Slowly and heavily, August stumbles into September in Du Quoin, Ill. The air is thick, dogs doze in big patches of weak morning shade and the trees, dreary and thirsty, are rows of still sentinels. Noon comes, and along the gleaming, empty track of the Illinois Central in the center of town there is just the long, low roar of stillness, a sharp sense of place. Yet, for all its visual inertia, Du Quoin is alive—a drummer in a checked suit down from St. Louis, his stickpin sparkling, breath of Sen Sen, his bowler tipped for mischief.
It is an odd time in town. Constant and subtle, a certain feeling pervades—a feeling of something kinetic and wonderfully foreign. Traffic, normally just a trickle even when there is a sale on bib overalls, is strung out along Main Street at least once during the day. The hotel, right off the lot of a movie studio, is jammed with people dining regularly and ordering such strange potations as martinis. Police Chief Valley West's five-man department seems suddenly ubiquitous for its size, perhaps only because of its avoirdupois—well over 1,000 pounds. The old man who sits at a certain time under a tree and listens to the sound of each day dying is absent. The conversation is confined to a horse race, and nobody is interested in watching Our Gang make life unbearable for Andy Clyde at the local theater.
Clearly, the town seems perfectly suitable for a Lincoln-Douglas debate and familiar with nothing more hedonistic than a church supper. Forget it—at least for the week of August 30. Geographically obscure as it is (10 miles from Dog Walk and just a hog holler from Crab Orchard, visitors say), Du Quoin is the home of The Hambletonian, the great trotting event for 3-year-olds. Do not call it the Kentucky Derby of harness racing. Such a designation is profane and offends the faithful. Rather, to be socially acceptable and accurate, just say that The Hambletonian is unlike any other event on the sporting scene. A remark of a negative nature, especially one that scoffs at the incongruity of the town and the event, is certain to provoke acerbic comment. So what if Du Quoin has barely been acknowledged by Rand McNally? The citizens still bear up well.
When September comes they are completely resigned to the invariablcs of their annual situation: 1) They will once again be characterized as blue-ribbon bumpkins, and The Hambletonian will be referred to as the "Hey Rube Derby." 2) There will be rumors that the race will be transported to a big city.
But in the frenetic week before the September lull people will spend money—a sporadic occurrence in Du Quoin. Human nature and the state of Du Quoin's economy being what they are, the monetary windfall is not taken for granted. On the contrary, it is welcomed each year as an unexpected inheritance. It is interesting to observe Du Quoin subjected to money. The town's reaction is no different from that of any place else in a similar situation, its inspiration coming from the premise that—as someone once said—the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and proper. In Du Quoin during Hambletonian Week there are a number of things that one can get good and proper, including insomnia and inflated checks. The former is the result of trying to sleep hard by the tracks of the Illinois Central; the checks come after food, about which the kindest thing one can say is that you can never disguise the handiwork of a mess sergeant.
It is difficult to acquire a room in Du Quoin and even more difficult to keep it. "I'm sorry," says the lady at the motel in town, "but you'll have to leave today." But—"Oh, I know," she says, "isn't it just terrible?" But—'"We try," she says, "but all these people in town at the same time. I understand," she says, "but it's just one of those things. A reservations conflict, you know." Some conflict. Four other people are waiting to get into the same room.
After eviction you are advised that there is a nice hotel down the street. The nice hotel down the street is nice. It smells of oldness, and it has personality, but the management thinks it is operating the Waldorf—a two-story Waldorf in the hub of a railroad roundhouse. A room costs $20 a day, and all night trains highball on by the hotel, freights collide with each other and the whole building rattles. Once a resident came downstairs and told the manager: "Uncouple me when we get to Chicago." The manager, who collects jokes, thought it was very funny.
Despite all this, there are few complaints by visitors to Du Quoin, and correctly so. The fleecing is executed in a painless way by pleasant people with a fine sense of humor. They apologize with a smile for their truck-stop menus with Cadillac prices and for their facilities or lack of them, and after a while there is the feeling, as one visitor puts it, "that you are making a very unique scene." On departure one is pricked by regret. But he is certain that the Rubus Americanus is practically extinct, and that he might be the only one left. He is also confident that he has admirably fulfilled his charitable obligations for the year, and strongly in favor of The Hambletonian remaining in Du Quoin—a view that is now supported by a regiment of newspapermen and horsemen. There still are some who would like to see the race held elsewhere, but they are mostly slickers with private axes to grind, and they do not disturb Don Hayes, who, through his own industry, his father's vision and the prosperity of Coca-Cola, is the custodian of The Hambletonian.
"Actually," says Don, "Bill and I [Bill is the son of Don's brother Gene, who, before his death a year and a half ago, was co-promoter of the event] are just carrying on where my father left off. He never did see The Hambletonian come here, but it was his dream all his life."
W. R. Hayes's contribution is best measured by the grounds on which The Hambletonian and the Du Quoin State Fair are held. The trees—about 3,000 of them—are fat and tall now, and the 1,400 acres roll away into brilliant patterns of small lakes and green grass. It was not always like this. Only 34 years ago the land, which was once the hunting ground of Kaskaskia Indian Chief Jean Du Quoigne and his tribe, was a pock-marked, grim profile of waste, the remains of the Black Gold strip mine. In 1931 W. R. Hayes purchased 800 acres and began the slow, tedious restoration of it. To date, the Hayes family has invested more than $2.5 million in the grounds, the Du Quoin State Fair and the promotion of The Hambletonian.