Last Saturday morning, we set out for Prairie du Rocher, Illinois–me, the Geneablogie Staff Photographer (whom I’ve dubbed Photo Grrl, because it’s shorter and may annoy her), and two direct descendants of the French Negroes of Illinois, Edna P., age 86, and Edna W., her 67 year old daughter.
Prairie du Rocher is less than fifty miles southeast of St Louis. We got on I-64 in downtown St Louis and in minutes, we were in the midst of Illinois corn country, seemingly light years away from urban hubbub. (And with Photo Grrl driving a sleek black PT Cruiser at warp speed, it may have been light years!). It was a beautiful day for a country drive.
It’s hard to write about Prairie du Rocher without using any of the worn-out cliches about small towns. The reason is that Prairie du Rocher epitomizes every conception one might have about small towns.
Prairie du Rocher is off the beaten path, for sure. It’s situated in Randolph County, off Illinois Highway 155. As one local told us, “People don’t just drop in here.”
On Market Street in Prairie du Rocher, there’s a bank and a two pump gas station that all but invites the unfortunate Mayberry comparisons. One establishment proclaims, “Welcome to the Boondocks!”
As we drove down Henry Street, Photo Grrl spied the local constable, and much to my surprise, drove right over to him and said, “Hi!” She then asked him where we could the Catholic cemetery. He said, “Go down here by the levee, and take a left . . . ,” and pointing, gave us directions. Photo Grrl then said, “And where would you eat lunch?” The officer replied, “Really just one place. That would be Lisa’s over there where that truck is parked.” Then he said, “Hey, want me to lead you to the cemetery?” Oh, that all of Photo Grrl’s encounters with the law were so successful!
We followed the cop out to the cemetery and when we got there, he told us that the Catholic church was about two blocks away. “The brick building next door is the priest’s house, if you need any help,” he said before driving away.
The Catholic cemetery in Prairie du Rocher is about 3 acres in the midst of cornfields. We’re looking for evidence of the French Negro family, the Micheaus. It’s hot and humid, but we cover a good deal of the cemetery without finding any Micheaus. Many of the older markers are so worn down that they cannot be read. We do note, however, the frequency of many names. We decide to head for the church, hoping to find an index or transcription of the graves.
Outside the church, a man in a polo shirt and shorts stands as if he is waiting for someone, As we approach, he asks, “Are you part of Dr. Brown’s group?” No, we reply, not knowing any Dr. Brown. We tell the man why we here and he begins to explain some of the history of Prairie du Rocher. Edna P. fills in gaps in the recent history, noting that her family lived in the house diagonally across from the church. Her mother was the teacher in the colored school.
After chatting with him for about twenty minutes, we learn that the man is in fact the local priest, Father Albert Kreher. He tells us that sometime ago, he had begun transcribing old French records, but lost the data in a computer catastrophe. He also says that there is no index to the graves in the cemetery. He says that he’s expecting “Dr. Brown” to arrive at any moment and that we would no doubt enjoy speaking to “Dr. Brown.”
We’re now eager to go to lunch, but first we decide to look at the interior of the church. There is a large quilt in the back that commemorates the 275th anniversary of the church in 1996.
As we look about the small church, an elegantly dressed woman (Photo Grrl says the woman is actually in some sort of costume) approaches and says, “I understand you are researching the Micheau surname.” Yes, we reply, and the woman says she recognizes the name from her research and would love to talk to Micheau descendants. The woman is Margaret Kimball Brown, Ph.D., an internationally known historian, archeologist, anrthorpologist, and genealogist who has written extensively about French colonization in North America. One of her numerous books is History As They Lived It: A Social History of Prairie Du Rocher, Illinois (Patrice Press 2005).
I cannot overstate the importance of having run into Dr. Brown. She is perhaps the leading expert on the French colonial period in Illinois.
We couldn’t talk with her just then because she was showing around a French television crew that was preparing to film a documentary for French TV. And we had spent so much time already that we’d forgotten to have lunch!
We exchanged contact information with Dr. Brown and headed for Lisa’s for lunch.
Lisa’s was good (as it turns out Lisa is the mayor’s daughter). We had intended to head back to St Louis and attend 5:00 p.m. Mass at the old cathedral. But by now, it was so late, there was no way we could make it back to St Louis in time–not in even with Photo Grrl at the helm! We decided to stay in Prairie du Rocher for 5:00 p.m. at St Joseph’s.
We found the town friendly and interesting and filled with history of all sorts.
Prairie du Rocher today has a population of about 650. That represents a healthy growth rate of about 8% since the 2000 census. Although the French Negroes played a significant role in the development of the town, not a single black person lives in Prairie du Rocher today.
The 286 year-old Catholic Church in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois
July 27, 2007 Friday at 5:29 pm