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Pocahontas proud: Couple breathes life into small Illinois town

Pocahontas proud: Couple breathes life into small Illinois town
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POCAHONTAS — For 70 years, schoolchildren from Pocahontas walked by the shuttered grocery and attached theater, imagining what was inside.

The generations were used to lost eras: the last coal mine that employed many in town closed in the 1940s. The high school was torn down in the 1950s. Interstate 70 bypassed the town in the 1960s, veering motorists away from the town center.

“Then you get these two nuts who come in and say, ‘Oh, you know what we can do?’” says Jennifer Rick, laughing.

Jennifer and her husband, Don, aren’t from Pocahontas, which is 42 miles east of St. Louis. But they are reimagining it, and bringing people together as they do.

Pocahontas, Illinois

Jennifer and Don Rick chat with customers in their Pocahontas Mercantile and Sweet Shoppe, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. The Ricks bought the old Mercantile and the adjoining Strand Theatre three years ago and renovated the spaces. Photo by Hillary Levin,

Four years ago, they bought an antique mall and reopened it as Pocahontas Antique Mall, making it one of several antique shops open in town.

Then, they bought the old grocery and theater, and reopened the theater in 2018 as an event space called the Strand.

A few months later, they opened the grocery, and called it Pocahontas Mercantile and Sweet Shop.

Then, they bought the old Pocahontas United Methodist Church, and reopened the church basement as a gift and vintage shop called the Refined Cellar, run by four women who each brings her own tastes and experiences to the place.

The church upstairs is a work in progress, but now the couple lives in it, the living space bathed in the light of nearly 50 stained glass windows.

This is the second marriage for the Ricks, who have been married almost 11 years and have 5 children and 10 grandchildren between them. Jennifer, 52, is the social butterfly. Don, 58, is the quiet handyman who carries out their ideas.

Pocahontas, Illinois

Barn quilt squares are painted on the sides of several buildings in Pocahontas, Ill., seen Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Photo by Hillary Levin,

“Some people are just made for each other,” says Don Rick. “Jennifer and I are a perfect match. We both have the same ideas, and the same dreams. I never argue with her, and we do it, and it works out good.”

Both do this in addition to their full-time jobs: she works for a nursery service that supplies trees and shrubs to area Home Depots. He is the meat manager at the Collinsville Schnucks. She grew up in Madison, and he grew up in Lively Grove, about 45 miles south of Pocahontas.

“I always want to feel like I’m serving a purpose,” says Jennifer Rick. “I enjoy it. When I get into town, this is what I love doing. This is not work.”

Pocahontas was never a bustling metropolis: its highest population was around 1930, when it almost reached 1,000. About 850 people live there now. The water tower in the town square says it’s home of the Indians. A town sign says it’s home to country singer Gretchen Wilson. In 2004, the country singer known for "Redneck Woman" released a song called “Pocahontas Proud,” a ballad that talks about running with the boys and playing for tips.

“You know where I come from we don't give up easily…” she sings in one verse.

“I guess it’s the small town thing,” says Sandy Kuhn, who opened a hardware store here with her first husband in the 1970s and now manages the area’s water company. “Everybody knows your business, but everybody is going to take care of you.”

That mindset goes back generations. John and Mary DeLaurenti opened the grocery store and then the theater in the 1920s. For a while, it served as the school cafeteria: students walked down from school and get a sandwich and a Pepsi at the counter, and eat at one of three wooden booths inside the store.

Pocahontas, Illinois

Jennifer Rick, left, who with her husband, Don, are proprietors of the Pocahontas Mercantile and Sweet Shoppe, attends to customers Sylvia Jamieson and Scott Frey, of Nashville, Tenn. Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Photo by Hillary Levin,

They also hand-dipped ice cream, and the place became a social hub, even more so when they opened the movie theater. A small orchestra pit was big enough for community and school performances, and painted ads displayed before the films read: “J.E. Kesner Meats and Groceries, Phone 7Y,” “Home Service Station,” “After the show, a refreshing drink at Delaurenti’s. Phone 35x.”

