Mom and Dad said they moved because they knew that old Wayne, the Illinois landscape of corn and wheat fields, the windmills and barns, and the crumbling brick silos, would soon be steamrolled into the vortex of Chicago land sprawl. The writing was on the wall, they said, with plans for bridges to connect the country lanes to the city’s arterial flow of traffic, and the farmers parceling their fields to developers.
For Mom and Dad the last straw was in 1982, when the Swedish carpenter Wes Peterson sold his 40-acre lot behind our house to developers and retired to Wisconsin. I’ve pocketed the view of that home since my family left it 20 years ago and kept it, like a mental still shot, as something I never wanted to see changed. No matter where I’ve been over these past two decades — New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Germany or Switzerland—I’ve always dreamed of having one more look at the old house.
Last spring, during a visit to a friend in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, I did have one last look at the place. I pedaled a 13-mile section of the Illinois Prairie Path between Glen Ellyn and Wayne on a bicycle, past the dogwood hedges and hawthorn blossoms that concealed the scattered remnants of old railroad track. The prairie path was once the route of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway line.
The best view of the home was from atop a ridge on the path. I parked my bike on the highest spot, once the starting point from which we slid toboggans and sleds down the path until it turned into an icy chute that shot us across the frozen ponds clear to the beaver lodges made from the cattail reeds. In summer, we fished for blue gill here and skipped rocks across the water. Between bouts of swimming, we sat on the rails in wet cut-offs and smoked Mom’s Tareyton 100s, which we pilfered as often as we could.
I wasn’t surprised to see that the house was no longer visible beyond the field. It’s like calling an old girlfriend after 20 years and hoping she’ll still have the same name and no children, that she’ll answer the phone with the same affection you knew at 17. Family homes, like first loves, are perhaps better filed under sweet memory, nothing more. A nest of million-dollar homes has sprouted in the cornfield between the old house and the prairie path. From the ridge, I count 15 of them, each settled on acre lots with the nightmare randomness of Dorothy’s Kansas home twisting down to Oz in that tornado. A red, white and blue RE/MAX real estate sign stands on the edge of the last remaining lot for sale.
The developers named the field Pre du Chevaux, the place of horses. Probably they had Wayne’s intimate history with horses in mind when they mounted the plastic letters onto the pre-fabbed stone entranceway on Powis Road. In the 19th century, Mark Dunham made his fortune in Wayne by importing Percheron draft horses from France. Ever since, Dunham’s legacy has left an indelible, storybook stamp on Wayne, one that the village has incorporated as its Old World motif. People moved to Wayne to raise horses, mainly. Marguerite Henry, author of such popular children’s books as Misty of Chincoteague and_ Cinnabar, the One O’Clock Fox_, lived and wrote here. There’s a riding and hunt club, and high on a hill the old Dunham castle still overlooks the fields and pastures.
When I climbed off my bicycle and approached the old house from the field, a matching pair of fat chocolate labs bolted out from one of the backyards. The chocolate labs, like the new houses, the driveways, the sod chunks and the empty flowerpots had a surreal, Alice in Wonderland feel. With the timing of the dogs’ appearance, I felt as though someone was eyeing me from behind the curtains of an upstairs bedroom the moment I’d crossed the field. That’s the thing about the byways of the wealthy in these new subdivisions: You never see anyone in the yard playing catch or planting flowers or even jumping rope in the driveway. The facades of the homes have all the warmth of a corporate office building in Houston. A moment later, the owner shouted for his dogs. A cloth napkin stuck out his side pocket. He wore slippers and a pair of sweatpants with bumblebee yellow racing stripes tracing down the side of each leg. He looked 30, at least 10 years younger than I. Whatever this guy did for a living, he was likely making 10 times the salary my father made.
We talked for a few minutes. I told him that I grew up in the house behind his and pointed to our old home, 50 yards away, past the berry thickets and willow trees. “Wow, this must be pretty weird for you then, with all the new development and such,” he told me. “I heard that horses used to gallop through here during the foxhunts. Not anymore, I guess.”
