East Side, Best Side

A pub crawl along the Illinois riverbanks

In 1997, when it was proposed that the Alton-borne federally sanctioned scenic byway along Highway 100 be officially extended into the Kingdom's portion of the Great River Road, 803 county residents signed a petition opposing the designation. As a consequence, surefire road improvements and tourism dollars never washed ashore. The Father of Nullification would have been proud.

Yet while casual human traffic has largely been stymied, wilder creatures have entered the Kingdom in droves. Specifically, the deer population has flourished so dramatically that hunting now rivals farming as the county's main economic engine.

"We've always had ducks," says Mayor Horman of Hardin. "But ever since all those deer and turkey came 30 years ago, [hunting] outfitters have been coming in here from all over Hell."

Senger's Tavern is one of only a few reminders that 
pristine Grafton isn't a coastal community.
Jennifer Silverberg
Senger's Tavern is one of only a few reminders that pristine Grafton isn't a coastal community.
It's spartan by city standards, but the Straight Home 
(owned by Matt Baalman, pictured) in Hardin is as close 
to a yuppie bar as you'll find in all of Calhoun County.
Jennifer Silverberg
It's spartan by city standards, but the Straight Home (owned by Matt Baalman, pictured) in Hardin is as close to a yuppie bar as you'll find in all of Calhoun County.

"This is Calhoun County," adds fake-tooth tycoon Jonah White. "It's always hunting season."

White's pronouncement is supported by the Saturday-afternoon happy hour at the Michael Tavern, which sits on the north side of the peninsula along Highway 100 (this portion of the county gave the go-ahead for the aforementioned federal byway designation). As Charlie Daniels blares from the jukebox and dollar frosty mugs of Stag bubble over, one hard-of-hearing hunter with an extremely hoarse voice shows off a set of black-and-white wildlife photos to a camouflage-clad couple. At the pool tables, a couple of burly younger men shed their rain gear to reveal a pair of crisp white wifebeaters, while folks start to dish up chili from a crock that's been placed along a wide railing not far from a meticulously woodworked bald eagle.

The only reminder that this isn't a packed West Virginia roadhouse is the Kurt Warner jersey on the bartender's back.

A few miles down the road sits Louie's Kampsville Inn, a large blue restaurant/bar that neighbors a dock where cars board the free Kampsville Ferry to Carrollton in mainland Greene County (the two public ferries to Illinois are free, while the privately operated Missouri-originating pair exact a small toll). In the bar, a group of strapping duck hunters, one a ringer for ex-Cardinal Mark McGwire, orders a round of Busch cans while Flava Flav's VH1 reality dating show pipes in on the TV set overhead. Meanwhile, the restaurant portion of the Kampsville Inn is packed with catfish-craving Caucasian families (Calhoun County is 99 percent white and about 50 percent German), dispelling any notion that the Midwest is a region best skipped by seafood aficionados.

The great flood of 1993 all but wiped out tiny (population 650) Grafton, Illinois, which rests at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Unlike nearby Calhoun County, however, Grafton's re-emergence has been more of a cultural awakening than stubborn retreat to status quo.

"We were really hit hard in the flood," says Richard Mosby, Grafton's mayor. "We lost 150 structures and a third of our population. From that day on, we knew we had to bring some people back, and we've tried to be progressive about it."

Essentially what Grafton has done is to embrace its own natural wonder. Atop the Tara Point lookout, the critical mass of sailboats weaving through virtually uninhabited forestland in the wide confluence below gives you the impression you're on a secluded Pacific isle. Newfangled condominiums and wineries dot the highland; downhill, in warmer months, tanned patrons of a riverside cabana called the Loading Dock adopt a Grand Caymanesque mindset, ingesting Coronas and beer-battered halibut while yachts and fishing trawlers cruise past.

But things can also get a little dirty down there.

"You've seen our large and not unattractive piles of mud around town," Mayor Mosby quips. "They're there because a 200-slip marina is going in this spring. The first set of docks is on-site but not set in place yet. It will all start happening very quickly, which will change the complexion of our community. And that's good."

Only on the surface of its Main Street corridor does Grafton become distinctly Midwestern.

At noon on a Sunday at Senger's Tavern, a gaunt old man with three-day stubble nurses a cold Busch at a corner barstool. On the walls: a plethora of mounted taxidermy and a street-sign replica that reads "Bullshit Blvd." Senger's ceiling tiles are covered in permanent marker musings; and its weekend bartender is a sweet grandmotherly type who cautions a hangdog patron against pouring too much Jim Beam hot sauce in her bloody mary.

As happens often on sunny Sundays in Grafton, two motorcycle couples roll in, dressed in black leather. Enthralled by the looks of the aforementioned mary, the bikers order four more, heavy on the hot sauce.

A half-mile upriver is the Wild Goose Saloon, whose parking lot is packed with Harleys. When the weather's nice, the Goose's stilt-supported deck offers an Illinois River view unrivaled in the lowlands. Indoors there's a big-screen TV tuned to a sexy country-music pool party wherein it's revealed that "tequila makes her clothes fall off."


Behind the bar, bumper stickers abound, some tender ("There are no strangers here, just friends we haven't met"), some cheeky ("Since I've used all my sick days, I'm calling in dead"). One witticism perfectly captures the modern-day river town's laidback ethic: "Grafton, IL: A quiet little drinking town with a serious fishing problem."

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