"Broomcorn Capital of the World" & Home of the Lawn Rangers
A Journey into Arcola, Illinois (Revisiting Charles Kuralt's "On the Road")
It is now over three decades since the first release of "On the Road with Charles Kuralt", which was based on the long time popular series on CBS Television. This posting is part of an occasional series re-visiting places Kuralt visited back then, but seem to have been overlooked and forgotten over time.
Arcola, Illinois describes itself as the entrance to Illinois Amish Country. Just off Interstate 57, it is situated a little over two hours from St. Louis, Indianapolis and Chicago.
Arcola claims itself to be the Broomcorn Capital of the World (Broomcorn (Sorghum vulgare var. technicum) is a type of sorghum that is used for making brooms and whiskbrooms). This stake in this claim is pointed to 1865 at the end of the Civil War when same time, a local gentleman named Col. Cofer experimented by planting 20 acres of broomcorn on his land. The crop did so well that the popularity of broomcorn took off. Soon after, nearly half of the broomcorn grown in the United States came from the Arcola area.
Although there is some dispute over this designation, Arcola continues to celebrate its heritage and its claim with an annual Broom Corn Festival. There visitors can see broom activities, arts/crafts, free entertainment, great food, and a gigantic parade with another of Arcola's modern day claims to fame: the Famous Lawn Rangers.
The Lawn Rangers are a “precision lawn mower drill team” that marches in formation with brooms and lawn mowers in the Arcola Broomcorn Parade. Every year since 1980, the Lawn Rangers have marched in the Arcola Broom Corn Festival Parade. This unique custom was publicized by humor columnist Dave Barry, who marched with the Lawn Rangers in 1995 and has written columns about them. In 2003, President Barack Obama marched with the Lawn Rangers in the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade to launch his race for the senate. As a result, The World Famous Amazing Arcola Lawn Rangers were invited to march in the 2009 Inaugural Parade in Washington D.C.
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My attachment to Arcola comes from a Chales Kualt feature years ago about a Coffee Club at Arrol's Drug Store on Main Street. In this small town shop, most every morning twenty-five people crowded in for their morning coffee. Sixteen men sat on facing the counter and the rest squeezed into four booths. And, they all drank coffee from a personalized cup made for them upon their introduction to the club.
By the time Kuralt visited in the late 1970's, the club had already been in existence for three decades - soon after Robert Aroll bought small pharmacy in 1948. At first he added a small soda machine and then started with one personalized cup to a regular who came by every morning, related son Bob in a great 2014 article in the Illinois Reporter, a publication produced courtesy of reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation/Dow Jones journalism camp at Eastern Illinois University.
What resulted was an every day “coffee club” at the local pharmacy. “By the time dad opened up at 8 am, there was a line outside the door. They came every day and for about a half an hour and they would sit and talk and catch up on news,” Robert Arrol said.
It got to the point where Arrol had to decide whether to build more racks for coffee cups or stop adding personalized cups. With 162 unique coffee cups lining the walls of his pharmacy, Bob Arrol decided the club had reached maximum capacity.
A waiting list was made, and every time a member died or moved out of town, a new one was moved in. A coffee cup on the wall of Bob Aroll’s pharmacy became a point of pride for the town’s coffee lovers.
The pharmacy became the morning hub of the town. At least 20 people filled the 13 stools and surrounding booths. They read the daily papers, discussed community news, and watched the TV set up on the counter. Sometimes bets were made between members, in which case the money would be put in the cups until the result was decided.
In 1986, Bob Arrol retired and the pharmacy was purchased by Larry Bushu. He kept the tradition going for a few years before he, too, sold the business. After that the pharmacy disappeared and with it the coffee club.
As of 2014 when the Illinois Reporter piece was published, only 4 or 5 of the coffee club members remained relayed one of the oldtimers, Robert Holliday, whose coffee cup is recalled as being “cream colored with the name ‘Bob’ on it.”
Those still around and able would convene at the nearby "Dutch Kitchen" (One dollar coffee - it was a nickel at Arrol's) , but somehow, they said, it was not the same.
Today, remnants of the Coffee Club can also still be found on display at the Arcola Museum. To there the shelves from Arrol's Drug were transported after the place closed. They have been preserved along with the personalized coffee cups given to members of Arrol’s coffee club - the legacy of of Bob Arrol’s coffee club, once a fixture of the community.