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Interview with John Purvis, Off the Beaten Path in Illinois

John Purvis is a retired gentleman in his 50s. Sitting around the house staring at the walls did not appeal to him, so he bought a nice car and a nicer camera. Together with a friend, he goes out in search of adventure. Fascinated by history, he is always asking what’s next: what’s over the next hill or around the next corner? He has always had a thirst for the unknown, and Off the Beaten Path in Illinois allows him to quench that thirst.

How did you become interested in visiting the back roads of Illinois?

I’ve always been fascinated by history in all forms. From an early age I’d go past an abandoned and forlorn structure and wonder about its past history, wondering what stories it could tell. Having traveled extensively the last few years I’ve seen numerous sights to wonder about. Abandoned towns, boarded up movie theaters, aircraft sitting in the middle of the desert, cars down in ravines. And along the way I’ve seen and photographed numerous monuments and markers that history seems to have passed by. Spots that were once important enough to place a marker at but now sit lonely and forgotten. When I moved back home I was determined to start documenting the places I had remembered from my youth so that others might look at it and become interested in their forgotten stories.

Do you determine places to visit ahead of time, or do you go in search of them? How do you research information about locations?

o answer your question, I try to plan ahead of time where I am going, but often will go where the road takes me. And more often than not, I find spots I never knew existed Because I took a wrong turn or a different route than planned. As an example, a few months ago my sidekick Nick and I were pointed towards a seldom visited military memorial, but we missed the turn off. Going by a different road, we came across a marker for a long forgotten town. Someplace that would have stayed forgotten had we taken the right road.

When it comes to Research, I utilize a number of sources. First and foremost is the local connection. People come to me and tell me stories of buildings, towns, old schools they attended as a child, a marker or a monument that sits in their local park that no one ever visits anymore. The internet is also a wonderful tool for chasing down leads and clues about forgotten places as well. Nowadays there’s almost always a document or a long out of print book that’s made its way online that will point me in a certain direction. Plus I have old books, maps, photographs, etc. that will sometimes give me a clue to follow.

What appeals to you about exploring Illinois’ out of the way places and abandoned sites?

I may have already touched on this question but history, especially Local history, fascinates me. I’ve always had a curious mind and I consider myself insatiable when it comes to knowledge. To find an empty house on a lonely country road, or to find an abandoned railroad tunnel or a rusty bridge is a thrill. I suppose you could say the hunt is the exciting part. To read about something, to go try to find it, and then to discover that it’s still there, forgotten and passed by time yet still a Sentinel to an earlier age. My sidekick Nick says for him it’s the thrill of noticing something off in the distance that most people drive by and don’t give a second thought about it.

What are some of the most interesting places you have visited, and why?

For Nick it’s been the spot in Geneseo where we found a lot full of military vehicles. Seeing the old retired vehicles still done up in their war paint was a thrill for him as was seeing the old M*A*S*H* style ambulance. His second best place would have been the Geneseo memorial park. He liked it because it pays homage to multiple moments in Illinois history. For me, my first choice would be the Witness Tree. To think of a living tree that has stood the test of time , to have been a silent ‘Witness’ to so many periods of not only state, but also national history. The American Revolution, the Indian Wars, the Civil War, World Wars 1 & 2, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, Afghanistan and it’s Still there. My second choice would be the marker for the Charles Lindbergh crash site. To think that before he was famous for crossing the Atlantic solo, he flew and had adventures right here in Illinois.

Do you think Illinois residents have become apathetic to preserving their local history? If so, what can we do to increase interest in preserving local historic sites?

We think the majority of Illinois residents are less concerned about preserving history than local individuals are. There’s so much going on in the world today to draw attention away from monuments to the past. As events that prompted the erection of a monument become faded with time, the interest in it also fades in the general populace’s memories. All I can think to do to increase interest in our historical sites is to keep them in the public eye. To remind our local citizenry that the monuments were erected for a reason and that reason should still hold a place in our hearts and memories. When you forget about a monument or a historical marker , you pay disservice to the events that prompted that markers creation to begin with.

Along your journey off the beaten path, have you found other people who share your interest? How can our readers get a hold of you if they want to share information about other interesting places?

We have found that no matter where we stop, or who we talk to, people are willing, even eager, to share their memories about the places we photograph and document. As an example, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and in the course of eating our meal, every patron that was there that day participated in the conversation about their towns past and gave us numerous suggestions of places to go visit. It has been our experience that people, especially local people Want their local history to be remembered lest it be forgotten. We feel we have an Obligation to preserve as much of our past as possible. We are Dedicated to capturing these little slices of history before they are lost forever. To contact us for more information or to suggest a future stop for us to photograph, leave a comment on our blog.

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