The first time I heard of ''Barefoot,'' it was many years ago, at one of the many of my in-law's family gatherings in Kelly Township, just west across the county line in Warren County. It was far enough back that I was interested in genealogy, but had not yet realized the intertwined nature of genealogy with local history. How can one report on the mix of his blood, the melting pot of cultures represented in his genetic code, without addressing the fact that this is nothing less than the microcosm of his family's history. As Galesburg is a product of the influence of the Swedes, Irish, English, so am I. One cannot begin to understand the one without the other.
But before I tread too far from ''Barefoot''. As I recall, in my first hearing of Barefoot, it was a vague, non-specific geographic area to the north and east of the point of telling. It was a name, I was told, that reflected the state of poverty of the folks who lived there. Folks in Barefoot had to rotate the wearing of the family's shoes when a member was to go to town or to church. Such was the state of their lives. Such stories must be taken with a bit of skepticism. Try to find Barefoot on a map, no footprint remains.
Barefoot had its origin as ''Barefoot Nation.'' Carl Sandburg describes Barefoot as being at North Creek. It was a collection of rough-made shanties where Irish immigrant workers lived with the families. Sandburg recalls that Magnus Holmes, a friend of Carl's father, told the story that the little Irish houses that comprised Barefoot had no windows. As such, the Irish ''had to bring daylight into the houses in sacks.''
Sandburg asked an Irish friend about the story of bringing daylight into the houses in sacks. His Irish friend told him that that was a joke that had been told in Ireland for a thousand years. However, Carl was told by a Swedish friend who was born and raised in Sweden, that the story was told in Sweden when he was young.
As the stories go, everyone ran around barefoot in Barefoot. Shoes cost money and money was not plentiful among these sad Irish immigrants who came to America to find a better life, but instead, found Barefoot. Sandburg relates the second-hand stories that families only had one pair of shoes in Barefoot, so whom ever got out of bed first on Sundays and holidays, got the shoes for the day. He relates of the Irish lad who was courting a young lady in Henderson Grove. The lad would make the walk, barefoot, to see the girl, and the Henderson Grove inhabitants would see him coming and remark ''He's from Barefoot Nation over there on North Creek.'' Unfortunately, we do not know if he was successful in his courtship. However one can likely predict the warmth of the reception provided by the girl's parents to this shoeless, Irish lad.
The Irish, by all reports, were much less warmly received in Galesburg than were the Swedes. Probably part of this was due to religious differences of the Irish, which were more, pronounced. It was also partly due to the economic status differences of the Swedes and Irish, upon arriving. Many of the Swedes had moderate amounts of money to buy land and start farming. With land and hard work, they prospered, they worked hard to learn English, and to become part of the melting pot of America and of Galesburg. The Irish arrived in more dire straits- little money and little to offer but their unskilled labor and bits of their culture that would infiltrate and help form what we claim now as our own.
Albert Britt recalls that the Swedes were considered good workers, were good students, and were generally well accepted in the small rural communities of Kelly Township. He also recalled however, neighbors offering their support when a daughter announced her plans to marry a ''Swede renter'': ''the wives of the neighborhood united in sympathy with the bride's mother, apparently because Swedes spoke a queer language and had peculiar tastes in food.''
For the few Irish in the Kelly Township neighborhood, Albert Britt remembers four families who lived closed together on a road, locally known as ''Cork Street.'' The children attended the local school, and participated in the brief Protestant prayers at the start of the school day, without apparent protest.
Barefoot appears to be only a brief footnote in local history. It was one of those colorful bits of oral history always on the edge of extinction, with a little lost on each of the retelling of the tale. In efforts to preserve and record such tales, one must tread lightly as each who remembers bits of the tale, tends to remember a slightly different version or perhaps a slightly different location for the Barefoot Nation.
It seems that the Barefoot Nation, or Barefoot, has even a more precarious footing in our local history than does Saluda, Utah, Milroy, and Shanghai City. Each of these can be found, with their bit of recognized history in the local county histories. Not so for Barefoot.
Barefoot left no tracks.