Main Street/Homer: This place really pops

Main Street/Homer: This place really pops

Homer has a way of hanging on to its history.

Walk down Main Street, and on the south side, you see "1892" atop the Masonic building at Main and Wabash.

Homer Lodge No. 199 A.F. & A.M. has just refurbished the building with loving care. From an attic that had been left to the decades, members found enough cool stuff to make a mini-museum in the structure.

Lodge member Denver Phelps says the attic included old phonograph records, canceled checks, junk mail, ceremonial garments of the secret society and a strange variety of other objects.

Todd Creason, one of the people who put in three years of work at the lodge, says it had been neglected and was in poor repair, so the easy thing to do would have been to merge with another lodge. Instead, members of other lodges helped rebuild it from the roof down.

Three stained-glass windows shed light on the fraternal organization's immense meeting room, which is looking better than ever, like other places in town, include the Homer Opera House.

Greg Knott, one of the restorers, notes that the lodge was chartered about the same time the town was rebuilt to be near the Great Western Railroad, later the Wabash Railroad.

Before that, Homer, originally called Union, had come to be as a river town, on the Salt Fork.

Molly Spencer Shoaf, a member of the Homer Historical Society, has co-authored two books on the town's history with its mayor, Ray Cunningham. She says Indian arrowheads and other artifacts are housed at the society's building, including some from when it was a part of the Lincoln Trail, traversed by Abraham himself when he was a circuit lawyer.

Shoaf notes that in February 1855, every structure in town was dragged south of the river 1.5 miles by 18 teams of oxen. This was before Homer had settled on the idea of permanence.

Instead of knocking down its historic buildings, Homer has treasured them, including what's likely the oldest surviving theater in Champaign County, the Opera House at 101 N. Main St., built in 1902.

Robert Picklesimer is the longtime creative director of the Creative Dramatics Workshop, which had been housed in a smaller space in Sidney and is now rebuilding in Homer.

He says "the theatre space was in relatively good shape, including the balcony, proscenium stage and stage space, as well as the theatre auditorium, which can hold at least 300 seats, but we have currently configured for 150."

His group has obtained new seats for the theater and some modest theatrical lighting and sound equipment, but "the rest of the building was nearly gutted in earlier renovations."

Since 1902, "the ground floor has always served as a multi-use facility," he says.

"It was first a dry-goods store, while all the time the upstairs theater was producing road shows, vaudeville, touring theater companies and its own local high school theater," Picklesimer says. "From its inception until 1928, when Homer built its own high school, the upstairs served as the Homer High School, including plays, graduation ceremonies — and they used to hang baskets on each end of the auditorium for basketball."

Picklesimer says political rallies and other civic events used to be hosted in the opera house, and it used to have an outside balcony.

"In the 1930s, the upstairs was converted to apartments, and the downstairs as offices for a local power company. It served as a bank, had a bowling alley in the basement, hosted dances, wrestling matches and a host of other events," he says.

But there's also new town traditions like the Homer Soda Company, which has a festival offering more than 200 pop varieties, including Jelly Belly Very Cherry, Jic Jac Lemon Lime and carbonated beverages beloved to older fans.

Ray and Christine Cunningham started the business about a decade ago; Kate Boyer took the helm in 2009 and has since provided her product to about 150 wholesalers across the country who love hard-to-get sodas.

The building's retail operation, the Main Street Belly Deli, is open five days a week and is owned by Jeremie and Carla Duzan.

A California transplant, Carla is now devoted to Homer, and plans to expand the business to the upstairs.

"We do great on Saturdays and during the festivals," she says.

The town's soda festival and Krazee Daze draw thousands to Main Street.

But longtime Homer residents like the fact that it's on the small side.

Kenny and Anita Whitt live on the north side of Main Street and fill their yard and house with friendly statues and sayings.

"Just about everybody in town knows everybody else, and people are glad to help," says Anita, who has lived in the town all her life. "With school consolidations, some people moved to St. Joseph or other places, but they always consider Homer home."

Homer by the numbers

1,193

Homer's population now. In 1850, it was 120.

10,000

Estimated visitors to Main Street (Illinois 49) during the 2015 Homer Soda Festival, according to Kate Boyer, co-owner of the Homer Soda Company.

1.5 miles

Distance from where it all started — the houses of those 120 were dragged in February 1855 by 18 teams of oxen, so that instead of being a river town, Homer became a railroad town.

1904-1928

Years of operation of Homer Park, a destination amusement park for the Illinois Traction System interurban line on the Salt Fork that drew people from all over. It offered swimming, movies, sports and a small zoo. It's now part of the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

Oct. 26, 1986, to June 23, 1987

Length of the Homer school strike — 156 days — which was more than twice as long as the second-longest school strike in the nation. The loss of the school year led some to leave the town.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (3):Housing, People, Theater

Comments

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alabaster jones 71 wrote on January 24, 2016 at 9:01 pm
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If you go to Homer to check out these attractions, just make sure that you set aside $120 for the speeding ticket that you will inevitably receive.

ljenki677 wrote on January 25, 2016 at 1:01 pm

Or you can simply drive the speed limit.

johnny wrote on January 27, 2016 at 4:01 am

What are you, some kind of subversive?

alabaster jones 71 wrote on January 27, 2016 at 6:01 pm
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I think that subservient is the word you're looking for.

pziggy wrote on February 20, 2016 at 7:02 pm

So you don't consider yourself subject to the Rule of Law?