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Top of the Hill Bait Shop

When the Tri-State Tornado devastated Murphysboro in 1925, a dairy farm atop of a hill west of town survived and opened its doors to its neighbors and helped people get back on their feet.

Terry Graeff’s father owned the farm. He recalls more than 100 people crowded into the farmhouse he’s restored today, its generator providing light through some dark times.

“They were cooking around the clock, cleaning, helping those that were hurt,” Graeff said. “Everybody helped everybody around here back then, still do.”

The dairy days are gone but not Graeff’s hospitality as he guides customers through the bait and tackle shop he operates with his wife Janet in a garage aside his family’s farmhouse.

“I just work here, the shop is her’s,” Graeff said. “She spent two years wearing her soles out looking for a job when my father suggested she open a bait shop. That was 20 years ago.”

The Graeff’s residence is serendipitously located near the Indian Creek tributary, which the Division of Fisheries dammed and built Lake Murphysboro from in 1950. The watershed today hosts a 1,022 acre state park with groves of majestic oak and hickory trees and a 145-acre lake stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, channel catfish and crappie.

“It takes the coldest of cold days to keep people off the lake,” Graeff said.

Located near the bend in the road heading to the lake a mile ahead, Janet opened “Top of the Hill Bait Shop” inside a restructured, two-car garage, in 1990. The bait shop is the areas’ largest supplier of live bait: crickets, minnows, wax worms, meal worms, and nightcrawlers have their place at the top of the menu.

“The wax worm is the larva of a moth that lays its eggs in beehives and the larvae eat the honey and wax. They can destroy an entire bee colony,” Janet Graeff said as she sifted through several dozen wax worms, dispensing them into containers like a pharmacist. “If you told me 20 years ago I’d learn this much about all that crawls, slinks and swims, I’d said, ‘Ewwwww.’”

The Graeff’s have become a home-grown staple of Murphysboro’s fishing market, treating customers with a hospitality that shares its roots with the region’s history.

Terry Graeff is a life-long Murphysboro resident and said after four years in the service there was no place that was more home, then home. He and his wife met in 1964 and settled later settled in Murphysboro after buying the family farmhouse.

“This has been my playground—my stomping ground—since 1949,” he said. Graeff fishes both nearby lakes; Murphysboro and Kinkaid, a 2,750-acre lake with sandstone bluffs and largely surrounded by the Shawnee National Forest. “There is at least 5,000 little one-to-two acre ponds around here as well, but we don’t fish them,” he said.

The bait shop has four large tubs equaling 450 gallons of water to house their minnows. The pumps gurgle in the background as crickets chirp closer to the counter. When they first opened their two daughters were younger and living at home and helped with the bait shop, sifting through their own share of wax worms.

“They were around the ages seven and twelve at the time, of course at those ages they weren’t afraid of anything in here; creepy, crawly, it didn’t matter,” Janet said. Now she said it is just her, Terry, and Anamchara, her six-year-old Great Dane. “She’s been coming into the bait shop six days a week for the last four years. All the regular customers know when they open the door, they’re going to be greeted by this 125-pound dog.”

Anamchara, whose name is Irish for “Soul Friend,” is Janet’s companion and rarely far from her side, while their second dog Harley can be found near Terry greeting every visitor, whether stopping in or pausing by, with a bark.

The shop opens at 6:30 each morning except wednesday when they remain closed for the day.

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