Salem, Olney: Jewels of Highway 50

By Robert Kelly Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 28, 1994 | Go to article overview

Salem, Olney: Jewels of Highway 50


Robert Kelly Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


U.S. Highway 50 runs through farmland and oil fields as it cuts across Southern Illinois to Indiana. Some might find driving along the old, two-lane highway a bit tedious.

But hidden treasures along the way can make for an interesting day trip, going as far east on Highway 50 as Olney in southeastern Illinois.

About 70 miles east of St. Louis on Highway 50, Salem has turned the childhood home of its most famous native, statesman William Jennings Bryan, into a museum. The town also honors Bryan with a statue at the entrance to a large park named in his honor.

Traveling east another 50 miles, Olney offers visitors several beautiful wooded areas for picnicking, playing and watching the town's best-known attraction - its large population of white squirrels.

Salem, Olney and some other sights along the way can easily be enjoyed in one relaxed day of travel. Or, for those who want to stay the night, a variety of motels, campgrounds and bed-and-breakfast inns can be found in both towns and at other places nearby.

***** Starting At Salem

Arriving in Salem, a visitor is drawn to the white frame house at 408 South Broadway where William Jennings Bryan was born in 1860 and lived until he was 15 years old.

The home is open for tours from 1 to 5 p.m. each day except Thursday and has been converted into a museum with memorabilia from Bryan's political and law careers.

Bryan was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for president in three elections and also served as U.S. secretary of state and as a congressman after moving to Nebraska as a young man.

Bryan is most famous for delivering his "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago. At the time, he was a staunch advocate of a currency backed by silver - the "silver certificate" paper issued by the government.

Bryan also was noted as the prosecutor in the so-called Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee in 1925. In that case, Bryan was opposed in the courtroom by famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Their confrontation later provided the story for the Hollywood movie "Inherit the Wind."

As a strict fundamentalist Christian, Bryan had opposed the teaching of evolution by John Scopes at a high school in Dayton, Tenn. Teaching evolution instead of creationism also was against Tennessee law in the 1920s.

Ironically, Scopes had grown up in Salem, Ill., and had heard Bryan speak at Salem High School several years before the trial.

After bitter courtroom confrontations between Bryan and Darrow, Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution and fined $100. Bryan died in his sleep just five days after the verdict, which later was overturned on appeal.

Paula Moore, an interpreter at the Bryan home and museum, said she had a chance last year to go to Tennessee and interview the last known survivor who testified in the Monkey Trial - a man now in his 80s.

"He said the trial was a circus-like atmosphere," Moore said.

The witness recalled that on the last day of the trial everyone in the courtroom had to be moved outside - and into the summer heat - because the weight of all of the reporters, photographers and spectators in the courtroom had been causing plaster to fall on the floor below, Moore said.

She directed a visitor to a statue of Bryan crafted by famous sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who also created the presidents' faces on Mount Rushmore. The statue once stood in Washington, but was moved to its current site about eight blocks north of the Bryan home and museum in Salem in 1961.

"When we were given the statue, it was in the agreement that the house also has to stay open to the public," Moore said. …

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