Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Still Alternative After All These Years
Springfield and Illinois Times after 35 years
September 30, 2010
A look back at 35 years of Illinois Times. The piece is as much about Springfield as it is about the paper, Springfield having disappointed the hopes for it the paper always entertained. I’m old enough now to appreciate that this was not the fault of the town, which is what it is and must be, but of our own extravagant expectations.
I don’t often look at calendars—so often they remind me that there is an editor somewhere, impatiently drumming his fingers on his desk because the article draft I’d promised him is late. But look at a calendar one must do occasionally, and last week it reminded me that it has been 35 years since the first issue of Illinois Times was published.
I well remember the night in 1975 when the first issue was laid out for the printer. I’ve not had children, and I had nothing to do with conceiving this one, but birthing a newspaper can’t be much different (for fathers at least) from birthing a child—the tension, the exhileration, the exhaustion. The difference is that with a newspaper you have to make another one next week.
The new paper promised to be merely the most polished and sophisticated of several that began to litter the streets of the capital in the latter 1960s. The World Wide Web had been anticipated by a very different kind of web whose effect on local communications was very similar—the web offset printing press, which liberated pamphleteers from the mimeograph machine.
Publishing a paper then was like blogging today, only people got their fingers dirty when they read it. Local political agitators had a paper, young African-American activists had a paper, and college kid know-it-alls had a paper. The last included me and those of my friends who believed that what stodgy old Springfield needed was a good strong dose of us. So, at an age when I should have been going to college I became a writer editor, paste-up hand, and, most laughably, a publisher.
I gave up the papers but not the appetite, so when the founding publisher of IT asked me to breakfast to discuss my contributing to a real paper, I was delighted. The original model was the Maine Times, which was one of the first of what became known as alternative newsweeklies. All such papers strove to be local in coverage, cosmopolitan in viewpoint, rigorous with facts but relaxed about style. As the name hints, they strove to provide an alternative to what now known as the mainstream media, and thus cultivated an outsider’s attitude.
The IT celebrated the local and the quirky; our natural allies were fellow local businesspeople, who shared the paper’s optimism and desire for independence. Most alternatives, had roots in the drugs and music culture or in Left radicalism. (They tended to sprout in big cities or university towns.) Compared to them, IT was and is a bunch of young fogeys, closer in world view to the Democratic Party than to Students for a Democratic Society.
Since then, city has grown out, many IT readers have grown old, and, under the leadership of publisher and editor Bud Farrar, the paper has grown up. The Maine Times closed in 2002 for lack of readers—a reminder that the most remarkable thing about the IT is the fact that it still thrives in one of the smallest markets served by an alternative paper. The alternative newsweekly proved a viable business model in same way that an old VW bus was a viable motor vehicle. It works, but only with a great deal of devoted tinkering by the owner.
If the paper has changed for the better since 1975, the city has not. Not, that is, as much as some of us at the paper once hoped, or in the ways we had hoped. Most dramatic is the ways that Springfield, in spite of its adding more than 20,000 residents and spreading out like paint spilled on a kitchen floor, feels smaller than it did 35 years ago. Back then Springfield felt like a city, with a functioning downtown crammed with hotels, theaters, restaurants, bars, and clubs. (Its fate by the way was all too accurately predicted in these pages by Mark Heyman, the SSU architecture prof after the opening of White Oak Mall in 1977.) Today the capital feels like a suburb, an everyplace and anyplace of parking lots and chain stores and generic housing tracts and a downtown done up to look like the mall that killed it.
Illinois Times had always wanted to make Springfield a better city; Springfield, it seems, wanted to make itself a better small town. Which reminds me that another thing that has not changed in 35 years are complaints that the paper is too critical and fails to appreciate the good things going on in Springfield. It would be more accurate to say that the paper has always allowed people like me to be too critical. However, there is some justice to the complaint. It is probably the fate of every paper to be disappointed in its host city. That’s what happens when one cares. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
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.
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.
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
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.
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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