What to do with rural Illinois—poorer, older, less educated and more ill than Illinois in general—has vexed policy-makers and politicians for decades. My solution was to write about it, often. Here the topic I health care, but it could be schools or roads or factories or small towns.

 

There are whole counties in rural Illi­nois that boast not a single resident physician. The doctor shortage reduces not only the life expectancies of our country cousins but their economic prospects as well; a BMW mechanic living in Carmi, for example, is as redundant as a camel driver in Nome.

 

A task force—a body that might be more accurately described as a tsk-tsk force—under the aegis of Lieutenant Gov­ernor George Ryan's Rural Affairs Council has pondered the dilemma of rural health care since 1988. It concluded in part that the answer is to bribe would-be medicos by making their location in country towns a condition of state scholarship aid.

 

If our young doctors are no better at distinguishing symptoms from diseases than is the Rural Affairs Council, Illinois' rural citizens might be better off if they were left doctorless. Rural Illinoisans are sick because rural Illinois is sick. Those who know about rural life only what they can see of it from the interstates imagine it as an enduring bucolic idyll. There, remote from the corruptions of the city, life goes on as God and Ronald Reagan meant for it to. Farmers say howdy to each other on their way to barn raisings, grandmothers deliver apple pies to shut-ins down the road, apple-cheeked youngsters bring home tadpoles from the fishin' hole, and old folks try to remember why Coolidge was a better man than Harding as they sun themselves on the courthouse square.

 

Never true, alas, at least never true everywhere in rural Illinois, nor for very long even where it was true. You must venture into the grimmest ghettoes of Chicago to find populations of Illinoisans who are poorer, sicker, less educated, or less gainfully employed than those who live in parts of rural Illinois. The only real difference between the alcoholism, child abuse, and mental aberration found in the country and that in the city is that the latter shows up on TV.

 

The fact is that most Illinois small towns are ugly and ill-shaped, served by aging and ill-financed infrastructure, and economically superfluous. (All but the last can be said about our cities too, but in the U.S.A. of the 1990s one out of three isn't bad.) Politically the small town remains potent, however, which explains the exis­tence of the Rural Affairs Council and its offshoots such as the Institute for Rural Affairs that has been set up at Western Illi­nois University.

 

Official initiatives to save the small town, like recurring efforts to save the family farm, beg a much more interesting policy question, which is whether the nineteenth century rural social systems ought to be saved, at least in their traditional forms.

 

The appeal of the idealized small town for most Americans is that it harbors no insistent minorities, no dangerous social eccentrics, no political or religious noncon­formists who might trouble the sweet repose into which the residents' brains have slipped. (The simplicity of small town life is mischaracterized; simple-mindedness is the motif.) The small town that shimmers in the memory of so many of us not-long-off-the-farm Mid westerners is the model for the exclusionist suburb that has replaced it as Illinois' preferred urban living place.

 

As for the rural economic role, what income growth has occurred there has come largely in the form of the paychecks earned in the city by exurbanite com­muters and part-time farmers with town jobs. Few farmers make a living exclusive­ly from farming anymore, and most of what they do earn does not enrich the local economy much, but passes through local middlemen into the vaults of the big oil and chemical companies and out-of-town banks. The successful family farmer is more essential to the economic health of Florida vacation and retirement resorts than he is to Illinois towns such as Swan Creek or Kempton.

 

What most rural Illinoisans reap these days is a harvest of government checks. Social Security retirement and disability funds, Medi­care and Medicaid grants, welfare and food stamps, farm price supports and other farm subsidies. (The last will cost "only" $11 bil­lion nationwide this year, brags the USDA.) In terms of "real" wealth, (as measured by the economist, that is, not by the husbandman) many of our rural counties are destitute. A hundred years ago it was the countryside that sustained the city, but today that relationship is reversed. Rural America—at least that part of it outside the commuting range of the big cities—would have been dead long ago were it not for the extraordinary life support measures applied by Congress and state legislatures.

 

A few critics have suggested that it's time to start pulling a few plugs. For example, Rutgers urbanologist Frank Popper argues that vast tracts of the rural U.S. have more people in them than their local economies can sustain. These people are the residuum of a vanished, people-intensive agriculture, and are often too old, too ailing, or too dim to make new lives else­where. (After a century and a half of out-migration, the gene pool in some places is pretty much dried up.)

 

According to Popper's "buffalo commons" thesis, many if not most rural small towns are as doomed as the bison herds that once roamed the prairies, and mostly for the same reasons. This conclusion draws gasps from audiences at save-the-small-town conferences—a reaction that suggests that Popper has cut painfully close to a truth that everyone understands but does not want to accept.

 

One approach is to do what we are doing now. The rural areas will atrophy in time anyway; although billions in subsidy will slow the process that (as the proposed incentives for rural doctors suggests) will only become more expensive for urban taxpayers. Another approach requires that the countryside be made more like the city,  encouraging the shift of its economic base from farming to industry. Unfortunately, converting a dispossessed farmer into an industrial worker preserves the form of the small town but kills its essence. Besides, industry moves to southern Illi­nois for the same rea­son it moves to Singa­pore or Mexico, for the chance to exploit cheap, compliant labor; such companies are less dependable a benefactor than the weather on which the farmer relies.

 

Before we reinvest any more money in rural Illinois, we need to reinvent it. Some further urbanization is agreeable as well as inevitable, assuming it is controlled. The concentration of new light industry (including food processing facilities cater­ing to nearby urban markets) in existing transportation corridors is one example of this, as is clustered residential develop­ments that meet demands by exurbanites for rural space without decimating rural amenities.

 

Ultimately, the salvation of rural Illinois may require not that they be turned into imitation cities but that they become truer countryside. Wetlands restored for flood control will also revive sport fisheries. Scaled-back rural transportation networks means abandoned road and rail corridors that can be converted into hike and bike trails could link existing state parks to metropolitan centers via cross-country greenways. The "cross-compliance" princi­ple endorsed by recent federal farm bills could be expanded to support income subsidies for fanners who agree to farm marginal lands using sustainable meth­ods, etc. The results will be a rural Illinois that is greener and more scenically varied, where recreation (including vacationing) and tourism are industries, where farming is smaller-scaled and more diverse, where large tracts are allowed to revert to the kind of landscape that once entranced newcomers with its variety and wildness, a countryside in short that sustains the urban hunger for views and sport as well as food.

 

The key to developing rural Illinois, in other words, is undeveloping it. There is no lack of techniques to do it; other states have been experimenting for years. What is needed is a vision of a rural Illinois in which neither doctors nor their patients will have to bribed to live. □

Truer Countryside

Backward countryside, forward-looking state

Illinois Times

April 19, 1990

SITES

OF INTEREST

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.

Chicagology

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." 

[STILL A-BUILDING]

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

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 

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.

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated