Shoulder to the Wheel
A Downstate Chamber of Commerce
Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce
Not an obvious topic for me, but it was an honest day's work of the sort that freelancers must be prepared to take up. I don't recall who at the chamber commissioned me to do this project but I was grateful for the work. It was competently done, apart from some amateurish copy editing. As I did in those days I researched, wrote, designed, and produced the 36-page booklet.
"It rests with [Springfield men] to determine whether Springfield shall remain a mere plodding, commonplace town or become one of the most busy hives of industry in the State.” That, anyway, was the opinion of J. C. Power, the author of the Springfield Annual for 1872. The Annual was published “for the purpose of disseminating.. .important information calculated to promote the interests of Springfield” by the Springfield Board of Trade. Formed in 1869, the Board of Trade functioned from the first as a “promoter of industry,” and its accomplishments during its brief existence show it to have been a most successful one. Backed by some of the most substantial men in the community—men like Samuel Rosenwald (who later helped found Sears & Roebuck), Jacob Bunn, Benjamin Ferguson, Clinton Conkling, and others—the group helped establish such pioneer firms as the Springfield Watch Company, the Alexander Corn Products factory, and the Springfield woolen mills.
The Springfield Board of Trade disbanded only a few years after its formation, but it served as a model for Springfield commercial organizations for generations to come. Though not a direct antecedent of the 1975 Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Trade was acknowledged by a Chamber executive in 1941 as the modem organization’s “great grand-pappy.”
The Board of Trade was succeeded by the Merchants and Shippers Association. Formed in 1876, the group differed from the Board of Trade only in name; the goals, and to some extent the membership, of the two organizations were identical. As had been the case with the Board, the Merchants and Shippers Association counted among its members some 40 of what a contemporary history called “that class of reliable, substantial citizens, who uphold the material progress and the legal status of their respective communities.” They were a varied lot that shared little more than a desire to improve Springfield’s (and their own) place in the world: Henson Robinson, known for the sale of stoves, furnaces, and ironwork; H. W. Rokker, a Dutch-born printer and bookbinder; Capt. P. W. Harts, a lawyer and unsuccessful mayoral candidate who’d made his fortune in real estate; John Bressmer, a German immigrant who’d made his success in the retail trade; Samuel Prather, cattleman and contractor; Carl Helmle, another German immigrant and active Democrat who dealt in wholesale liquors. The records of the organization have been lost, but, as a 1912 history put it, “the character of the names on the list assures us that they did things for Springfield.”
The growth of the capital’s industrial economy since the end of the Civil War had been impressive, but most if not all of that growth had resulted from the investment by local men of local money in local enterprises like the watch factory, the iron works in Ridgely, and others. But local resources had been stretched to their limit by the post-war expansion, and it was obvious that the impetus for further industrial expansion would have to come from outside the county.
A new organization was needed; “doing things for Springfield” took more time and money than the limited membership of the Merchants and Shippers Association could muster. In early December of 1889, therefore, a group of concerned businessmen met to discuss ways in which they might do a better job of stimulating interest in Springfield as a manufacturing center.
The organizing group called for a general meeting. Held in the offices of prominent attorney Milton Hay, the meeting resulted in the signing of some 100 of the town’s leading citizens as charter members of the new Springfield Citizens Improvement Association. The purpose of the group, as stated in its charter, was “to encourage and promote the growth and improvement of the city of Springfield and Sangamon County.” Membership was not restricted to businessmen but was open to all civic-spirited business and professional men. “Business development” and “civic improvement” meant much the same thing to the charter members of the SCIA, who believed without reservation that what was good for business was good for the community. There were plenty who agreed with that proposition, and membership in the Association tripled in just two years.
If prestige alone had been any guarantee of success, the SCIA had a bright future. Its membership roster read like a Who’s Who of Springfield. Predictably, the cream of local manufacturing, banking, and retailing were listed, a solid and prosperous group including John W. Bunn, John Bressmer, Benjamin Ferguson, George Pasfield, Peter Vredenburgh, and A. L. Ide. Also on the list, however, were representatives of the legal, medical, and other professions, men like Dr. George N. Kreider, Judge James A. Creighton, and architect George H. Helmle.
Regardless of how each made his living, they were all men of what the SCL& liked to call “progressive and enterprising spirit.” And, like Springfield men of such spirit had done before them (and would do after them), the Citizens Improvement Association extended “a helping hand to all who have manifested a desire to locate in this city or to develop the commercial interests of Springfield.” The service, it was noted, was “cheerfully rendered without compensation or expectation of obtaining direct or personal return.”
The Citizens Improvement Association was not the only commercial association active in Springfield in the late 19th century, only the largest. Smaller associations organized to promote and protect the interests of particular segments of the local economy were commonplace. One of these was the Springfield Retail Grocers’ Association, formed in 1894. The grocers, more than 100 of them, had banded together to correct what they considered “the abuses of trade which were at that time in progress,” including the sale of goods to the public by wholesalers, use of short weights, and long hours. The Association also helped set up one of the city’s first credit rating bureaus.
In 1898 the success of the organization attracted the attention of businessmen in other fields, and soon a proposal was made to “broaden the lines of the Association under a reorganization and amalgamate all merchants into one grand organization.” In the meantime the Improvement Association, though still alive, had lapsed into inactivity; its functions too were to be assumed by the group.
The new organization, dubbed the Springfield Retail Merchants’ Association (RMA), continued the work of advancing the interests of the city’s retailers. But, as had been the case with their predecessors, the RMA members’ public spirit “cropped out here and there” and “they took in men in other vocations.” By 1902 a change of name seemed in order to reflect this broadening of membership. A vote of the membership concurred in the decision, and Springfield had a Business Men’s Association (BMA).
The group’s membership consisted (at least in the opinion of their fellow businessmen) of “the very best citizens of Springfield... men who were not only successful themselves but were successful in obtaining things for Springfield.” This last claim had more than flattery to it. In the space of fewer than ten years (1902–1911) the Business Men’s Association convinced four major manufacturing firms—the Fetzer Manufacturing, Desnoyers Shoe, United Zinc and Chemical, and H. M. Lourie companies—to set up shop in the Capital City. It was a record that had earned the BMA a boast or two; the Desnoyers operation alone (which as the International Shoe Company would be a familiar name in Springfield for 50 years) employed more than 500 people.
The first decade of the 20th century were boom years in Springfield, and the BMA saw in the steadily climbing employment figures a chance to turn the city into the “most busy hive of industry” that J. C. Powers had envisioned 40 years earlier. Typical of the group’s efforts to stimulate industrial expansion was a 1909 plan to raise a $50,000 fund to finance factory relocation. A stock company was formed and contributions rewarded with stock in the company. A contribution also bought a button whose size corresponded to the size of the contribution. Button owners were eligible for prizes—two houses, a buggy, horses, jewelry, a piano and more—worth roughly $15,000 in all.
In addition to their record in persuading out-of-town firms to relocate in Springfield, the BMA sponsored an annual state fair-week carnival, issued daily bulletins to members on matters of professional interest, and maintained a credit rating service. A 1910 newspaper article listed a few of the group’s more conspicuous achievements and asked its readers to glance over the list “and see if this association isn’t a great help in rebuilding Springfield.”
The Business Men’s Association might have compiled an even more impressive record had it not had competition from a second commercial association which outranked the BMA in both membership and finances. That other association was the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber of Commerce got its start on Lincoln’s birthday, 1906, when a group of 20 young Springfield men engaged in the fledgling advertising business gathered at the St. Nicholas Hotel for “social enjoyment and mutual betterment.” They gave themselves a name—the Ad Men’s Club—elected officers, and devoted their luncheon meetings to talk of the problems common to their trade. The talk soon strayed to larger issues, however, “matters that help advance the material wealth and prosperity of a city.” Advertising became incidental to what was rapidly becoming the club’s major function: the airing of information and opinion regarding current civic problems. The membership grew along with the agenda, and by the end of its second year the Ad Men’s Club counted 200 members.
One of the club’s first sizable undertakings was a “Made in Springfield” fair. Boosters had long argued that Springfield consumers should give first priority to goods made locally—“loyalty to Springfield first” was a phrase that found its way into more than a few after-dinner speeches—and the fair was perhaps the first organized attempt to acquaint the public with the wide range of household appliances, foodstuffs, farm equipment, clothing, and other goods made, processed, or packaged in the Capital City.
By 1908 the Ad Men’s Club was a chamber of commerce in everything but name, its membership then including representatives of all facets of the local business and professional community. On February 14, 1908, the group, now 500 strong, met in the dining room of the Leland Hotel and agreed to call itself the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.
From the first the Chamber of Commerce eclipsed the smaller and less well-endowed Business Men’s Association. (The BMA’s development efforts had always been crippled by lack of money; a Chamber official once charitably remarked that it was “marvelous” that “in this age of organized city promotion, they have been so successful with the very insufficient funds they have always had.”) In addition to carrying on with the Made in Springfield Fair the Chamber filled its calendar with an exhausting schedule of events. They helped in the organization of the Lincoln Centennial Association which planned the mammoth community celebration on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. When the Leland Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1908 the Chamber backed the establishment of the Springfield Hotel Company by raising $500,000 to finance its reconstruction. And the Chamber lobbied energetically (and successfully) against bills introduced in the General Assembly authorizing the transfer of the state capital to Peoria.
Such projects, though, were incidental to the Chamber’s main purpose. J. H. Lord spoke for the membership at large when he noted in 1909 that “The Chamber of Commerce holds the key to [prosperity] and all that is necessary to reach the desired goal is for each member to put his shoulder to the wheel, and boost with all his might and main, and let the watchword be ‘Harmony.’ “It was Mr. Lord’s contention that Springfield citizens must “blow their own horn,” and the Chamber set about to help them do just that. In the spring of 1909, for example, the Chamber announced plans for a series of talks intended to “enthuse the people of this city concerning the magnificent advantages we enjoy for business and other matters that enter into the life of a prosperous and cultured people.”
The object of all this drum-beating was simple enough: to make Springfield “the largest city by all odds in the state outside Chicago.” A Chamber speaker insisted in 1909 that there was “no good reason why Springfield” (which then counted some 51,000 people) “shouldn’t become a city with a population of 100,000 within the next ten years or even sooner”; it was a measure of the optimism with which those sober businessmen viewed the city’s future that many found even that estimate too cautious for their tastes.
But the costs of such spiraling growth were steep. Springfield’s population had nearly doubled between 1890 and 1910, jumping from 25,000 to 52,000 people, and the strains thus imposed on the social fabric were becoming plainly, sometimes violently, apparent. In the summer of 1908 a heat wave, lurid press coverage, and a decade of accumulated social and economic frictions between racial groups sparked a race riot that left seven men dead, dozens wounded, and ended only when the state militia was called into the capital.
It was a shockingly bitter outburst of racial feeling, and Springfield’s civic and government leaders were quick to call for action. The Business Men’s Association and the Chamber of Commerce for their part hurriedly met and drafted a resolution urging the governor to convene a special grand jury to see to the swift punishment of all those responsible for the violence. (The president of the BMA, E. L. Chapin, was named foreman of that grand jury a few days later.)
The explanation most frequently offered outsiders for the riots was the corruption in City Hall. Springfield had been overrun by what one local paper called “a bi-partisan gang” that ruled the city council, the school board, and the park board. Gambling, prostitution, and other forms of vice flourished openly, and a succession of reform candidates had either been beaten at the polls or bought off.
What was bad for the community was bad for business as well. The city’s reputation was being badly hurt by constant scandal, and the bosses’ padding of city payrolls forced taxes up while the quality of city services steadily slipped.
Still, the two major business groups adopted a neutral stand until the late spring of 1909, when C. J. Giblin resigned as president of the Business Men’s Association. He did it, he said, because his position kept him from freely speaking his mind about local issues. In his letter of resignation Giblin asked, “if the businessmen, who pay much of the taxes, say it is of no interest to them what power political bosses wield here in Springfield, nor how high the taxes become by their acts, then I will bow in submission and humbly ask your pardon for bringing such matters to your notice.”
While the BMA was grappling with the issue of local political reform, it and the Chamber of Commerce were confronted by the need for some reform of their own. By 1910 the Chamber’s membership stood at approximately 800 and that of the BMA nearly 400. Beyond the fact of their differences in name and popularity there was little to distinguish them. Their membership frequently overlapped; some 200 individuals or firms paid dues to both. For associations of practical men to whom efficiency was gospel, it was an unacceptably inefficient arrangement.
Thus a committee made up of three members each from the two groups sat down in the spring of 1910 to “take up negotiation with a view of effecting consolidation.” On August 1, 1910, the question was put to the separate memberships via referendum: “Shall the Business Men’s Association and the Chamber of Commerce of Springfield, Illinois, be consolidated?”
