SIDELL — At 6:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Sidell Village President Terry Bates calls the board’s July meeting to order.
After a quick review of the bills, Bates and five trustees accept the resignation of absent Trustee Gary Snoke, then spend the next 30 or so minutes discussing the need to tag derelict vehicles and budget some money to cut down old trees.
Meanwhile, a woman sitting at the end of the table scribbles notes in her steno pad and wonders how she’s going to fill a 6-inch by 6-inch hole on the front page of the Sidell Reporter, which she must put to bed the next day.
Rinda Maddox decides to lead with Snoke, who stepped down for health reasons.
For the past 28 years, Maddox has had a front-row seat to the goings-on in not only Sidell but also the communities of Indianola, Fairmount, Jamaica, Allerton and, more recently, Catlin, in the southwestern corner of Vermilion County, as the Reporter’s owner and editor.
“Our main function is to be the voice of our community,” said Maddox, who — with the help of a small part-time staff and a few faithful correspondents — brings readers the latest on local municipal, township and school government; school sports; business openings and closings; church and community events; birth and wedding announcements and obituaries; as well as feature stories and columns on a wide range of topics.
“We’re very fortunate to have a newspaper that’s dedicated to covering our towns, our schools, all of it,” lifelong Sidell resident and business owner Becky Hettinger said, adding that that’s practically unheard of in such a small town in today’s electronic age. “I’m so proud of her for keeping it here for all of us.”
Euchre with Aunt Nellie
The award-winning weekly has been around for almost as long as the village, which was established in 1884.
In 1861, early settler John Sidell came to the area from Ohio and purchased 3,000 acres on the banks of the Little Vermilion River, according to Linda Rosnett, a local historian and former owner/editor of the paper, then known as the Sidell Journal.
In 1881, two sets of railroad tracks converged on a portion of Sidell’s land, giving the town its start. The streets were platted, and a post office was established three years later.
By 1888, the farming community had “blacksmiths, barbers, dry goods and grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, doctors, a tile factory, a bank and even a grand opera house,” Rosnett wrote in an article about the Reporter’s history. But it lacked a newspaper, prompting the editor of the Fairmount Veto to chide it in his editorials for not being able to attract one.
Knowing a paper would help the fledgling town, a group of businessmen convinced a young entrepreneur named James E. Whipple to move to Sidell and start one. Whipple had put out the Cayuga (Ind.) Journal for a year prior.
He published the first edition of The Sidell Weekly Journal in May 1888. Among its stories: Many townsfolk were planning to attend Decoration Day services in Indianola the next week; the 5-year-old son of Samuel Hill was kicked by a horse; and Miss Ida Ames returned home from Florida, bringing with her a “mammoth” lemon weighing 1 pound, 11 ounces and measuring 15 inches around.
Over the years, the paper — published as The Sidell Wayside in 1889 — had several owners, including Carrie Barnett Wright, who ran it for several months following the death of her husband, editor Charles A. Wright, and Thomas B. “TB” Williams, who changed the name to the Journal after he bought it in 1900. Years later, Rosnett wrote about Williams’ son — Maj. Ernest C. Williams, a U.S. Marine in the Dominican Campaign and World War I — when it was rediscovered that he was a Medal of Honor recipient.
The longest owner was Charles C. Lane, who ran it from 1932 until his death in October 1982. His wife, Thelma, assisted him by calling around for the social news.
Hettinger also worked for Lane, known by all as “Charlie,” during her summers in high school.
“I answered the phone and took stories. People would tell me a story — we went to visit Aunt Nellie, and we played euchre — and I would type it up and get the advertising they wanted in,” she recalled.
Back then, Sidell was still a thriving community. Hettinger and her brother Frank Lucas — another lifelong resident, who has a farm on the north edge of town — remember when it had two or three grocery stores and a drug store; a bank and two insurance agencies; a Chevrolet dealership and tractor dealership; a gas station and two mechanic shops; a lumberyard, paint store and hardware store, which sold everything from Maytag appliances to clothing; several restaurants, a movie house and five churches.
“We were the center of quite a few small towns,” said Lucas, who started a mowing business with Hettinger when he was 9. “Back in the day, we had almost anything you wanted.”
After graduating from Jamaica High School, Lucas and his stepfather bought the Marathon station and ran it for four years. When the grocery store was put up for sale, he bought it, changed the name to Lucas Grocery and ran it for 38 years with the fresh beef coming from the cattle he raised on his farm.
“It was a community where you felt safe,” Hettinger said, adding that everyone knew their neighbors. “And it was a good place to raise your children. ... It still is today, although it’s different.”
‘Like a letter from home’
In its 131-year history, the paper ceased publication a few times, but only for short periods. One of those times followed Lane’s death. His widow sold it to John and Bob Armes, a father and son from Homer.
“They got it going by Christmas,” recalled Rosnett, an Indianola native, who was recruited to work part-time.
“I used to call around for the social news, take photos and do anything they needed me to do,” she said with a laugh.
The paper still used the old hot lead printing method, so Rosnett spent her Wednesdays typesetting and proofreading.
“Back then, if you wanted to print a picture, you had to run in to Danville and get an engraving made,” she said, and that kept them from running a lot of photos.
When the 14-inch by 21-inch papers came off the press, she helped hand fold them and stamp on the addresses.
Rosnett, a local history buff, particularly enjoyed writing articles on the town’s history for an issue covering Sidell’s centennial celebration in June 1984. It would be one of the Armeses’ last.
They stepped away for health reasons and wanted to turn the paper over to Rosnett. Though she initially feared she couldn’t run the equipment alone, she accepted the challenge — hiring Maddox as her typesetter — and modernized production. She purchased a used phototypesetter and turned to Jeff Holmes, then publisher of the Villa Grove News, for help.
“I knew nothing about the production part,” Rosnett admitted. “If it wasn’t for Jeff, there wouldn’t have been a Sidell Journal. I’d go over there, and they’d let me use their equipment. Jeff would help me lay it out and print it for me. He gave me so much advice.”
In her first issue on Dec. 6, 1984, Rosnett wrote about the opening of a new bakery across the street from the paper’s offices, at 116 E. Market St. Over the next few months, she kept readers up on Jamaica schools’ second attempt to pass a referendum for a tax increase, as well as the social news.
“It was basically Facebook for those generations,” Rosnett said, noting that a number of subscribers were residents who moved away. “They read it to keep up with everyone.”
“Every edition was like a letter from home,” Maddox added.
After more than five years, Rosnett — who had taught math for a year before getting married — decided to return to teaching. She put out her last issue on March 29, 1990.
Rosnett offered to give the paper to Maddox, who laughed and turned her down. So she leased the building and equipment to an area resident with a journalism degree, who ran it for a year and then left town abruptly.
“Everyone kept calling me to see where their paper was,” said Maddox, who had stayed on as a reporter.
A different direction
A Ridge Farm native, Maddox’s father grew up in Sidell. She and her husband, Steve, moved to the area after marrying in 1974 and raised their daughter, Amanda Rull, there.
Though she had no formal training, Maddox knew how valuable the 103-year-old publication was to the area and wanted to keep it going. She offered to buy it, but the former owner wanted an astronomical price. So Rosnett, who still owned the building and equipment, turned it over to her former employee, and Maddox published her first issue on May 2, 1991.
A few months later, her predecessor filed for bankruptcy. Maddox bought the rights to the paper — which she’d renamed the Reporter — for a dollar, allowing her to put “since 1888” on the masthead again.
The paper’s focus gradually changed from social news to local government after Maddox started attending Sidell meetings. At the time, the village proposed raising water rates for the first time in years, which angered residents.
“I found out there was so much more you could report on when you’re sitting at the meeting,” she said, adding that before then, editors called to follow up on meetings but only got what officials wanted to share.
She started hitting up meetings of other governmental bodies. That didn’t please some, including a couple of mayors who were blatantly disregarding the Open Meetings Act.
“They had secret meetings in their home, the back of the town hall, meetings before meetings,” said Maddox, who was on the phone to the Illinois Press Association for direction. “I had no problem calling them out.”
Later, she partnered with the IPA to put on a workshop for elected officials throughout the area.
“Some of them didn’t realize what they were doing were wrong,” Maddox said. “Most are very mindful of the rules today.”
“Rinda has definitely taught me a lot about the legal aspect of how to operate meetings,” said Bates, who took office two years ago but has served as Sidell’s fire chief for 20-plus years.
“I didn’t always know how to take her at first, but we’ve become friends,” continued Bates, who realizes the newspaperwoman has a job to do. He even gave her a pager, so she could stay on top of fires and accidents.
“We’ve never shied away from anything that needs to be put in the paper,” Maddox said. “Sometimes, I think, ‘Oh, my God. I don’t want to write about that.’ But I do.”
One example: A pager call for a fatal accident last October. When she arrived to the scene, she saw a semitrailer truck had run off the road into a ditch. Maddox said a prayer for the driver, then saw a good friend, Tracy Hageman, standing alone off to the side.
When she asked Hageman who the driver was, she said it was her husband, Jay.
“I was no longer the reporter at the scene,” she said. “I went into friend mode and stayed with her for several hours.”
‘Editor’s husband dies’
Maddox has also never shied away from writing about personal tragedies, including hearing an ambulance call to a house in Ridge Farm that came over the scanner. When she arrived at the address — her folks’ house — she learned her mother was already gone.
Another time, she was at the office when she heard a call for a fully-engulfed house fire at the same address. When she arrived, she found her dad in the back of an ambulance with burns to his face and hands and still in shock.
“There was a gas leak. He went to cook dinner and turned on the stove and the house blew,” Maddox said. Her dad — who she often wrote about growing up in Sidell — spent six weeks in a hospital burn unit.
Readers were also familiar with her husband’s battle with diabetes.
“I wrote about every bit of it,” Maddox said. The couple had discussed putting it on paper. “We said we could let (people) make up stuff in the street, or we could give them the facts. And to me, it was therapeutic to write about it. We got an outpouring of support from people.”
On April 27, 2011, Steven Maddox passed away from complications of the disease.
“We already had the paper ready to go to press, but we tore it up to put him on the front page,” Maddox said, referring to the story in the April 28 issue: “Editor’s husband dies suddenly; services set.”
For a time, Maddox, her husband and her daughter all worked at the paper together. Her husband started hanging around the office after taking disability from his job at Trisler Seed, so she put him to work selling advertising.
“The longer he worked here, the more jobs we gave him,” his wife said with a laugh.
All in the family
Rull — who’d grown up in the office and could lay out a page by the time she was in junior high — contributed articles in high school and while studying journalism at Eastern Illinois.
She went on to work in graphic design at large newspapers in Anchorage, Alaska, and Rapid City, S.D. In 2010, when her Air Force husband was assigned as a recruiter in Champaign, she helped out in the office.
Maddox believes it was divine intervention that Rull was home when her husband and four other family members died, and she credits her daughter with keeping both her and the paper going after Steve’s death.
Today, Maddox’s small staff includes Vicki Delhaye, who manages the office and helps with ad designs and layout; Suzanne Woodard, who sells ads and writes popular features; sportswriter Perry Dable and his brother-in-law, Dave Biggerstaff, the Catlin correspondent; Barb Lewis, who helps with distribution; and Rosnett, who’s always kept her hand in writing.
Rull, now in Indianapolis, still maintains the website and Facebook page, contributes recipes and helps design “when I need something beyond my ability,” her mother said.
Though Maddox no longer clocks 80-hour weeks and pulls all-nighters on press day, she still puts in 50 hours or more — including evenings and weekends — to meet her 3 p.m. Wednesday deadline. The six- to eight-page paper, now only 10-inches wide, is printed three-and-a-half hours away in Astoria and delivered by 8:30 a.m. on Thursdays.
While Maddox now does most of her work on her Macbook Pro at her office — decorated with antiques, newsboy dolls and family photos — she’s still a fixture at certain meetings and events and goes to breaking-news scenes, notebook and camera in hand.
“Rinda’s done such a fabulous job, modernizing it, and just the coverage she gives,” Rosnett said, laughing that her protégé became her boss.
‘People step up to help’
Today, the village — which had a population high of 800 in the 1920s — has about 575 residents, according to 2018 census data.
In addition to the Reporter, it has a smattering of businesses, including a grain elevator, bank, small grocery store, general contractor and Spicer Insurance, which Beryl Spicer started in 1927. Hettinger and her husband, Jerry, joined the agency in the 1960s and then purchased it in 1978.
Today, their son, Drew, and his wife, Jaimee — who happens to be John Sidell’s great-great-granddaughter — work there.
“We also have several places to eat, which is unique for a town our size,” Bates said, referring to the 4-Way Saloon and KJ’s tavern, both of which sell food; Sonny’s Corner Cafe and Pizzeria; and Miss Daisy’s Ice Cream Parlor & Clothes Basket, which opened last August.
Brad Prunkard, who served as police chief for 20 years, starting in 1985, said townsfolk used to gather for coffee at the restaurants. When they closed in the mornings, the Baptist church began serving coffee and biscuits and gravy on the last Saturday of the month.
“It’s a nice, quiet community, but you’ve got to want to live here,” Prunkard said.
On the evening of the village board meeting, the only traffic in town was a few cars that stopped by the ice cream shop, a delivery car and golf cart at the cafe, a blue tractor and pickup truck at the grocery store and Prunkard’s wife, Barb, who was enjoying a bicycle ride.
Its greatest asset, Prunkard said: its citizens.
“If someone needs something, people step up to help,” he said.
For example, he pointed out, the Sidell Fun Days recently held a chicken noodle dinner benefit for a man having heart surgery.Prunkard still gets choked up when he recalls the support his oldest daughter got when she was battling cancer. Community members came together to put on two different benefits. Prunkard said she died before the second, but organizers went ahead with it to raise money for her funeral expenses.
For Record, no rumors
Residents said the Reporter has always been an integral part of the community. In recent years, it’s kept them informed on Sunrise Coal’s continued efforts to open a mine in Sidell Township, the Catlin-Jamaica schools consolidation and formation of the new Salt Fork district, the long-awaited project to improve the Fairmount-Sidell highway, the construction of the new village hall after a lightning strike set the old one on fire and the village’s latest project — replacing the current WWI-era water tower with a new one.
While the cost of that is estimated at $1.2 million, Bates said the village is applying for an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency forgiveness loan, which will make residents responsible for only 30 percent, or roughly $350,000 to $400,000. He added that the village also will be able to replace 26 fire hydrants and 260 residential and commercial water meters.
While many things have changed over the years, Maddox said two things haven’t.
“I’ve always tried to serve as a watchdog for the community, and I’ve always made sure we never printed rumors,” she said.
Maddox looks forward to the day she can retire — or at least turn over the paper to someone else and be a contributor. But she worries whether anyone would want to step in and continue running it, and she doesn’t want to see it close — at least not until she’s gone.
“I tell my staff: Don’t forget. I want one more issue printed ... because I want my obituary on the front page,” she said with a laugh.