Chicago makes (up) history
See Illinois (unpublished)
A lengthy exploration of a topic that is more interesting that I was able to make it when writing a guide to curious newcomers to Illinois’s great metropolis. Chicago, like all places, made history, then as it matured proceeded to un-make it, re-make it, re-imagine it as times changed. Not only history’s events are contingent; so is our collective recording and understand of it them.
This essay, I see on reading it again after several years, is itself very much of its historical moment. Written for my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture.
Since the 1970s or so, Chicago, the town of the future that had no use for a past, finds that its past is the most interesting thing about it. An essential part of Chicago’s culture is its history—not just the events of its past, but its own sense of itself as a place derived from what it knows, and understands, about those events. The search for a meaningful past is especially difficult for a city that for so long regarded the past not as something to be learned from but merely to be overcome. Historian Donald Miller, in a 2003 interview praised the city’s “ability to reinvent itself. Its toughness. Its unconquerable optimism. And, its sense of experimentation, i.e., its refusal to be bound by old traditions.”
This aptitude for reinvention was not only a civic trait, but a personal one. Chicago has always been a place where people come to master new lives, a new language, often a new trade, and it was the future that mattered in that process, not the past. A city of immigrants from virtually every nation is inescapably a city without a shared memory. There are Chicagoans who can recite, from memory, the names of the kings of Lithuania or the genealogy of Polish princes, but who cannot tell the name of one mayor not named Daley or Washington. The four bright red stars that decorate the official city flag represent Fort Dearborn, the Great Fire of 1871, and the two world’s fairs held in Chicago; a typical Chicagoan is less likely to know that, or of the events they represent, than to know Michael Jordan’s shoe size.
Every growing city, like every growing company or institution or person, is concerned with creating a future for itself. It has yet no past to recall, but lives in a succession of presents. Cities get careless with their pasts that way, and Chicago, a new city ins every respect, was more careless than many. Consider the World’s Columbian Exposition, which is, along with the Great Fire and the gangster era, how the world came to hear of Chicago. Most artifacts of the fair were treated with scandalous disregard for the future. Scant thought was given to the possibility that this temporary exhibit would engender permanent interest. Consider the out-sized murals that decorated the Women's Pavilion, including ''Modern Woman'' painted by soon-to-be famous Impressionist Mary Cassatt. The work was panned; placed into storage after the fair, it has never been seen again.
Only a mishmash of exposition-related objects can be found here and there in Chicagoland. One is The Republic, a 1/3-scale replica cast in 1918 from the model that Daniel Chester French made for the massive statue that greeted visitors to the Court of Honor. The “Golden Lady” has stood since then at the eastern end of the Midway Plaisance on the University of Chicago campus; it was restored in 1992 by the Chicago Park District.
Germania, a statue representing Germany that stood at one of the entrances to the German section of the fair, had been built to advertise the virtues of Portland cement. Cruelly discarded after the fair and used as fill in the construction of the nearby lakefront, the work rose from the dead in 2002 when its broken remnants were found during construction work—the only surviving statue of the army of statues carved for the fair. In early 2003, the Chicago Park District mounted the Germania remains in a park shelter at 56th Street and South Shore Drive
Among the curiosities sent to dazzle fairgoers was a working replica of a Viking ship, a replica of the Gokstad, built around 890 AD. Its Norse builders intended to prove that their countrymen had indeed been able to traverse oceans in such crafts, and more specifically that it had been they, rather than Columbus, who discovered America. The Viking ship sailed from Bergen to Chicago via the Great Lakes, where it attracted happy crowds.
The vessel is by some reckoning the largest surviving artifact of the World’s Columbian Exposition. After the fair, the ship was put in the care of the Norwegian Women’s Club and later of the Chicago Park District via a trusteeship. The ship was for a time housed in the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago, then restored in 1919 and placed in Lincoln Park under a fenced-in, wooden shelter. Scandinavians in those days were still a large and self-conscious part of the city, and for years they helped pay to jeep up the boat. Attempts in the 1970s to find a proper permanent site for display failed. The hull was moved to Good Templar Park in Geneva; in 1993 the CPD gave it back to a different Scandinavian group, which disbanded, and the CPD got it back in 2000. The dragon head and tail of the ship are in storage at the Museum of Science and Industry; a few of the shields are housed in a museum in Norway, Illinois.
A ticket booth from the fair ended up in the yard of the Wright-designed DeCaro House in Oak Park, where it served variously as a garden toolshed, a rabbit hut, and now a garden folly.
