Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
James Krohe Jr. is one of the
great Illinois historians.
Robert P. Howard*
I've been a magazine journalist, essayist, and critic for nearly fifty years now. My work has appeared in more than a dozen national magazines and newspapers, including The Nation, Reader's Digest, New York Times Book Review, and Wall Street Journal. But by far the most of my work, and most of the best, has been done for newspapers and magazines in my native Illinois.
The Corn Latitudes is an archives of writing on Illinois social life, history, politics, and culture, with particular attention having been paid to Chicago and Springfield, the state capital. The collection will be of interest to anyone with abiding connections to Illinois owing to their youth, their schooling, or their family. Journalists eager for backgrounding on public issues might also find it useful, as might historians. The Illinois writers, the architects, the politicians who called it home also being of national interest, the out-of-state reader should also find things worth reading, as will anyone curious to know more about Illinois’s crown jewel, the great city of Chicago.
"If you would learn about Illinois today, you must read about yesterday, especially if you are an historian or a journalist needing to do a quick study of an unfamiliar field. Many of the stories
journalists labor on today were
already written 20, 50,
150 years ago."
Linda Davis, La Grange, lllinois, 2015
My longest and in many ways most rewarding association is with the Springfield weekly, Illinois Times, in which I appeared shortly after its founding in 1975. Writing mainly about the capital city, I contributed feature articles, reviews, and opinion columns. The latter appeared under the title "Prejudices," until 1994; I resumed my career as an IT columnist in 2009 with a new weekly column, “Dyspepsiana”—an even thousand columns in all.
The "other Illinois"—Chicago—became a preoccupation in 1978, when I first appeared in The Reader, Chicago's version of Illinois Times. I was still living in Springfield and in the early days a lot of the pieces I sold to Chicago publications such as The Reader and the Chicago Tribune were about the un-Chicago parts of Illinois. It was not until I moved to Chicagoland in late 1988 that I began to write about the city and environs,
The city and the magazine scene was bustling in those days. During my time there I was made contributing editor of the magazine Chicago Times (from 1989 until 1990, when the magazine closed, undone by its publishers), and served in the same position at Chicago-based Inland Architect from 1992 until it was undone by the demise of its patron and sold, in 1994. I also was a regular contributor to the late, lamented Chicago Enterprise magazine, the do-gooding monthly of the Commercial Club of Chicago.
In addition to my magazine and newspaper work, I wrote or edited several reports and studies for Illinois public agencies and not-for-profit organizations. Topics include conservation—I made regular contributions to Nature of Illinois, the short-lived but worthy journal of The Nature of Illinois Foundation—urban planning, child welfare, school district reorganization, drug education, energy conservation, solid waste policy, and historic preservation.
I found Illinois sufficiently interesting that I jumped at a late-career commission to write a guide to the state's history and culture. Researching and writing it took years and amounted to a post-graduate program in Illinois studies. Sadly for all involved, I ended up with a volume that was informative, readable, and utterly lacking in commercial viability, it containing as many words as Hugo's Les Misérables but with a likely readership that was only about one ten-thousandth as large, at best.
How it piled up. Surprisingly little of it is available, since much of it predated the internet. The Reader maintains an online archive that includes my post-1987 pieces for that publication, and all of my post-2009 work for Illinois Times can be read at Illinois Times via your favorite search engine (although links to the good ones are also available on this site) but most of the rest survive only on paper in my closet. Scanned versions of those moldering masterpieces constitute the bulk of this archives.
In 1977 A Springfield Reader, which I designed and edited, was given an Illinois State Historical Society's Award of Merit. I authored one of three parts of a series on pollution and risk published by the American Bar Association's Student Lawyer magazine that won the Chicago Headline Club's 1985 Peter Lisagor Award for reporting and that year's award for editorial excellence from the American Society of Business Publications Editors. In 1994 I won the Illinois Press Association's "Best Column" award. In 2018 my book Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves was recognized as a scholarly publication worthy of a Superior Achievement Award.
Readers will ask—as I have asked—why should anyone bother to read stories that for the most part are old news? I offer several reasons.
One is nostalgia; readers can revisit old events, causes, and controversies with which they were once involved. For another, faithful readers whose memories are as creaky as mine can enjoy old favorites as if they were new. Many of the Illinois books I reviewed on publication remain worth reading, and thus worth reading about.
The school teacher in me insists that background reading of this sort contributes to one's education about Illinois and deepens one’s understanding of the place. (That certainly was my motive for writing many of these pieces.) Newcomers to the state might be curious to learn how Illinois became Illinois; old-timers might be curious to learn how the Illinois of our youth un-became itself.
Finally, many of yesterday’s controversies remain today’s controversies, even after 40 years. (Typical example from the headline of a 1991 story about higher education: “Tuition’s terrible toll: Are all but the wealthy getting priced out of college?”) When I began, Illinois faced new problems. How to protect Illinoisans and Illinois natural systems against pollution. How to wean ourselves of unreliable sources of energy, dependence on which threatened the national security. How to open a society long closed to women in all their aspects. How to counter the ugly new politics of the Nixonian right based on racial division and class resentment. How to adapt our education system, our social safety net, and our tax system to a new economy that was cheating too many people of prosperity.
Illinois hasn’t fixed one of those problems. So if you would learn about Illinois today, you must read about yesterday, especially if you are an historian or a journalist needing to do a quick study of an unfamiliar field. Many of the stories journalists labor on today were already written 20, 50, 150 years ago.
From the site menu above, click The site for more detailed information about the contents of the archives and tips on how to navigate the site.
* Letter to the editor, Illinois Times. The late Bob Howard was for many years the statehouse correspondent for the Chicago Tribune when both the paper and the post meant something in Illinois. In his retirement he, like so many former newspapermen, took up history. For decades his Illinois; A History of the Prairie State, was the standard one-volume history, and his compendium of profiles of Illinois governors, Mostly Good and Competent Men, remains valuable. A generation older than I was, he was a gentleman of the old school and if his judgments about my work were perhaps more generous than astute it was likely because Bob valued generosity more than astuteness. For an interesting oral history interview about his life and career, see http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/uis/id/2506/
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture