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Altoona, Natrona, Hike!

Illinois Times

September 5, 1978

Illinois is not a distinctive-looking place but its towns bear some wonderfully distinctive names. This is one of two pieces I did on this topic; the other is here


The Pyramids themselves, doting with age, have

forgotten the names of their founders.

— Thomas Fuller 


Names fascinate me, especially the names of towns. Illinois was settled by messengers from all over the globe, and their far-flung origins are recorded on its maps. Often the founders gave their collection of cabins (some were not even that, only lines on a survey plat) the name of their homelands or some far off great city, as if the magic of its ancestor would attach itself by its name to its spawn.


By driving north and west from Springfield, for example, it is possible to perform a sort of linguistic circumnavigation of the globe, with stops at Greece (Athens), Iran (Teheran), England (Liverpool and Bath), Russia (Moscow, now abandoned), Germany (Berlin), even the Land of the Nile (Egypt Station. also abandoned). Fulton County is home to a magical stretch of Illinois Route 78, on which it is possible to journey from China (Canton) to Scotland (Dunfermline) in less than five minutes, the state police willing.


Few of these settlements are more than 150 years old. yet such is the inattention with which forward-looking Americans regard their past that already many of the details of their christenings have been forgotten. For instance, I have mused for years over why it is that three towns within twenty miles of one another in Mason and Fulton counties—Havana, Mantanzas Beach (on the Illinois), and Cuba—should bear Cuban names. The histories tell us only the obvious—for example, that Havana is named "in honor of the capital of the lsle of Cuba." The founder of Havana was a man named Ross, but what his Cuban connection was, if any, remains a mystery.


Some town names are the fruit of a marriage between whimsy and invention. Saidora in Mason County is said to have been named for two ladies, Sadie and Dora, who lived there. (Unexplained is why the town is not thus Sadora.) Sadie and Dora made up fully a sixth of the population; with a few more syllables, they might have gotten everybody in town into the name. And Natrona in that same county, whose name sounds vaguely Indian, was originally called Altoona, but had to be changed because there was already a village by that name up the road in Knox County. Astoria in Fulton County was first called Vienna and later changed to honor John Jacob Astor, though why is a secret buried with its founder.


The American Indian survives in many Illinois names. the most significant being that of the state itself. But the white man has treated the Indian languages with the perversity that ever characterized his relationship  with his red brothers. For generations romantic Sangamon County residents insisted that Sangamon meant "land of plenty" in Potawatomie when in fact it has a much more prosaic meaning—river mouth. Other settlers, however, didn’t even do the local tribes the honor of borrowing their words, even to corrupt them, but stole words from tribes in other parts of the country to describe places in lllinois. Topeka in Mason County, for instance, bears the Siouan name for the Indian potato that flourishes there. and the nearby town of Manito bears the name of the Algonquin Great Spirit.


Quiver Creek in Mason County is not, as one might assume, named after the lndians' arrow quiver. As one , county historian explains, “‘Hunters in early days noticed that by standing a short distance from the water in some places and gently swaying the body, the ground for some distance around took on an undulating or quivering motion." The place might just as well been called "Delirium" or "Hangover Hollow."


Foreign language place names have long caused problems for native lllinoisans. whose tongues are seldom nimble enough to step around their strangely built syllables. Every first-time visitor, when safe with friends, laughs at the locals for pronouncing Vienna as "vye-enna," Athens as "aye-thens," Versailles as "ver-sales." In Mason County there is a hamlet called Snicarte. This construction, pronounced “snickerty,” is a corruption of the French for "remote channel," a local feature; the original reads "chenal ecarte." lf Americans slaughtered foreigners the way they slaughter foreign words, they would be reviled as the bloodiest of peoples.


San Jose is a village of 700 or so that straddles the Mason and Logan county lines. It was named after the city of that name in California. The name's been causing trouble for a hundred years. For example, an 1876 history of Mason County told of a town by the name of "Sangore." No one remembered there ever being such a town in the county; one man guessed that a mapmaker had stuck in a ficticious town bearing his name, according to the custom by which mapmakers guaranteed themselves a bit of eternity. It turned out that the phantom town was merely San Jose, mis-spelled.


Ruth Wallace Lynn, author of a sesquicentennial history of Mason County, tells the story of a further complication: "When the old Chicago and Alton laid its tracks, the troubles began. The head man on the railroad, a great one for details, sought the advice of four men visiting in the area from San Jose, California, about the correct pronunciation of the village’s name. The Californians answered, ‘San Hozay!’ When the Chicago and Alton rolled into San Jose, the properly trained conductor let go full lung with `San Hozay.'

"Nothing happened. Those bound for San Jose sat stony faced; when the train left, they went along. A few miles later several San Jose passengers tapped the conductor on the shoulder. , `You have carried us past San Jose,’ they said. They pronounced it  J for joke, O for old, and Z for zebra, bearing down on the J. The conductor was informed that the law said he must back up and let them off; "Things became rather bitter at times. Delegations would call on the San Jose village board and complain. During the administration of William Hullinger as mayor, the board issued an edict to the railroad officials. ‘Pronounce it right,' the board said tersely.


"Among some of the interviews held with the senior citizens in San Jose, there is a school of thought that goes like this: ‘The San Jose passengers knew all the time that they were riding past their station. But most of them were German and downright stubborn about the thing. Anyway, the railroad was always backing up to let off a passenger for San Jose, or chucking him aboard a train bound vice versa. The railroad tired of this and finally pronounced the name right. And that is the way it is pronounced now—‘J for joke, O for old, and Z for zebra." ●




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.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

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

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

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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