Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
The Establishment of Springfield
Is Lincoln a "special ward" of hometown elites?
February 8, 1980
The Abraham Lincoln Association is a private organization based in Springfield that is devoted to Lincoln study. Not surprisingly, its leadership over the years has been drawn from the town's business and professional elites, men (almost exclusively) who have the time and money needed to support it. This is a reality to which the young author of this piece was slow to acknowledge. I have since come to appreciate that, for all its faults, Springfield, the nation, and, dare I say it, Lincoln are better off for the ALA's existence.
When I was a young man growing up on the east side of Springfield, I knew little more about Abraham Lincoln than I would had I lived in Oxnard or Omaha. The 15-block trip I made to Lincoln’s home with my eighth grade classmates offered indisputable proof that Lincoln had once been a part of Springfield’s life. But he never became a part of mine.
Even when I was more or less grown and filling in odd days working as a guide in one of the Lincoln historic sites, I felt no kinship with my fellow townsman. I think now it was because l felt it was not my place to feel such a kinship. 1 mean, it seemed that every person I’d met who claimed such a kinship was rich, or at least lived as if they were. l am not given to agreeing with mayors very often, but what three-time Springfield mayor Nelson Howarth said in 1971 sure made sense. "Abraham Lincoln . . . has been taken from ordinary people and made a special ward of the wealthy and near-wealthy."
Thus I came to two conclusions about the study of Lincoln in Springfield. One is that you must have money to do it. (It doesn’t have to be your money; the taxpayers’ money will do nicely instead.) Two, whether you have money or not, you will have to spend a lot of time with people who do. Most of those people belong to the Abraham Lincoln Association. The ALA holds a banquet every year on Lincoln’s birthday. Our man Alan Anderson attended in 1977, where he heard the then-president of Sangamon State University, Robert Spencer, describe the attendees as "the establishment of Springfield in the best sense of the word," which proved that Spencer at least knew which side his foundation was buttered on.
The ALA is a national organization, but traditionally the bulk of its members come from Springfield’s professional, financial, and social elites. (Mayor Howarth likes to joke that the ALA is the only outfit he knows in which the membership is elected by the board of directors.) Of the four current officers, one is president of the city’s largest bank, one is a federal district court judge, and a third is a head surgeon at a major medical center. The current board of directors, for example, counts a Bartholf, a Becker, a Brown, a Chapin, a Funk, a Herndon, a Myers, an O’Brien, a Patton among its members—commonplace names in the wider world, but magic syllables in the capital city. That group also includes scholars. attorneys, newspaper publishers, gentleman historians, even bankers. In the case of some of the members, obviously, Lincoln may be the only honest man they’ve ever associated with in Springfield.
For sheer weight of influence, no organization in Springfield matches it. The ALA traces its roots to the Lincoln Centennial Association, which was formed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. That first banquet, held in the old state arsenal, barred Springfield’s black citizens from sharing the tables of the roughly 750 worthies—some no doubt the fathers and grandfathers of present members—who gathered there to honor the man they praised, without a trace of irony, as the Great Emancipator. As so often happens, the annual event gradually came to be cause for celebration itself. When The New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling visited George W. Bunn, Jr., then president of the ALA, in 1950, Bunn told him, "They would celebrate Lincoln’s birthday . . . at $25 a plate, and after the speeches everybody would get tight on champagne," concluding, "Lincoln would have been ill at ease in such surroundings."
Springfield’s upper crust was not so desperate for excuses to get tight that they had to continue the Lincoln birthday banquets to do it. By 1924 the board was seeking some more dignified commemorative, and, following the lead of the new president, Logan Hay, changed the organization’s name and the purpose. The ALA became an historical society dedicated to cultivating the then-untended field of Lincoln scholarship.
There ensued what looks today to be the golden age of Lincoln scholarship in Springfield. Beginning in 1925, a succession of executive secretaries hired by the ALA—Paul Angle, Benjamin Thomas, Harry Pratt—unearthed and cataloged masses of Lincoln documents still buried in central Illinois. They were serious men doing serious work, and among them they filled reams of papers, scholarly quarterlies and, in 1950, the nine-volume Collected Works of Lincoln. The ALA, in the words of one scholar, put the Lincoln field in the forefront of modern historical scholarship.
