Sugar Creek. My Story

Lowell L. Getz

Hundreds of small obscure streams are scattered across the landscape of the lower Midwestern United States.  Except for after heavy rains, most carry little more than a mere trickle of water as they wind their way through farmers fields and pastures to join larger streams.  Where the meandering streams undercut tree roots along the bank, or where trees have fallen into the stream, during periods of high water, the fast flowing currents may carve out small pools two or three feet deep in the stream bed.  Narrow sandbars lie alongside the slow-flowing channels and short shallow, swift-flowing riffles that connect the pools.  Although nearby residents may call the streams by names attached by long-forgotten early settlers, most are nameless features on topographic maps.  Solid, high balustrades of modern highway bridges obscure the streams below so that presence of a stream is seldom recognized by the passers-by.

If only these small streams could talk, many would tell of a time when they were a significant part of the lives of children living nearby.  In an age before paved roads, automobiles, radio, television, computers, Xbox play stations, video games, DVD players, iPods, gameboys, Chuck E. Cheese, little league baseball, soccer, backyard trampolines, and above-ground swimming pools, many of these small streams were the primary playground and main source of entertainment for the young children living near the streams.  Memories of their playtimes in the streams remained with the children throughout their lives.

One such stream, and a very small part of it at that--approximately one quarter of a mile--is Sugar Creek, located in South-Central Illinois, one and a quarter miles south of the small village of Chesterfield.  This is my story.

Most passengers of autos hurrying over the three new large culverts that carry my waters beneath Illinois State Route 111 do not realize I am down here.  Because of the solid concrete railings and large trees alongside the highway, combined with the dense brushy vegetation below, most people riding in the fast moving vehicles do not catch even a glimpse of my stream bed or the narrow floodplain extending to the west.

I have been flowing along in this winding valley for the past 125,000 years, ever since ice of the Illinoian Glacial Period of the Pleistocene Epoch retreated from South-Central Illinois.  I was formed first by glacial melt waters and later deepened and widened by runoff of rain water from the prairie land two miles to the northeast.  Gradually, over the millennia I eroded downward into the flat glacially leveled land to form the small, winding incised valley in which I now flow.  My waters flow on another mile and a half to the southwest, where I empty into Macoupin Creek, which in turn empties into the Illinois River.

Map of Sugar Creek

Fig. 1.  Portion of Macoupin County plat map showing Sugar Creek (green and pink; pink is the section used by
children in the story as their playground) and Macoupin Creek (yellow).  Distance between the squares is 1 mile.

To the east of the bridge, I flow through a narrow valley, with hills coming close to my banks.  Then, to the west of the bridge, I emerge into a flat, about one-eighth mile wide, low-lying flood plain, most of which is to the north of the stream.  My stream bed, which is 30-40 feet wide and eight feet deep, meanders slightly, most of the time nestling up against the southern hillsides.  About 350 yards to the west, the floodplain widens out towards the south.  The channel swings southerly for about 50 yards, flowing past, and eroding under the roots of, a large sycamore tree that has stood here for over 150 years.  I then curve toward the west at the base of a steep 80-90 foot high cliff cut into the large hill to the south.  Fifty yards further along the floodplain begins to narrow as the hillsides once again come down to the banks.  Except for when the flow is greater following rains, there typically is only a small trickle of water flowing within my stream bed.  The short section of my sandy creek bed that lies alongside the floodplain is that which formed the playground for so many nearby children.

Other than to meander slowly back and forth from one side to the other within the floodplain, I have not changed much over the past tens of thousand of years.  I suppose this will continue for tens of thousands of years to come. Just a small obscure stream, similar to hundreds of others in the region.  But, for one very brief period of time, less than 100 years, I was an important part of the lives of a number of small children.  All but one are gone now, but so long as they lived, they remembered me and cherished the memories of the role I played in their early lives.

The first European settlers to locate nearby were William and Frances Duckels, who in mid the 1840s purchased the forested lands on each side of me and the flat farm upland to the north.  Bill and Frances build their house atop the hill northeast of my low floodplain.  Bill cleared the flat lands to the north for crops, as well as an eight acre field, the “bottom field”, in the north part of the floodplain.  Trees on the hilly land to the south were cut for firewood and fence posts, as were those on the floodplain along the north bank.  This opened up a grassy pasture-land with scattered trees alongside the north bank and the uplands beyond the hills to the south.  Bill fenced in a 30 acre area from the south side of the “bottom field”, on to the south, to use as pasture for his milk cows.  A “floodgate” was placed in the fence where it crossed the creek bed at each side of the pasture.  Each flood gate consisted of a large cable spanning the creek, with a wooden “gate” hanging down to the creek bed.  When the creek was low, the gates hung down, blocking the creek bed, thus preventing livestock from getting out of the pasture.  During periods of high water, the flood gates swung upwards floating with the current, allowing logs, tree limbs, and other debris to flow on through below.  When the water went down, the flood gates again dropped into place enclosing the pasture.

There were three Duckels’ children when Bill and Frances arrived:  Billy, 10; Tom, 7; and Elanore, a few months old.  Other children soon followed: Elizabeth in 1847; Grace, 1850; Victoria, 1854; and Joseph 1857.  Billy was old enough to work with his dad in the fields and had little time to play in the creek.  Sometimes, however, when he had some free time, Billy would bring one or two of the younger children down to the creek to watch over them as they played in the sand and splashed in the water.  The rest of the children spent hours upon hours running up and down the sand bars, squealing as they ran through the riffles and small pools.  They raced sticks and leaves down the faster moving riffles to see which would “win the race”, fished for small green sunfish, orange-spot sunfish, and catfish in the small pools, including the one eroded under the roots of the sycamore tree, and caught small silvery minnows in the shallow riffles with “seines” made from burlap bags.  They would dig deep holes in the sand and watch the water seep in filling the hole.  Sometimes when the sand formed a bank, the kids would dig caves back into the sand.  Other times they would pile up the damp sand and mold it into large “castles.”  Often they would make sand dams across narrow slow flowing shallow places in the stream to hold back the water, and then watch as the water topped the “dam” and quickly eroded it away.  When the weather was hot, they would strip off their clothes and jump in the deeper pools, again squealing with delight as they splashed cool water on each other.

In the summer, the older boys and girls picked blackberries from the uplands to the south and dewberries from the sloping hillside on the northwest side of the bottom field.  Most days, however, when there was no chores to be done, the children would run down the hill and spend the day playing in the creek.

Around 1860 a dirt road was laid out connecting Chesterfield with another small town, Medora, eight miles to the southwest.  The road ran by the east side of the Duckels’ house straight south down the hill (the “Big Hill”).  About 30 feet from the creek bank, it turned west and went along north me and adjacent to the south side of the bottom field on to the far west side of the floodplain.  There, it turned south, went over a wooden bridge built across my stream bed, up the hill, and on southwest to Medora.  The Duckels’ children would run down the Big Hill and jump off the north bank down into the pools of water below.

As the years moved along, one by one, the Duckels children grew too old to play in the creek and eventually left home and married.  Billy, Tom, Elanore, and Grace were the first to leave.  By 1870 only Elizabeth, Victoria, and Joseph were left at home, and by this time they had assigned chores around the house and farm and no longer had time to play in the creek.  I had served my purpose for the Duckels’ family.  Bill died in 1890, with Joseph acquiring the farm.  Frances lived on alone in the house until she died in 1893.

In 1869 an English immigrant, Henry Doughty, and his new 18 year old American wife, Mary Ann Robertson, built a small three room house, a barn, and corn crib a couple hundred yards up the hill on the northwest edge of the floodplain, straight north of where the road went over the bridge.  They also built a shed with cement sides, for horses, into the hillside near the creek.  In 1871 a son, Walter was born and in 1877 another son, Joseph.  Then, in 1878 Mary died in childbirth.  The daughter also died.  Henry stayed on at the house until the early 1880s.  Walter played in the sand and pools as soon as he became old enough to come down to the creek by himself.  Joseph was big enough to play in the creek with Walter for only a couple years before they moved away.  They, too, built sand castles, dug holes in the sand to watch the water flow in, raced sticks and leaves down the riffles, and caught green sunfish and catfish from the pool under the sycamore tree.

Map of Sugar Creek area in 1890

Fig. 2.  Portion of 1890 Macoupin County plat map showing the portion of Sugar Creek (yellow) used by the nearby children as their playground. 
Solid red line is the old Chesterfield-Medora dirt road used from around 1960 to 1930. In 1930 the old road south of Chesterfield was paved,
a new section (dashed red line) continued on directly south, across Sugar Creek and then turned west to meet the old road,
which was paved from there on to Medora.  1, Duckels/Rigsbey/Dowland house; 2, Doughty house; 3, Scott house. 
The 8 acre bottom field and 30 acre pasture are indicated in green print.

In 1900 James Rigsbey and his new wife Anna, along with four of his children from his first wife, Carrie, who had died in 1899, moved into the Duckels house.  Edna (11), Edward (8), and Alvena (3) were young enough to play in the creek, but the stepmother kept Edna busy with housework and taking care of the new babies that began appearing.  She was able to go to the creek to play with the younger children only now and then.  Ed and Alvena built sand castles, raced sticks and leaves down the riffles, caught fish from the pools, and skinny dipped in the pool at the base of the sycamore tree.

