Worden, IL. Worden, Illinois is 12 miles northeast of Edwardsville, IL and 30 miles northeast of St. Louis. Its 1000 residents might pass for a bedroom community if there weren’t so much commotion. The town is home to an active American Legion chapter, community events throughout the year, and a lot of people who are willing to show up and work or play to make Worden great again. While the coal mining and railroad industries that once drew workers are long gone, Worden remains energetic, cheerful, and comfortable with its own offbeat character. Worden’s mayor, Preston Hall, is a Union Organizer by day. But in this interview, Preston’s wife Amy is the one who tells us how the town continues to adapt and overcome. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Rebekah Curtis: I think some people watch Parks and Recreation and think, Now I get it. I know what the Midwest is like; I know what a small town is like. But it is a game-changer not to have a major industry or a large employer. We cannot have one-stop living here. How do you think our community supports that?
Amy Hall: I think we’re all kind of on the same page. We can drive to Walmart or Dierbergs, and Amazon can come tomorrow if you want it to, and we get by on what we need. But we don’t have it all right here at our fingertips all the time. It’s a simpler way of life that some people still crave and want. And I love that. I think it’s wonderful, and to me, some people are missing out. They have a low expectation of Worden, maybe, if they’ve never been here before. But we have great access to the school district, and a wonderful fire department, and various churches.
RC: I think there are a lot of things here that center people. Rather than just trying to be a general citizen, they have places that are how they hook into the community
AH: Right. Just from Preston being the mayor I’ve seen that everybody comes together from different places. The fire department contributes, you support the Legion, you support the churches. Or even the bar. They contribute to the town as well in a positive way.
RC: With that foundation in place, what what are some of the challenges that you adapt to and live with in a smaller town?
AH: The limited resources that we get from the state government and from the federal government. One of the things that frustrates me and that I’m starting to understand is, how do we not have good sidewalks? My daughter is six now, but pushing a stroller down the sidewalk, it doesn’t make sense! When you’re away from the civil part of it you kind of take things like that and just ask, How come? But now I see Preston’s frustration, and others, like the fire department. Not that Worden has to be pristine, but we are the small guys. Preston says we actually do more with less because everybody tries to figure out a way to generate funds, and that brings people together. You’re just not getting a handout.
RC: Can you give an example of a time when there was something that would have been nice for the town to have, and it wasn’t coming from anywhere else, and people got it done?
AH: Our Patriot’s Day celebration has been a big plus for kids and families in the summer. Some of that was coming from the Village’s own general funds, and it was starting to get where we couldn’t afford the fireworks. So they started a fundraiser so residents and friends and family can come: that’s the mouse races. A company comes with eight little mice, and you bet on which one will win. They also bring in silent auction items, and it’s a really good time up at the Legion. That helps with the fireworks now.
RC: So much happens at the Legion. What are some of the things they do, along with other volunteers in town?
AH: The Sons of the Legion and the Ladies’ Auxiliary do a tremendous job volunteering. Again with Patriots’ Day this past year, it’s hard to get people. And the Ladies’ Auxiliary really stepped up and helped serve food. Without them, it wouldn’t have been as successful. That’s the wives of the Sons. They’re the younger generation, and I think that’s great because they’re keeping the Legion going.
Another thing that has gone over really well is the Little Free Pantry. One of our Board members, Nikki, and her husband designed it. Linda, the Postmaster, was also involved in placing it. And they established and chartered the Little Free Library at the park. Nikki does a good job of putting it out on Facebook if the Pantry needs to be refilled, and I know there are people who utilize it, and that’s great.
RC: One thing I got a kick out of was when those wings were being painted on the Post Office wall. I didn’t get it, and finally one of my kids said, “Mom. It’s so you can take your picture there.” That was something that somebody just had the idea to do, and it adds a little more charm.
AH: Yes, it adds character. That was an artist who lives in town. I’m not sure how it all came about, but our Postmaster Linda does a great job and is heavily involved in the community. You can see how everybody plays their own role in keeping Worden what it is.
RC: It seems like there’s a lot of openness. If you have an idea and you take it to the next person, it’s very likely that they’ll say yes and be supportive.
AH: Yes. Everyone’s open to new, fresh ideas, and I think everyone has an open mind. I’m on the Library Board, and my daughter and I just weeded out at the Memorial, and even if Preston wasn’t the mayor I feel like I would still be picking up.
RC: Walk me through becoming the mayor of a small town.
AH: Preston grew up here, and we moved back in 2005. In 2011 Preston joined the Board. He was really in tune with everything, and there were kind of two factions. He ran for Trustee to be a middleman. Then the previous Mayor stepped down, and Preston ran unopposed in 2013. So he had been on the Board for two years learning the ins and outs of how local government works. Since he is from here, he has a vision to keep Worden going so others can raise their families here like we have. He was on the board of his local union, so that was the first place he started taking leadership roles.
