Virginia Makes the Big Time
A Cass County town goes dry; the world notices
April 22, 1977
More proof, if anyone needs it, that you never know what might happen if you sit down for a cup of coffee and some pie.
Periodically, the ways in which news is gathered and reported becomes as much a subject of controversy as the news itself. The processes by which facts are transformed into news are mysterious, arcane, something the wise man just accepts without trying to understand, like particle physics or aerosol cheese spread. It's just as well. Sometimes people wouldn't believe us if we told them.
Allow me to explain. For over a year now I have been tracing the histories of my ancestors. That clan first settled in Cass County in the 1830s, and I, hot on their trail, bused myself over to the county seat at Virginia one bright day last November to do some digging in the county records. It's dry work, and after a couple of hours I was sorely in need of refreshment:l hauled myself back into the twentieth century and headed toward the Virginia Inn, a restaurant on the east side of the square. I'd never dined there, but I knew the place by reputation and guessed (rightly, as it turned out) that it would be a nice place to grab a cup of coffee.
Arriving, I noticed a handwritten sign taped to the door. It read, "Due to water shortage, no water served unless asked for." Water shortage? Never heard of it. I knew mid-lllinois was drier than a legislator on Sunday morning, of course, but I wasn't then aware that any place was in such dire straits that conservation measures had become necessary.
A copy of the local paper, the Virginia Gazette-Times, filled in the details with admirable thoroughness. Before the day was out I'd talked with the water works superintendent, the mayor and several townspeople and taken a few pictures. Quicker than you can say, "The boys on the bus," I had my story.
The piece ran in the December 3–9, 1976, issue of Illinois Times under the front-page headline, "The Vanishing Reservoir: Yes, Virginia, There Is a Drought." It was a fair story, but it owed as much to my ancestors' choice of homeland and the civic consciousness of the Virginia Inn's manager as to any journalistic savvy on my part.
"Those things happen," I hear you say. True. In fact, this particular thing happened twice. Eight or nine weeks after my Virginia drought story appeared in Illinois Times, Bob Secter, Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News, was told by his editors to do a Downstate drought story; the story would eventually run along with a related national story, linked by a common headline that read, "Calamity spreads across a parched land." A few days later Secter and his photographer found themselves in Jacksonville. His Springfield staff had suggested that Petersburg or Rushville might be likely subjects for such a piece. But, in order to get to either place from Jacksonville, they had to drive through Virginia. This they did, and, as weary travelers along that road often do, they stopped at—you guessed it—the Virginia Inn. Entering the restaurant, they noticed the same handwritten sign I'd spotted two months previously. "Here," Secter remembers saying to himself, "is our drought story." A couple of interviews and few phone calls later and Secter had his story.
So it was that the town of Virginia, a town that, in its water problems anyway, differed little if at all from dozens of towns like it across the Midwest, found itself again on a newspaper front page, this time in the February 19 city editions (and two days later in the state edition) of the Daily News, in a story telling how Virginians were coping with “the latest crisis to buckle down on the nation's Farm Belt."
But wait. Virginia's fame, already spread across three states, was to grow even more. An alert staffer at Time magazine in New York noticed the Daily News story. Time was putting together a drought story of their own, slotted for the March 7 editions, and the plight of poor Virginia was a natural for it. A phone call or two to Karyl Findley of the Gazette-Times to verify the essentials of Secter's story and — presto!—Virginia was in the big time, or more properly the big Time. “In Virginia, Ill. (pop. 1,800), the town reservoir has only a thirty-day supply of water left, " said Time. Lee Reynolds shut down his car wash. The local laundromat was about to close—but it burned down first."
As Craig Findley, publisher of the Gazette-Times, wrote on March 10, "If rainfall was as abundant as national and regional news coverage, Virginia would be free of its water troubles."
Virginia had gone from obscurity to something like stardom in three months, all because of a handwritten sign taped to the door of a local cafe. That sign put Virginia on the map. I'm not one to tell other people their business, but Virginia ought to bronze that sign, if it's still there; if it isn't maybe they could bronze an empty water glass or something. Some kind of memorial is called for. □