The vote was unmistakably in favor of the plan. Of those Chamber members voting, 514 voted for the plan and only 12 against. The measure was equally well-received by the BMA, where 216 voted for and 12 against. A new name—the Springfield Commercial Association (SCA)—and a new board of directors were chosen shortly thereafter, and the Commercial Association was formally incorporated on April 28, 1911. The new group boasted a membership of more than 1,000—bankers and barbers, farmers and physicians, undertakers and underwriters.
Having accomplished the reorganization of their association, the SCA turned its attention to the reorganization of Springfield city government. Cities across the country were substituting the commission form of municipal government for the old (and frequently corrupt) aldermanic form. In Springfield, as they had in Des Moines and a dozen other cities, progressive reformers were touting the commission form as the antidote to the bossism that then infected American urban politics. The commission form (which was non-partisan) would “take the politics out of government,” according to the reformers.
In Springfield the fight for the reform was led by the daily Illinois State Register and the Springfield Commerical Association. On October 17, 1910, a question was put before the membership: “Shall the Chamber of Commerce” (the SCA had not yet been legally established) “take the initiative in having submitted to a vote of the people of Springfield, Illinois, the adoption of the commission form of government?” The answer was “Yes,” by a vote of 469 to 63. In no small way because of the enthusiastic backing of the SCA, the measure was approved by the scandal-weary voters a few weeks later by a hefty margin.
Having just joined the reformers for the commission fight, the SCA in 1911 found itself on the opposite side of the fence. The issue of prohibition was again in the headlines. Spearheaded by the local clergy, local “drys” were working for the adoption of a set of measures that would impose strict controls on the sale of liquor in the capital. Under pressure, the mayor had clamped a “lid” on local taverns requiring strict observance of the much-ignored midnight closing time during the week of the state fair.
But local businessmen, including many members of the SCA, were anxious that too tight a lid on the taverns, however much it might improve the city’s moral tone, would do little to improve its popularity with high-spending out-of-town visitors. A committee thus paid a visit to the mayor and persuaded him to lift the midnight lid until 2 AM. Word of the agreement brought a rain of criticism down from the city’s pulpits. Dr. T. D. Logan, minister of the First Presbyterian Church (and himself a member of the SCA) scolded the organization for trying “to break down the barriers which should restrain vice and disorder while our city is full of visitors,” and his congregation “deeply regretted” the incident in a formal resolution.
The SCA’s neutral stand on the saloon regulation question led another local clergyman to accuse the group of cowardice for “putting business ahead of morality.” The SCA’s neutrality was dictated by a fact of business life obvious to nearly everyone, namely that what made Springfield loathsome to the reformers was what made it popular with its guests. If the SCA was putting business ahead of morality by not supporting stricter controls, it had the support of a great many Springfieldians—the measures were voted down two to one.
If the members’ confidence in Springfield’s future had been shaken by the upheavals, political and otherwise, of the 1910’s, it was not apparent in their public announcements. In 1912. for example, Nicholas Roberts (who had been appointed first executive secretary of the SCA) expressed the view of the organization as follows:
With a strong united business and social organization, with great deposits of bituminous coal, clays, and shales; with excellent transportation facilities; with a location rendering it accessible to all markets; with a beautiful park system and a splendid class of citizens, making it a desirable place of residence—Springfield should, and will, become a great manufacturing center.
Roberts’ sentiments were echoed in a 1912 pamphlet whose purpose (like that of dozens of other pamphlets published before and since) was “to acquaint the outside world with the city of Springfield, its advantages, resources and opportunities.” The author of the work, Albert W. Lewis, promised to accomplish this end “without fulsome praise or highly colored word painting,” but the product did not live up to the promise. According to Lewis Springfield was “a busy growing, ambitious community” which “in a very brief period will outstrip and surpass our fondest expectations and wildest imaginations.”
Lewis’ claims for life in the capital seem extravagant to modern ears, a textbook example of what has since come to be known as “Chamber of Commerce talk.” But anything seemed possible in a town that had more than doubled its population in two decades. To local businessmen in the years just before and during World War I, Springfield’s future as the major downstate manufacturing center was not a question of whether but when.
But the growth curves were flattening out. The city, which had grown 51 percent between 1900 and 1910, grew only 15 percent between 1910 and 1920. What was more, Springfield’s growth since the turn of the century had been matched or exceeded by a half-dozen central Illinois towns. Decatur, for instance, zoomed from 17,000 people in 1890 to 31,000 in 1910, and East St. Louis registered an astounding 26 percent population increase during the same period. Springfield continued to grow—farming, coal, and state government were enough to save it from the fate of once-thriving towns like Quincy—but the boosters’ dreams of guiding Springfield to what one of them called its “rightful place” as the Number Two city in Illinois would never come true.
* * *
On February 14, 1920, the Springfield Commercial Association voted to amend its charter to become the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Clarence E. Jenks was hired as the newly-named group’s first secretary-manager, and he immediately set about making some basic structural changes intended to revitalize the organization. Four expanded service departments (a fifth was added later) were formed to meet the growing needs of both the membership and the public.
Those departments (which were supported by a combination of special fees and contributions from the Chamber’s general fund) included: a Traffic Department, which, among other things, represented the city at freight rate hearings, audited freight and express bills, traced lost shipments, and handled claims for members; a Wholesale Credit Rating Bureau (maintained jointly with the Springfield Association of Credit Men) which assembled detailed credit reports on more than 200 city and area firms doing business with Springfield wholesalers; a Central Collection Bureau (first set up independently by town merchants) which made its services available to Chamber members collecting business debts; and a Chamber-organized Retail Credit Rating Bureau whose stated purpose (“the inculcation in the minds of our citizens the fact . . . that good credit is a valuable asset to any person”) was educational but whose real aim was to protect members against the wave of personal defaults that followed the credit-buying binge of the 1920’s. Members also received daily court bulletins listing new residents’ names and addresses, mortgage transactions, etc.
The growing complexities of doing business in the 1920’s accounted for much of this expanded program of Chamber services. But, valuable as they were to the membership, such services were secondary to what was still regarded as the Chamber’s principal responsibility: locating new industry and expanding old industry in Springfield. As each of its predecessors had done, the Chamber appointed an Industrial Development Committee. (The name of such groups changed throughout the years, but there was never a business association in Springfield that had not made the naming of such a committee its first item of business.) But the committee members—all of whom were volunteers—found that relocating firms took more than a fancy brochure and an after-dinner pep talk. Competition from other cities was stiff, and as a Chamber official noted in 1926 “the committee learned through hard experience the difficulties attendant upon making contracts with manufacturers who are contemplating a change in location or the establishment of branch plants.” Unable to do the job adequately, the committee instead hired a Chicago firm to act as industrial development agent for the Springfield chamber.
