How I Became an Historian
An unpublished book preface
I had submitted my final draft of my history of mid-Illinois to the university press that had requested it. The project had been recently handed to a new editor, and it was plain he did not like the book, it being neither a conventional academic history nor a popular treatment in the usual sense. Those traits of my prose style that were to please most reviewers of the published version left him uneasy. He asked that I submit an author's preface in which I would, in effect, justify my claim to be snotty about the place. The house that eventually published it did not think it needed any such apology, and I never found a different home for the preface.
A brief version of the piece was published as an Illinois Times column in 2016; this is the complete original.
The farmhouse, when I finally found it, was tucked away off the county road in Arenzville Township behind a screen of trees. Once it adorned a farmstead of the old German kind, with a smokehouse, orchard, and a handsome barn, probably erected before the log house that first sheltered the family and was later used to quarter the hired men—first things first for the Germans. The new two-story house was in its day a showpiece, with timber framing, walnut stairs, even walnut clapboards, a limestone basement, and a windmill that supplied running water from a second-story tank.
The house originally stood near Cooperstown, in Brown County across the Illinois. The new owner had it dismantled and hauled on wagons to its present site as war was rumbling over the horizon, and he prudently decided to not re-erect the house until the rumbling stopped, for fear that Southern troops might invade this part of Illinois and burn it down.
The man who had inherited the farmstead still worked some of the land, but he lived in town. He kept his machines in the barn, his dogs in what was probably a ground-floor parlor, and trash everywhere else. The reason I’d come that day, however, was not to see the house. Out back was a tidy little graveyard, overlooking a wooded creek bottom. In it, beneath a marble obelisk, was the grave of one Christiane Johanna Jokisch Krohe. She’d come to Cass County from Saxony as a young woman in 1834 with her toddler son and married the man whose house this was. That son grew up to found his own farm a few miles away in the Sangamon River bottom. He married a neighborhood woman and they made sons who grew up to be merchants, bankers, and elected office-holders and daughters who married such men, and they all in turn produced sons and daughters, and all that reproducing produced, as it sometimes does, a hack writer.
That was me. I am thus a mid-Illinois boy from mid-Illinois parents whose families’ roots in the region date to the 1820s and early 1830s when separate families, mostly unknown to each other, converged on Morgan, Pike, Adams, Scott, and the future Cass counties. They came by steamboat and wagon from North Carolina by way of Tennessee, from Kentucky by way of Indiana, from Württemburg and Upper Saxony by way of New Orleans, and Ireland by way of Pennsylvania.
Had they been alert to it, my parents’ progenitors might have heard when they arrived in mid-Illinois, mingled with the rustle of prairie grasses and the clatter of their wagons on rutted roads, the sound of slates being wiped clean. Illinois was then a place for new starts and new lives. My parents were making a new start too. Their parents and grandparents had lived mostly where they’d fetched up, in small towns on and near the Illinois River, but I grew up with them in Springfield, the capital, an hour’s drive and a world away. Like their own ancestors, the only history my parents knew when they arrived was of the places they had left. As we motored around town, there was no point asking my parents “What is that?” or “Who lives there?” because they usually didn’t know, having lived there no longer than I had.
I would eventually satisfy most of my youthful curiosity about Springfield. It would be years before I read books about it, but until my education began on the streets. History was laid out like books on a shelf, in buildings housing businesses founded by Springfield entrepreneurs whose names they bore, in public schools bearing the names of its civic worthies, in houses shaped by the social pretensions of the succession of elites who lived in them. Beginning slowly in the 1950s and accelerating to a rush after 1970, the capital city was franchised and chain-stored and mass-media-ed and suburbanized beyond all recognition. Fine old structures of every type were being replaced by nothing near as fine, if they were replaced by anything at all. Its Romanesque city hall, its handsome old banks, its YMCA, its Carnegie library—the embodied history of the city, which by then was my history too—was taken away bit by bit in the backs of trucks. I stayed in my hometown until I was forty, but by then my hometown had long since left me.
