Author & Public Speaker
For as long as I can remember, old-timers around central Illinois used to talk about a place where morel mushrooms grew taller than men and weighed more than five champion coon hounds. It is told that one mushroom could feed a man and his entire family for 50 years; that is, if he ate nothing else. Every spring from mid-April to late-May, the best and brightest morel hunters migrated to Fulton County's rich elms in search of the "Holy Grail" of mushrooms — the "Fabulous Fungus" as it was called at Chick's Tavern, a storyteller's mecca for more than 60 years. Nobody knew for sure where this elusive patch was, or if it even existed. But they came — the believers, the doubters, the dreamers, and the crazy-brave. They all came. Some with picks and shovels, others with hatchets and chainsaws; one man even brought a backhoe in hope of uprooting a massive morel. But as any experienced mushroom hunter knows, you have to FIND a mushroom before you can pick it.
Legend has it that "Grit" and "Willie" were down on their mushrooming luck. Some say that in the spring of 1946 they trudged 80 miles a day — every day, in search of a single mushroom. Others tell of how the down-and-out duo even walked two pack mules to death that year. To make matters worse, Grit was blind in one eye and couldn't see out of the other, while Willie suffered from partial paralysis and a pulled hamstring. Despite their handicaps, neither man would give up. Grit and Willie tried all the tricks. They camped under rotting elm trees armed with flashlights and divining rods, prayed five times a day while facing east, and even employed bloodhounds. But that was useless, because Grit and Willie didn’t even have a single mushroom to give the dogs a scent to follow.
After a long, fruitless spring, Grit and Willie were at the end of their mushrooming ropes. It was the last day of the season and their wills were almost broken — but not quite. The bedraggled morel hunters still had time for one more hunt, so they woke early and headed to Chick's Tavern for a "cold one" to get their circulation going. But things went downhill from there. "Hey Grit. I'm going to dip my mushrooms in egg and cracker crumbs and fry them in butter!" yelled a patron from the end of the bar. "Me too!" echoed his neighbor, as he proudly hoisted a 10-pound grocery sack of morels onto the bar as if it weighed a ton. “Damn, these mushrooms are heavy!” "I'm chopping mine up and frying them with steak!" beamed a drunk from the edge of his stool. "Not me!" exclaimed a toothy fat man sitting at a nearby table. "How are you fixing yours?" he added coyly, as he sank his large yellow teeth into a succulent morchella deliciosa (morel) and wiped the butter from his chin. Grit and Willie had become the laughing stock of Chicks, and even they were beginning to think of themselves as failures. "Let's get the hell out of
here, Willie," said Grit defiantly. "These guys aren't real mushroom hunters. They're just a bunch of wannabes! We'll show them." "You guys go on!" urged a voice from the shadows. "Maybe you'll find the 'Fabulous Fungus' patch! If you do, say hello to Santa and the Tooth Fairy for me!" The laughter was nauseating.
Grit and Willie stormed out the front door of Chick's Tavern and stopped in the street. "Where now, Willie asked Grit half-heartedly.” We've covered every inch of Fulton County. There's no place left." Willie thoughts and scratched his head, "We can always try the strip mines," he replied. "I know it’s nothin’ but shale and rock, but it’s the only place we haven't looked." Inspired by the prospect of fresh hunting grounds, Grit and Willie traveled south on foot. Upon reaching the mines, the two explorers turned west. "Since my eyes are better than yours, why don't you look up towards the sky and I'll look down on the ground," said Willie. "That way we have every angle covered. Good mushroom hunters find as many mushrooms looking up as they do looking down." "Sounds good," said Grit with a smile. “Those mushrooms don’t stand a chance.”
Willie and Grit romped 20 miles over the barren hills with no luck, then stopped to rest. Grit raised his head, "Look Willie!" he exclaimed, pointing to what appeared to be an arrow shaped from the billowy May clouds. "It's a sign! It's a sign! I know it's a sign and it's showing us where to go!" "Okay, Grit,” said Willie, not wanting to dash his best friend's hopes by telling him that the sign was nothing but a smoky contrail left by a sputtering airplane. “Okay, Grit. We'll go check it out." The two insufferable hunters followed the arrow like the Magi to the North Star. Three grueling hours later they arrived at the base of a steep hill and the arrow vanished. "This is the place!" exclaimed Grit "I'm sure of it."
