East Side, Best Side

A pub crawl along the Illinois riverbanks

Bartender Anne and bar back Glenn are the only employees on hand at the Ten-Pin, which plays host to an Allman Brothers cover band every Sunday night. The surfaces are extraordinarily clean for a standard blue-collar tavern — a byproduct of the iron-fisted ways of Mike's elderly mom, Bonnie, a thimble of a woman who lets a ray of sunlight in through the front door when she enters to "A Whiter Shade of Pale" playing on the jukebox.

As she disappears into the office in back, Glenn, who'd been recounting a tale of reconciliation with his adult daughter after seventeen years of estrangement, sneaks out the front, leaving Anne to absorb the night's marching orders from Bonnie. When the owner's mother (mercifully) leaves, Anne pours tequila shots for everyone in the house, on the house.

Meanwhile, trash-slinging Jim has commandeered a taxicab to shuttle him home to Wood River, a small oil town at the elbow of State Routes 3 and 100, the latter a shimmering scenic byway that extends from Alton through the northern portion of Calhoun County; the former a bleak strip of asphalt that traverses the hardscrabble municipalities of East St. Louis, Brooklyn, Venice, Granite City and Hartford.

Palace owner Gary Booth, clad in camouflage, the de 
facto uniform in a hunters' paradise.
Jennifer Silverberg
Palace owner Gary Booth, clad in camouflage, the de facto uniform in a hunters' paradise.
Guns, boobs, urinals and beer: The Palace has it all.
Jennifer Silverberg
Guns, boobs, urinals and beer: The Palace has it all.

Ferguson Avenue, Wood River's main drag, boasts more than its fair share of places to imbibe come sundown. Among the least cheery of these haunts is the Nite Train Lounge, where if you don't know anything about roofing, you're not going to get a word in edgewise. That said, there's plenty of cheer in the beer — as is typically the case when it only sets you back six bits a pop.

At downtown's western edge is a mysterious gray structure dubbed The Stallion. It ostensibly opens for business at four, and yet when a prospective customer attempts to open the front door at around five on a Wednesday, it remains locked until an older gentleman wearing a tracksuit and beret loudly announces through a glass peephole: "I don't want to buy an ad!"

"Just want something to drink," replies the thirsty customer. At this Tracksuit Dan unlocks the door as the larger of his two dogs — a Great White Pyrenees named Guido — barks loudly near the bar.

"Shut up, Guido!" Dan scolds in a thick East Coast accent.

Pouring a generous amount of Worcestershire sauce into a salty bloody mary, Tracksuit Dan explains that his front door remains locked at all hours because he doesn't want people waiting for the bus to Alton stopping into his dimly lighted establishment just to take a whiz. They often arrive in pee-happy packs of three or four, he says, and even Guido can't scare them away.

Happy hour is especially quiet today because Dan's not hosting billiards league in the back room, and one of his best customers just lost his job, forcing the bloke to drink cans of Stag in his garage instead of sampling from the collection of dusty liquor bottles at the Stallion, which, with its murky fish tanks, overgrown indoor foliage and scattered notepads, resembles a basement den. Times are tough, but that's de rigueur for Tracksuit Dan, the son of a New York City janitor. Dan was stationed at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville shortly after graduating high school and hasn't left the area since, despite his trenchant assessment of the St. Louis region as "the armpit of America."

Another reason the Stallion's door stays locked at all hours is so Dan's ex-wife, whom he accuses of smashing in the windows of multiple automobiles and throwing glass ashtrays at him, stays off the property. Dan's happily remarried to a much younger woman now, and his ashtrays are all plastic.

Not counting the two highways that enter Calhoun County from rural Pike County to the north, there's only one way to access the Kingdom directly by car, and that's the Joe Page Bridge. The span, which crosses the Illinois from Greene County to Hardin, is said to be the largest vertical lift bridge (the structure's center section ascends rather than splitting) in the world.

Seeing as how the Page Bridge sometimes freezes over in the winter, there are days when, if you want to get into Calhoun County, you must board one of two car ferries that cross the Mississippi River from Missouri or choose from two ferries that traverse the Illinois: one at the south end of Pere Marquette State Park, the other north of Hardin in Kampsville.

To understand why such isolation suits Calhoun and its residents, consider that the Kingdom is named after former U.S. Vice President John Caldwell Calhoun, one of the early nineteenth century's foremost advocates of slavery and states' rights. Calhoun, a South Carolinian who also served in the U.S. Senate, was known as the "Father of Nullification," a hard-line libertarian concept centered on the belief that a state can reject any federal law it perceives as unconstitutional.

The attitude Senator Calhoun showed the feds is similar to the frosty relationship between his namesake peninsula and outsiders in general. While visitors can rent a few riverside stilt houses for summer getaways, there's only one formal hostelry, the homey Hardin Hotel, and it's got just nine rooms.

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