago. Caterpillar had talked about building new headquarters in Peoria in 2015. This news shook Peoria  and Jim’s right to the core of its 160-seat lover level steakhouse.

Caterpillar’s roots are near Stockton, Ca. but the company purchased a bankrupt East Peoria manufacturing company in 1909 and has since been part of the community fabric. The company headquarters is just two blocks away from Jim’s.


“Since 1960 we have served every CEO Caterpillar ever had,” Comfort said. “Then they give control of the company to people out of state, and like most downstate, people are moving headquarters out of downstate to Chicago or other states. Nobody here likes their decision to move.”

And then in early March, IRS and federal agents raided Caterpillar offices in Peoria as part of an investigation into allegations that the farm equipment manufacturing company was shifting profits overseas to avoid taxation.

Comfort was born and raised in Peoria. “When we got of high school, we could work at any of Caterpillar’s factories and make good money,”  he said. “Most of my friends fathers supported families; four, six, eight kids, running a machine for Caterpillar. That has all changed.

“Those factories have been bulldozed in East Peoria. There’s very little manufacturing done around here.”

Caterpillar did step up to the plate in 2013 when the Chiefs had  financial problems. Caterpillar gave the Chiefs $2 million in funding  for stadium naming rights over 10 years matched by $2.7 million in new investment of cash and equity by the Chiefs’ ownership group of about 50.  In May, 2013, the former O’Brien Stadium was renamed Dozer Park, a reference to Caterpillar bulldozers.

The best of plans push forward. Today, Tim’s younger brother Greg runs Jim’s Steakhouse in Bloomington, Ill. Older brother Jim, Jr. operates Jim’s Bistro in Peoria Heights. “We each have our own Jim’s,” Comfort said. “My brothers and I started out as dishwashers, busboys. Then we went on to cleaning the restaurant. Our parents had us prep cook. We ran the salad department. From there we went into back up cooking and running the broiler. We knew how to do everything.”

The Janssen Building was erected in 1990 in the former site of the Niagara Hotel and the basement speakeasy known as The Combo Club.  The warm interior contains ample flourishes of cherry wood, brass and marble. When a guest walks into Jim’s it does feel like the 1960s all over again. “My father always told us to stay traditional and not go into anything that would go out of style,” Comfort said. “This restaurant hasn’t changed in 25 years.

Courtesy of Tim Comfort

Jim’s photo courtesy of Tim Comfort

“Downtown Peoria has changed considerably. Pete Vonachen (1925-2013) pushed for the ballpark downtown. It took him a long time. You can see (Peoria’s leading builder) Ray Becker’s buildings as you leave Jim’s. He built all these tall buildings downtown (in the early 1990s). Most of the growth now is going to the northwest part of town.”

Many of the celebrities stopped into Jim’s because they were  appearing at the nearby Peoria Civic Center or staying in a downtown hotel. Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007) signed a picture and it is encased with a signed guitar along a wall. “Dan and his wife ate here every time they were in town,” Comfort recalled in humble Peoria tones. “This was his restaurant. Sometimes they would come in and order appetizers, sit in the corner and you didn’t even know they were in the place. They were wonderful people and they are really missed.

“Warren Zevon was playing the Madison Theater. That was a to-go order and we ran it down there. He was nice enough to autograph a picture for us. Fabio? I don’t know what he was doing in Peoria. He had no reservation. He just walked in with a whole group of women behind him. He had (Alaskan King) crab legs. (Cubs Hall of Famer) Ryne Sandberg has been here a couple dozen times Remember he managed here for a while (2007.). Jim Thome signed a baseball bat for us. We probably have a half-dozen signed baseballs. We bother him every time he comes in. He has family in Peoria. He’s an avid outdoorsman.”

Jerry Daughters (L) and Tim Comfort

Jerry Daughters (L) and Tim Comfort

Retired Creve Coeur (Ill.) police chief Jerry Daughters is a fast friend of Jim’s. When Daughters was police chief from the mid-1970s to 1993 he would take more than 100 Peoria area kids to the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis for annual meets and greets with players, especially during Cubs-Cardinals games.

Daughters has dozens of black and white photographs of visits with Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and even Cubs manager Herman Franks, who never missed a meal.

Daughters wandered into Comfort’s office and asked, “Who was the horn player on ‘The Tonight Show? (Doc Severinsen.) He was staying at the Mark Twain and had a concert somewhere. I was shooting the stuff with him.

“Creve Coeur was a hot place back then. We had 12 taverns open until four a..m. and a band in all of them. He was wondering where to go after his show. Now Creve Coeur is dead.”

Actor-comedian Richard Pryor was from Peoria and in 2014 a Richard Pryor Avenue was renamed in his honor just a few blocks away from Jim’s. “Richard Pryor, Jr. has been here several times,” Comfort said. “I asked him, ‘Did your father ever come to Jim’s?’ He said he was sure he had come, maybe in the early 1960s. Sam Kinison (Peoria native) was in Jim’s at least 12 times. You always heard what a wild guy he was. All he ever requested was fresh brewed iced tea. His parents were (Pentecostal) preachers and I think he preached for a while himself.” In a 1989 conversation , Kinison indeed told me he used to preach at a church at 918 W. Belmont in Chicago.

One of the more unique aspects of Jim’s is the logo that features a piano and a piano player. Most urban steakhouses and supper clubs have trimmed the budget for live entertainment. But music will always play in Peoria.

Richard Pryor, native of Peoria, Ill., USA

Richard Pryor, native of Peoria, Ill., USA

Comfort looked at the week’s entertainment scrawled out on a sheet of yellow paper that hung on his office wall. He said, “Bonnie (Tuesday night) is a 19-year-old Bradley student. Ed and Judy are in their 70s, they’ve been playing for us for 30 years. Ben and Kate (Friday night piano and voice duo) are the younger version of Ed and Judy, they’re in their 30s. We have a harpist from 6 to 8 on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Entertainment is expensive. I keep telling our talent, ‘Don’t outprice yourself because it’s not a good time to be a musician. Then the music licensing companies want more money for live entertainment. We just paid ASCAP and BMI is due in May.” Jim’s intimate lounge-piano bar area sits about 35 people.

Of course as my late father (a Swift & Company purchasing agent in Chicago) would say, “The meat makes the meal.” Comfort explained, “We’re a traditional steakhouse just as you would find in Chicago. We have the dry-aged Porterhouses, rib-eyes. We take a lot of pride in our beef and that’s what has kept us rolling all these years.”

Jim’s menu menu highlights  include a chopped sirloin bacon wrapped with blue cheese and grilled onions ($16.95), pot roast ($21.95) and baby back ribs ($24.95). “We’re in the category of Gene and Georgetii’s, Harry Caray’s and Rosebud in Chicago,” Comfort said. “I’ve eaten at all of them. We hae people who come down from Chicago and they can’t believe how cheap we are. We cannot get Chicago prices downstate, but it is the same quality and same beef.” And there’s no beef about making Jim’s a must visit for the classic Peoria experience; the way things once were.