At the American Indian exhibit on the Midway, a native bur oak was incorporated into a site containing a replica of Sitting Bull's cabin. The tree, improbably, remains on the spot more than a century later, standing in solitary splendor smack in the middle of the Midway opposite the original University of Chicago hospitals.
A mounted Sioux chief as rendered by sculptor Cyrus Edwin Dallin has stood since 1894 at the mouth of Diversey Harbor. Titled “A Signal of Peace,” it was first exhibited at the fair; local art lover Lambert Tree bought it and donated it for display in Lincoln Park as a monument to a disappearing way of life.
As these examples make plain, the survivors of the fair make up a collection almost as odd as the one of which they once were only a tiny part. One of those wonders was the “Porcelain Porch,” fully about 25 feet high and 30 feet wide. Technically accomplished and aesthetically ludicrous, it was fashioned entirely of china, thanks to the skill of the Royal Porcelain Factory of Berlin. Observers at the time praised it as “the most astonishing performance in the history and achievements of pottery,” which is not the same as calling it beautiful. Scenes of German landscape and legend, portraits of national heroes with statues of angels, cherubs, eagles, and pots of flowers. It is framed by four twisting pillars modeled after those inside St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The fact that it was shipped to Chicago without breaking a near miracle, and no one expected to survive a return trip, so the German government gave it to a grateful Germania Club, of Chicago after the fair, which installed it in its second-floor ballroom near Lincoln Park.
Even the Chicago Historical Society, a seemingly natural repository for Fair memorabilia, has remarkably few artifacts. Most of these are souvenir gimcracks; seeing a meat tenderizer with depictions of Columbus's American landing and the Agriculture Building on the handle is probably not worth a trip to the North Side, even if people did once think owning one was worth a trip to the South Side.
The Uses of History
Each era—indeed, each historian—contrives a Chicago history that satisfies the needs of the time. It contrives story that allow it to answer its most pressing questions, celebrates own heroes, hisses its own villains. “Chicago history has served many masters,” wrote Perry Duis in 1991.
It has functioned as a rallying point for early settlers, as a way to assure old-timers that they would not be forgotten, as a source of security in the ‘burnt city’ of 1871, and as a bulwark of identity in a multi-ethnic and multi-racial metropolis. It made money for the authors of ‘mugbooks.’ It provided background for academic sociologists and pleasureful popular reading for the multitudes. And, more recently, it has become the focus of scholars, who have examined and interpreted it in small segments. By the late nineteenth century, history began to play a role in the efforts to create a sense of celebration and civic unity amidst economic discord and labor violence.”
History’s role in creating a sense of celebration and civic unity was never more vividly, or more obviously true than the staging of World’s Columbian Exposition. History was what the fair was all about—the attempt of a city that had very little history to get some, and the attempt by its designers to direct it. That a fair stuck in the past was offered as a glimpse of the future suggested how ambivalent Chicago was about the forces that industrialism had unleashed.
History has also been appropriated from time to time to other civic purposes. Take for example Chicago’s famous cholera epidemic of 1885, which broke out after a massive rainstorm flushed polluted water out of the Chicago River into the lake, contaminating drinking and leading to the deaths of one in eight Chicagoans. It was that awful event that spurred construction of the Ship and Sanitary Canal that well and truly reversed the flow of the Chicago River.
Alas, the catastrophic epidemic never happened. There was a massive rainstorm, but a combination of factors prevented any contamination of the drinking water supply, there was no cholera, and even and the death rate from typhoid, another water-borne disease, was actually lower than usual in the weeks following the rain. The story was made up, apparently by staff of the forerunner of today’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, to excite public support for a massive (and massively expensive) new stormwater diversion project. The fable was exposed decisively in Libby Hill’s excellent 2000 book, The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History.
Duis notes in his introduction to Gem of the Prairie that accounts of Chicago’s past were still largely dominated by booster history as late as 1940. The deeds of its merchants and industrialists—Chicago’s kings and knights—its stockyards, even the Great Fire were offered as evidence of or opportunities for Progress.
Booster history had little room for the story of such social developments as the growth of ethnic neighborhoods, the struggle for food and shelter, the transformation of work, and, especially, the growth of crime. By 1940 Bessie Louise Pierce’s pioneering academic history of the city had just begun to appear, and even her work was predominantly economic and devoted only a few pages to crime. In 1929, Chicago: A History of Its Reputation, by local newsmen Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, had taken the first tentative steps toward providing Chicago with a glimpse of the people and events that the booster histories ignored.