Jim and Anna moved to a house northeast of Chesterfield before their own children were old enough to play in the creek.  In 1905 Edna married Tom Dowland who lived with his parents three quarters of a mile to the south.  Tom and Edna moved into the house and began farming the old Duckels’ farm.  In 1907 a daughter, Evelyn, was born and in 1915, a son, Wendell.

Several couples lived in the “Doughty House” over the two decades after Henry and his boys moved away, but none had any children while living in the house.  Around 1899 Alex and Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Lyles moved into the Doughty house.  In 1910 a daughter, Mrytle, was born, followed by Mable in 1914.  The Dowland and Lyles kids, along with friends such as Ralston, “Rolly”, Archer, who lived a mile or so to the south, and a cousin, Martha Dowland, who lived a mile to the east, spent hours upon hours playing in the sand and water and climbing the trees along the bank.  One morning when the kids were climbing up in the old sycamore near the cliff, Mable slipped and fell from a low hanging limb.  Somehow or other as she tumbled head first from the limb, a small snag stripped off her panties, leaving them hanging in the tree as she fell to the sand below.  Needless to say she was very distraught as the other kids rolled in the sand with laughter.  For the rest of their lives, they never let Mable forget the ”panties hanging in the sycamore tree.”

In the late 1890’s, Thomas (Ally) and Margaret Scott bought the land to the southwest and built a house about a quarter of a mile southwest of the western flood gate.  In 1902 a daughter, Alberta was born, followed in succession by Verda in 1904, Helen in 1908, Joe in 1909, Bill in 1911, Leola in 1915, Russell in 1917, and Ermma in 1918.  All the children played in the creek as kids, often playing together with Evelyn and Wendell Dowland, Mrytle and Mable Lyles, and their friends.  As soon as they were old enough, the Scott children married and moved away.  But, as I had done for others, I had served as their playground.

Photograph of Sugar Creek in 2007

Fig. 3.  Sugar Creek looking east from the base of the cliff, spring 2007.  The old sycamore tree is on the left.

In 1938 Ally fell from the roof of the house while replacing the shingles and broke his hip in the fall.  As was all too common in those days for someone his age breaking a hip, Ally contracted pneumonia and died shortly thereafter.  The family moved from the house, which was never again inhabited.  The house slowly deteriorated over the decades.  Sadly, in a shed out back there was a partial bundle of shingles, the ones Ally was putting on the roof of the house when he fell.  In 1984 the woods near the house caught fire and before the fire could be put out, the Scott house and out buildings all burned to the ground.

The Lyles moved out of the Doughty House in the early 1920s, after which the Crowders, Harvey (“Gus”) and Ruth, with their young son, Harvey, then moved into the Doughty house.  A daughter, Ruth, was soon added to the family.  They lived on there until the late 1920s.  Both Harvey and Ruth played in the creek as kids.

In August 1926 Evelyn Dowland married a farmhand from Missouri, Carl Getz, who had been working for Tom and living with the family for the past two years.  In 1927, they moved into the Doughty House and stayed there three years, before moving to a farm a mile and a half to the northwest.

In 1931 the State Highway Department built a new concrete highway, Route 111, to connect Chesterfield and Medora.  The highway went straight south of Chesterfield for two and a half miles before curving to the southwest.  The highway followed the old dirt road to the Dowland house and then paralleled the road, about 50 feet to the east, as it went down the Big Hill and across a concrete bridge over the creek.  The old dirt road down the Big Hill was then used only by the Dowlands to go to their “bottom pasture” and by and those living in the Doughty House.

After Carl and Evelyn Getz moved out, the Doughty House was vacant for a few years, until Arnold and Alice Jennings moved in, with their nine children:  Robert, Frances, Norman (“Toughy”), Nellie, Gladus (“Gladiola”), Donald (“Sweet Pea”), Doris, Sidney, and Dale.  Robert and Frances, were too old to play in the creek, but would come down with the younger ones to watch over them as they played in the sand and splashed in the pool under the roots of the old sycamore tree.  Again, there were excited squeals as the Jennings kids ran through the riffles and jumped into the pools.  Sand castles were made in the sand, twigs and leaves were raced down riffles, and fish caught from under the sycamore tree.  To show his prowess, Toughy would jump from the top of the cliff (at that time, a shear drop from the top), hitting the side on an angle and sliding on down feet-first.

