East Side, Best Side

A pub crawl along the Illinois riverbanks

Jonah White's camouflage-wrapped F-350 king cab is parked outside the Calhoun County, Illinois, headquarters of Billy-Bob Teeth, the world's foremost manufacturer of gag molars.

White and his family moved to the "Kingdom of Calhoun" — a 37-mile-long sliver of a peninsula bordered on the south, east and west by the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers (rural Pike County sits to the north) and accessible mainly by ferry — when he was a small boy. After starring on Calhoun High's football Warriors, the short, muscular White spent his college years at (formerly Southwest) Missouri State in Springfield, with the aim of becoming a game warden or conservation official.

Instead he and a dental-student buddy hit on Billy-Bob Teeth, a hillbilly denture venture that has made White a millionaire and the de facto king of this rugged Kingdom.

Jennifer Silverberg
The peninsula is accessible by ferry and by the Joe Page Bridge, Calhoun County's lone roadway to urban civilization.
The peninsula is accessible by ferry and by the Joe Page Bridge, Calhoun County's lone roadway to urban civilization.

"People are kind of behind the times here," White, now 36, says of Calhoun County. "Which is one of its charms."

With a petite Australian wife, four young children and a stockpile of cash, if White wanted to whittle away his days smoking Cubans in a Central Park high-rise, he no doubt could. But then he'd be a world away from his favorite bar, The Palace, located in tiny Hamburg, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi.

A six-mile schlep from White's hilltop manse, a wooden fortress in the neighboring village of Michael with twin manmade lakes stocked to the gills with catfish, the Palace is distinguishable by the mountain of empty aluminum cans stacked out back and by the fact that it's the only watering hole in Hamburg. In fact, in Calhoun County (population 5,000), when a resident of one small town tells another resident of that town to meet him "at the bar," he's most likely referring to the bar.

The Palace is empty when White pulls up in his truck at dusk and promptly orders a can of Milwaukee's Best. The only other customer is the owner's son and White's Calhoun High classmate, Charlie Booth. Booth tells White about a mutual friend who was recently busted by a conservation cop for lifting a trophy buck off a wildlife preserve. Had the poacher refrained from telling everyone and their mother about his prize, reckons Booth, it might have fetched six figures from a wealthy collector. As it is he's liable to get his hunting license suspended for five years, which, in a county where the game warden is considered to be the real sheriff, is tantamount to being placed under house arrest.

While White is in the john — which is covered in vintage nude centerfolds; the women's restroom was outfitted with Playgirl spreads until a devoutly religious Korean woman complained — the Palace's mustachioed owner, Gary Booth, arrives, toting two large cardboard boxes containing a passel of firearms, the highlight of which is a .357 Magnum straight out of Dirty Harry that the elder Booth proudly passes around. The Palace doubles as a retail outlet for hunters, with six-shooters and six-packs arrayed for sale on adjacent shelves.

"That's why they call it ATF, isn't it?" quips Gary Booth, invoking the acronym of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Just as the Kingdom of Calhoun is a world removed from the Manhattan condo Jonah White chooses not to buy, the county maintains at least a river's breadth of separation from greater St. Louis. In the wake of the '93 flood, when one mainlander proposed bolstering Calhoun's tourism dollar by constructing a toll bridge to St. Charles County, the natives shouted down the idea before concrete was anywhere close to being poured.

"There was never a vote or anything," recounts Bill Horman, the longtime mayor of Hardin whose Main Street barbershop doubles as his executive office.

"But it's gonna come one of these days."

Decades ago most Calhoun County residents made a reasonable living by working the land. Nowadays, according to Mayor Horman, "Cars leave here in the mornings for St. Louis by the hundreds."

They also head to Alton. Called "the most haunted city in America" by Fate magazine and replete with a riverboat casino, cobblestone streets and Colonial homes perched on picturesque bluffs, the burg is, for many a workaday hick, the big city. Here a fortunate few who pulled the early shift can be found sipping Bud Light from frosty mugs as "Cat Scratch Fever" screams through an East Broadway biker bar called the Woodstock Lounge on an unseasonably balmy midwinter Wednesday afternoon.

"Work is the curse of the drinking class," reads a prominent bumper sticker on the face of the fridge that holds the frosty mugs, near where a young laborer is chatting up the bartender, a well-proportioned brunette with a tramp stamp on her lower back. Fortunately for the suitor, he and Ms. Thing both hail from East Alton, so they have a common upbringing to dissect straightaway.

A few blocks north on Broadway at Mike's Ten-Pin, Jim, a twentysomething garbage collector and father of four, is drinking his way through Hump Day. When asked to describe his hometown of nearby Wood River, he says: "All I know is there's a lot of trash."

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