The industrial development project, like the credit bureaus, the traffic department, and the rest, was a tool with which the Chamber worked for the development of its home city. And, if no one was talking much anymore about making Springfield into the state’s second-largest city, there was much to be done to make the state’s fifth largest city a better place to live.
In the nine years between 1920 and 1929 alone the Chamber was instrumental in the completion of a half-dozen projects whose effects on the community would last a half-century and more. During those years the Chamber:
1) Pushed for the adoption of Springfield’s first comprehensive city plan — the so-called “West Plan,” named after its author, Chicago planner Myron West—and donated $1500 toward its publication. It did this by first requesting that the city council appoint a City Planning Commission (in 1922) and then lobbying for the adoption of the city’s first municipal zoning ordinances (in 1924). The West Plan, though never implemented, first suggested many projects which the Chamber would later back, including the construction of a city lake and the consolidation of the city’s rail lines.
2) Assisted (chiefly with donations) a move to buy up property in the vicinity of Lincoln’s home for donation to the state, one of the first efforts to protect the home and its environs from deterioration.
3) Supported a 1925 referendum vote providing for the construction of a new water treatment plant needed to insure the purity of the city’s water supply.
4) Lobbied in 1924 before the city council on behalf of the formation of a Playground and Recreation Department to manage an all-year-round program of "healthful recreation,” thus rectifying one of the city’s worst civic shortcomings.
5) Lent its name and assistance to the drive in 1924 to establish a sanitary district, an “absolute necessity” also supported by the city council, the Izaak Walton League, and others.
6) Assumed (at the request of the Springfield postmaster) the responsibility for securing and maintaining a municipal airport. The members raised money to buy landing lights, formed a “booster” committee to stimulate increased use of air mail by local businesses, and organized the distribution of nearly 24,000 special souvenir cover envelopes commemorating the first air mail flight into the Capital City.
The Chamber did not neglect its more routine responsibilities during the 1920’s. Attempts to entice out-of-town businesses into relocating in Springfield continued unabated. One of these projects, an “Industrial Survey of Springfield” put out in 1928, was typical of the blizzard of brochures, reports, and fact sheets published by the Chamber as part of its development work. Billed as “an earnest effort” to “present an adequate review of the industrial possibilities of this city in the most compact form possible,” the report assembled census data, sales and labor force statistics, and dozens of charts to present an “honest and scientific appraisal” to convince out-of-towners of the advantages of doing business in Springfield.
Occasionally such bait hooked a fish. In 1926, for example, the Monarch Tractor Company of Watertown, Wisconsin (makers of 5- and 10-ton crawler tractors) announced plans to relocate in the old Fetzer plant in Springfield. The firm brought 110 jobs with it. But the deal, important as it was, was followed by one even more significant. In February of 1928, the Allis-Chalmers Company announced that it had bought out Monarch as part of a diversification plan. The deal that brought A-C to Springfield had been sweetened by the Chamber’s decision to subscribe to $200,000 of A-C stock. The purchase of Monarch was described by Chamber officials as “one of the most important transactions in the industrial history of Springfield.”
In addition to its development work the Chamber continued to involve itself in a broad range of non-economic activities; in fact, there were few local improvement projects during the 1920s that couldn’t count the Chamber among its backers. The group helped the American Legion pay off its debts, aided attempts to retain the city’s minor league baseball franchise, assisted the farm bureau with its annual Hog Day contests for the best acres of corn raised locally (by “actual farmers, not by professional prize corn raisers”), contributed to the support of the Springfield Civic Orchestra, raised money to aid victims of the 1922 Beardstown flood, produced a “Pledge of Loyalty” film whose purpose was to “knit the various groups of our community into a more compact whole” (and also spark the purchase of more locally-made products), supported a $200,000 bond issue to renovate and enlarge the “vermin-infested city jail [which] is a disgrace to our city,” passed resolutions opposing carnivals, organized “Weed Cutting Weeks” for a “thorough and united attack upon weeds,” etc.
It was a busy, productive ten years for the Chamber, one of the most successful decades since its inception some fifty years before. A Chamber pamphlet released in 1926 boasted, “There will be no IF’s in the future of Springfield provided the splendid work of the Chamber of Commerce is kept going.” The Chamber had reason to be proud of its accomplishments through its first five decades. But it would take more than self-confidence to see the group—and its city—through the next one.
* * *
Hints of the impending economic collapse of 1929 had been evident in Springfield for some time; in fact, two of the area’s major industries, coal and agriculture, had been staggering through their own depressions for nearly ten years. But the hard times triggered by the stock market slide of 1929 still caught the local business community unaware.
Robert B. Irwin could not have taken on the job of managing the Springfield Chamber of Commerce at a less propitious time. Since Nicholas Roberts was named the city’s first full-time salaried Chamber director in 1908 the responsibilities of that position had multiplied several times over. Irwin inherited not only a business organization of vastly expanded scope but he inherited it at a time when economic forces would conspire to make it harder and harder to live up to its responsibilities.
Irwin came to Springfield after stints as a chamber executive in Decatur and Aurora. The first problem he faced was making good the Chamber’s debts to local banks, debts incurred in the course of attempts to underwrite the costs of local industrial expansion. At a time when Chamber membership and finances were slipping, the job was not easy, but Irwin managed to pay off the banks with interest by 1935. He also pushed through some structural changes, such as setting up the Chamber’s credit rating service as a separate, free-standing bureau and absorbing the city’s faltering convention bureau. Irwin also pioneered the “council plan” of organization by which Chamber activities and projects were grouped under appropriate councils (retail merchants council, convention and visitors council, etc.) which could give each the support it merited.
The deterioration of the economy forced other changes in the way the Chamber operated. Instead of risking time and money convincing out-of-town firms to relocate in Springfield, the Chamber tried instead to prevent existing local firms from closing or laying off workers. In December of 1932, for example. the Ridgely Farmers Bank was forced to close its doors, a victim of the banking panic which had devastated the American banking system. As the Illinois State Journal noted (in an uncharacteristic understatement), “The closing of this bank, naturally enough, created apprehension among depositors in other banks of Springfield.” Anticipating a run on the banks, an emergency call was made to St. Louis for $250,000 in cash.
