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A Stiller Quietude

When the statehouse sleeps, Springfield snores

Illinois Times

April 9, 1981

Cullom Davis, the historian, once pointed out to me that while no Illinois governor has ever been born in Springfield, five have died there. He did not say that they died of boredom; he didn’t have to.

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

            —“Heaven” by David Byrne


The second best description of the city of Springfield I have ever read was written last December by John Vinocur of the New York Times, and it wasn’t even about Springfield. It was about Bonn, the capital of the German Federal Republic. Bonn, like Springfield, is a provincial political capital in which life ebbs and flows with the tides of public business. Says Vinocur, “Arguably comatose under normal circumstances,” Bonn slides into “deeper, stiller quietude” when the Bundestag adjourns. “With its politicians gone . . . Bonn feels rather like the campus of a small theological school between semesters.” That’s Springfield, all right. Vinocur says that Bonn hibernates during such absences; the commonest metaphor applied to Springfield is that of death and rebirth. Writing in his biography of Gov. Adlai Stevenson, for instance, John Bartlow Martin said of Springfield in the 1940s, “The town really only came to life every two years when the legislature was in session."


I’ve read that line, or lines very much like it, dozens of times. It’s accurate as far as it goes. The trouble is that it doesn’t go very far. Almost all the people who write about Springfield don’t live here but are part of that near-constant parade of journalists, lobbyists, lawmakers, and cranks who are drawn to the statehouse like flies to horse stalls. To them, it must indeed seem that Springfield, like Bonn, reaches “almost perfect stasis” when the General Assembly and the governor are absent. Phones don’t ring, and bored reporters begin filing features about small-town burgoo chefs. For those who wait on state government, there is no one to talk to, nothing to talk about, nothing to do except ponder the fact, which Cullom Davis, the Sangamon State professor, pointed out to me a couple of years ago, that while no Illinois governor has ever been born in Springfield, five have died here.


If one’s life is politics, then the absence of politics must be something of a strain. Life in Springfield bet­ween sessions is a particular agony for what our columnist Bob Reid has called the quick young men and women who serve the state. Bright, energetic, their pockets filled with what by local standards is quite a lot of spending cash, and eager to wash the dust of the agencies off their backs, they steam out of their hives at closing time, jump into their almost-always Japanese cars waiting in their free parking space and drive off to . . . where? Springfield is celebrated for being a town where there is nothing to do. They seldom mingle with locals, partly from mutual distaste, mainly because the locals always seem to be too busy, pursuing their mysterious private lives. They, like their German counterparts described by Vinocur ‘who think Munich or Paris could be remade around their dinner table with local Scotts and Zeldas,” become disappointed fast. “Bonn has bureaucrats, diplomats and journalists, but no admen, stewardesses, p.r. guys, industrialists, soccer players, demimondaines, literati or elegant layabouts.” he reports. “Flash, big money and wild talk is scarce.”


For all their similarities, clearly Bonn is not Springfield and Springfield is not Bonn. Wild talk may be scarce in Bonn, but during General Assembly sessions they have to sweep it out of the halls of the statehouse with brooms. And we may not have demimondaines, but we do have secretaries who (as Mike Royko reminds us) used to be known around the statehouse as “monkey girls” because they held on to their jobs by their tails.


Vinocur also notes that after a year or so, outsiders resign themselves to Bonn’s staid social life, “drink the white wine and go home early.” Your Illinois public servant is made of sterner stuff than that. No spineless acquiescence here. Back in December, the Alton Telegraph’s Dennis McMurray wrote of a speech made by a Chicago representative to a conference of new legislators. Springfield is a completely dry town, explained the Chicagoan, which is why legislators must resort to attending the opera to while away their spare time. “We try to get to the Opera House just about every night we’re down here.” read McMurray’s account.


The joke is, of course, that the Opera House is a popular saloon located two blocks from the statehouse which is, as McMurray notes, “frequented by numerous legislators.” The Opera House is less frequented by locals, however, partly because they do not have $35 a day expense accounts, partly because they have to be at work before 10:30 in the morning.


Outsiders from big cities sometimes find Springfield quaint, even exotic. There are a few outsiders who actually like Springfield; I know of one cabinet member who lives well away from the middle class ghettoes, on the north side, which is as Springfield as you can get. This kind of fraternization is frowned upon as a rule, however, rather as white settlers used to frown on trappers who took Indian women as brides. 


Most outsiders find the city dull, although it’s been my experience that the people who think this are usually incapable of generating their own excitement, so that without an external source they are as dead as an unplugged television set. Recently graduated students—the kind of people which led Charles Dawe of The Real Paper to describe Boston as a “locked incubator”—find it unbearably dowdy; not only is there no Army surplus store, but it is impossible to get deep-dish pizza by the slice at 3 a.m.


It is fortunate that outsiders turn to each other for succor, for it leaves us townies to live out our drab terms in peace. We have been the capital for close to 150 years, and in that time we have grown inured to complaints. We regard the state government the way a farmer might regard a temperamental cow; he occasionally gets kicked in the head by it, but he can’t afford to give up the milk.


Besides, Springfield is a bit dull at times. It used to be livelier thirty years ago, what with punchboards in the drugstores and slot machines in the country clubs and after-hour drinking everywhere else; even a Chicagoan could feel right at home. But since then Springfield has been Chamber-of-Commerced and Jaycee-d and civil-serviced and League-of­-Women-Votered to death, and now our principal recreation is watching businesses load up to move out of downtown.


Oh well. Vinocur reminds us of something Heinrich Boll wrote about Bonn that is equally true in Spring­field. “A good old aunty can show you how to knit a sweater, crochet a cover and serve sherry—I wouldn’t expect her to offer me a spiritual and sensitive two-hour lecture on homosexuality.” ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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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