After those halcyon days, alas, the arteries of the ALA, like those of many of its founders, hardened. Hay died in 1944, to be succeeded by George W. Bunn, Jr., who was a better president than the ALA deserved. In 1953, drained by the cost of the Collected Works, the ALA collapsed.
It was quiescent until 1963 when it was revived to assist then-Governor Otto Kerner in the campaign to reconstruct the Old State Capitol. The organization raised some $350,000 for the project—I report that figure without quite believing it—and thus deserves some credit for the job. But as the Bicentennial approached a decade later, the group found itself feeling like the hobbyist who, having just finished assembling a 500-piece jigsaw picture of the Orkney Islands, realizes he’s invested too much effort in it to dismantle it, even though it is useless in itself. Their solution to boost attendance at the recreated statehouse was the Old State Capitol Sound and Light show (official cost $585,000) which was supposed to be the most important such show in the western hemisphere but which only succeeded (because of its lighting equipment) in making the adjacent Old Capitol Plaza look like the deck of an oil tanker.
The seventh and current president of the ALA is Floyd Barringer, a neurosurgeon who serves as head of Surgical and Medical Neurosurgery at a local hospital. Elected in 1971, Barringer is generally credited with trying to reestablish the ALA to its former scholarly eminence. The ALA has revived its dormant publication program with the debut this month of the first Papers of the Abraham Lincoln Association. The new number offers an especially useful summary by Mark Neely, editor of the bibliographic Lincoln Lore, of the current state of Lincoln scholarship. (It is evidence of the peculiar fixations of the scholarly imagination, or more accurately of the serendipitous way scholarship gets done, that we have archeological treatises on the contents of Lincoln’s privy but no trustworthy paper on his legal theories as revealed in his voluminous writings on law.) It is a fine piece of work, although its release reawakened my youthful fears that Lincoln was being made a kept man of the rich; when I asked to buy a copy I was told they were not available for purchase by non-members.
Recent scholarship has done much to dismantle the elaborate shell of myth built up around Lincoln, revealing him to be a well-to-do corporate attorney who shystered for the likes of the Illinois Central Railroad, who (like any lawyer of the time would have done) occasionally defended masters against slaves and whose political preoccupations were essentially economic. However much these revelations may pain the more idolatrous among Lincoln’s admirers, they seem likely to further what l suspect has been the ALA’s secret purpose all along, namely to show the world that Mr. Lincoln was really one of them. After all, that segment of Springfield has believed for years that, as one elderly doyenne suggested to Liebling in 1950, "if Lincoln split any rails, it was during a summer vacation from Northwestern, to get himself into condition for football."
To news of Lincoln’s views on race, however, the ALA has had a somewhat less open ear. Today the organization can boast of at least two black men among its roughly 265 members, one of whom also sits on the board of directors. Of course, the almost unrelieved whiteness of the ALA’s Lincoln day banquets no longer is the result of policy. When the Lincoln Centennial Association banned African-Americans from its first banquet in 1909, Springfield black leaders retaliated with a celebration of their own, held in the basement of an east side church. That tradition continues with the annual Lincoln-Douglass banquet sponsored by the local NAACP. One wonders, however, whether we owe the remarkable fact that Springfield still has a black Lincoln banquet and a white Lincoln banquet to ostracism of blacks by whites. I suspect that of late it has been blacks who are shunning the whites as the result of what I like to think is blacks’ principled refusal to ease the burden of the hypocrisy which the ALA continues to carry. Whatever the reason, the doctrine of "separate but equal," having been banished at last from the city’s public schools, survives intact on Lincoln’s birthday.
All this makes the appearance of this year’s guest speaker doubly fascinating. She is Dr. Mary Frances Berry, who will speak about Lincoln and civil rights for blacks. Berry is black. A colleague of mine, recently arrived in Springfield, expressed surprise that the ALA would call attention (as it has done in its promotional materials) to the fact that she is the first black person to address the ALA in seventy years (since Booker T. Washington did it in 1910) and the first woman of any race to do so, as if it were congratulating itself for what most people take as an admission of failure. The ALA’s leadership must be given credit for courage in risking Dr. Berry, who is likely to have things to say that land unpleasantly on the ears of the membership. Whether it is because she is black, or because she is a woman, or both, or because she is reputed to be a woman of tough-minded opinions on what in Springfield remains the most delicate of topics, ticket sales to the banquet reportedly are down significantly so far from past years. ●
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.
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