The theater closed in the '40s, and the grocery in the '60s. When the Ricks bought it, they had to reattach the theater walls to the floors, chase the raccoons out of the attic and scrape 700 pieces of gum off the theater floor. They slid copies of vintage movie posters inside the original frames in the lobby. They framed the scraps of theater screen showing the old ads, and reimagined the space as a 1940s-themed event venue.

Pocahontas, Illinois

Jennifer and Don Rick purchased the old Strand Theatre in Pocahontas, Ill., which was vacant for decades, and renovated it into an event space, seen Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Photo by Hillary Levin,

“The way it looks now is what we had envisioned when it started,” says Don Rick.

It seats 80 people, mostly for showers and family parties.  In May, Pocahontas Elementary rents it for a fine arts night, with students reciting poetry and playing music.

The adjoining grocery was in better shape but still needed new windows and a ceiling. One of the wooden booths from the school lunch days remained, and it sits in the middle of the store. Elderly school alums visit, slide into the booth, and ask someone to take their picture.

The Ricks filled the original shelves of the grocery with vintage finds and regional and local goods: brooms handmade by Claudie Parson of Crossville, cast iron reseasoned by Ron Barger of Carlyle, rugs woven by Anita Wahlsmith of Oconee on a century-old loom. On Fridays and Sundays, customers pick up baked goods delivered by Central Illinois Bakehouse in Champaign. On Sundays, they get Berkemann's Baker's Dozen from New Baden. Locals no longer have to go to a big-box store in a neighboring town for a good danish, the Ricks point out.

Just across the square, visitors can find more vintage and new goods and gifts inside the Refined Cellar, in the basement of the 1912 Methodist church the Ricks call home.

“This town has embraced this store,” says Mary Fitzgerald, one of the four women who run it. She lives in Waterloo and runs Fabulous Finds in Columbia, and all four women have connections that bring shoppers from other communities to Pocahontas.

“They have the respect of the community,” she says of the Ricks. “And that’s huge.”

Just a few blocks away, at the Pocahontas Antique Mall, a hand-drawn map on a chalkboard behind the counter directs people to everything else visitors should see in town: among them Village Square Antiques, Funderbunk’s Gas and Diner, and, of course, the Refined Cellar and the mercantile.

Sherri White works at the antique mall, and also is one of the four running the Refined Cellar. She and her husband, Rich, live in Highland, and her husband’s late father, Claude White, grew up in Pocahontas. He was one of those high school kids who ate Mr. Delaurenti’s sandwiches at the mercantile.

“When you guys opened up the mercantile,” White says, nodding to Jennifer Rick as they stood at the antique mall counter, “Rich said, oh, ‘I wish my dad could see this. He would love this.’”

Her voice cracked with emotion.

And now, Pocahontas is embracing the changes, creating a new generation of memories.

Pocahontas, Illinois

Nine-year-old twins Liz and Luke Sewell are frequent customers to the candy selection at the Pocahontas Mercantile and Sweet Shoppe.

Photo by Hillary Levin,

Once recent Friday afternoon, Annie Hentz, 29, stopped by the mercantile with her son Rhys, 6, to grab an after-school treat. Hentz grew up here, moved away for a few years, then moved back to be closer to family.

Rhys stood in front of the shelves of jarred ring pops, Atomic Fireballs and Rain Blo bubble gum before settling on two bars of Air Heads taffy and a Coke. Jennifer Rick cheerfully rung it up.

Hentz assured them both they’d return over the weekend for a baked treat.

“Can we stay here forever?” he asked.

Attractions and things to do in Pocahontas

Pocahontas Barn Quilt Trail: More than 100 barn quilts painted by residents and placed at homes and businesses:

Family Fall Festival and Hometown Market:  10 a.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 13

Copper Dock Winery: 498 700 North

Antique and gift shops:

  • Pocahontas Antiques, 311 West Johnson Street
  • Village Square Antiques, 202 West State Street
  • Wagon Wheel Antiques, 202 West National Street
  • Sheila’s Resale ‘N Antiques, 1001 West Main Street
  • Pocahontas Mercantile and Sweet Shoppe, 105 Academy Street
  • The Refined Cellar, 202 Moreland Street

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