Enough of my townspeople shared my dismay at this vandalism that they constituted a constituency and a readership, which gave some of my townspeople a cause and me, a budding journalist, a topic. History, which had been something you lived with, had become something you talked about and wrote about and argued about. An historical society was organized in 1961. Local antiquarians were emboldened to self-publish the fruits of their obsession. They revealed gravestones were revealed to be totems of the past, and grand old houses to be storybooks. An old stagecoach tavern on the edge of town was bought by an eminent physician who arguably, reasonably, that they save these things in England, why not here?
This was local history of a familiar style, focusing as it did on the quaint and the curious and fixated on lost elegance. To my generation, then coming of age, it all seemed trivial, and very old. Besides, a surfeit of Lincoln growing up dulled one’s appetite for the history of his part of Illinois. I would learn that we were bored only because all we knew of the region’s history was Lincoln.
Springfield is unusual among mid-Illinois places in being custodian not only of its own history but of that of Illinois and the nation. It is home of state government, for one thing. Every sight of that that granite and marble wedding cake that is the capitol reminded us of past glories and past heroes (and past budgets for public buildings).
Then of course there was Lincoln. The State of Illinois took care of the house and tomb which is what tourists came for, and what the tourists came for pretty much decided the preservation agenda in the decades before that phrase had any currency. Dozens of lesser Lincoln-era buildings had been razed without controversy. The old state capitol, in whose Hall of Representatives Lincoln had delivered his House Divided speech, had long since been enlarged as the county courthouse with little respect paid to its architectural or historical integrity. A few blocks away, the neighborhood around the Lincolns’ house on Eighth Street had grown shabby, an embarrassment to the local respectables.
By the 1960s, the town’s respectables decided this would not do. Private investors bought the depot from where Lincoln bade the city farewell in 1860, and in the 1970s the building that housed the law office he shared with William Herndon, in both cases to keep them standing. They importuned public officials at all levels to boost public investment in history. The centenary of the Civil War inspired the State of Illinois to undertake a grand folly, the dismantling in 1966 of the much-amended old statehouse and its painstaking reassembly atop a modern frame. After much pleading, in 1972, the National Park Service agreed to take the Lincoln house off the hands of the State of Illinois and turn it into the centerpiece of a reconstructed four-block neighborhood that would recreate for visitors something of the experience of the 1850s as it was lived in that corner of the region. Neither project made good the ambitions of their backers. The old capitol was a waxworks doll, and the Lincoln home’s new “neighborhood” was deader than he was. The happy example of that tavern on the edge of town, which became a bustling rural life center under the guidance of the new Sangamon State University, a place where things actually happened, was not followed.
While Official Springfield was devoting itself to imitation history, I had begun an unplanned, unstructured, and unfinished education in the real thing. I wielded a shovel on summer archeological excavations of both frontier- and Mississippian-era sites in the Sangamon and Illinois river valleys. As a graduate assistant at SSU, I let others do the talking through oral history interviews on topics from race relations to the poet Vachel Lindsay to Italian-American life in the state capital. I delivered a scripted spiel to tourists at the newly refurbished law office Lincoln and Herndon which later research would expose as under-informed—a valuable lesson that history, while not quite scientific in its march toward verifiability, is at least amenable to correction by new facts.
Thus alerted to history's possibilities, I started to read. What I was learning about my home town was that it was not a garden whose rich soil has nurtured a Lincoln. (Why only one? It never occurred to me to ask). Rather, Springfield was complacent, casually corrupt, and irremediably racist – and much more interesting for it. The grandee history of my elders never said much nothing much about how the fortunes got made that paid for those magnificent piles. Gradually I learned that such accounts were parlor lies—things not said because they were impolite or embarrassing, or because it was nobody’s business.