Boosterism survives in popular accounts, although academics pursuing the fuller record about political corruption, racial and ethnic antagonism, and economic decline have been like termites burrowing away at the foundations of the city’s good opinion of itself.
It is only recently that history has become respectable enough to bore people. For most of the city’s early history—indeed until well into the 20th century—Chicago history and hucksterism were seen everywhere together. In an exhibit about one of the former’s most prized relics, the cloak worn by Mary Todd Lincoln on the night of her husband’s assassination, the then-Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University tell the story of the man who brought it to Chicago who was in many ways Chicago’s P. T. Barnum.
Charles Gunther was a Chicago candy maker with a taste for historical curiosities and self-promotion, who came up with a way to indulge both. With backers he planned a Civil War museum to be housed in Libby Prison, a notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. The fact that Libby stood in Richmond, Virginia, was only an inconvenience; Gunther had the stone building dismantled and shipped it to Chicago where it was reassembled on Wabash Avenue in 1889. (“They could dine at the Libby Prison Restaurant, on the same cobblestones where thousands of Union soldiers had starved to death only thirty years before,” reports Andrew Ferguson in his book, Land of Lincoln. “And you thought Baby Boomers invented irony.”) He later tried import the house in which Jesse James was shot from Missouri, a no doubt genuine "Uncle Tom's cabin" from Louisiana, Independence Hall from Philadelphia, even an Egyptian pyramid.
The object of such places was to astound rather than to educate. Gunther’s taste was an indiscriminate as his curiosity. If he lacked an object to wow the yokels, he simply forged it, such as "Skin of the Serpent That Tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden."
The aging candy magnate offered to give his collection to the City of Chicago if a fire-proof building was built to house it; that never happened, and Gunther’s heirs eventually ended up selling it to the Chicago Historical Society following his death in 1920. The acquisition had the same effect on that institution that the gift of Bertha Palmer’s Impressionist paintings had on the Art Institute—it put it on the map. Among 50,000 historical manuscripts were documents of Washington, Shakespeare, and Napoleon and—more crucial to the CHS mandate—Abraham Lincoln.
The Gunther documents merely continued a tradition of Lincolniana initiated by Lincoln himself; Lincoln donated the original draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to Chicago's 1864 Northwestern Sanitary Fair to raise money for troops with the understanding that it would eventually be given to the Chicago Historical Society, an act that established the Society’s bona fides as a Lincoln repository. So honored were the society’s directors that in 1868 they built a magnificent, state-of-the-art repository for it on the city’s north side, advertised as invulnerable to any disaster from the hand of man or God, “the perfect fireproof structure.” It burned to a cinder three years later, and the handwritten proclamation went up with it.
Who Owns the Past?
Just as vexing as the uses to which history is put is the dispute about who history belongs to. This has been a continuing controversy in museum practice, indeed the practice of history itself in recent decades. Every ethnic, racial, or religious group wants to own its own history and a house in which to keep it and have the freedom to remodel it occasionally to suit their own needs.
No recent controversy illustrates that process better than the rise from obscurity of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the Haitian trader who was the first known permanent settler of what became the city of Chicago. Donald Miller: “Had he not been black, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable would not have been an embarrassment to old settlers; indeed, one historian speculates that his father was a descendant of a famous French family. That is pure conjecture, but the fact remains that ‘the First Chicagoan’ was a proud and prosperous black man who lived at the head of the river for almost twenty years in a house that his white-skinned pretender was too impoverished in his old age to hold on to.”
Long ignored by history because of his race, du Sable is today celebrated because of his race. Du Sable has become a totem, a hero, a symbol in a campaign by local African Americans and others establish a significant role for blacks in the city’s history. His rehabilitation is part an attempt not only to set history straight, but to make amends for an perceived injustice.
History seldom provides the simple truths that myth-making needs. That charge that du Sable was deliberately overlooked by white historians because of his race may be true without being the whole truth. Other factors explain why du Sable lingered in the shadows of history for so long. History always is biased in favor of the sources available, and du Sable left little in the way of written record, while Kinzie had an able and energetic chronicler who recounted his exploits, and did so in English. Also, the Great Fire in 1871 destroyed the local archives in which facts pertaining to du Sable’s residence resided; historians had to ferret information scattered in dozens of out-of-town collections and the reminiscences of the pioneers themselves. It was not until the 20th century that Milton Quaife—not a du Sable advocate, but an “objective” historian of the now-old-fashioned type—piled up the facts (in his 1913 Chicago and the Old Northwest) on which du Sable’s new standing rests.