Grit and Willie began the arduous trek up the hill. As they climbed, the coarse shale magically transformed into lush green grass and the walking became easier. Suddenly, the sky turned dark and thunder rolled in the distance. "Look. Grit" cried Willie, pointing to the finest collection of rotting elm trees either man had ever seen. "Let's head for those trees!" Grit and Willie hurried to the top of the hill. "We've found Eden!" They proclaimed, as the two men raced through the trees like naked apes mindless of their infirmities. "We've seen the promised land!" Without warning, a mighty thunderclap shook the hill. "Help!" screamed Willie, as he disappeared into a depression deep into the earth. Grit frantically searched for his friend, but be had lost his glasses. Then came a voice guiding him, "Grit, jump in the hole! Get down here quick! Don't be afraid!" Grit closed his eyes and took a leap of faith. After what seemed like a 10,000-foot free-fall, he landed softly on his feet. “This can't be a dream," he uttered, as he looked around in wonder. To his astonishment, morels were everywhere, but not like the little ones at Chick's. These were real morels! The whitish-colored stems were wider than tree trunks and the huge mushroom caps, with caverns larger than a fist, were a beautiful gray. But the most wondrous thing was the smell! "Ah. do you smell that smell?" beamed Grit, as he Inhaled deeply from his lungs to his feet, taking in the morels' unique aroma. "I smell it," acknowledged Willie, as he took an even greater sniff. "It's the most delightful thing I've ever smelled!"
"We've got to get one of these babies out of this hole and back to Chick's!" exclaimed Willie. "I'll take a log and pry one out of the ground, and you push on it," replied Grit. "Okay," agreed Willie. "But I want to take a picture first." Willie removed a small camera from his shirt pocket and calmly placed it on the stump of an old elm tree then set the timer. With the camera in place, the two men hurriedly went to work. Grit pried and Willie pushed and Grit pushed and Willie pried. Finally, after two hours, the men extracted a huge specimen from the unyielding ground. They were the first men to ever hold, much less see, a Fabulous Fungus. The only problem was how to get the edible monster out of the hole and back to Chick's Tavern. Fortunately, Grit had brought some rope and tied one end to the base of their prize, while Willie scaled the walls of the depression and climbed out. Willie then anchored his end of the rope firmly to a tree and pulled Grit and the marvelous morel to safety. "We've got it!" exclaimed Grit and Willie in unison. "We are the greatest mushroom hunters in history!"
"Let's get going," urged Grit, wanting to return before dark. "We'll come back tomorrow and show the world what we've found. Then everyone will believe us." Without warning, a thunderclap exploded like a symphony of kettle drums and violently shook the hill. Grit and Willie watched in horror as the earth moved and caved in around them, knocking them to the ground. Suddenly, the ground stopped shaking, but when Willie and Grit rose to their feet, the depression was gone. With a brush of her mighty hand, Mother Nature had erased all trace of their storied discovery. But they still had the Fabulous Fungus as proof. "Where is it?" screamed Willie. "I don't know!" cried Grit. Without realizing it, the men had fallen on the mushroom and had crushed it into pieces. "We've destroyed it!" shrieked Grit, as he felt the morel's spongy texture beneath him. "My God, what have we done?"
The dejected hunters gathered what chunks of morel they could and began the long, slow retreat home. As they reached the bottom of the hill, they turned and cast their eyes upward. The trees were gone, and only the black, rocky hill remained. "What luck," moaned Willie. The guys at Chick's will never believe us. We can't go in there telling everyone we found the Fabulous Fungus patch. We’d be laughed off the face of the earth." "You're right," echoed Grit. "It will be our secret. No one will ever know. “Unbeknownst to Grit, Willie knowingly reached into his shirt and felt for his camera. It was safely in his pocket. To this day, no one ever sees Grit and Willie during mushroom season. While others are tramping through the forests seeking the fabled morels and sitting at Chick's Tavern dreaming of one day finding the Fabulous Fungus patch, the two old men sit quietly in their homes — the butter dripping off their chins.
This story is a light-hearted look at that quest and the find of a lifetime. Willie is the late Willie Madras of St. David, Illinois, and Grit is Steve Zedric, my grandfather. Willie was a professional photographer and produced the photo with Grit around 1946.