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Ethnic ghosts in the closet

Illinois Times

August 28, 1986

This was my contribution to the special issue of Illinois Times on the theme, “Growing up American.” My family had an “ethnic” surname but we were in every other way white-bread American with the crusts cut off. The experience left me alert to such contradictions in the wider world, as I tried to explain in this piece.


This is a memoir, really, and thus probably doesn’t belong here, but we were hardly the only Illinoisans of European descent who came late to a heritage Americanness had blinded them to.


Years ago, one of my high school teachers told me that I had a German head. She was referring not to my intellectual tendencies but to its shape, which she regarded as characteristic of that people—a head which is longer than it is wide. Had I been older, I could have made a joke about how the only German heads I'd seen were atop glasses of Dortmunder beer; had I been less ignorant, I might have suggested that a cranium so shaped would explain the Teutonic tendency toward scholarship that is narrow but deep. In any event, I saw no need to dispute her. Of course I had a German head. I had a German name, didn't I?


My sense of things ethnic, you see, was pretty primitive.


You would think that with a name like Krohe, the question of my family's ethnic origins would have some straightforward answers. Yet it would be hard to imagine a family in which the ties to the old country were more weak. It is customary for American families to hark back to those predecessor traditions, to self-consciously regain some of the distinctive ways— food, religion, dress, language, custom—that were lost in assimilation. We Krohes never sought to regain our heritage because we didn't know we'd lost it.


The neighborhood I grew up in on Springfield's east side in the 1950s was hardly a school for ethnic awareness. Today I listen enviously to stories from friends who grew up in ethnic enclaves of Chicago. Even on Springfield's north side (had I known where to find it) I could have attended mass in Lithuanian or lunched on homemade kielbasa or had an old man teach me the tarentella the way they danced in the old country. On my block, however, the families had names like Hanselman, Powers, Agee, Philpott, Skinner, Pletcher, Lewis, Turner, Erickson. On the north side the corner groceries were run by people named Sgro; the one on our block was run by Art McHenry. According to my crude understanding of the process, Columbus discovered America and then changed his name to Smith, probably for tax reasons.


I realize that I betray a bias common to us white-bread types by defining "ethnic" in terms of non-WASP peoples. But "ethnic" meant exotic to us. Like our neighbors, we were anything but exotic. We were white. We were middle class. Our patron saint was Betty Crocker. We learned our folk dances from American Bandstand; our connectedness to culture was commercial. Our old country was Beardstown, where my parents grew up. My German ancestors (I was to learn many years later) set out on their new lives with some apple trees and a chest filled with linen cloth; we started our American odyssey equipped with a can opener and a TV Guide.


We had realized the life which so many millions of immigrants came here to find, in short. I did not for many years realize how poor that life was. We were Americans, subspecies nuclear family, cut loose from history. Our identity was something we put on every morning—you are what you eat in a neighborhood like that, as well as what you wear, what car you drive. The stories we told around the table were the ones we'd heard on Milton Berle the night before. We hardly saw my father's family, and I think we regarded my mother's family, who then lived on a farm, as primitive versions of us.


The Krohes (I discovered years later) had been in the U.S. since the 1830s. Their German heritage had been preserved simply by having been lived by the subsequent four generations. It was not until World War I, when being German suddenly became awkward, that those ties began to ravel. Lutheran services began to be given in English, and (I believe) the family name began to be pronounced according to English phonetics. Germanness for the later Krohes thus had come to mean the farm, the old church; my father's father's generation, in contrast, were working in banks and living in town and going to Illini homecomings.


The result was that my father, growing up, was aware that the clan was German only in some vague way. He recalls that his grandmother spoke English with a German accent, even though she had been born and raised in Cass County. Beyond that there was little to distinguish his family.


Except the name. Our name always set us apart in Springfield. Apparently it is unusual even in Germany. During the war my father pored over telephone directories in the cities he found himself in, looking for Krohes. He never found one. Its differentness is its only virtue, it being ugly-looking and (given its Midwestern pronunciation) ugly-sounding. But it is German, and because I had it I always regarded myself as vaguely German as well. This had nothing to do with culture. Nor did it have much to do with blood. My father's mother was an Irish woman named McClure; my mother's background, while murky as to details, seems indisputably English and/or Irish.


These facts I have known for years. Why then did I insist on my Germanness? None of our branch of the family ever went to the Lutheran church. The only German my father speaks is the few words he picked up in the war. My friends persist in identifying German traits in my personality, but they do so only to make fun. (If I match any national stereotype it is that of the Irish, except when it comes to drinking: I have a Methodist stomach.) And no one who grew up as I did reading stories of the Holocaust would claim to be German out of pride.


As for adopting Germany as my putative homeland, well, one sniff of sauerkraut as a boy was enough to explain to me why the Germans invaded France. I admire their sense of civic order but deplore their conformism, their materialism, and their lack of humor. It is hard to say which I would miss more, Beethoven or German beer, but oompah bands and German poetry have always left me cold. The Germans don't even play the most attractive soccer in Europe.


My connections to the British are more numerous and binding, in fact, including that most profound connection of all, language. I value the landscape, literature, folk music, clothes, gardens, weather, drink, theater, humor (not comedy), and TV system shared imperfectly and uneasily by the Scots, English, Irish, and Welsh almost enough to cause me to forgive them their food and priggishness about class. Indeed, so industrious is my reading of British press and my listening to British radio and my watching of old British film and nearly-as-old British television programs that I have picked up a sort of British accent, to the extent that I unconsciously resort to British phrases in casual conversation. Yet I have never offered my grandmother's and mother's British blood as a credential for any claim of Britishness.


There is magic in a name, of course, that makes what appears on our driver's license more important than what flows through our veins. But would I choose differently, were I free to pick a surname from among the family's list of Krohe, Anderson, Beaver, and McClure? Probably not. I suppose that the reason is that the British, for all their odd ways, just aren't foreign enough. We tend to regard our ethnic forebears, I find, much as we might regard an insane relative—an embarrassment at the time, but years later we take a perverse pride in his determined eccentricities. As the second-largest ethnic group in the U.S. after the British, Germans are far from the most exotic thread in this country's ethnic tapestry. But they seem more exotic than a race of men and women named Jones and Green. A thousand novels record the struggle of immigrants to make themselves different, and thus the same as everyone else in America. Like their great-grandchildren, I was confronted with the same need. And what is more American than pretending to be someone you aren't? ●




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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