Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
About James Krohe Jr.
For more about the magazines and newspapers
mentioned here, see Publications. For intermittently reliable reminiscences of my youth and early manhood, see Springfield boy.
A compiler of an archive of Illinois writing needs to explain two things. Why Illinois? And why writing? The answers are, because Illinois is what I knew enough to write about, because my residence and my experience of the place was my only credential, and because I knew no more congenial way to make a living.
I was born in 1948 in Beardstown, Illinois, a mid-Illinois boy from mid-Illinois parents whose families’ roots in the region date to the 1820s and early 1830s. My father is the son of local banker, my mother a daughter of a hard-luck Cass County railroader and farmer. We moved a few weeks later to the state capital, Springfield, where Dad got a patronage job as a page at the state library. We lived in a walk-up flat a block from Lincoln’s home—an augury.
I nurtured no ambition to be a writer of any kind as a boy. As far as I can recall, the only books in our house were book club editions of The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen's Childhood By Her Nanny, Marion Crawford (I didn't read it until I was in my fifties), A Child's Garden of Verse (which I never read, finding it alternately creepy and twee), and the two-volume Bennett Cerf's Bumper Crop of Anecdotes, which I read over and over and which left me with a weakness for jests that undid my future reputation as a Serious Journalist.
My interest in words was piqued less by books than by television and the thinkers, critics, and columnists who, improbably as it seems today, populated late night talk shows and Sunday morning cultural programs from the late 1950s into the '60s. In high school, I discovered magazines. They were my World Wide Web, a world in which I would always feel more at home than anywhere. As a high schooler I subscribed to New Republic, Downbeat, Village Voice, and (briefly) Ramparts, and read where I could the classic Esquire and Time—yes, Time, (parts of) which in those days was a magazine worth reading.
Working on the high school newspaper ("All the news they don't let you print") had no appeal. As a student I was bright but bored in the usual way, and nurtured gripes against the public schools that later fueled several essay-ish diatribes that resemble more than I like to admit my opinion columns for which I later became known in Springfield. My passion was not writing so much as it was preaching. I wrote what amounted to position papers because the world of course wanted to know where I stood on issues of the day, which usually meant schools. I limited my trouble-making to the printed page, however, which meant I caused no trouble at all.
Getting into print
I never had to stoop to graffiti on the walls of underpasses, but my outlets were not much more prepossessing. For a time I was reduced to submitting loony letters to the editors under jokey names—“Ernest Bombastico” was a regular contributor to the hometown daily.
In 1971, when I was a grizzled 22, two local rabble-rousers named Todd Domke and Lew Friedland started a weekly “alternative” newspaper they titled Focus. At Focus I contributed commentaries on local and national politics, did labored parodies, and—anticipating my professional future—one or two pieces of quality. These pieces were the first that reached the general public (or at least part of it) including my first column of opinion published as such. It was titled As the Crow Flies (my surname means crow in German dialect), which is a title I wish I'd reused.
While I learned nothing new about writing at Focus I did learn the rudiments of publishing on newsprint via the offset press. The newish technology made it cheap and easy for the amateur to put out something that looked like a newspaper. Everyone was doing it; they were the precursors to blogs. Focus didn't last the summer, as I recall, but I enjoyed being a blow-hard too much to stop. So, at an age when all my now-degreed age-mates were starting grownup lives, I decided to start a newspaper that was anything but grownup.
Atlantis came first, and when that sank without a trace, The Phoenix. As I would put it in a column, I and my colleagues in these ventures had figured out that what the ailing world needed was a good stiff dose of us. We offered "satire"—that is, sneering jests—and earnest long-winded commentaries. Looking at them again I see they were neither as scabrous or as fun as we thought they were at the time, just dull and stupid.
There was nothing very Illinois about these apprentice papers and while my young colleagues were excellent people and we had great fun the papers were awful, so very little appears here from that phase of my apprenticeship.
Learning the craft
Journalists today expect to learn the business at college. Once in a while I was invited to talk to local college kids. I suggested, politely, that if they wanted to become a politics reporter they should be studying history and biography, and if they wanted to cover the environment they needed to study a bit of chemistry and biology and statistics, and that the only topic a journalism degree equipped one to write about is journalism.
The publisher of one my magazines once noted in print that I had "succeeded in collecting, interpreting and synthesizing a massive amount of information and analyses on the topic and has presented this synthesis in such a way as to make it easily comprehensible to a majority of the general public." I appreciated the public praise, and I don't believe that in this case he was merely polishing up his magazine's brand. But collecting, interpreting, synthesizing, and making it easily comprehensible is just what journalists are supposed to do.
