Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Reclaim the Prairie
Recreating a paradise of weeds in Illinois
January 15, 1992
In which I imagine a future in which the seeds of prairie plants rival corn and soybeans in Illinois. It could happen—if Monsanto finds a way to make a dime out of it.
Congressmen being to national parks what acorns are to oak trees, Rep. Bob Michel has been importuned to create a Lincoln Tallgrass Prairie National Park in Cass County. As we reported in November, Springfield artist Bill Crook envisions the return of 15,000 acres of the Panther Creek watershed (parts of which already are a state-owned nature preserve) into the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna that grew there before the white man ruined it all with the plow and the Parade of Homes. Such reconstructed environments could also host re-introduced native animals like the bison, the bobcat, and the elk, native animals that never learned to live on government checks and that thus are extinct in modern Illinois.
This is not a new idea. The Progressive-era landscape architect Jens Jensen—he designed Lincoln Memorial Garden—proposed way back in 1915 that land be set aside for a tall grass prairie national park. Rutgers geographer Frank Popper has proposed converting much of the Plains states into a vast "buffalo commons." And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to transform 8,600 acres of Iowa farmland into a prairie learning center as part of what consultants to the project describe as maybe the biggest landscape ecology project going in the U.S.; the Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge runs through the middle of Iowa corn and soybean country, roughly twenty miles east of Des Moines, and like the Panther Creek site was assembled originally by a big power company that no longer needs the land.
If they build it, will people come? A senior landscape planner working on the Walnut Creek project told me, "There is some skepticism that the general public will find appeal in visiting a prairie." This rather understates the public's indifference to prairie landscapes. Illinoisans seemed never to love the pristine prairie when they had it. The uplands in Cass County around Panther Creek for example were known locally as "barrens"—weed-covered empty lots on a township scale. The locals regarded the plow the way a suburbanite regards his Weed-Eater, as a force for civilization and cultivation in all respects.
The how-to book that explains the conversion of farms into prairie parks is not a thick one. Naturalist Daryl Smith of the University of Northern Iowa, who aims to reconstruct two types of prairie and two types of savannah, says, "We'll have to start from scratch on most of it." Local seed stocks of native grasses and forbes are limited. For the first few years, as few as 50 acres a year may be planted; after those early plots have matured, however, their plants can supply seed for the rest of the site.
Assuming prairie restoration on this scale can be done, we are left to decide whether it ought to be done. The Illinois countryside is increasingly redundant economically, especially now that changes in the tax laws have dulled the appeal of weekend homes among well-to-do Springfieldian eager to commune with the mosquito and the cockleburr. Its sole productive role is as a site where city folks dump the things they don't want, like landfills and trailer parks and factories.
Objections will be raised that bringing back the prairie will destroy prime farmland. Converting fields to grass would change the use of the land, certainly, but it wouldn't destroy it. (It's farming that destroys farmland, at least the way we farm.) Such conversion would probably eliminate some farms, although a few local farmers may have to be hired to cultivate monoculture plots of those prairie plants whose seed is harvestable by machine.
These new career possibilities are unlikely to mollify farm groups unhappy about the loss of land on which they might expand their operations. (In Iowa, local officials also are worried about the removal from county tax rolls of so large a chunk of property.) But they do conjure up the wonderful image of Farmer John showing up at the coffee shop where his buddies, suppressing grins, ask him about his coneflower yield.
The feds' "willing seller" policy is a concession to locals who are quick to anger over eminent domain takings by federal agencies. This preserves the government's reputation as a good neighbor but it complicates planning. Active farming within such a refuge means the possibility of conflicts over pesticide use and weeds. Concedes one of the planners of Walnut Creek, "It's going to be weedy. With 8,600 acres you're not going to be able to manicure it."
However, native prairie plants do not cope well under disturbed environments typical of farming. The real weed problem (at least until the new prairie gets established) will be the threat of invasion into the prairie-to-be by Eurasian exotics from nearby lawns and roadsides. Similarly, while the park's neighbors are likely to urge that bobcats and the like be fenced in, the real management problem is keeping neighbors' varmints—pet dogs and cats and children, mainly—fenced out. Pets pose real threats to native birds and other animals, although bobcats might do more to teach our Bowsers some manners than their owners usually do.
I have misgivings about the project. For example, naming it after Lincoln—a man who gravitated to ever-larger cities his whole life and who by all accounts hated the country life—seems to distort his memory rather than honor it. And building a prairie park would mean a radical reformation of the ecology but not the economy of rural central Illinois. Growing Indian grass that nobody wants is no dumber than growing corn nobody wants, and it's a lot cheaper; we won't have to subsidize the price of big bluestem so the Pakistanis can buy it. ●
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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