Retired professor recalls 1936 Missouri-to-Chicago bike trip
During the hot, humid summer months in 1936, two 15-year-old Macon boys were planning an adventure. Not like most young boys who make plans for a fishing trip to the Chariton or maybe hopping on a train to Callao, these young men were going far -- literally. Eugene, or as his friends know him, "Gene," Croarkin and his buddy Bobby Jones were going to travel to Chicago on their bicycles.
"It wasn't a big deal back in 1936," the 86-year-old retired college accounting professor said. "Bobby and I made a lot of plans to make a trip to the Windy City to see my mother. We had it all mapped out which roads we were going to take. It was getting close to the time for us to leave and Bobby's mom decided he couldn't go. But I was going to do it."
Gene's mother and father divorced when he was about 5 years old. His aunt Corine Croarkin, who lived at what is now known as 503 Vine Street in Macon, took her young nephew in and raised him.
"She was an old maid and a very sweet woman," he said. "I really wanted to see my mom, who worked as a manicurist and had gotten remarried. My aunt OK’d the trip, or I wouldn't have went.”
Gene began his journey during what he recalled as a very hot summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Macon High School.
He said he traveled across Highway 36 to Barry, Ill., the first day. He stopped at a board and breakfast establishment.
"The lady who owned the home was so nice," he said. "She got up the next morning and fixed me breakfast before I continued my travels."
The second day he made it to Lincoln, Ill. "I didn't make it as far the second day," he said. Again he slept in a board and breakfast.
The third day he stayed over in Cheno, Ill. "That's just shooting distance from Chicago," he said. On his fourth and final day, he completed his destination to his mother's apartment in Chicago.
"I knew my way around Chicago pretty good," he stated. "I knew mom was excited about me coming to visit. She knew I was traveling alone by bicycle."
"The trip wasn't bad," he said. "Traffic wasn't as busy then. I remember passing by the Illinois State Fair and there wasn't hardly any cars on the highway."
"I took along some tools to work on my bicycle if I needed to, and an extra bicycle chain," he said. "I'm glad I took the chain, because I had to use it when the one on the bicycle broke. I never had a flat tire though."
One thing Gene recalled about the heroic trip was he wore a hole in the seat of his knickers.
"I was so embarrassed," he said, smiling. "I had just reached Cicero, Ill., when I realized I had worn a hole clean through the seat of my pants. Today, it probably wouldn't faze a young man, but it sure did back then. I continued on and remained seated."
His mother and stepfather drove him back to Missouri after a two-week visit.
"I rode in the rumble seat in the back of their Coupe," he recalls. "My mother asked me if I would mind if they could drop me off at Monroe City so they could get back to Chicago? So I got out at Monroe City and road my bicycle back to Macon."
About his 365-mile adventure, he said he never was scared.
"It was a different time. Now people travel by bicycle and go a lot farther. I wouldn't take a trip like that now. At that age, you thought you could do anything."
He said he remembered at times it got so hot that he thought the paint on his bike would melt off. He said he lost 10 pounds on his trip.
"I think that helped me to get into shape for the next football season,” he said. Gene played football and lettered three years at Macon High School.
He fought in five major campaigns during World War II and taught 50 years, 45 of those years at a college or university level. He married his high school sweetheart, Peggy Ficken, and they had two sons and four daughters. After all of his accomplishments and travels, he still holds his boyhood adventure on his Elgin balloon-tire bicycle as one of his greatest achievements.