I had no formal training as a journalist, but I consider myself well-served by the training I did get, which was to read widely among the best journalists of my day. When I had the chance to do it myself, I tried to write the kinds of pieces I profited from reading myself.
Making a living
None of this work made me any money. Beginning in my mid-teens I, still unschooled, worked as gardener, janitor, bus boy, waiter, car-hop, short order cook, dish washer, night watchman, stockboy, crew member on two archeological digs, errand boy, editor, tour guide, mail clerk, commercial artist, consultant to assorted state agencies, photographer, demographic analyst, house painter, baby sitter, and one day as a gas pump jockey.
I made my first money in the trade as an advertising copy writer, book review ghost writer—I helped more kids through college than Pell grants—and an editor of PhD dissertations. As a Springfieldian looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised to realize that the first proper writing I ever did—that is, writing that was published professionally, which bore my name as author, and which earned me a grownup paycheck—was for the State of Illinois.
Always an eager improver of other people, I was a member of state and local committees of 1970 White House Conference on Youth, the Urban Needs Committee of United Way, an Illinois Department of Public Health's drug abuse program planning group, and the Committee on School Organization of the Governor's Commission on Schools.
The contacts thus made led to my being hired to write state agency publications that pertained to kids and schools—drug abuse among kids in the first case, and school district reorganization in Illinois in the second. In addition to giving me professional credentials, such projects broadened my understanding of public issues, which would prove useful. I had taken a few steps down a career path, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.
I signed up for a few courses at the new state university in Springfield, Sangamon State University, which opened in 1971. I lasted a semester, my sole achievement being a friendship with one of my teachers, Cullom Davis. Trained as an historian, he was teaching and assistant dean-ing and starting an oral history project. Cullom’s inability to say no to duty was a boon to me. He had come to learn about the long-ago race riots in Springfield but hadn't the time to write it up. With his encouragement I did it instead.
The Sangamon County Historical Society undertook in 1973 to publish a series of pamphlet essays on local history to be known collectively as Bicentennial Studies in Sangamon History. Three estimable gentlemen, Cullom, Richard E. Hart, and Robert P. Howard, populated the committee that oversaw the series. My brief report on the race riots of 1908, written at the suggestion of and with the help of Cullom, was to be the first title in the series.
Because I had some experience with publication production, I was asked and I agreed to design each booklet and oversee its production. I also tended to the marketing, which consisted of shaming local booksellers into giving us precious shelf space.
The series gave me valuable experience. Better yet, I was recommended by Dick Hart to William Friedman, the founding publisher of Illinois Times, who was trolling for talent for his new paper. Thus I was asked to contribute/advise/cheer on a real weekly newspaper then starting up in Springfield.
Making a name
Illinois Times was an eccentric weekly founded in 1975 with serious intent by veterans of big-city journalism. The paper’s founding editor, Alan Anderson—Columbia journalism school, Time and New York Times magazines—kindly said I was one of only two local contributors whom he didn't have to teach how to write. But knowing how to write is only part of becoming a writer, and I owe the paper for the opportunity to display my skills, for a title ("associate editor," granted in lieu of pay raise, which sounds so much better in a pitch letter than “freelance hack”), for contacts, and, most crucially, for confidence.
A writer needs luck as well as talent, and mine was that Springfield in 1975 saw the birth of not one worthy publication but two with which I was to be associated for decades. The second was a monthly magazine titled Illinois Issues, published by the SSU as part of its public affairs mandate and devoted to exactly the sort of wonky explorations of public issues that I savored. Imagine, writing position papers for money.
It turned out that the only credential I needed in the eyes of national editors was my mid-Illinoisan-ness. My big break as a journalist was being asked to do a cover story about farming for a business magazine out of New York City, it being assumed that of course I would know about farming. The final piece was about how three generations of farmers had transformed corn farming in the region into a high-tech, high-stakes enterprise, run by men and women as unlike their ancestors as the bungalow-sized combine harvesters were unlike the horse-drawn reapers they replaced. Like that, I had a national career, or at least a chance for one.
Making a move
I had written many pieces with a statewide focus for Illinois Issues, but one can't really call oneself an Illinois writer until he takes on Chicago as a topic. I moved to Oak Park, Illinois, next door to Chicago’s west side, in 1988. If Springfield was where I was brought up, and the West Coast, much later, was where I at last learned how to live, Chicago was where I came of age as a person and a journalist. I met interesting new people, made new friends, and had my mind exercised by new issues.
