Illinois News

New book by Augusta native offers insights into town's colorful past

Brent Engel
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 30, 2017 11:05 am
Brent Engel

AUGUSTA, Ill. -- Just when it seemed Brent Engel had exhausted all the good stories from Augusta's colorful past in his 2016 book, "A Few Augusta Stories," he actually was just getting started.

Engel went on to uncover quite a few more tales about his Hancock County hometown. The result of that effort is a second book, "A Few More Augusta Stories," which he finished writing this fall.

The new book, which will be available in about a month, contains 48 more stories involving Augusta and several nearby towns.

Engel knows a good story when he sees one. Over the years he has worked as a newspaper reporter and television assignment editor, and is public relations officer for North East Community Action Corporation based in Bowling Green, Mo.

Engel, 54, said he strived to include all the key elements featured in his first collection of ?Augusta stories, such as "murder and mayhem, comedy and horror and a little bit of sports."

One story recounts the day in November 1928 when a community party was organized to celebrate the completion of Augusta's first hard-surfaced streets.

Augusta merchants decided to tie the celebration to the upcoming observance of Thanksgiving, so they announced plans to give away three turkeys along with some geese, ducks, guineas and chickens for holiday meals.

The live birds were distributed in a novel way -- by tossing them from the roof of a two-story building to the assembled crowd of about 3,000 people.

Chaos ensued.

Two of the turkeys were ripped apart when aggressive men and boys lunged forward to grab the birds. The third turkey was hurled in a catching competition for women only.

"The women were a little bit more cordial and didn't tear the birds to pieces," Engel said. "What a way to celebrate the opening of your paved streets."

Engel also chronicled the story behind the construction of the viaduct that goes under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks on Main Street in Augusta.

The viaduct project was precipitated by a horrifying accident on Dec. 30, 1920, when a passenger train plowed into the side of a farm wagon being pulled by a team of horses.

Henry Baker, a passenger in the wagon, was killed instantly, while his son, Alexander Baker, the driver, was seriously injured. The horses pulling the wagon were knocked down but not injured. What was left of the wagon was dragged 400 feet down the tracks before the train stopped.

Engel offers insights into the coal industry that once thrived in Augusta before most local mines were shut and sealed off. He also writes about the 1844 murders of Mormon leaders Joseph and Hyrum Smith at the Carthage Jail by focusing on the involvement of several Augusta residents.

Other stories offer insights about Frank Gardner, a small but strong Augusta boy who became a great circus performer; Benjamin Bacon Crain, who ran a men's clothing store in Augusta for 65 years until he retired in 1942 at age 91; Charlie Johnson, a former slave who in 1930 ventured back to Marion County, Mo., to visit the farm where he had been forced to live and work against his will; Gerald Finlay, an Irish-born soldier, businessman and philanthropist who led efforts to build the Civil War statue in Augusta Cemetery.

Engel had fun writing about two indoor golf courses that opened in downtown Augusta buildings in the 1930s.

"It was a big fad," he said.

He also dug up accounts of some well-known Hollywood and Nashville stars who made appearances at the Augusta Livestock Show, which later became the Hancock County Fair. Among them was Dennis Weaver from the TV show "Gunsmoke."

"Ten times the population of Augusta came just to see him," Engel said.

Big crowds also turned out in 1961 to see two stars from "Bonanza" -- Dan Blocker and Michael Landon.

Engel is taking orders for the new book. People may call 573-754-2022, and he will let them know when it is available. He also will schedule a book-signing event at the Augusta library in December. Engel's original August book has sold out.

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