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Poor ­counties into bucolic Disneylands?

Illinois Times

May 26, 1983

The topic this week in 1983 was the French model of rural national park and whether it offered opportunities for the rejuvenation of Illinois’s depressed countryside. The answer was no, of course, but it was (and remains) an intriguing concept.

This version has been edited slightly for readability.


I can't improve on his eloquence, so I will quote him at length. Describ­ing our national park system in the August, 1982, issue of Natural History, Joseph Sax wrote, "Our attraction to untouched wild country is no acci­dent . . . . Exploitation has dominated our relationship to the land, and the unstated premise of the wilderness ideal is that when humans appear on the natural scene, they come as in­truders and destroyers."


Sax imagined a collection of parks memorializing this relation­ship to nature. parks consisting of vast acres of white pine-stumps in Minnesota, acid-killed streams in Appalachian coal country, a dustbowl in Oklahoma. And, he might have added, a cornfield in Il­linois. It will strike some observers as stretching the point to include corn­fields on that list. Those fields—Illinois's rainforest, its veldt—represent desola­tion of a subtler sort. A mere century and a half ago the landscape hereabouts was so richly diverse in color, in species, in insects and animal life, in genetic possibility, in mood that it beggared attempts to describe it. Today all that's left is the terrain that once bore it, like a skull whose bare shape only suggests the smile of the face which once adorned it. No solace is offered the weary traveler by these tedious stretches of factory floor.


Economically, the agricultural countryside has been impoverished too. Not so much in the amount of wealth it produces but its variety. People—tradespeople in the small towns and smaller farmers outside them—have been pushed into the margins of the big mechanized grain farms much the way the birds have. The point isn't that human habitation has altered the landscape but that we've done it so very crudely. As Sax puts it, "Our past has left us believ­ing that harmonious relationships be­tween humans and nature are not normal—that perhaps they are not even possible."


Such harmonious relationships did exist, even in Illinois. I mean of course that intermediate "nature" which typified parts of the Illinois countryside until the last fifty years or so—a rural landscape (perhaps more accurately called a humanscape) dominated by small farmsteads, each growing not just cash crops but nuts, orchard fruit and vegetables, and livestock. Farm­steads which grew their own energy and fertilizer in the form of hay and oats for horses and manure. Farmsteads which employed technologies which were comprehensible and sustainable.


There is scarcely any farming of that sort left in central Illinois, only agriculture. But it survives, barely, in parts of western and southern Illinois where the land is too poor to make its industrial exploitation worthwhile. Sax, for example, might have been describing much of southern Illinois to a nicety when he wrote of "places that were left behind in the process of urbanization, in­dustrialization, and agricultural modernization . . . suffering depopula­tion and drastically declining economies."


Sax wasn't writing about southern Illinois, however, but about rural France. The French, like Europeans generally, have confronted problems of rural decline similar to ours, but with rather a different approach. Rather than relying exclusively on factory relocation schemes or new highways of the sort so beloved by our county-seat Rotarians, the French have chosen to make a virtue of adversity. They have made twenty of their depressed rural areas into na­tional parks.


Let Sax describe them: "The very things that made these places economic disaster areas—isolation, rugged landscapes, small-scale agriculture, and traditionalism—iden­tified them as ideal destinations for urban visitors seeking a change of pace and place." The broader ad­ministrative aim of the system, ex­plains Sax, is twofold, to protect the natural resources of the area against further deterioration and to revitalize the towns of the area as part of an effort to preserve traditional ways of life.


These are not parks in the U.S. style. The French would not buy up, say, White County and put in a park­ing lot and "Please Don't Feed the Rednecks" signs. Instead, the tactic is to offer modest subsidies whose targets vary from place to place but whose aim is to alter economics back in favor of traditional occupations. In one county such subsidy might take the form of a grant to restore a small town hotel, both to add to its tourism amenities and to provide useful work for local craftspeople. The French pay for the repair of, say, thatched-roof cottages, and in the process give locals places to live while sus­taining a centuries-old craft and giving tourists something to gawk at.


Such subsidies need not be large to make possible increased flows of money into and out of stagnant rural economies, only intelligently applied. For example, tax exemptions or tax-paid market facilities (including advertising and transport) are just two ways one might make small-scale diversified market farming economically viable again. The French, for instance, pay half the cost of maintaining orchards in one of their regional parks for the manufacture of traditional liqueurs, on condition that such orchards be cultivated using traditional methods and with local labor.


Or take forested land. Presently in Illinois, a rural landowner who keeps land in trees pays taxes as if that land is farmed, which is one reason why so many trees are cut and replaced with corn; the amenities trees pro­vide—wildlife habitat, nuts, watersh­ed protection, beauty—are considered (quoting a State of Illinois forester) "a private donation to the public." A public donation to private forest owners in the form of tax breaks would seem a fairer bargain.


Such experiments in restoring the ecological and economic diversity of the countryside could pay a double dividend in the form of tourism. "City-country days" have been organized for years by local farm bureaus, and enjoy an enduring popularity. The Chicago Tribune, whose readership encompasses more than a few of Sax's urbanites yearn­ing for a change of pace and place, this week published a listing of farm families which take in guests from the city eager for a "weekend of rural living." The French regional parks have assisted the opening of networks of bed-and-breakfast accommoda­tions in private farm homes to cater to just such traffic, much of which travels via marked hiking and bicycl­ing trails—trails which, it should be noted, do not shun towns as ours so often do but seek them out.


The cost? Consider first what we are already spending, and how. Billions have been poured into the countryside since World War II through such agencies as the Farmers Home Administration which built sewer extensions and highways and industrial parks whose effect has been to destroy rather than enhance the fabric of the rural economy and culture. As for direct farm subsidies, well, the USDA's Payment-in-Kind program alone is expected to cost something like $20 billion this year—money spent to sustain an agricultural production system which manages to produce crops the world either doesn't need or can't afford to pay for in ruinous amounts at a cost in cash, topsoil, and energy which no one—farmer, small-town banker, taxpayer—can afford to pay for very much longer.


The prospect of a revivified coun­tryside offering fresh produce to nearby urban markets, open space and forest, expanded hunting and hiking as well as stabilized small towns is appealing. But one would be foolish to underestimate the dif­ficulties in reinventing Eden. As Sax quite correctly points out, facile at­tempts to transplant institutions from one culture to another have risks. Such an effort would require controls and coordination of both planning and programs which are far less congenial to Illinoisans than they are to the French.


Perhaps more troublesome is the fact that, as Sax puts it, "Our attachment to what the French call their 'patrimony'—cultural, historical, and social—is a good deal less fervent than theirs." And there is always the risk that we would turn our poor ­counties into bucolic Disneylands. In any event, it won't be until we begin to inquire more carefully into what we buy with our subsidies—as long as the aims of subsidy remain political rather than social, in other words—that even the possibility of programs on the French model can be discussed. I wouldn't make my reservation for that walking tour of "Egypt" just yet. ●





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

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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

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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." 

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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

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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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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.

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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

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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:
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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

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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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