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Spelling Bee

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you want to know why Moline and Geneseo have hardly spoken to each other for years, you have to go back to the evening of May 1, 1875 for an answer. That was the date of the great spelling match pitting Henry County against Rock Island County.

How serious was it? Rock Island County was so worried, it picked all its fifteen spellers from Moline, leaving Rock Islanders out in the cold. Down in Henry County, Geneseo was not a bit worried. "We honestly believe that the whole of Rock Island County could be vanquished just as easy as eating custard pie by the mere handful of spellers from Geneseo," said the Geneseo Republic. Geneseo was the home of Miss Porter, the champion speller of America who had seven belts.

The night of the match, the auditorium of the First Congregational Church of Moline was filled with people who had paid 25 cents admission. There was to be a written and an oral section. The Reverend S. S. Hunting read all the words put into a single composition. Words like exacerbated, mucilaginous, emollient, dissyllabic, and sibylline. The contestants wrote them down and turned their papers in for grading.

Meanwhile the oral spelling commenced. Minnie Stevens of Moline missed "phylactery." Mrs. Baxter of Henry County put too many 'p's in "apropos." Mrs. Wolcott of Henry County was apparently unfamiliar with "celibacy," and had to sit down. Mrs. C. C. Starr of Moline left an "e" out of "whimsey" and retired.

Eventually two contestants remained alone on the platform: Mr. Williams of Henry County and Miss Ferguson of Moline. When Mr. Williams, the last remaining hope of Geneseo, missed "Machiavellian," Rock Island County became the champion.

The judges then reported on the written examination the winner was Charles Riley of Moline, who had misspelled only one word out of thirty.

For the past one hundred and twenty-two years, Rock Island County has retained the title of spelling champion of Western Illinois. Geneseo never sought a rematch. Instead, they started working on f-o-o-t-b-a-l-l.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.