Bill Voyles | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 7, 2013 6:17AM
“Everywhere, we beheld the works of God and Nature. I have been in France and Germany. I was raised in England. But I haven’t seen anything in those countries that equaled beauty of this western prairie.”
— Thomas Rogers Barker (upon seeing the Beaver Lake country for the first time in 1840.)
Bill Voyles is one of a cast of colorful characters living along Ramsey Road on the Kankakee River.
He has a Hebron address, yet lives in Jasper County. The reason for that is where his house sits — all the houses on Ramsey Road used to be Porter County. But that was before the river was straightened about a century ago. No one bothered to change the mailing addresses. The original river bottom abuts Voyles’ backyard.
Voyles, 67, is married to Kathy; their teenage daughter, Sadie, attends Kankakee Valley High School. Bill is a senior mechanic at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.
“We lived in Calumet City, Ill. until I was about 4,” Voyles began. “Then we moved to Lake Village by the edge of what was Beaver Lake. Our farm abutted the prairie chicken refuge.”
“I had nine brothers and sisters.”
Although several miles apart, we both grew up near the ditch that drained Beaver Lake into the Kankakee River.
“We’d catch a fish out of Beaver Ditch some people called rock rollers. It was the shape of a bullhead with red bumps on top of its head. There also was a fish we called a sun perch that was like a bluegill. But I’ve never seen either of those species of fish since. Maybe they became extinct.
“When I was 10 or 12, I’d take all the tumbleweeds off the bank of Beaver Ditch and make a dam out of them. The next day, I’d shake the crawdads, minnows and snakes out of those tumbleweeds by the buckets full. There was a guy from up north who would buy them from me for bait.”
“I sold arrowheads that I had found for 50 cents each. I wish I had them back now. But 50 cents was a lot of money back then. I’d have my sister and brother, Punchy and Peewee, hop on my pony, ride to Shane’s gas station near Conrad and buy us those great big Butterfinger, Baby Ruth and Oh Henry candy bars. When’s the last time you had an Oh Henry or a Clark Bar?”
“Amos Voyles. I was about 4 when he abandoned all of us. That’s when we lived in the Calumet City area. He was kind of a gangster-type. In photos I’ve seen of him, he was always well-dressed and carrying a gun. My step-dad, Sam Sutton, raised me.”
Quite a culture shock moving from Cal City to a farm on the former bed of Beaver Lake.
“There was no running water and we used a wood stove for heat. We bathed in a galvanized tub. We had to go down the sand hill the house sat on to get water. We used kerosene lanterns for lighting. You never had a bed to yourself, always three or four kids to a bed. Mostly, I just ran the woods like a little savage.”
At the time, did you realize you lived where Beaver Lake once was?
“No. Nobody talked about it back then. But I enjoyed growing up in the Beaver Lake country, and I hope when I go under that’s where my spirit roams.
“I remember eating wild blueberries in the woods and the hair on the back of my neck raised. I was about 8 or 9. There was a red wolf standing behind me. Must’ve had pups somewhere. She just stood there watching me. I hauled ... for home, but I turned back and there she was just staring at me. I was never afraid to be in the woods by myself again after that. It was like I had a guardian in that wolf. Our clan is kind of a wolf clan — Irish and Scotch.”
“I started back in ‘71 down in Friendship where I’d compete with knives, tomahawk, bow and arrow, rifle and pistol. Back then, I’d run through the woods wearing nothing but a loin cloth. But that was before I had a belly and could do that sort of thing.”
“I make tomahawks and powder horns. Kathy and I are getting ready to go to Mississinewa. It’s an 1812 battle re-enactment that takes place the second weekend in October. I’ll portray a French and Indian half-breed trapper-trader.”
Kathy going to sell her gourds at Missisinewa?
“I hope so. I’ll bring my tomahawks and powder horns. The battle re-enactment is really something to see... They’ll have one of the biggest Indian villages set up there in the United States. It’s well-done and well-run.”
As a boy, Voyles lived on what was surely an island in the midst of the largest lake in the state. I’ve stood atop that sand hill. There is nothing left but a foundation and native grasses planted by the Nature Conservancy. Today, Voyles lives on the south side of Ramsey Road where a river once was. Ironic.
Like a few other people I know, he was probably born 100 years too late. Including myself. I live about 10 houses upstream of Bill Voyles on the north side of Ramsey.