Markers of the Past

Photo by John Griswold


The Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, was quiet on a recent Thursday afternoon. It sits a quarter-mile south of one of the remaining stretches of old Route 66, in a town of two thousand. The cemetery is filled with German, Italian, and Eastern European names of those drawn to work the extensive local coal mines, which closed by the 1950s.

But it is known primarily for the grave of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (d. 1930), a union activist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and cofounder of the Wobblies. Jones was once called “the most dangerous woman in America” by a West Virginia district attorney, and “the miners’ angel” for her decades of tireless organizing and protesting. She came through Mt. Olive only a couple of times in her life but asked to be buried near her “boys,” coal miners killed in the nearby “Battle of Virden” in 1898.

An 80-ton pink granite obelisk with two bronze miners marks her grave. Visitors leave pebbles, seashells, lumps of coal, and pins that say, “Words Matter”; “Vote the Slate: Teamsters Rebuild 710”; “Union Yes”; and “Bernie 2020.” A car stopped so the passenger could take a photo of the entrance to the cemetery, which says, “THE RESTING PLACE OF REAL UNION PEOPLE,” but no one got out.

It is interesting to see this hallowed ground of militant unionism in a place where, other than the county state’s attorney, coroner, and circuit clerk, Republicans made a clean sweep last November, and Donald Trump received 67% of the vote. (The Party for Socialism and Liberation received 20 votes, .08% of the total.)

Then again, Jones was not what we would call intersectional, keeping her distance from women’s-rights issues, saying “that suffragists were naïve women who unwittingly acted as duplicitous agents of class warfare,” and overlooking the way in which the Virden incident, for example, was racialized in order to put the attention back on class warfare.

This part of the country—and it is not the only one—seems to have many markers of the past in full view, even to use them as a draw while ignoring their implications.

A short drive west on Route 66 takes you to Interstate 55, which put many of the towns on 66 out of business. Seven miles south, at Livingston, Illinois, is the Pink Elephant Antiques Mall, which also sells Twistee Treat ice cream, fresh fudge, and retro candies. The antiques are displayed in the huge, old, high-school building; thousands are small enough to be in glass cases—stuff like porcelain Shirley Temple dolls, Case knives, a telescope labeled “naughty peepers,” coin banks, tools, and antique foot ointment (half-full).

My younger son has a fascinating reaction to these sorts of places: they make him nauseous and dizzy. I cannot tell if it is the odor, maybe unseen molds, or whether the overwhelming and somewhat depressing sense of the past intruding on the present messes with his mind. All those people, now gone, and all their stuff, which they valued and saved, now on display as tchotchkes, oddities, and curios, and most definitely stripped of their original intents.

Outside there is a jungle of enormous fiberglass statues, done badly, and a big green UFO. One of the newer statues is of Donald Trump, maybe 20 feet high, giving a thumbs up, heavily looming over several parking spots. A sign stuck in the pink and gray gravel at his feet says, “NOT A POLITICAL STATEMENT / Love Him OR Hate Him / Still A Good Photo OP!”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.