W. R. was a large man who looked more like a justice of the peace than a businessman with a booming Coca-Cola franchise and a dairy business. He was, one who knew him says, a "showman, a visionary, a realist, astute businessman, avowed champion of southern Illinois and a widowed mother's devoted son, who sold soda pop after his father was killed in a coal-mine accident when he was 6." The description smacks of a silent movie characterization, and it certainly would have embarrassed W. R. He did not care to bathe in the limelight, though he secretly enjoyed tiptoeing around it; he was extremely fond of show people and show business. W. R. Hayes was a dreamer who somehow managed to cling to his Midwest practicality, and a gambler who would not bet a nickel on a horse race.
To many people he was both dreamer and gambler when in 1940 he took his first step toward acquiring The Hambletonian. That year W. R. built the track that is now considered one of the finest and fastest in the country. But Du Quoin was still as unattractive to horsemen as a strip mine. Besides, Goshen, N.Y., redolent of age and tradition, had been the site of The Hambletonian for 26 years. So W. R. began chasing another dream. He would win the race—The Hambletonian—first.
Dr. H.M. Parshall—old "Doc" Parshall—had been a crack driver and trainer for years when W. R. hired him with the understanding that winning trotting's top prize was the objective. The experts said that Parshall, then in his 50s, was through, but Hayes thought otherwise, and he backed up Parshall with his soda-pop money. In 1948 Hayes and Parshall went to the fall auctions. Parshall advised Hayes to purchase four yearlings, which he did. He also parted with $26,000 for them—an astronomical figure in those days. In the group were a little red pacer named Dudley Hanover and a trotter called Lusty Song. In 1950 Hayes, then 73, went after The Hambletonian. He won it with Lusty Song. A few weeks later he won the Little Brown Jug with Dudley Hanover. It was the first time an owner had won the premier trotting and pacing races in the same year. W.R. died two years later. In 1957, when The Hambletonian Society decided to move from Goshen, Gene and Don Hayes won the open-bidding contest and brought the race to Du Quoin.
Immediately there were the expectable protests about poor accommodations and worse restaurants. The most serious complaint, apparently, was that the prestige of the race would suffer because no sensible member of the press, radio or TV would care to expose his tender hide to the dreadful southern Illinois summer. To be sure, the weather has not become any more inviting, but attitudes have changed. Newsmen covering the race now consider it more of a vacation than an assignment, and horsemen call Du Quoin the "Country Club of the Grand Circuit." The explanation for the change is obvious. One walks into one of the two Hayes homes that are the unofficial headquarters during Hambletonian Week and finds oneself swimming in hospitality, which in this case is composed of equal parts of bourbon and uncontrived graciousness. Amid the clicking of billiard balls, organ music and the talk of races run long ago, the social side of a sport's season reaches a peak. No one is certain whether W. R. would have approved of all this. Wearing rimless glasses and an imperious expression, he looks down from his picture on the wall with a censorious eye. "Oh, he wouldn't mind," says Don Hayes, "but sometimes I wonder what he thinks about having a $125,000 race right in his own backyard."
Still, it is not the race that one most remembers, but the background for the race: the town and the fair, a yellowed, cracked pencil drawing of another time. Give or take a few defections to and from Pinckneyville over the past year, the population of Du Quoin is 6,600. In a way, there are two Du Quoins. First, near the empty tracks and the roaring silence of the soggy afternoon, there is the Du Quoin of the imagination. The mind wanders, until a picture evolves:
Farmers, their faces like scuffed shoe leather, their jaws working in slow harmony on chewing tobacco, are sitting on the steps of a grain elevator. There is a hotel, and in the lobby the manager—who looks like Guy Kibbee—is napping behind the desk, his snoring adding counterpoint to the creaking of a slow-turning ceiling fan. On the crumbling old sheds near the railroad tracks there are circus posters, their bright colors faded. There is a drugstore, cool and dark inside. Wireback chairs encircle the tables, which have tops of cold marble. The man behind the apothecary counter is bald, and he is wearing a blue serge, lint-littered vest, and he has rubber bands around the middle of each arm to hold up his long sleeves. But you really don't have to look inside to tell it is a drugstore. Just walk by and there is the aroma in the air of root beer and cigars and ice cream. In the picnic grove a band is playing. Bugs dance in the yellow light of the pavilion. Children are playing tag, while parents are just listening to the chopping of the flat trumpets and the sepulchral beat of the bass drum: "Oh, He walks with me and He talks with me. ..."
But all of this is the Du Quoin of the imagination. There is no such place today. "That was a long time ago," says Stanley Hestand, the town poet, who used to compose verses on the linotype machine when he worked for the Du Quoin Evening Call. "It was a fine time. Ah, but there was another time, too. A good time also, although some of the good sisters of the church might disagree."
Undoubtedly they would. For once, when the land embracing it was dotted with productive mines, Du Quoin danced to a thousand foot-stompin' fiddlers, and vagabond evangelists descended on the town, spouting: "It's the devil and me—and no holds barred!" They considered Du Quoin a profitable obligation on their itinerary. Harlots, gamblers, flimflam artists and other assorted scoundrels besieged the town, and occasionally a few of the East St. Louis gangs would drop in for a bit of "walking-around money."
Du Quoin was one of the Big Rock Candy Mountains in southern Illinois, and then suddenly, as if someone had turned the lights out in a dance hall, it was all over. Now the earth is not generous anymore, the people are poor and the young do not stay. The profiteers, having ravished the land, are gone, and the worked-out strip mines encircling Du Quoin like so many ant holes have become a wreath of sad memories. As to the farmland, in most parts of southern Illinois it is worth about $150 an acre, compared to $600 an acre in central Illinois. Despite the efforts of the Hayes family and others, Du Quoin just sits there, a slain flower on the side of a dusty country road. "The people have never recovered from the mines and the Depression here," says a young doctor in town. "Talk about the Peace Corps. They ought to send the Peace Corps here."
Nevertheless, there is still a certain aura about Du Quoin that makes one look somewhat disapprovingly at his own way of life. There is a fine simplicity, a dim beauty to the town, though it is not a beauty that can be pointed to or held up. It is made of a hundred things heard and seen and felt: the flutter of a dark window shade on a hot afternoon, the houses with long wide porches with rockers and boxes of flowers, the big rooms of the houses filled with old furniture, the bats fleeing the chimney of the train depot as the sun goes down, the sound of balls being racked in the pool hall down the street, the desert quietness of the streets at night and the voices...