In 2011, Nick Babcock took a camping trip to Jubilee State Park with his son, Jimmy. After building camp near the creek, they took an evening hike past the sunflower field and into the woods where they came upon a barn that stood for 82 years and might stand for 82 more.
“We’re not going in there… are we, dad?”
Nick felt the darkness inside too, but kept a strong face for his son. A swamp white oak had grown through the barn’s east wall, allowing a peek inside. The light coming through the branch-made opening was not welcome within. Jimmy flashed-back to the year before, when Nick told Jimmy the tale of Elly Hibbins, the young woman who ran away from home to live in the sunflower field.
“Dad, what if Elly Hibbins is inside.”
“That was just a story. I made it up.” Nick lied, remembering the vivid details his grandfather told him, like how Elly Hibbins was seen dancing in the sunflowers near this exact spot back in 1975. A local paper even published an article about how campers and hikers still report seeing a woman’s silhouette dancing in the sunflower field when a large bird circles overhead. But the myth had faded.
Nick stepped forward and stopped. The feeling of something inhuman crawled up his spine and strangled the muscles tight in his neck. The face of the barn was awake, objecting to their entrance. The gray-faded sun was dipping fast – it was time to return to their tent. This was not a place to be after dark.
“Don’t go in, dad.”
Nick pushed the barn door ajar. A wheelbarrow blocked the door from fully opening. Against his better judgement, Nick stepped inside a decaying version of a once bustling operation. The smell hit him fast—old sulfur stirred between porridge and toast flew up his nose—a familiar scent. More than a hundred blue and silver Keystone Light cans lay rusted and half-buried in the northeast corner. Every smell, skewed angle and piece of splintered wood were traces of things that happened here, things that left an imprint – like the aromas of mashed grain and fainted malt.
There were two trap doors in the ground. The closest was propped a few inches open. Nick kicked it wide open unearthing an aqueduct that stretched from the barn to the creek, now bulging with black mud and worms. Three fractured wooden kegs lay against the far wall—a spigot still screwed into one of them. Old air vents in the walls and roof could only be seen from the inside.
Nick turned to leave but caught a glimmer of eye-shine. All stopped. Orange eyes within a cavity in the swamp oak locked on him. The eyes belonged to a tiger of the air with a curved beak and claws. The rogue raptor’s nest looked as old as the barn and was made from yellow newspaper twisted with twigs and dirt.
Native Americans believe Great Horned Owls were reincarnations of slain warriors who fly by night. Some tribes believe owls are evil omens and they tell their children to stay inside at night or an owl might carry them away. The Cherokee tribe uses the same word, skili, as a name for both witch and the Great Horned Owl.
This particular night guard kept Nick in his watch like a surveillance camera, wings tucked, horns up. He was an elder of these woods, over-grown with prominent white feathers thick around his face and neck like a beard. His steak-knife talons shredded the tree’s bark.
“Jimmy. Come in here… slowly.”
“I don’t want to. Let’s go.”
“It’s ok. Come inside.”
“What is all this stuff?” Jimmy asked, inching in.
“Whoever used this place wasn’t storing crops or livestock.”
“Look in there.” Nick pointed to the hollow pit in the tree.
Jimmy’s eyes grew as big as bay windows. Twelve feet up he saw the nest and the eye shine. The orange eyes.
“Do you see it?”
“Do you see it?”
“My friend Gavin, at school, said no human eye can be orange. Orange eyes are evil.”
Nick covered his son and took him hard to the ground shielding him as the Great Horned Owl swooped. With a flap of fringed wings the bearded owl took silent flight, inverting his course vertically to fit his 50 inch wing span through the barn door. Taking two more flaps of feathers, it rose again with its back to the sunset and disappeared like vapor above the sunflower field.
Shrouded History: Prohibition i
State Representatives of the 30-something states that voted to approve The Volstead Act were assured before the vote that beer would not be illegal under Prohibition, only liquor and strong wines. They were all fooled.
The Leisys brothers owned Old City Brewery that operated on Peoria’s riverfront, producing 350,000 barrels a year – Illinois’ largest brewer outside of Chicago. Nick’s great-uncle, Lewis Wilson Babcock, worked for the Leisys as a 9-year-old kid doing random tasks for the brewers and in the tap room. The Leisys sold out to Premier Malt Products when the 18th Amendment took effect and Lewis’ brewing apprenticeship paused.
Like most folks after the stock market crashed in 1929, Lewis was out of work. He got on part-time at Gipps Brewing Company. “Give me Gipps" was their beer advertising slogan before they went dry. Gipps stayed in business during Prohibition making syrups for soda fountains, ice cream, and yeast; but Lewis grew restless with legitimate work and started moonlighting at a juice joint off Water Street called The Grandview Lounge owned by Clyde Derwent, a former associate of the Shelton Brothers.
The Grandview Lounge was a unique speakeasy because it brewed its own beer—Derwent called it Uncle Sam’s Suds. A speak that made its own beer cut out: 1) the police and prohibition agent pay offs; and 2) the Shelton Brothers using ‘Chicago Lightening’ to coerce Derwent to buy their beer (a tactic used by Dutch Schultz in New York). The dollars poured in.
Derwent had purchased 50 acres of land in 1919, where Jubilee College State Park now resides, buying the land under the false name “Cody Powers”. Derwent’s brewing operation took place on this plot, deep in the woods. When Prohibition hit in 1920, large breweries allegedly funneled their unused ingredients and equipment to bootleg homebrewers. Lewis Babcock used his old connections to acquire the equipment and ingredients necessary to brew Derwent’s beer. Soon Lewis was also in charge of brewing Uncle Sam’s Suds.
100 years later, history repeats itself; and the bearded owl looks on, still judging Nick’s family recipes—the owl now a symbol of the beer itself. Creating and supplying top-shelf beer to the thirsty folks of Central Illinois is in Nick’s blood.