Cullom Davis, then a professor of History at SSU and my mentor, colleague, and coauthor in the 1970s, had set up an Oral History Office at SSU and began to build what he has called “people’s history for a people’s university.” Its tape recorders sought the testimony of ethnic group members, minorities and women, coal miners, farmers, labor unionists—what Davis has called “‘the others’ in American and rural life.”
The bicentennial of the nation’s founding sparked the publication of scrapbooks of community history—all of them, it must be noted, less well designed, less handsomely made, less adroitly written than their late nineteenth century models. Here and there the bicentennial was the occasion for more thoughtful reconsiderations. The Sangamon County Historical Society undertook in 1973 to publish a series of pamphlet essays on local history. I contributed a summary account of an ugly episode from 1908 in which white mobs marauded through the capital’s African American neighborhoods, burning and lynching; revulsion abroad at these events was pivotal in inspiring the founding of the NAACP. The essay was dubious interpretatively (a much better book about those days was published in 1996) but it excited responses ranging from “I never knew that happened in Springfield” to the much more gratifying “I never knew that could happen in Springfield.”
And so it went—a history of coal mining in Sangamon County, a history of the local Chamber of Commerce, a book-length anthology in 1977 of published writing about the capital city, also published by the Sangamon County Historical Society, which was presented the Illinois State Historical Society's Award of Merit. The younger among us found the actual history of our area was a handy stick to beat our elders with, for their complacency, for their uncritical acceptance of a social order that seemed to contradict everything we’d been taught was right and good about America. And surely I was not alone in my hope that I, a product of a place that had once been interesting, might be taken to be interesting himself.
I suppose all history is personal in this way, much as all politics is local. If my family had initially made the history of mid-Illinois interesting, their part in the region’s history—migration and settlement, the mastery of commercial agriculture, town-building, assimilation—quickly made my family interesting. Most were farmers, or became farmers, but their ranks included grocers who sold whiskey to farmers, craftsmen who made wagons for farmers, and merchants who traded farmers’ hogs for store goods. Some of them left behind sons who ran banks or were elected to public office and daughters who married such men and raised new ones. If most of my people, however, just got by in their new home, they at least satisfied what little ambition they had.
Some of my people came to mid-Illinois so they wouldn’t have to own slaves, some because they couldn’t afford to buy slaves back home. About their politics I knew little, but their fervid party feeling about religion was plain. Among them were backwoods Baptists, high church Lutherans and Congregationalists, circuit-riding Methodists and reorganized Mormons—a fair sampling of the fertility and the factionalism of Protestant thought in the mid-Illinois of the day. As far as I know, none knew the young Abraham Lincoln. Most probably didn’t want to, he being a little too white folks for most of them, , as the phrase used to be, just as later, most of them would have been a little too white folks for him.
I was writing for a living by then, and my mid-Illinoisan-ness turned out to be a professional qualification in the eyes of national editors. My big break as a journalist was being asked to do a cover story for a business magazine out of New York City—a piece about a corn farmer, but it really was about how three generations of farmers had transformed corn farming in the region into a high-tech, high-stakes enterprise, run by men and women as unlike their ancestor as the bungalow-sized combine harvesters were unlike the horse-drawn reaper they replaced. I quickly got assignments to write about Lincoln, the Mormons and the Jansonists, the mound-builders along the Illinois River. Even stories that are not about mid-Illinois history per se had an historical dimension, such as reclaiming land left spoiled by long-ago coal mining.
Every assignment widened my awareness. Even if you ignore Lincoln and leave the “prehistoric” peoples to the Illinois State Museum, (one of the nation’s fine anthropological museums, by the way), the history of my part of Illinois still offers the French traders, the Black Hawk War, Nauvoo and the Mormon War, steam-boating, coal mining (including the central Illinois mine wars), lynchings and race riots, the death and (possible) resurrection of the Illinois valley, not to mention many not-quite Lincolns who enlivened if not always ennobled the region’s politics, industry, and social life. More than enough for a book, Enough for a life. ■