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Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical

Mark Rigney

Prologue

[Jacksonville] is a horribly ugly village, composed of little shops and dwellings which stuck close together around a dingy square, in the middle of which stands the ugliest of possible brick courthouses, with a spire and a weathercock on its top.

William Cullen Bryant, 1832

Jacksonville, Illinois, sits on the fold of the map some thirty-five miles west of Springfield, the state capital. Interstate 72 races past, intent on reaching the Iowa border. Corn and soybeans dominate the landscape; the last vestiges of native prairie have long since been plowed under. Clusters of farm buildings hide among stands of aged oak and maple; silvery bullet-shaped silos tower on their flanks. The largest north-south route through town is Highway 67, connecting Alton, Greenfield, and Jacksonville with Beardstown and Macomb to the north. The town and the state have plans to expand the road into a four-lane limited-access expressway. The going, so far, has been slow. West of town, a new bridge has been built, but the entry ramps lead nowhere except back, like a chute, into the fields.

The town is old, founded in 1825. A surveyor by the name of Johnston Shelton laid out the plat, beginning with 160 acres centered on a 5-acre public square. The lone inhabitant within that incipient town boundary was Alexander Cox, a hatter whom history has otherwise forgotten. One early settler, Mrs. John Tilson, wrote home to her East Coast mother: “I can stand in the middle of my one-room log cabin, take a cat by the tail, and sling it in any direction between the logs, out of doors.”

Jacksonville’s subsequent history comes laden with tales of temperance unions and the long, angry shadows of the Civil War. Governor Joseph Duncan lived here in the 1830s when Jacksonville briefly served as the state capital, and his house, the Duncan Mansion, is now a national historic shrine, owned and maintained by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. More than a few of the grander homes on State Street are reminiscent of the Old South, vaguely antebellum and definitely wealthy. Around the edges of the town, however, the poorer side of the Midwest holds sway: Jacksonville has several trailer parks and each one seems full to the brim. Not that buying a house is an outrageously expensive proposition. In 1996, the last year that the chamber of commerce gathered such statistics, the average purchase price for a home was only $85,000.

William E. Sullivan invented the Big Eli Wheel in Jacksonville, the world’s first portable Ferris wheel. He founded the Eli Bridge Company, which continues to fill occasional orders for more. Fans of Drew Barrymore can watch her ride a Big Eli Wheel in the movie Never Been Kissed. For those who prefer to experience their amusement rides firsthand, Big Eli no. 17, well lit and beautifully maintained, stands in the large, wooded Community Park at the intersection of Main Street and Morton Avenue. On certain summer evenings, the wheel is open to the public and you can ride it, up and around, up and around, never quite topping the trees. You do, however, get a fine view of the passing cars because, for now, Main Street and Highway 67 are one and the same. When the bypass is complete, at least some of the traffic on Main Street will disappear.


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