Richmond prides itself on being “the village of yesteryear,” a place where many 19th-century buildings still stand, where the histories of those who came before have been passed down for generations. Some are relative truths, embellished over the years, told over coffee or at Doyle’s Pub. Others forever are etched into plaques and cornerstones, but give no colorful details about the people who wrote them. Others simply line the streets as old homes and storefronts. All are woven into the fabric of this small town, and John Shiel intends to keep the yarn spinning.
Shiel, a retired interpretive naturalist at McHenry County College, created Sidewalk Stories, a monthly walk touring the history of Richmond. For $10, participants spend two hours on a Saturday walking the paths of Richmond’s settlers and the surrounding natural landscape, led by Shiel. Although he has never lived in Richmond, Shiel said he feels connected to the town and its history.
“Richmond has changed less than other towns in this area. The people here take pride in that,” Shiel said. “This town has a lot of life to its stories.”
Far from a tedious elementary history lesson, Shiel has honed his presentation style to make the walks engaging and entertaining. After traveling to Ireland and witnessing the enthusiasm and carefree abandon of the tour guides there, he realized storytelling was the way to keep these important stories alive.
“The guides said what they wanted, how they wanted to,” Shield said. “They told stories, they listened to stories; it was very organic. They helped people understand the history of the place and had an enthusiasm for sharing it. That’s what I want to do on every Sidewalk Stories walk.”
One of Shiel’s favorite places to take walkers is the footbridge crossing the Nippersink Creek. From this vantage point, if the trees have shed most of their leaves, they can see what Shiel believes is the oldest building in town: the old sawmill, built in 1839. Once the hub of manufacturing in Richmond, the building resolutely retains its shape but appears to be slowly melting into the ground.
Shiel recalls a moment this spot and view prompted a story from one of the walkers.
“A woman who had grown up in Richmond but since moved away came to our very first walk on April 22,” Shiel said. “Standing on that bridge, we saw three pillars of concrete that once held slabs of wood as a dam support for the mill. She said, ‘I bet my grandfather poured these slabs,’ and told me a little bit about this important person in her life. You can’t beat that.”
Shiel discovered another past connection to the present when he learned a prominent figure in 19th-century Richmond, Sanford Fillmore Bennett, penned the lyrics to the classic song, “In the Sweet By and By.” The song has been remastered by church groups, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton over the years, but the lyrics speak a greater truth to the power of storytelling. Through stories, the people and places in them live on after death.
Shiel hears about as many stories as he tells, and he treasures the life they bring to the town and to his work.
“The stories here are alive, and it’s exciting to see new stories being minted in this historic place,” Shiel said.