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Dead Horses

On the open burning of tree leaves

Illinois Times

December 6, 1990

In my contemplative moments, when I reflect that perhaps I have been too hard on ol' Illinois, I recall that the estimable Richard B. Ogilvie likely did not win the re-election in 1972 he so richly deserved because his EPA had dared propose to ban the open burning of tree leaves. 


I preached against this barbarous practice for years in pieces much like this one. The City of Springfield eventually banned open burning, but several of the capital city's did not.


I often get misty when I pay a call on my sister's family on Springfield's southwest side this time of year. I wipe away the occasional tear, suppress a sniffle or two, maybe feel an ache in my throat. It is not emotion that tugs at my mucous membranes but the sting of leaf smoke from lingering fires in nearby Leland Grove.


Loyal readers will recall that I railed for years against the open burning of leaves in Springfield. No pile of damp leaves smoldered as warmly—or, it seemed, as uselessly—as I did. Happily, the city council banned the practice two years ago as a threat to public health. There was grumbling of course. People grumbled in the 1800s when the city made them stop dumping dead horses in the Town Branch of Spring Creek; progress is always inconvenient to someone, usually someone who deserves it. A chorus of calls to rescind the leaf burning ban has been heard in recent months—dismaying noises to my ears, like the talk of Richard Nixon making a comeback.


There is no action so wise that aroused ignorance can't force a politician to renounce it. The State Journal-Register for one has been editorializing for burning. Not on its editorial page (leaf burners do not seem to read, no doubt because their eyes are watering) but on its front pages. There each fall the editors publish gorgeous color photos like the one that ran on November 9 showing a woman raking leaves toward a burning pile not ten steps from a highway. "As dusk settles over Modesto," began the caption. The scene looked dusky enough, although it was impossible to tell from the photo whether the cars whizzing past had their headlights on to penetrate the deepening gloom or the smoke that the woman was dumping into the right-of-way. The caption ended on a wistful note: "The aroma of burning leaves continues to fill the air in many of the smaller rural communities surrounding Springfield, which banned the practice last year."


Yes, life used to be so simple. (It was during the Reagan years, wasn't it?) The SJR often runs such bucolic hokum on its front page. Such evocations of a simpler life, when all one had to do to be a good neighbor was to be white, may appeal to the yokels but in this case they make for bad reporting. It isn't the aroma of leaves that bothers the opponents of burning but the carbon monoxide, the benzene and other toxic chemicals, and the particulates that fill the air—and thus the lungs—of passersby. Burning one's leaves does not get rid of them, but merely converts them into a more portable form. Their remains—toxic in high concentrations, irritating even at low ones—are indeed carried off by winds but not very far (except on the gustiest days, when burning is banned everywhere as a fire hazard). They usually settle nearby, on anything and anyone. It is not nice thing to do to your neighbors, and nice people do not do it.


Fortunately the Springfield city council has so far stood fast in protection of its citizens against the un-nice among us. Unfortunately, Springfield is not the only town around. The suburban hamlets of Leland Grove, Grandview, Southern View, and Jerome continue to endorse leaf arson, with noisome effects upon their downwind neighbors. Their argument in favor of burning—or to be more accurate, their argument against burning bans—is the usual political cowardice couched in terms of hardship. The mayor of Leland Grove, for example, has explained that his village recently rescinded its burning ban of 18 months ago because disposal options were so limited.


I can see where leaf disposal might be a problem in a place like Grandview; there is no way you can set up a compost bin in most trailer courts without the manager insisting that you put a skirt on it. But Leland Grovers are rather better fixed to face the terrors of leaf disposal. They have big yards and lots of cars to hide compost bins behind and garages crammed with powered yard equipment with which they could mulch not only leaves but patio furniture if they wanted to.


I admit to feeling ungenerous about Leland Grove's plight. The village is one of those places whose residents use money—much of it honestly earned, I admit—to insulate themselves from the annoyances of life in a crowded metropolis. There is no convenience store parking lots blighting the vistas in Leland Grove, no public housing, no library taxes; they rely on Springfield for such things. Grovers have been annoyances themselves, alas. They've been polluting Springfield air for decades, every time they venture forth from their exclusively residential enclave onto the streets of the capital to buy their groceries or fill up the car or drive to the office.


Theoretically, suburbs could burn as many leaves as they want, so long as they keep the resulting smoke within their own borders. It is hard to see how they might accomplish this feat, however, since their powers of social control do not extend to the vagrant winds. The Illinois constitution's explicit guarantee of a clean environment for all its citizens takes precedence over privilege. The good burghers of Leland Grove, Grandview, et al have no more right to pollute the air of Springfield than do the owners of a paint factory. (Some Grovers might demur, coming as they do from long lines of factory owners.)


Some Springfield aldermen have asked why their constituents should suffer because some Grover is as narrow-minded about leaves as he is about progressive taxation or S-2 zoning. There is talk in the council of making adoption of burn bans by its suburban neighbors a condition of the city's renewal of their fire protection contracts. I like the concept; if they like to eat smoke, let 'em eat the smoke of the burning houses once in a while.


Failing that, there is a different remedy, pursued by big-city neighborhood and church groups to good effect against the proprietors of drug houses: civil suits brought under the nuisance laws. Don't get mad about leaf burning; get evidence! All you need is a couple of videocams and some Polaroids. And an angry lawyer with asthma. ●    





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.

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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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Journal of the Illinois

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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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