Nokomis: one little town with three hall-of-famers

by John Ring

 

Nokomis, Illinois turned 150 years old last week. The folks in this small town 40 miles south of Springfield celebrated their sesquicentennial in true Midwest fashion — a parade, a carnival, lots of American flags and new trash containers for Main Street featuring the town logo of a Native American female silhouetted by a crescent moon.

“Daughter of the Moon” is the town logo. Nokomis has a rich history, heavily influenced by the Indians that were once there. The town name comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s book called “Song of Hiawatha” depicting the character of Nokomis who lost her daughter while giving birth to Hiawatha.

Nokomis is your typical small town with a Casey’s, a Subway and a Hardee’s. It is untypical in that it’s very clean, has a 6’ bowling pin in front of the local bowling alley and a jewel of a central park with a gazebo that’s picturesque in its stature.

Railroad tracks split the town in half. Three grain elevators dominate its skyline, along with church steeples that jut up around the town. The town sponsors a free movie night at Memorial Park; last week it was Madagascar. Families were encouraged to attend for free. The movie started at dusk but cartoons and a photo history of Nokomis were shown before.

This is a fiscally responsible community — it ended the year with a $410,000 balance and Mayor Keith Hancock oversaw a recent audit. Nokomis reflects America in that its economy is doing good but they are affected by the War. 21-year old Ryan Buckley was killed in Baghdad on June 23, 2006. He died five days after the first anniversary of his marriage.

Sports is big in Nokomis, especially at Nokomis High School. Their nickname is the Redskins. The Nokomis girls basketball team is a powerhouse; they won back-to-back Class A championships in 1998 and 1999. The Redskins football team is a perennial power in the Prairie State Conference.

The good citizens of Nokomis are mostly Cardinal fans; a few favor the Cubs, even fewer favor the White Sox — so Nokomis is a part of Cardinal Nation. Despite being founded in 1856, they lay a small claim to Lincoln. “He stayed here overnight once before he left for Washington,” said Trisha Ruppert, who operates a book store on Main Street. “It was just outside of town.”

Nokomis was also the home of a baseball shrine. The BRS Museum was named after three baseball Hall of Famers — Jim Bottomley, Ray Schalk and Charles Ruffing. All are from the Nokomis area. It’s been figured that per square mile, no other area in the nation has produced as many Hall of Famers with such a small population.

Started in the front window of a local restaurant, the Museum changed locations three times before it settled on Main Street. The collection grew to thousands of photos and several exhibits.

Bottomley was a coal miner in the Nokomis area before making it to the big leagues, where he had a career batting average of .310. In one game, he drove in a record 12 runs and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

Ruffing moved to Nokomis when he was a kid and he worked in the local mines as well. He was a dominant righthanded pitcher for the New York Yankees, posting a 6-1 record in the World Series. He was inducted in the HOF in 1967.

Schalk was a catcher for the powerful White Sox teams from 1912-1925. He caught four no-hitters and even caught a ball dropped from the Tribune Tower on May 11, 1925.

But unfortunately, the BRS Museum is no more. It was severely damaged in a fire last year. An adjacent building in downtown Nokomis was ravaged by the fire and many articles in the Hall of Fame suffered smoke damage. They were detoxified and are now in storage.

“We salvaged just about everything and got things cleaned up,” said Myron Schaefer, the official curator and secretary for the HOF. “Right now everything is stored in a safe place.”

Both buildings have been torn down. A foundation has been poured for the brand new BRS Hall of Fame but building a new structure will cost $100,000. Schaefer, a veteran Cardinals fan, doesn’t seem fazed by the number. He accepted a check last week from the Nokomis Lions Club for $1,000. Just $99,000 to go.

They will get no federal or state funding. Nokomis is on its own.