When people were most nervous Herbert Bartholf, president of the Chamber, issued a statement to the press. It read:
Now is a time for level-headed thinking! Citizens of Springfield, let us think clearly!
Our banks are our greatest community assets and necessities.
In the spirit of common sense, for which this city has always had an outstanding reputation, let us stem the wave of hysteria which is an inevitable reaction in such a condition as confronts us.
Money in our remaining banks is safe. Our banks are able to meet any reasonable calls upon them. Let money you have on deposit in them stay there, and advise others to do the same thing.
Bartholf spoke for the Chamber and the Chamber, it was widely believed, spoke for the business community. Through the action of the Chamber, elected officials, and others, a full-scale bank panic was averted in Springfield and the city’s three other banks survived in good health.
To its list of chores, the Chamber staff added explaining the latest regulations issued by the federal bureaucracies engineering President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic recovery. What Chamber director Irwin tagged “Roosevelt’s ‘isms’ and codes” were deeply resented by many local businessmen who viewed them as an unwarranted interference in their affairs. As unofficial spokesman for the business community, the Chamber was frequently called upon to act as intermediary between the government and individual businessmen; the Chamber’s role in implementing the National Recovery Administration’s edicts was only the most conspicuous demand of this role.
The resentment felt by many businessmen toward the federal government was matched by the resentment felt toward business by a growing minority of the public hurt and confused by the economic collapse of the early 1930s. Thousands of Sangamon County unemployed in particular were looking for someone to blame, and a lot of them blamed business. It was enough of an issue that the Chamber began to defend itself and its members publicly. In July of 1933, for example, Irwin complained the “the minority have again muddied the waters for the right thinking business men, who suffer the usual general curse aimed against the entire business community for the acts of a few.”
The criticism was never completely stilled in spite of the best efforts of the Chamber’s staff and membership. One symptom of the edgy relationship between business and parts of the public were the stubborn rumors that the Chamber was actively preventing new industry from locating in Springfield. In 1936, for example, the Chamber responded to the charge being whispered around town that the group had kept Henry Ford from locating a factory in Springfield. Irwin scoffed at the rumor (“. . . as if anyone could keep Henry from doing anything he wanted to”) but the issue was a serious one. In spite of the fact that the Chamber had been responsible for the opening of the American Radiator, Allis-Chalmers, and Pillsbury plants, the legacy of mistrust was not easily overcome. Many people were beginning to believe that what was good for business was not necessarily good for the community.
Industrial development, never easy, was even more difficult a task in slack economic times. As Irwin pointed out in a note to the membership in 1936, “Industries thrive in and come to a community because it has certain essential factors, not because of any loud-mouthed ‘boosting’ or hot air spouting.” Proof of the maxim could be found in the case of the American Radiator property at 11th and Ash. Built just after World War I by Montgomery-Ward (with the help of a $25,000 Chamber subscription to buy the 14-acre site), the plant was intended for the manufacture of gasoline engines. But Ward’s abandoned the plan, and the 185,000 square-foot facility had lain vacant until early 1927. The representatives of the Chamber’s industrial development committee struck a bargain with the American Radiator Company who bought the plant to house their newly-developed pipe-casting operation.
But the experimental casting process never worked out, and American Radiator let the plant lay idle. Attempts by the Chamber’s staff to interest other firms in the property failed: either the owner’s asking price of $250,000 was too high, or it was too small for a large firm or too large for a small one, or the plant’s location inside the city limits (where it was subject to city taxes) scared off prospective developers. Whatever the cause, the Chamber could not find a tenant.
Still, bad as they were, the Depression years were not uniformly disastrous for local businessmen. For one thing, the Pillsbury Milling Company of Minneapolis had just built a giant mill in Springfield as part of a general expansion. Pillsbury officials had first come to town in March of 1929 and, working closely with Chamber officials W. C. Hurst and A. D. Mackie, decided to locate in Springfield shortly thereafter. As the Chamber’s newsletter noted, “Not only is the actual fact of the erection of this great mill of importance because of its . . . employment of over 200 persons . . [butl auxiliary industries to serve this great concern will spring up.” Securing a new industry the size of the Pillsbury operation in 1929 was cause for celebration. “Pillsbury came to Springfield because it is an outstandingly good city,” explained Irwin. “made so by the efforts of far-sighted and hard-working citizens . . . not the least of these the Chamber of Commerce.”
In addition to the Pillsbury opening local boosters were able to cite the opening in 1929 of Springfield Junior College, the Springfield Dry Goods Store on the north side of the square, and (in 1933) the Staab Battery Manufacturing Company’s new plant. But the biggest and most significant of the Chamber-supported projects undertaken during the Depression years was the construction of Lake Springfield. Ever since Myron West had proposed building a water impoundment on the Sangamon River in his 1924 city plan, planners and civic groups (including the Chamber) had envisioned an artificial lake on the river as the answer to Springfield’s chronic water supply problems. (The Chamber had successfully lobbied in the mid-1920’s for a bill allowing the construction of river reservoirs in anticipation of just such a project.) A succession of engineering studies eventually ruled out the Sangamon as the site of the lake, but the project went ahead after selection of a site in the Sugar Creek valley south of town.
The Chamber realized the value of the project both as a solution to the water problem and as a stimulus to the sagging local economy, and added its name to those of other civic groups backing the June, 1930, referendum on the question. If it was not quite true, as Irwin claimed in 1934, that the lake project had been “conceived and sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce,” it was true that the Chamber had contributed as much as any other single group to its successful completion.
* * *
Springfield—and its Chamber of Commerce—survived the Depression with relatively little permanent damage. By the mid-1930’s local economic news was already looking brighter. Sangamo Electric had added 75 new jobs in 1935, Allis-Chalmers broke ground in 1936 for a $1,000,000 plant on South Sixth Street, and more jobs were created in early 1941 when a federal government motor repair shop was moved to the capital.
The Chamber’s civic improvement work proceeded as well, with traffic control first on the agenda of unfinished community business. Springfield had long had one of the worst driver-safety records in the state. As one observer noted in 1940, “Hick-town behavior . . . unnecessary use of horns, wild ‘wedding chases,’ noisy commercial parades, and a general disregard for the common courtesies which mark a well-regulated city, are rampant at all times.” In fact, traffic control ranked with education and sewers as a basic Chamber concern, and it argued doggedly and with limited success for traffic planning, improved law enforcement, and installation of a modern traffic signal system.
But the city’s sporadic progress was to be interrupted again, this time by the outbreak of World War II. The central Illinois economy, only recently recovered from the trauma of the Depression, was put on a war-time footing. Millions of War Department dollars flowed into the region as Allis-Chalmers, Sangamo Electric, and two huge new Sangamon County munitions works began turning out tank parts, bomb sights, and artillery shells by the thousands.
As it had during the Depressions, the Chamber performed valuable informational and coordinating functions. Local firms were kept informed via the Chamber’s newsletters of everything from rationing rules to blackout regulations. Chamber members were also regularly urged to contribute to scrap drives and bond sales.
The war lent a new urgency to the problem of finding a tenant for the still-vacant American Radiator plant. In 1942 the Illinois State Register labeled the facility a “white elephant” and asked, “In the face of demands for all-out industrial activity as a means of winning our war against Germany, Italy, and Japan, why is the plant . . . permitted to remain idle?”
Any Chamber official could have answered that question. The group’s industrial development committee had shown the plant to literally scores of firms and made repeated trips to Washington to confer with War Department officials about putting it to use. In spite of their efforts, the factory stayed closed.
Other aspects of the Chamber’s war effort were more successful. Partly as a result of the cooperation of local businessmen, local bond drives routinely exceeded their goals; Sangamon County oversubscribed one year by a staggering $8.9 million. When the Chamber wasn’t urging its membership to “put your dollars in uniform with bonds and stamps!” it was encouraging “those desiring to equip themselves better to meet the problems of war time” to attend Lincoln Library’s newly-organized Community School for Adults. Even the more routine aspects of Chamber operations were affected by the war; war-time planning conferences, for instance, helped the city set new records for convention attendance.
After the war the Chamber found itself with another fight on its hands, this one right at home. In October of 1946 the city’s finance commissioner requested that the city council appoint a special citizens’ committee to study the city’s rapidly deteriorating financial situation. Nearly all the city’s Special Purpose funds were fast dwindling and the general fund was running a deficit of almost $40,000 a year.
The expansion of the city past its old legal limits had left residents of the central core paying to provide municipal services to thousands of people who worked in the city but lived just outside its boundaries in places like Jerome, Southern View, Mildred, and Grandview. Post-war inflation and state restrictions on local taxing authority added to the city’s financial woes.
The Chamber, realizing that municipal bankruptcy was at the very least “detrimental in the long run to the progressive growth of the whole community,” took an active part in the dissemination of the citizens’ committee’s report and recommendations. Working with the Illinois Municipal League, the county’s Public Expenditure Council, and other groups, the Chamber paid for the printing of thousands of copies of the report and lobbied hard for the adoption of its recommendations.
Money was not the only problem facing post-war Springfield. Illegal gambling in the capital had grown to scandalous proportions; one first-time visitor remarked that she saw so many punchboards and dice games that she was sure that gambling was legal in Sangamon County. Efforts to persuade local law enforcement officials (many of whom were being paid off) to enforce the law failed repeatedly. This was not a new problem; gambling had been the cause of periodic reform campaigns going back to the 1800’s. Like most other civic groups, the Chamber had not taken an especially aggressive stand against gambling. At least some of its members subscribed to the view(always publicly denied but privately acknowledged) that a little vice in a political and convention center was good for business. But by the late 1940s gambling had become too widespread, and the political corruption it spawned too deep-seated, to dismiss it as a harmless pastime.
Vice thrived in the Capital City largely because of an apathetic electorate. When a Saturday Evening Post writer published some painfully frank remarks about Springfield in 1947 (among them that “Lincoln’s mark is clearly discernible everywhere in Springfield except in its political morals”) the Chamber jumped to the city’s defense. Unlike most of the article’s local critics, however, the Chamber did not deny the existence of the problem. In the October, 1947, edition of the newsletter, Chamber director Irwin remarked:
The picture presented is not a flattering one. Most fair-minded people admit that much of what was said about Springfield’s bad government, political mindedness, civic apathy. disreputable conditions, etc. is true
. . . . What we do about it is what matters.
In another address on the subject, Irwin admonished: “Maybe more of us better be doing something about these situations rather than just getting mad!”
The Chamber took that advice. In September of 1948 a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began a series of exposes of the relationship between gambling, organized crime, and government in Sangamon County, exposes that finally shocked the community out of its apathy. Nine prominent citizens filed a petition in circuit court asking for the appointment of a special prosecutor and grand jury to investigate the charges. The Springfield Ministerial Alliance, the Good Government League, the Kiwanis Club, the county bar association—all went on record as supporting the petitioners’ aims. They were quickly joined by the Chamber of Commerce, whose board voted on September 11 to back the call for an investigation.
Director Irwin explained the vote: “In taking such actions your directors recognize the fundamental purpose of your organization as stated in its Constitution, to promote the economic, civic, and social welfare of the people of Springfield, Illinois, and vicinity’ as adequate grounds for re-stating the organization’s position regarding good government and the public welfare.” What Springfield needed was “a bit of good, honest, intelligent, value-received ‘municipal housekeeping.’”
Just as persistent as the local vice problem were the rumors about a Chamber-led conspiracy to keep new industry out of Springfield. The newsletter of May 23, 1950, carried a strongly-worded defense of the group’s record. Written by Robert Irwin, the note read:
Seems that when business slips, even a little, there’s a revival of a certain sort of silly talk in all communities, Springfield included. Unfortunately, many persons and some business people (even some members of the Chamber, more’s the pity!) countenance such talk or perhaps go so far as to believe it. What we refer to of course are the foolish tales about “the Chamber of Commerce keeping industry out of town.” Currently, the old Ford story, heard in every town and city of the land, is again floating around—“The Ford Co. wanted to locate a factory in Springfield and the Chamber of Commerce kept them out.” You’ve no doubt heard it. Or perhaps it’s the other old Springfield special about the Staley Mfg. Co. which wanted to locate here (in 1909 or thereabouts) and “Ditto, ditto, ditto.” Other stories of this sort are heard and like these, are hog-wash, nothing else. For the Chamber never kept any industry or pay-roll producing enterprise out of Springfield—in fact one of its chief and continuing objectives, on which more time and effort is spent than almost any other, is to encourage such enterprises to come here. Who hasn’t heard how Allis-Chalmers and Pillsbury and—going way back, Weavers, and more recently, John W. Hobbs Corp. and Seck-De Vault and a long list of other concerns, more than 25 of them in the last 20 years, either were encouraged to come to Springfield by the Chamber and groups of its members, or have started and grown up with the town, in that time?
Now (and I’m going to use the perpendicular pronoun, for I know the facts for the past more than 20 years) here’s how to stop this foolish talk! If ANYONE can prove that Ford, or Staley’s or any other concern proposed to located here and the Chamber of Commerce kept, or attempted to keep them from doing so, I’ll pay that person $500.00. All he has to do is prove his statements. He can try to do so this way: I’ll appoint a responsible person; he can do the same and those two will appoint a third. If he can present sworn evidence that will convince those persons that within the past 20 years (it could be longer, as far as I’m concerned) his accusations are true, I’ll pay! That’s all.
I’ve made this offer before almost every civic club and many other organizations here during the past 20 years and no one has ever taken it up (for the very good reason nobody could!). So, friends, get wise to the facts and get tough with those who malign the Chamber and you as one of its members with these silly statements. Ask them to put up or shut up—it’s time someone did.
Mr. Irwin, it should be noted, kept his $500.
The post-war period was not entirely without accomplishments, however. In an editorial in the newsletter of October, 1953, Irwin reviewed the years since the war’s end. “Springfield in recent years has had more than its share of bad publicity.” he noted, and “more than its share of hometown ‘crisis-mongers.’ “ Both made it difficult to overcome the city’s “reputation for lack of progress, which is the concern of substantial community leaders.
“But despite this,” Irwin went on, “many things are getting done.” The city council appointed a Municipal Plan Commission which set about the development of a modern street and zoning plan. The school board, which had seen two successive bond referenda fail, had managed to squeeze money for two badly-needed buildings out of its maintenance budget. The traffic situation, after years of Chamber prodding, was slowly being improved. A major extension and renovation of the city’s sewer system, “without which development in many areas was at a standstill,” had “opened the way . . . for expansion previously impossible.” The city’s moral tone had “infinitely improved” in five years. Finally, and perhaps more important, jobs in the capital, which had numbered roughly 40,000 in 1941, had swelled to some 60,000 by 1952.
In conclusion, Irwin reminded his readers to “view Springfield with open eyes and a constructively critical mind” and to not forget that “many things remain to be done in the future.” Three stumbling blocks to progress remained. An unfavorable climate for industrial development was one, the result (among other things) of bad publicity and a history of jurisdictional labor disputes. The second was a shortage of industrial sites. The third was schools.
The Chamber was devoting more and more of its attention in the 1950’s to the issue of the public schools. Springfield’s system had never been much more than adequate—as far back as 1914 surveys were pointing out chronic deficiencies in its teacher training, curricula, and physical plant—but the growing role of education in the burgeoning American technocracy made its improvement imperative. The Chamber either supported or commissioned a number of surveys designed to learn what was wrong and right with the schools, why the voters did or did not support them, what could or could not be done to improve them. It backed every reasonable building proposal put before the people and lobbied when necessary for tax hikes needed to meet new demands upon the district’s fiscal resources. As had been the case with traffic control, city planning, industrial expansion, and other projects, the Chamber was not always successful, but the intensity and duration of its commitment to better schools ranked education among the group’s top priorities.
The Chamber of Commerce was not alone in its support for improved local education. Just before the start of World War I the Springfield Manufacturers Association (which later changed its name to the Springfield Manufacturers and Employers Association or SMEA) was organized. The group was an offshoot of the Harvard Park Business Men’s Association, and at the time of a 1947 reorganization it included representatives of the city’s largest and most prestigious firms—Sangamo Electric, John W. Hobbs, Allis-Chalmers, Weaver’s, and others. In addition to tending to professional affairs, the Association’s 200 members, like their Chamber counterparts, worked for improved schools, better parking for shoppers, and expansion of the local industrial economy.
SMEA also organized a “Plae Dae” at Lake Springfield in 1948. The event, which began as “an informal summer outing for business firm leaders” attracting no more than 500 people, became a local tradition. (The event was still being staged in 1975 and average attendance at the summer get-together regularly topped the 1200 mark.)
As had been the case with the Business Men’s Association and the old Chamber of Commerce some 40 years earlier, the activities and membership of the Chamber of Commerce and Springfield Manufacturers and Employers Association or SMEA) often overlapped. The situation was further complicated by the formation of a new Industrial Development Commission under Mayor John MacWherter which was intended to perform many of the functions historically performed by the Chamber. The officers of all three organizations met in late 1953 and agreed to the idea of a merger. In December a letter was mailed to members of the groups informing them of the proposal and requesting their approval. The letter opened with this statement:
A very wonderful event in the history of Springfield happened yesterday afternoon . . . . The suggestion was made that duplication of effort through two parallel organizations was wasteful of time, effort, talent, and money. And the motion was made from the floor that the two organizations should be merged into a new, greater and combined organization.
The new organization was to have a new name—the Springfield Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI)—and a new board of directors. Those attending the organizational meeting praised the move as “a definite contribution to the betterment of the community.” There were to be other changes as well. In February of 1954 Robert Irwin, then finishing his 25th year as chief executive officer of the Springfield Chamber, announced his intention to retire. In a letter to the board Irwin stated: “It is my belief that the new organization being formed should have complete freedom in the selection of its management.” Irwin’s retirement brought to an end a 34-year career in chamber work, the “longest record of continuous service of any chamber executive in the state,” according to one report. During Irwin’s tenure the Chamber survived a depression and two world wars, helped establish a credit rating system, developed the “council plan” of chamber organization (a plan adopted by many other chambers across the country), helped expand the city’s sewer, water, street, and recreational systems, and much more.
Leaders of the new ACI resolved to match that record. The existence of two largely identical commercial organizations prior to the 1953 organization had handicapped industrial development efforts; indeed, it was precisely this lack of a coordinated development program that led many members to support the merger. First on the agenda was the rehabilitation of the city’s outmoded sewer network, a goal accomplished in 1956 with the approval of an ACI-backed sewer improvement bond issue. Next some 1200 out-of-town industries were contacted as part of a stepped-up “Take a Look at Springfield” promotion. Other projects followed: plans were finalized for the establishment of three new industrial parks totaling nearly 650 acres; a survey of existing industrial sites was commissioned; the fight for a comprehensive industrial zoning plan was renewed; and $2000 was advanced for the preparation of an in-depth study of the county’s economic base.
The 1950’s were not untarnished by failure, however. General Telephone and the Hummer Manufacturing Company, for example, both closed down their Springfield operations, and attempts to persuade organizations like the Illinois Agricultural Association to headquarter in the Capital City fell flat. Still, the ACI’s development record through its first half-decade (nearly a dozen new firms and 400 jobs) was a substantial one.
