Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Lou-J’s Café, 1968 – Oglesby, Illinois Part 1

The ten-year-old boy stops in at Lou J’s Café on Walnut Street in Oglesby, Illinois, a small town of 4,200 (1960 census) just across the Illinois River south of LaSalle and Peru and 90 miles southwest of Chicago. He comes here about two or three times a week after school has let out at Washington Grade School.

Oglesby’s business district runs for a couple of blocks down Walnut and includes a Ben Franklin store, Lou’s Grocery, Royal Lanes Bowling Alley, two drug stores, a dry cleaners and a dozen bars. Across the street from Lou J’s is Clydesdale’s Furniture Store that at one time had been Oglesby’s movie theater. That piece of Oglesby history might have been lost on him, but what isn’t lost on him is that he has enough allowance for a Cherry Coke and an order of French fries for the times he comes here each week.

School has already started and there’s a hint of autumn in the air. Sometimes he stops in with a friend from school; other times he is alone. Makes no difference to him. At least when he’s alone he doesn’t have to share his fries.

He passes men hunched over the afternoon edition of the Daily News Tribune at the lunch counter seated on wobbly stools, the linoleum around their base worn from years of traffic. Some grip heavy, white mugs of freshly brewed coffee. The aroma of burgers sizzling on the grill (each patty with a slab of onion on top) wafts through the café. A basket of frozen, crinkled fries is dropped into boiling, bubbling oil.

There’s a television tuned to a ballgame but for the team, the Chicago Cubs and this late in the season, it’s wait until next year.

The owner of Clydesdale’s is one of the customers at the counter; he’s engaged in a heated debate with the druggist from Dittmar’s and the jeweler from Marzetta’s about Humphrey and Nixon, George Wallace, taxes, the war in Southeast Asia.

When the boy shuffles in, a few heads turn then its back to newspapers, the ballgame and the heated discussion Clydesdale is chairing.

Outside, a semi from Schwermann’s, a trucking firm in town, rumbles down Walnut returning to Marquette Cement for another load. Most of the men in town work at the cement plant that is the life and blood of the town. Others work at Westclox, more aptly and perhaps affectionately referred to by locals as the “clock factory” in Peru, or Sundstrand in LaSalle.

At the “clock factory”, they don’t make clocks. They make fuses for bombs.

There are a couple carloads of men who commute daily to Caterpillar in Aurora, Peoria, or Pontiac about an hour away. There’s a new steel mill coming in at Hennepin not far from Oglesby. It’ll be good for the local economy.

There are a lot of French-sounding names in the Illinois Valley. Joliet. Marquette. LaSalle. Tonti. Hennepin. Creve Coeur. These French explorers and missionaries are remembered with the names of towns and streets.

Oglesby was once called Portland due the cement mined and manufactured in area. Later Portland was renamed Oglesby in honor of Richard Oglesby the governor of Illinois, 1865-1869.

History is what reminds us of who we are and where we have come from.

The boy and his family (mother and younger brother) live on Magnal Avenue (a couple of blocks east of Lou J’s on Walnut). If you stand on Magnal Avenue and face south, you can see the giant storage bins of the cement plant rising up in the distance. In the morning, there is always a fine layer of cement dust on everything. Likewise, on most mornings you can hear the drivers at Schwermann’s starting their diesel engines that screech and shimmy before engines turn over and rumble.

The neighborhood is also the closest thing that Oglesby has got to an ethnic neighborhood with dozens of Italian families, some who are related to one another living east of Magnal Avenue. Get within a block of this neighborhood and you get a good whiff of Italian cooking seasoning the air and the omniscient pungent aroma of garlic. On Saturday nights, especially in the late spring and summer you can hear men shouting as they bocce ball on a court behind Angelo’s Tavern.

In an adjoining room, the boy plops down at a table in the rear and grabs a menu stuck between sugar, salt, and pepper shakers. It’s strictly out of habit; he knows what he wants already: Cherry Coke (a little heavy of the cherry syrup) and an order of fries, but it makes him feel important with that menu in his hand.

“Are you ready to order?” asks Bonnie, who has to work the counter, waitress the tables, and also work as cashier.

She’s not a tall woman, but she towers over the young boy who hasn’t looked up from the menu yet. It’s got to be her hairstyle. It’s 1968, but her Beehive hairstyle, heavy on the Aqua Net hairspray says otherwise; more like circa 1955. She snaps her gum and taps her foot knowing that the young boy is going to order the same darn thing.

He looks up from the menu and smiles. “A large Cherry Coke and an order of French fries, please.”

“Extra cherry syrup?” she asks. She knows the drill; knows what all the regulars like.

“Yes, please.”

She smiles and writes down his order. He’s got good manners, she thinks as she walks back to the counter. He’s not like the noisy older grade school students or the freshmen and sophomores from L-P High School that stop in later.

There’s something about that kid that’s special but she can’t put her finger on it.

She knows his mom and has seen her out a few times at some of the local bars. One time she bumped into her at Sparkle’s Cleaners and Laundromat. She knows how hard it is for her working two jobs and raising two boys. She’s got two boys of her own at home and waitressing six days at week at Lou J’s is also barely enough to make ends meet.

With his order on the way, the boy gets up and walks over to the Wurlitzer jukebox. He fishes for a quarter in one of his pockets. A quarter still gets you three plays and he knows what songs already: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin and “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers.

He likes music but he hasn’t gotten into it as much as other kids his age. His mom has a lot of records she’s always playing: Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Supremes, Elvis Presley, and Gene Pitney. Sometimes his mom drinks a lot when she listens to Johnny Cash.

Two years ago, he started watching The Monkees on television. He knows all the lyrics to the theme song. He doesn’t know that they are not a “real” band. He likes their music though. They’re cool and groovy.

Groovy. He likes the way that word sounds. He picked up that word from watching The Monkees and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in.

He started using the word over the summer. The first time was at a carnival in Spring Valley when he rode the Double Ferris Wheel.

“Wow, that was groovy,” he told Tommy Sharpe after he had ridden the Ferris wheel.

He had gone to the carnival with the Sharpe boys: Tommy, Ray, and Danny. It was the first time to go anywhere without one of his parents or relatives. Danny was the oldest and had left for basic training during the summer. Now he was in Vietnam.


  1. Brilliant! My grandparents lived in Oglesby and I stayed with them every weekend growing up, until moving in with them at the age of 16 to finish H.S.

    You discribe the setting of downtown Oglesby back in 1968 just as I lived it!

    Love to read more and more…… Jeff you have an amazing talent!

    My best, Lisa

  2. Fantastic Jeff! Love it!

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