October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

By September 1963, Beatlemania had reached epidemic proportions in Britain, and the lads from Liverpool needed a break. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr journeyed to Greece. John Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, headed to Paris. And George Harrison spent two weeks in…Benton, Ill.

Still unknown in the U.S., Harrison, then 20, went to pay a visit to his older sister Louise. But the trip became a milestone in Beatles lore. Harrison’s trip was the first time any Beatle had set foot on American soil; tiny WFRX, in nearby West Frankfort, became the first U.S. radio station to play a Beatles record, and when the guitarist took the stage at a Veterans of Foreign Wars dance, the 200-person crowd witnessed the first U.S. performance by a Beatle.

To Louise, now 69, the trip also came to symbolize a notable last: “George’s visit to Benton was the last time he could walk the streets free and easy,” she says. Five months later, the Fab Four appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and became instant superstars. Over time, tourists began flocking to the small mining town—and to Louise’s former home at 113 McCann Street—to see where the Beatle once slept.

Now they can sleep there too. In 1995 Louise and other locals rallied to save the two-story bungalow from being razed to make way for a parking lot. The house was bought by Louise’s friends Jim and Daryl Chady and two other investors, Cornelius and Dorothy Schultz, who have turned it into a bed-and-breakfast called Hard Day’s Nite. For $60, guests can stay in one of four rooms (each named for a Beatle) and sift through autographed albums and photos—many donated by Louise. “The effort to save the house is an example of how wonderful people are here,” says Louise, who lives 16 miles away in rural Franklin County. “They call it the heartland because the people have such big hearts.”

Raised in Liverpool, the only daughter of Harold, a bus driver, and his wife, Louise, Harrison moved to Benton in 1963 with her then-husband, mining engineer Gordon Caldwell (they have two grown children, Gordon, 43, who runs a Florida window-cleaning business, and Leslie, 41, an Illinois homemaker). Louise spent her free time taking the latest Beatles singles to radio stations across southern Illinois. Most deejays scoffed, but Marcia Schafer, the 17-year-old host of a teen show on WFRX, gave “From Me to You” and “Love Me Do” an on-air spin. During George’s visit, she interviewed him live. Now a sales rep for a nearby station, Marcia, 54, remembers George as polite and shy—with one odd feature. “He had this long hair with the bangs,” she says. “I’d never seen anything like it before.”

On the last two nights of his stay, Harrison jammed on “Roll Over Beethoven” and other tunes with the Four Vests, a local band. “People were banging their fists on tables and stomping their feet,” recalls Louise. At one show, she says, an audience member told her brother, “With the right backing, you could go places.”

After Louise and her husband divorced in 1970 (Caldwell died in 1995), she moved to Sarasota, Fla., where she started a short-lived nonprofit group devoted to environmental education. But she moved back to Illinois in ’95, after hearing of the demolition plans for her old home. These days, Louise, who was divorced from her second husband in ’81, stays in touch with her brothers—in addition to George, 57, there’s Harry, 66, and Peter, 60, who still live in the U.K., where Peter works for the ex-Beatle. She says she was horrified to hear about George’s stabbing last December and “so relieved” he recovered. Though they haven’t seen each other in three years, she insists she and George are “not estranged. I receive an income from him.” They talk a few times a year, she adds, “but I keep it private.”

Except, that is, when it comes to his long-ago visit. She has provided photos for a book, Before He Was Fab, on his Benton trip and has plans for a museum adjacent to the B&B, which she hopes will be the town’s ticket to ride. Her brother would appreciate the honor, she believes. A few months after his visit, he sent her a letter. In Benton, he wrote, “people were glad to see me—not because I was a Beatle, but because I was me.”

Dan Jewel

John Slania in Benton

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