I’m always nervous for him when he has Board meetings. But in my eyes he’s done a good job. I’m really proud of him. I’m nervous, period. And this puts me in positions that I would otherwise not really like. But I’m glad I’m doing it now. It makes you feel good to contribute and do a good job.
RC: When you’re close to someone who’s in an official capacity you naturally get pulled along a little bit. That’s what made me start thinking about you. I would see things like the sign on the way into town where the flowers change. And I would think, Who’s changing those flowers?
AH: That’s me. I’m glad that you noticed.
RC: That happens at my church, where I’m like, I don’t know whose job this is, and it’s really nobody’s job, and I’m the person who noticed so I guess that makes it my job. I could see that happening around town and I thought, I bet her life is at least as weird as mine.
AH: You just do it, and you do it because you know your place is a wonderful place and you want to keep it the way it is. It’s not because you want so-and-so to be like, “Oh, there’s pastor’s wife picking up Wordi Gras trash.” It becomes second nature after a while. It needs to be, I saw it, so now it’s my job.
RC: So if someone in small town America comes home and says, “Guess what? I’m the mayor of Worden,” what does that mean for the family? What has it meant for you and your girls?
AH: Our younger daughter thinks he’s the President of the United States. But I think it’s opened our older daughter’s eyes, and mine, to see how you react to situations. You have someone show up at the front door who’s upset, because their neighbor drove through their yard during Wordi Gras. In my eyes, that’s an issue between the two neighbors! But Preston takes a breath, assesses the situation, and then resolves it without finger pointing. And that’s helped me, and our high school daughter. It gives her a sense that everything can be resolved in a peaceful manner. Communication is good.
But there are times when it’s frustrating to see that he’s in that position. You know, someone drove through my yard! Well, is that really the mayor’s job? But there are things like that, and he takes responsibility. Because his job is the community as a whole, and I think he does a good job leading. And as far as the flowers and stuff, when he’s the mayor, you take more pride in things. It’s a team effort with the family.
RC: It never occurred to me that people would knock on your door and be like, “This happened to me in this town and that makes it your problem”! Is that common?
AH: No, it doesn’t happen all the time. Usually someone goes up to Village Hall looking for Preston. But he does get it. And you know, when something happens to someone, it’s a big deal. The neighbor ran through their yard, whether it was an accident or on purpose, and he appreciates that and he can see their point of view. I think that’s a good trait to have. It teaches us to kind of take a step back and not jump to conclusions.
RC: This is not a full time position, he has a day job.
RC: What is his time commitment as mayor?
AH: He’s 24 hours, seven days a week. Just because he’s not sitting up at Village Hall, he is available any time. I’ve had lunch with him during work, and Village Hall calls, and he’s committed 24-7.
RC: I heard you say Wordi Gras. So you’re talking to someone and they hear “Wordi Gras,” and they say, Wait, what?
AH: Well, it’s Mardi Gras and it’s Worden, and it’s just a big party on our main road. I’ve never been to Soulard or New Orleans, but you here can have whatever float you want, and it doesn’t have to be large or fancy, and everybody loves beads, and it’s amazing how many people come.
RC: How did Wordi Gras happen?
AH: A couple of guys from the Idle Hour bar started it. Then my sister-in-law Kerra took over the Yellow Dog Saloon in ’08, and in ’09 she had the tent and the band, and the Idle Hour followed suit, so I’ve seen it grow. This past weekend was the biggest. The parade was twice as long. And it’s another team effort. The Legion and both of the bars, the Village, the Fire Department, and the new store, everybody played their own role. It’s exciting that you can have that many people come to this little town and have a great time. And then Sunday morning it’s back to normal!
RC: One year we were driving around not long after the parade, and I said, “Everything looks fine already! How did that happen?”
AH: The cleanup, that’s the city workers. They work well together, and they borrow a street sweeper from the township. That helps. The bars and the Legion get together in December. They have a Wordi Gras committee so they’re all on the same page about fair pricing, and who has what band, and they all get along. There’s a lot of good communication. It’s exciting. It puts us on the map for a minute!
RC: I think there are places that lose their energy or don’t really have a sense of direction, and that’s not happening here.
AH: No, I think everybody plays off one another, and it’s important that keeps going. And I think it will. We’re like one big family. Sometimes you don’t always get along with your family, but you always have to try to work things out because, like a family, we live together, so you have to find ways to resolve any conflict. There have been situations where I’ve gone out of my comfort zone on some things, but I’m glad that I spoke up. The town is really important to us. Growing up I thought I was going to live in Edwardsville, but Preston said, “Let’s come back up here and look around.” And it’s the best thing we could have done.