Following one especially heavy rain, the water was up to the top of the banks as it swept under the bridge and down the channel.  Frances and Toughy were near the highway bridge when a large log came racing down.  As the log bumped up against the north bank they both jumped straddle it and went sailing down the creek as the log careened in the swirling current.  As the log approached the western flood gate, they knew they had to get off or be torn off by the cable holding the gate.  They jumped off at the last minute, not only thankful to get off, but also that their mom had not seen what they had done.

Around 1938, the Jennings moved out and the Doughty house remained empty, slowly disintegrating from the ravages of time and weather.  It finally was burned down in the late 1990s by the current owner of the “Doughty Place.”

Photograph of Sugar Creek 2007

Fig. 4. Sugar Creek in 2007.

The last of the children to spend time playing in the creek was Lowell, son of Carl and Evelyn Getz.  He was born in his grandparents house at the top of the hill in September 1931, at the same time as the Route 111 bridge was being built.  As a kid, Lowell stayed with his grandparents a lot of the time and beginning around 1936, would come down to the creek to play in the sand and to fish in the small pools.  He caught his first fish ever, two small green sunfish, from a pool under the bridge.  Oh, how pleased he was as he took them up the hill to put in the cattle tank, stopping to show them with pride to a highway worker on the hill.  While the Jennings lived in the Doughty house, Lowell would play with them, racing up and down the sand bars and splashing through the pools.  After he Jennings moved away, he continued to come down to the creek to play and fish by himself.  Later, when staying with his grandparents, Lowell would come down the “Big Hill” in the late afternoon to get the cows and drive them up to the feed lot to be milked.  He would bring them back down after milking time in the morning.

Lowell and Ruth Crowder, who often visited the Dowlands, would come down to play in the water.  On one warm day they stripped off their clothes and went “skinny dipping” in the pool by the sycamore tree near the cliff.  In 1986, after Wendell’s wife had died and Ruth had become divorced, the two were married.  Thus, Ruth became Lowell’s aunt.  Although they told others, neither ever mentioned to each other they once had seen the other “naked.”  After Lowell was too old to play in the creek, no one else ever came here to play in the water and sand.  All has been quiet with me for over six decades now.

Wendell, who inherited the farm from his parents, continued to use the 30 acres to the north and south of me as a cattle pasture on into the mid 1980s.  The grazing cattle kept the pasture relatively clear of trees and shrubs.  When he grew too old to farm, the pasture was left vacant to undergo succession back to a wooded area.  Osage orange, oaks, hickories, and other trees, along with an extensive growth of multiflora rose have almost completely filled in the pasture, including the low flood plain along the north bank.  It is difficult for a person to walk along my banks now.  In 1992 the State Highway Department replaced the old concrete bridge with three large culverts and solid balustrades on each side of the road.  I am now almost hidden from those driving along Rt 111.

Lowell and his wife, Mary Ruth, inherited the farm in 2004 and sold all but the 30 acre pasture from the north bank on to the south.  They seldom come to look at me, however.  Their children most likely eventually will sell the pasture to someone from St. Louis or another city to the south, who will build a weekend home on at the top of the cliff.  Even if the new owners have children, because of all the entertainment options now available, it is doubtful I will ever again serve as a playground for children.

Sugar Creek in 2007

Fig. 4.  The cliff, with Sugar Creek flowing at its base, spring 2007.  The higher part of the cliff has slumped
considerably since the mid 1940s.  Up to then, the face of the cliff was essentially straight up, with no vegetation growing on it.

Never again will I hear the excited squeals of young children running through the riffles and jumping into the small pools.  Never again will sand castles and caves be dug into my sand bars.  Leaves and twigs will dash down the riffles in autumn, but there will be no one to take notice as to which finishes first.  Never again will there be the excitement of catching a small green sunfish from the pool beneath the sycamore tree or seining small silvery minnows from the slow moving water.  The once absent, but recently returned, white-tailed deer and wild turkey are the only inhabitants of the flood plain and wooded hills to the south.  But, if you listen carefully on warm sunny summer afternoons, you can hear the splashing of water and the squealing sounds of young children at play.  Or, is it only the wind scraping together the limbs of the old sycamore tree?

No matter, I have had “my day.”  I am content.  I made children happy when they had nowhere else to play.  I gave them early life experiences to remember.  Over a span of 100 years, I served as the playground for at least 35 children, as well as numerous of their friends who played here, too.  It does not matter than I am no longer needed.  I simply will continue to meander slowly back and forth within my floodplain over the millennia, satisfied to know I once served a purpose.  Just an obscure little stream, but one with a story to tell.  This was my story.

Copyright Lowell L. Getz - May 2009