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Nelson Howarth

A Springfield mayor, upon his death

Illinois Times

October 24, 1991

Of the men and women who served as mayor during my time in Springfield, none tried to do so much for the city, or generated so much public feeling, as Nelson Howarth. The trying and the feeling were not unrelated, but every town needs a Howarth now and then.


I also wrote about Howarth on the occasion of his retirement from public life here.


Basically what Nelson Howarth tried to do as mayor in the 1960s was awaken Springfield to the 1940s. It was a thankless task; it is still possible to find people who hate Nelson Howarth because he introduced ten-cent parking meters downtown. Denigrated in certain circles as a radical, Howarth was in fact an old-fashioned Progressive. His dream for Springfield had been essentially laid out in the city's master plan of 1923. Today his program—better sewers and parks, honest administration, cleaned-up slums—and his slightly prudish standards of public morality would strike most people as quaint.


There is a rule in American public life that foes who disagree with a man who is mistaken must attack his facts, but if he is right they attack his character. The many who opposed Howarth's integrationist views—and they were by no means restricted to the town's cracker fringe—could not attack Howarth's policies after his re-election in 1963 without making their own bigotries unmistakable. Unable to refute the cause they tried to refute the man making it. Rumors that he beat his wife were put about—genteel Springfield's version of the shotgun blast through the window at night.


Howarth was eventually able to make light of the wife-beating smear. It probably didn't cost him many votes, much less an election; in Springfield, a candidate would be much more damaged by rumors that he read books for pleasure. There was something about him that reduced certain people to frenzies of abuse. Howarth accused one City Hall old-timer of using a coal contract for patronage, which in that case was like accusing a tree of being green; the man in reply likened Howarth to Hitler—about as accurate as comparing Mother Teresa to Madonna, if not so funny.


Perhaps the ripest of these fantasies came from the campaign of Lester Collins, who was mayor from 1959 to 1963. Collins rallied a complacent citizenry against what he called Howarth's "promises of Utopia." (Howarth had campaigned for more parks.) Collins warned, "Fear is the tool of the tyrant," a phrase he dutifully credited to ”The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” in case anyone mistook which tyrant he meant. Most bizarre of all, Collins accused Howarth of a "campaign of self-analysis accompanied by a resolve to change his personality." This strikes me as rather healthy, and I can think of any number of politicians who would profit from it.


One of the drawbacks of Springfield's officially nonpartisan commission system of government was the way that political disputes swung on personality rather than ideology or partisan affiliation. Howarth's personality was perhaps not ideal for such a setting. He had a temper and was capable of sarcasm, which offended the people who thought city business should be conducted with a wink rather than a sneer. (There is nothing Springfield loves better than a genial hypocrite.) His set-tos with the John Hunters or the Jim Dunhams of the council reminded one less of Disraeli and Gladstone than of Abbott and Costello. But I have learned that people would rather be entertained than governed, which may explain why the town elected to three terms a man who was in every important respect not representative of it.


Howarth's successors included nonentities like William C. Telford, whose wardrobe was more eloquent that he was. If it was Howarth's boast that during his tenure the city adopted a fair housing ordinance it never meant to honor, his successors could boast of landing an LPGA golf tournament. You don't need me to tell you which Springfield is prouder of.


Howarth is probably best remembered for the conversion of the Lincoln home neighborhood into a national historic site. He did it out of more than civic duty. Howarth always kept a law office in the neighborhood, and did not endear himself to the chamber of commerce types by going to Washington and telling a congressional hearing that while Lincoln had once served briefly on the Springfield city council, this had been kept quiet by his admirers to protect his reputation.


I did not know Howarth well. I knew that not everyone liked him, he often being derided as stubborn by people who don't know a principle when they see one. He could be a little vain about his probity, which is a small fault as politicians' vanities go. His honesty seemed genuine enough; he apparently did not die rich, which for a lawyer requires acts of self-abnegation that would exhaust a saint.


I have met and like his wife, Mary, whose companionship attested to his qualities more than his campaign speeches did. I remember being surprised to learn that his children liked and admired him—something so rare among my generation that at first I assumed they must be jockeying for a place in the will. Son William, who is an accomplished professor of English at Princeton, took up the life of Thoreau as one of his scholarly interests—a choice I assume was not uninfluenced by his father's example.


I have paid enough attention to politics to accept that one measures a politician by what he accomplishes but measures a man by what he tries to accomplish. In that respect Howarth was a better man than he was a politician. I just hope that wherever he is, nobody brings up that he once was a member of the Springfield city council. It would be a shame to ruin his reputation. ●




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

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

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

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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.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

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

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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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 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.

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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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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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