Even better, I discovered in Oak Park a true home. I rented a one-room office above a drug store with a frosted glass door and a sink in the corner where I would wash up after being worked over by editors. There was a deli across the street, a copy and fax shop around the corner. The post office and library were just blocks away; a walk to either was exactly the right length for clearing the mind or pondering a phrase. I’ve never been so productive or so happy, and would never be again.
The big city cousin to Illinois Times was the Reader, to which I’d been contributing the odd piece for ten years. The paper's larger reader base allowed it to pay its writers more. (A piece that IT could afford to pay only $150 for earned me $750 at the Reader.) Over next ten years I published sixty or so pieces in the Reader.
Chicago then had magazines like it had hot dog joints. In quick order I was asked to become contributing editor at the magazine Inland Architect, the hobby horse of the great architect Harry Weese, and at Chicago Times, a short-lived glossy monthly that I thought of as a thinking person’s Chicago magazine. I also sold pieces to Chicago Enterprise, a thinking businessperson’s magazine about economic issues, very broadly defined. I did a minor business explaining Chicago to Downstate and vice versa, but mainly I wrote about Chicago places and issues for Chicago readers.
Then, within a year or so, a decline in corporate support killed off Chicago Enterprise, the bungling of Chicago Times' businessmen doomed that magazine, and a building bust and the decline of its patron caused Inland Architect to be sold. The Reader remained robust but editor Lenehan handed the editor’s chair to someone I found less congenial. Well, I can take a hint, so when my partner was offered a post in Portland, Oregon, in 1994 I reconciled myself to becoming a non-Illinois writer.
"You can't even stay out of town"
Which I never did. As I was finishing packing up my Oak Park office— literally on the day before the phone was pulled and the keys handed back to the landlord—I got a call from Peggy Boyer Long, an able National Public Radio reporter in Springfield and briefly a colleague at Illinois Times. She was pleased to tell me that she had been named the new editor of Illinois Issues magazine, from which I had become estranged. Would I like to contribute again? (I later learned I was the first writer she called with that question, which was very flattering.) I explained that I was halfway out the door on my way to the coast. Peggy said, in effect, so what? It's not like you'll forget what you know about Illinois when you move across the state line. I was less certain of that than she was, never having moved across the state line, but an expert for hire should never confess to doubts, so I said. "Sure."
Thus was my first gig as a West Coast journalist writing about the place I'd just left. I’d already had practice writing about where I wasn't while living in Oak Park, having continued my Prejudices column for another nearly six years, writing about Springfield from my perch above Zehender’s drug store. (In those days, copy had to be sent to the office in Springfield via fax or FTP.) After I'd been in Oregon a while I applied for and was awarded a contract to write a guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (Thanks to a fine public library and the presence in Portland of one of the nation’s great used book stores—Powell’s—I was able to compile a working library on the subject as good as I would have had in Illinois.)
In short, I my mind was obliged to stay in Illinois no matter where my body happened to be. This not always entirely happy or convenient (although it gave me a helpful distance from my subject) but needs must.
Life having conspired to keep me in Illinois until I was pushing fifty, it further conspired to prevent me from staying away for very long. Twice I thought I'd left for good after trailing my partner out of state but her career opportunities kept drawing us back to Illinois. In 2009, when I resumed writing about Springfield in a new weekly column for Illinois Times, I did it from the North Shore of Chicago. By then it was easy; Google was a crystal ball in which I could spy on every corner of the capital.
In 2010 we relocated to the Bay Area, but another tempting offer brought my partner and me back to the Chicago area in 2014, this time to the western suburbs. Driving a loaded truck back east, I recalled the moment from Sullivan’s Travels, when The Girl offers to help the hapless Hero whose efforts to escape his rich Hollywood life and join the bums on the road keep getting sidetracked. "You don't know anything about anything," she tells him. "You can't even stay out of town."
The freelance life
We freelancers like to think of ourselves as individualists, but we are as alike as chickens in a coop. My experience therefore is typical of uncounted others. I addressed different aspects of my background and apprentice in the following pieces, which might be interesting to readers curious about how one becomes a wordsmith and for what they say about writing for a living.
My last words on the subject: Mothers, don't let your child grow up to be a freelancer.
I also addressed aspects of my career in columns for Illinois Times, links to which appear below.
Joining a not very exclusive club
“Prejudices” Illinois Times December 24, 1981
In which a journalist gets his own story wrong
“Prejudices” Illinois Times March 24, 1978
An education in monthly installments
"Prejudices" Illinois Times December 23, 1987
Going On... and On
One writer struggles with prolixity, and loses
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times March 22, 2012
A mere opinion-monger journeys toward Truth
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times October 6, 2011
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture