Twin Towns of Gritty Charm and Regret

Savanna, Illinois and Sabula, Iowa lie just across the river from each other. We were introduced to Sabula by John Bookless who drove us down from Bellevue to Bombfire Pizza on a Saturday to see one of his favorite musicians.

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The eclectic Bombfire Pizza in Sabula Iowa

First mates Danny Irish, Mayfly, Pollywog, and I arrived with John in Sabula and were impressed as its dilapidated charm, a quiet little town in which I could finally finish all of those novels I’ve been working on in my head. There was no one on the streets and it looked like Sabula was abandoned, yet the moment we turned a corner and saw Bombfire we saw that all the bustle on this Saturday night was in this one wacky corner business.

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Sabula, Iowa, a state of arrested decay

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Bombfire Pizza whose customers come from an hour away on average

Bombfire Pizza is remarkable and difficult to describe. Here is an eclectic wood-fired pizza restaurant full of old toys, guitars, peace signs, posters, pages from old Rolling Stone Magazines, maps, paintings, photos, and detritus found on the river.


That night, Kendra Swanson was making impressive music with her 5-string banjo. This is her recording she made with fellow Mississippi River project, The River Signal. She lives just a touch inland in Iowa.

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Kendra Swanson plays at Bombfire Pizza in Sabula, Iowa

During her break, she made space for Mayfly to play a few fiddle tunes. Mayfly opened with the slow and haunting Blackest Crow and just about brought the house down.

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Mayfly plays at Bombfire Pizza between sets for Kendra Swanson

I had the chance to interview the owner of Bombfire, Tom Holman. We talked about his experiences growing up in Sabula along the river, buying and fixing up the building, opening Bombfire, and living life as a perpetual 12 year old. Something he said stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase since I can’t find the exact quote: We were cold, hungry, tired, and mosquito-bitten, and it was the best times of our lives.

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Tom Holman, owner of Bombfire Pizza

A few days later, the shantyboat made it down to Savanna and moored at the Savanna Marina where we met Frank Hebeler. He said everyone just calls him Heb. He is a gruff fellow with a heart of gold — an emerging theme I think as we meet men along the river. We came for a night and stayed for days and days. Heb made our stay comfortable, loaned us tools, showered us with gifts and fresh vegetables, and directed us to local characters to talk to. We found out from someone that he was a former boxer of some repute. I regret that I didn’t interview Heb who was a character himself.

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Frank “Heb” Hebener manager of the Savanna Marina

Savanna was a gritty and attractive town populated with authentic people trying to live a decent life in a small Western Illinois town along the Mississippi River. A $5 movie house, a well-stocked hardware store, a cafe/gift shop run by a gay couple, a biker museum, a tattoo shop, an ice cream stand, an impressive museum with an 800-square foot miniature train layout and more than a dozen bars.

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Charming and gritty Savanna, Illinois

Within a few days, we were the above-the-fold cover story of the Savanna Times Journal. We were Savanna famous!

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Savanna famous in the Times Journal

We went over to Sabula several times while we were in Savanna, taking the Donboat across the Mississippi River.

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Danny, Mayfly, Pollywog, and Ophelia in the Donboat crossing the river

Tom introduced us to local Sabula fisherman Brent Sandholdt who showed us his catfish tanks. Brent was baiting his trot lines with crawdads. He said on a good day he can put out 700 hooks in the backwaters just before sunrise. We tried to buy catfish from Brent but he wouldn’t let us pay and gave us 3-1/2 pounds of catfish that served as delicious dinner for the next two days.

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Sabula fisherman Brent Sandholdt baits his trot lines with crawdads

Then we went to Sabula’s local beach in a lagoon behind the island and the kids flopped around in the water like the catfish we’d just met.

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Relaxing for a moment at a Sabula beach

Stacey Marie Garcia came to join us as ships mate with Danny, Mayfly, and Pollywog flying out obscenely early the next morning.

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New ships mate Stacey meets old ships mates Mayfly and Pollywog

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Stacey Marie Garcia on a Johnboat ride across the river to Bombfire Pizza

A few days later, we interviewed the sparkly Jack Nichols, river rat, boater, farmer, campground owner, and reality television star. We talked about growing up and working on the river, his diving career, and his recent stint with the reality show Mississippi Men.

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Jack Nichols, Savanna river rat

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Interview with Jack Nichols on the backwater

We met Chris Lain who runs the Savanna Marketplace and the Blue Bedroom Inn with his partner Jube Manderico. An openly gay couple in a tiny Western Illinois town seemed like an extraordinary thing. They moved from Chicago to Savanna three years ago and have felt nothing but welcome. They opened the Marketplace right away and soon took over and revamped the Blue Bedroom Inn upstairs. They are opening up a restaurant down the street in a building they own within the year.

Interview with Chris Lain, business owner in Savanna, Illinois

Chris said that he and Jube have to be one of the first interracial gay couples and business owners to join the Moose Lodge and Lion’s Club in a small town in Illinois. I interviewed Chris and Jube separately.

Jube Manderico and Chris Lain, owners for the Savanna Marketplace, Blue Bedroom Inn, and Manderico Designs

There were a few Black people in town, but I never contrived an opportunity to exchange more than pleasantries and get an interview. Chris told us there was a substantial Latino population but that they worked almost exclusively on a particular large farm nearby. I hoped to interview any of the black fishermen who towed their boats as far as one, two, and three hours away to fish the Mississippi River, but those interviews proved elusive.

While we were in Savanna, we were overwhelmed as people showered us with generosity. Not only cucumbers, zucchinis, and tomatoes from Heb, but our new friend Todd brought us the most amazing fresh-baked sourdough. Jack Nichols brought us beer, corn, and peaches.

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The most beautiful loaf of sourdough country bread. Ever. Courtesy of Todd and his magical oven.

We were also visited several times by the spunky Gene Webster, a loquacious 89-year old who described herself as a “nuisance.” We found her funny and well-spoken. She told us about her deceased Navy husband that she described as “quite a man.” She said she was drawn to his sexy confidence and that when he was young, he was a “cocky sailor.” The temperature in the room rose ten degrees when she talked about him. Gene gifted us with numerous books on Mississippi history that became part of the Secret History library. I regret that we didn’t have the time nor energy to interview Gene.

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Stacey and I also took a Johnboat ride up the Plum river, a magical journey in which we remained constantly alert for hidden snags and obstacles.

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The Johnboat on the Plum River on the way to Poopies Biker Bar (Scroll right >>)

We hated to leave Savanna and Sabula, but felt that if we didn’t leave soon we might never leave. So we packed up our regrets and headed downriver.

Update: I corrected the spelling of Frank Hebeler’s name and no longer referred to Savanna as a southern Illinois town.

3 comments for “Twin Towns of Gritty Charm and Regret

  1. Duane
    August 17, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Hi Wes,
    I’ve been through Sabula several times and swung by the Bombfire Pizza place and it wasn’t open which was a bummer. Did you stop at American Pickers store in Le Claire? Check out Jim’s Rib Haven in Rock Island if you like barbeque. It’s only a couple blocks off the river front. Keep up the good work.

    Duane

  2. August 21, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Great article about a unique & genuinely authentic area of Illinois but please note that it’s in NORTHERN Illinois, not southern.

  3. Clint
    August 22, 2015 at 12:36 am

    love the story and pics, that is home for me in every way. Gotta clean up the Southern Illinois description and I believe that cat is Frank Hebeler not Hebener.

    Again, really liked the story and pics but people will pick you apart on details.

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