Art is all around us, and Fulton County continues to provide inspiration for writers, actors, painters and photographers. Such inspiration is found in scenic vistas overlooking the Spoon and Illinois Rivers, along the lakes, wetlands, gently winding streams fringed with forest, or across our rolling uplands. It also calls out from the past in the historic architecture of our communities and farms. Artistic beauty can be found in seemingly mundane things just waiting to be discovered by those who take the time to see, listen, and enjoy.
Fulton County’s past is filled with colorful characters and stories that crafters of the written word have masterfully preserved on the page. Although the “Spoon River” of Edgar Lee Masters’ world famous Spoon River Anthology, published in 1915, represents no actual place on the map, the author drew upon knowledge of his home town of Lewistown, and Spoon River Country. His poems are written as if spoken by the deceased residents of “Spoon River” from their graves on “the hill,” Lewistown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. The poems are remarkable for the range of personalities and the honesty with which they speak, telling stories of life and life’s challenges. Today Masters’ work is honored, and a monument dedicated to his work has been erected at Oak Hill Cemetery. Visitors come from far and wide to visit the graves of selected characters from Spoon River Anthology on “the hill.”
American fine artist and muralist Harold Kee Welch also was inspired by Spoon River Country. Hundreds of his paintings, carvings, murals, and sculpture are held in private collections around the country. Born in Smithfield, he later attended the Chicago Art Institute before embarking on a career as an commercial illustrator in Chicago. In 1963 he returned to Smithfield and focused full-time on fine art until his death in 1972. Today in Smithfield, the Harold Kee Welch Memorial Studio is open during the Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive Fall Festival, displaying works of oils, chalks, watercolors, and clay sculptures of Edgar Lee Masters and Welch himself. A copy of one of his extraordinary murals can be viewed at the Lewistown Visitors Center.
Fulton County is also the birthplace of character actor Ian Wolfe. As a youth in Canton, Wolfe dreamed of becoming an actor and began by studying singing, dancing and pantomime. In 1919 he made his Broadway stage debut. After extensive work on Broadway, he moved to Hollywood in 1934 and went on to appear in over 270 films. In 1991, just before his death at age 95, he was Hollywood’s oldest working actor. He is probably most remembered as Sidney Long in the film “Bedlam” (1946). In the 1990’s he appeared on such sitcoms as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Rhoda.”. Wolfe also wrote and self-published two books of poetry.
Singer-songwriter and character actor Lester Alvin (Smiley) Burnette was born in the south Fulton County town of Summum in 1911. He began singing in childhood and learned to play a variety of instruments while still a boy, eventually mastering as many as 100. Later he performed on the National Barn Dance on Chicago’s WLS radio station where he met Gene Autry. Burnette and Autry traveled to Hollywood together and got their first small film role in 1934. Burnette teamed up with Autry as his lovable comic sidekick “Frog Millhouse” for more than 60 feature-length musical westerns. Burnette also appeared in several films with Roy Rogers and wrote over 400 songs, singing a significant number of them on screen during over three decades of success in western films.
The writer of over 350 religious hymns, George Bennard once lived in Dunfermline. He worked in the coal mines there at the age of 16, supporting his mother and sisters after the death of his father in 1889. By 1898 he became a minister and held revival meetings across the Midwest. In 1913 Bennard, who played the guitar but not piano, wrote “The Old Rugged Cross,” considered by many to be the most beloved hymn of all time.
Over the years, several successful artists, performers, and writers have been inspired by Fulton County, and millions have been inspired by their works. Fulton County has a long tradition of excellence in music, performance, and visual arts. Today, art thrives, and many practice their crafts locally, sharing their works and talents by teaching, performing, and entertaining. Several arts-related organizations thrive in Fulton County, carrying on this long tradition of artistic excellence. Primary among these is the Fulton County Arts Council, founded in 1971 to bring the arts to area residents through workshops, theater, music, painting and photography shows, and arts programs. Let Fulton County inspire your creative spirit.