Forty-five years of a Sherlock Holmes society without a major city feeding it Sherlockians. That's a feat.
Word came out this week that the Occupants of the Empty House will be closing its scion doors with a final meeting on Saturday, September 17th. Hard news to hear, but understandable. Organizations age with their membership, and without another generation's Sherlockians to hand the keys to, closing time is just a natural part of their lives. And as the 1970s and 1980s were a boom period for Sherlockian scion societies, we've seen a lot of those close up shop over the past three decades. The Occupants held out as long as they could, especially after the death of one of their most energetic members, but their time has finally come.
While it's very sad news, especially following the passing of Nicholas Utechin this week, we have to pause to look back at everything that was accompished in that forty-five year run. Its members came from all over Southern Illinois, holding dinner meetings at a variety of restaurants. As those restaurants often went out of business, as restaurants do, the Occupants eventually settled at Alongi's in Du Quoin, Illinois, where they held out for a very, very long time. (And where their final meeting will occur.)
Du Quoin, Illinois currently has a population of almost six thousand residents. It's not a big town. It's about an hour and a half from St. Louis and the societies there, and a half hour north of Carbondale, Illinois, the nearest college town. The group's first BSI member, Newt Williams, came from about forty-five minutes east around Herrin or Marion, if I remember correctly. (And I definitely remember spending a birthday weekend at an Occupants meeting in Marion.) It's really hard to convey the distance and amount of two-lane state highways involved in the Occupants existence from the start, but it's what always made the society something of a miracle.
One could get into their long-running monthly newsletter, The Camden House Journal, the many Christmas annuals, their Gasogene Books collection Commanding Views from the Empty House, the various items commemorating various occasions they produced, but as with any club, it is the people that leave the biggest mark on you. The late Gordon Speck and his travel partner Bill Cochran spread the club's goodwill across so much of Sherlockian America, whether it was the New York weekend, a Minneapolis symposium, Dayton, Indianapolis, or many another place Sherlockians gathered.
The Occupants of the Empty House actually spawned at least four other Sherlockian societies from the energies it built up in its membership, giving folks who wouldn't have connected with the Sherlockian world otherwise -- due to living in small towns in Southern Illinois -- a route into the greater hobby. That was always the sign of a really great Sherlock Holmes society, that ability to provide an entry ramp for those who would otherwise never know of the larger hobby, pre-internet. These days, you can just start googling and encounter things. Back in the eighties, you had to see a newspaper account, meet the right person, or just see a sheet of paper on a library bullletin board, and the Sherlockian societies those things led you two were key.
Ah, but time has its way with all of us, and there always comes a point when you have to pause and look back at what a great trip it has been, trying not to be as sorry for the loss as just glad you got to have it all to start with.
Thank you to everyone associated with the Occupants of the Empty House, and all who had a kindly thought in that direction over the years. It was a good run.