Perhaps the most significant of the ACI’s achievements in the early 1960’s was the commissioning in October, 1964, of a long-range development plan. Prepared by the Fantus Company of Chicago at a cost of $25,000, the project consisted of an analysis of factors affecting the area economy, a ten-year employment forecast, and a list of industrial prospects. The Fantus official who presented the report described it as “a vision of a better Springfield” and urged that the citizens “seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn their city into one of the finest communities.”
The Fantus report was the blueprint with which the ACI planned the building of Springfield’s economic future. Most of the organization’s major projects for the next decade—expansion of vocational education, construction of a second municipal water reservoir, establishment of a four-year college, sewer rehabilitation, the appointment of a joint civic-governmental Industrial Development Council, the construction of a convention center—were described in broad outline in its pages.
Having thus established a set of long-range goals, the ACI proceeded with the job of implementing them. In the 1960’s Springfield was going through a period of civic renewal. City government and private citizens were working to rescue the city from the apathy which had stifled its civic life since the end of World War II. In less than a decade a senior citizens center was organized, a foundation to help fund minority business was established, community college and mass transit districts were approved by the voters, the old state capitol was restored and a pedestrian mall built around it, low-income housing for the elderly was built, and more.
Springfield’s progress from what one observer called “an archtypal rural state capital” to a modern and progressive city earned it recognition in 1970 as one of Look magazine’s “All America” cities. The ACI had helped the city earn that honor as much as any other single group in the city, for it had lent its name and reputation to the support of nearly all the projects cited by the award judges. The group played an important behind-the-scenes role as well; for example, ACI director Owen Anderson was one member of the ad hoc committee responsible for the preparation of the initial application and later assisted in working the city’s formal presentation into polished form.
But, as a 1970 newspaper article phrased it, “while ACI is very much concerned with promoting the community, it is just as interested in improving it.” Among the many projects and agencies backed by the ACI were Operation Native Son, designed to acquaint local students with local career opportunities, the Capital City Railroad Relocation Authority, the Citizens School Committee, which surveyed community attitudes concerning local education, a fund drive to raise $1 million to buy land for the city’s two new colleges, and the Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority.
The ACI role in the evolution of the city railroad relocation project is typical. Ever since the publication of the Chamber-of-Commerce-supported “West Plan” some 50 years earlier, Springfield chambers had backed the idea of railroad relocation. George Preckwinkle, speaking before a public hearing on the project in 1975, could have been describing the 1925 Chamber when he noted that the group ‘‘wholeheartedly endorses and supports the need for the concept of railroad relocation . . . [and] has been an integral part of the over-all program from its very beginning, acting as advisor, financial contributor, and active supporter.”
Another signal achievement of the early 1970’s in which the ACI played a major (if unheralded) role was the selection of Springfield as the site of Southern illinois University’s new school of medicine. The group was among the project’s strongest backers, and its staff provided invaluable fund-raising, secretarial, and organizational assistance during the critical early months of planning and promoting that preceded the decision to locate the school in the Capital City.
The city’s sprawling growth through the 1960’s had rendered old legal boundaries meaningless. Economic development was no longer a matter only of concern to a Springfield Association of Commerce and Industry but a metropolitan problem that encompassed city and county areas alike. Accordingly, on December 16, 1970, the ACI board approved a change of name to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce (GSCC).
Attracting conventions and tourists to the Capital City remained one of the Chamber’s principal concerns. Because of its central location, the presence of the state capitol, and its Lincoln shrines, Springfield had played host to millions of visitors since the 1860’s and before, and the convention and tourist trade was a major industry; in 1970 alone the city hosted over 480 conventions attended by a total of more than 167,000 delegates, each spending an average of $134.70 a day while in town. It was mainly to keep the city’s place as the premier convention city in downstate Illinois that the ACT (and later the GSCC) backed the construction of a new convention center. The modern project had first been proposed in 1960 by the Capital City Planning Commission; ACT itself appointed a committee in 1963 to further study the project’s feasibility. Later, when the question of authorizing the creation of the Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority (SMEAA) was placed on the ballot, ACT worked hard for its passage. Likewise, the bond issue proposed by SMEAA in 1970 to pay for a convention center was enthusiastically supported by the group, and when that issue was defeated, the now-Chamber backed subsequent successful efforts to find state assistance for the project. In fact, the Chamber had an on-going convention and tourism program of its own for many years; in 1970, for example, its staff answered some 22,000 mail inquiries about the city and its attractions, and further encouraged visits through publication of promotional pamphlets and other advertising.
Other aspects of the local economy, unfortunately, did not show such strength. In the ten years between 1962 and 1972 (to quote one particularly sobering statistic) Springfield lost 1,200 industrial jobs (from a 1962 total of 11,500). Hoping to reverse the flow of jobs out of the Springfield area the Chamber lobbied locally for the passage of ordinances authorizing the issuance of tax-free municipal “industrial revenue bonds to help finance construction of new plants.
The decline in industrial jobs was more than matched through the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, by growth in other segments of the local economy. State government, medical care, and higher education in particular added new dimensions to the city’s economic future; the opening of SIU’s Medical School, Sangamon State University, and Lincoln Land Community College at once provided jobs and training opportunities for future job holders. Furthermore, the opening of the restored Old State Capitol and the development of the Lincoln home area by the National Park Service (both projects had received solid Chamber backing) promised to keep Springfield near the top of the list of national tourist attractions. In fact, with the U.S. Census Bureau predicting a 40 percent rise in county population by 1990 and an equal or greater rise in employment levels and earnings, Springfield’s economic future had rarely looked as bright as it did as the Chamber entered its 100th year.
But economic development in the 1970’s was no more strictly a matter of development bonds or zoning ordinances than it had been in the 1920’s. As Chamber director Anderson once explained: “Selling Springfield isn’t enough. We have to have a good product to sell.” It was in the course of making Springfield a “good product” that the Chamber and its predecessors had exerted perhaps the greatest and most lasting effect on the community. From the formation of the Sanitary District to the construction of Lake Springfield, from adoption of the commission form of government to railroad relocation, from the building of Capital Airport to the opening of Sangamon State University, Springfield’s businessmen’s associations for a hundred years have been working (in the words of the Chamber’s 1920 constitution) “to promote the economic, civic, and social welfare of the people of Springfield, Illinois, and vicinity.” ●
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture