It was Thomas Wolfe who recognized that “you can’t go home again.” Having just visited my hometown, I sadly agree.
During the 60’s, I grew up in Delavan, Illinois, a town of 2,000 people south of Peoria. After going off to college and getting married, my job took me across the U.S. and the world. My 88-year-old parents are doing well and still live in Delavan, hence my recent visit.
Founded in 1837, Delavan is much like you’d envision a small Midwestern town. It has a Main Street lined with two-story storefronts. Railroad tracks intersect near a towering grain elevator where an iconic train station formerly sat. Streets are laid out in grids, extending one mile in each direction from the lone stoplight at the center of town.
I remember my childhood fondly. I imagine most of my Delavan schoolmates have similar memories. Back then, the downtown was bustling with activity. It’s not so now. Many of the downtown stores are empty or transitioning to a business that history indicates will likely fail. The bowling alley, movie theater, clothing stores, hardware store, lumber yard, jewelry store, and Ben Franklin are gone. Hometown eateries come and go, but mostly go. Delavan supported two grocery stores for years, but now a Dollar General at the edge of town is the only option for food basics.
Taking a ride around the loop, the clutter and disrepair of homes and businesses detract from the charm of the historic town. If Delavan has a zoning ordinance or building codes, they don’t appear to be enforced. Home repairs and building projects continue in full view for years with little progress. Entering the town from the east, a visitor’s first view of Delavan is acres of used cars and trucks, slowly sinking to their axles at the Ford dealership.
I’m not sure why things have gone downhill. One factor is fewer manufacturing jobs are available in neighboring cities. Walmart and other nearby big box stores also have impacted small-town retail businesses. Neither explains why clutter, disrepair and unenforced ordinances are tolerated.
There are elements of my childhood memories that remain intact. Delavan has maintained its parks and recreational facilities. Kids play baseball at the same diamonds where I took the field over 50 years ago. You can still go fishing at park ponds where I caught my first bluegill. Citizens recently voted to increase property taxes to rebuild Delavan’s high school after town leaders stressed that a school was essential to maintaining the town’s identity. The longstanding weekly newspaper, The Delavan Times, continues to publish community and school activities and provides a unique source of the town’s history. Delavan also has a tradition of hosting a Fall Festival, complete with a parade, fireworks, talent contests, 5K run, and amusement rides.
I wish Delavan and its citizens well. The community made a positive impact on my life, but my hometown changed. I changed. Once my parents are gone, I will visit less frequently, or maybe not at all. Sadly, Thomas Wolfe was right.