Next to these grand 4-acre duchies (starter castles, our neighbors called them when they were going up) the old house appeared as a simple box that seven people once used and outgrew, as simply as a child outgrows a winter jacket. The clapboards were peeling paint again. I scraped, primed and painted those boards again and again, but the work never stuck for more than a couple of years. The roof edges curled. Crab grass, pine needles and willow branches had claimed the back yard, nothing like the sod squares strategically plotted, roll by roll, over the old cornfield.
One of the first things Dad did when we moved in here was plant a row of evergreen trees along the back edge of the yard. Although you can’t see the house anymore from the prairie path, you can spot these trees. In 25 years, they’ve reached more than halfway up to the surrounding willows. It’s not the home, really, that stands out in memory, but rather the trees that hint of something more lasting. The evergreens defy the march of progress while holding intact a sense of historical continuity. Who knows what led Dad to plant trees right off the bat, but I figured there must be some common sense, some instinctual drive that makes people want to give something back to the landscape after they’ve disrupted it with whatever size home they’ve chosen to settle in.
I didn’t look at the house long. It was just an empty nest better suited to childhood memory than the confusion of the present moment. My sister always told me she never wanted to return to Wayne, not because she didn’t like it but because she couldn’t. I understood that now.
I wondered if it mattered that the new residents of Pre¢ du Chevaux would never realize what this field once was. When thunderstorms or tornadoes neared, the wind first brushed across the tops of the corn stalks until a chorus of dog-eared sheaths warned of impending change. The new residents would never know the intensity of the chlorophyll-green stalks against a blue sky in June. Nor could they understand how the field measured time and the season between planting in May and the pale ears lined up for the combine by Thanksgiving. Snapping turtles crossed the field in spring on their way to hatching. Fox, deer, rabbits, coyotes and opossums appeared out of the folds of green onto our back lawn, awestruck at having suddenly found themselves on the edge of settlement.
Money, I suppose, still ruled in the village of Wayne, but my past here also taught that class and distinction don’t always have to be ruled by the dollar. Good taste is often a matter of good breeding, and both, I still want to believe, derive from the land itself. Today, my childhood is recalled and defined only with the phrase “I played outside.”
I’m not exactly sure what the inherent value of an open cornfield is meant to be. Perhaps the happiness of the new homeowners in Pre du Chevaux overrides my perception of the field’s nostalgic value. Still, I want to believe that the real value of the land or an old house does not lie in its potential to extract dollars from dirt. Ideally, cornfields, the memory of home even, should sustain their value indefinitely, whether as food on one’s dinner plate or for the expectation, however warped, that one might one day return home and find things unchanged.
Pré du Chevaux has done away with the middle man—the farmer—and milked the potential country homeowner in an agricultural endgame where the only regenerating claim is a family in a starter castle spread over 4-acre plots, families who come with a shrinking knowledge (or care) of what preceded them. It doesn’t mean Americans are ignorant of the past, but when other interests step in to reclaim open space for limited ends, then people are left with stunted perceptions of what was.
It’s a stretch of my imagination now to reconstruct my place in Wayne’s landscape, from the clapboard homes and the country store, where we spent our nickels on vials of colored sugar and rock candy, to Mark Dunham’s world or draft horses, and more so, to the Indian’s world, as they knew the Illinois countryside.
To honor the American Bicentennial, the village hoisted a two-ton rock out of the Fox River and set it in the village center. Chief Black Hawk’s words, circa 1838, are engraved in stone:
“It was a beautiful country. I loved my towns and my cornfields. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did.”
On the ride home, back to Glen Ellyn, I thought of Chief Black Hawk’s words again. I don’t think that what I saw in my hometown this morning is the future Black Hawk had in mind when writing about the gentle Illinois land.
Tom Washington was a journalist in Switzerland and Germany before he returned to the Midwest. His essays have appeared in numerous publications, most recently in the North Dakota Quarterly and the Massachusetts Review.