On April 30, after 40 years of ownership by the lovely lady known locally as Gram or Barb or Mrs. Williams, the little inn on South Main Street in Pinckneyville—formerly the Fountain Motel—will close its doors.
My mother and I arrived in Pinckneyville on a Saturday in April of 1975 after an indirect, 13-hour drive from Clear Lake, Iowa. It only takes about eight hours today, but those were the days of navigation-by-atlas and co-pilot; no GPS in our Oldsmobile and lots of secondary roads and whistle-stop towns between here and there.
A year and a half earlier, my mother and father had made the decision to trade her secretarial job and his corporate position—which had him scattered across the midwest and away from his family five days a week—for that of small-town innkeepers. For my Bronx-born father and New England-steeped, Yankee mother, this was a major life-change, even with an acclimatizing stop-over in North Iowa 5-years earlier, when we first traded-in the East Coast for the Midwest.
My father had arrived in Pinckneyville to finalize the purchase of the property from Cliff and Velma Varnum and to establish a beachhead in our new community three weeks before my mother and I had arrived. When we finally steered our gold, 1971, vinyl-topped Cutlass around the square, past the Dairy Queen, and alongside the sputtering sailfish in the large, oval-shaped fountain, my father, along with Cliff and Velma, greeted us warmly beneath the lobby canopy which sported an encouraging sign of civilization, “Great T.V. Reception—All Three Networks.” After the requisite greetings but before my mother and I fell over from hunger and exhaustion, we all piled into dad’s Toronado and headed over to the Town and Country in Coulterville for a celebratory meal.
For a full year leading up to our move, my mother and father would go on these two or three-day long ‘property-viewing excursions,’ pulling me from school to visit potential properties from Kansas to Georgia. I played a lot of hooky that year. They were working with Steve Kay, a hotel/motel broker from St. Louis, and we must have looked at 20 different small motels ranging from 12 to 42 units. But when we saw the 27-unit Fountain Motel—with its shag carpet, shimmering sailfish and birdbath fountains—we knew we were home.
Pinckneyville was the epicenter of the southern Illinois coal industry and the Fountain Motel was the resting spot of choice for countless contractors, construction workers, sales people, and relocated mine bosses from West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Draglines and shovels where whirring, and the square was adrift in orange and yellow Consol pickup trucks. Business was booming. But three and a half years later, tragedy struck when my father would lose his life to an electrical incident in the basement of our home. With the help of my older brother Al, my mother would carry on. It was a difficult transition for all of us, but within the next year, a plan was hatched by my brother (and supported by my teetotaler mother) to build a ‘Laclede’s Landing-style’ watering-hole called The Gambit, complete with brass railings, a piano bar, a fireplace, a fountain, a beer garden behind wrought-iron gates, and a 40-foot span of backgammon tables. Alan Dunn tickled the ivory and countless local bands performed, as cartoon caricature drawings of locals from Doc Baker to Don Johnson looked on from the backbar. But guests at the Fountain Motel were less enthused about the late night jam-sessions interfering with their 5 AM wakeup calls, and eventually, in 1989, my mother decided to close the Gambit and remake it as a banquet center hosting bridal showers, reunions, and the like.
In the summer of 1991, my sister Jill and her nine-year-old daughter, Kate, arrived from Seattle after their own road-trip and would soon remake the Gambit once again. This time, to Jill Cooks, a fine caterer. A few years later, in 1995, the Gambit became First National Bank’s lending center, and the Fountain Motel became the Mainstreet Inn.
The draglines have long since been disassembled or sold off and cut up by scrap dealers. The men who drove those orange and yellow pickup trucks have been retired for years and, having traded their hardhats for ballcaps, now conduct the vital business of the day each morning at McDonalds. The Gambit sign, with its pawn for an ‘i’ that adorned the quarry-stone wall off South Main Street came down two decades ago. Times have changed and we’ve all grown older. Through the strikes; the recessions; the national crises, and the march of time, my mother has hosted thousands of weary travelers, hundreds of homeless wayfarers in need, dozens of local families in both celebration and crisis, and one unexpected, curly-haired New Yorker with an American Express card that read ‘Art Garfunkel,’ who told us how much “he enjoyed taking the backroads from NYC to L.A. now and then.” For many years, Mom taught algebra, English, geography and more to Perry County Jail inmates working toward their G.E.D.s in weekly sessions she was fond of calling ‘fun-with-felons-days.’ She still receives the occasional note or letter from her former students. None of which would have been possible had we not loaded ourselves into that vinyl-clad Cutlass one early Saturday morning 40-years ago.
It has been a good run. One for which my mother is extraordinarily grateful, and one which features countless memories and kindnesses along the way; the people with whom my mother has had the pleasure to work, the regular guests, the plumbers, the carpenters and the tradesmen who have tended to repairs, and the countless serendipitous friends, ranging from Schwann’s drivers to young visiting Thresherman, Mom has seen grow up—year-by-year—have all become extended family to her.
My mother will turn 85 years old this June, and though I know she will miss the motel and the friends she’s made there, she has more than earned this much deserved time with her feet up, a good book or crossword puzzle in hand, and the clang of the lobby door replaced with public radio, the pitter patter of her cats and visits from her grandchildren and great grandchild.
Please join me in wishing Barb, Gram, Mrs. Williams—my mom—well in her retirement from the little inn on South Main Street.