Du Sable’s many African American partisans feel aggrieved at the long denial of what they feel to be their hero’s place in the history of old Chicago. Nor are African Americans the only modern clan eager to claim du Sable as one of their own. Du Sable also was substantially involved in local Indian life, and not only as a businessman, even if Mrs. Kinzie’s suggestion that he sought election as a chief of the local Pottawatomi is dubious. Roman Catholics are eager to claim Chicago’s first citizen too, whatever his color; the Reverend Thomas Meehan, in a widely quoted article in the 1963 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, praised not his business acumen or his good taste but his piety.
Du Sable partisans are not alone in shaping history to fit their needs. Baby boomers idealize a society they perceive as one in which color did not matter, and commerce has not yet exerted a stranglehold on culture. Historians, those famous party-poopers, urge against such too-simple notions. “The multiracial settlement of the early l800s at Chicago was no utopian paradise,” wrote Jacqueline Peterson. While the village enjoyed an “easy, enveloping spirit,” racial harmony was only tenuous. What looks to us like a precocious multiculturalism in which whites lived in harmony with Indians is more likely a canny response to the same commercial imperatives that drove Chicago in later days; protecting the trade in fur required that the Indian ways of life be preserved. A Potawatomi Indian woman named Catherine, or Kittihawa, reputedly the daughter of a chief, to whom du Sable was married during his Chicago years. As Donald Miller noted about Hubbard’s mate, she was part of a female kinship networks that connected her husband to fur settlements throughout the Great Lakes and Mississippi River valley.
This kind of distortion of the character of old Chicago began with the residents of old Chicago. As early as the 1830s, the Indian past was being romanticized as Indian peoples were themselves being marginalized by the now-dominant Brits and Americans, Peterson notes, “When town dances were formalized in the 1830s and became invitation-only affairs, the locals called them wabartos or Grand Wa-ba-nos, after an Indian medicine society noted for its all-night revelries. “The name retained the native flavor” of old Chicago, wrote Peterson. “But something had changed: the Potawatomi and most of the mixed-bloods were noticeably absent from the guest lists.”
Donald Miller, in what is for the moment the best popular history of Chicago through its adolescence, takes up the theme as it was lived by one of his heroes. The protean Gurdon Hubbard—trader, capitalist, booster—won encomia from the early historians of the city. But, complains Miller,
there was more to Hubbard’s life than his eulogizers were given to mention. No one spoke of his Indian wife, Watseka, niece of Chief Tamin of the Kankakees, of his brotherly ties to the Potawatomi chiefs whose lands Hubbard’s fellow Yankees stole to establish legal claim to Chicago, or of his friendship with flinty, hard-drinking French Canadians and mixed-bloods who were the real first Chicagoans—not the Protestant old crowd who packed the pews on the day of his funeral. This was a part of Hubbard’s life, and of the life of their city, that his old friends either romanticized or ignored entirely.
If an injustice has been remedied by elevation of du Sable to the top of the list of Chicago’s People Who Used to Be Important, another may still need fixing. Women remain as invisible as black people used to be in accounts of Chicago’s past. That women played a part in Chicagoland’s history goes without saying. The dispute over the years has been whether that role was significant enough to merit attention by historians. For decades it was not. Denied a say in public matters by not having the vote, held legally inferior in all questions save those of child rearing, women made lives for themselves in the interstices . . . often creating new institutions and new professions in the process.
The result is that women, while always present, are a shadowy presence in the histories of early Chicagoland, with a few exceptions. Among the heroes of the Fort Dearborn massacre were women such as Rebekah, wife of Captain Nathan Heald, and Mrs. Margaret Helm. It is Mrs. Helm whom sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith in 1893 portrayed fighting off a tomahawk-wielding brave in “Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument” or “The Potawatomi Rescue.” Generally, those that emerged from the murk of the past were daughters or wives of conspicuous men to whose success they often made contributions only lately recognized.
Few statues, alas, stand to the uncounted women who were dark-skinned or whose names ended in vowels who also fought for their survival against different kinds of foes. A good example are the Native American women who wed French Canadian metis, providing the men with access to trade networks by virtue of their kinship with wives’ clans, among other services.
One of these long-invisible women was Archange Ouilmette, the Potowatomi wife of trader Antoine Ouilmette, was granted nearly two square miles of land on the north Lake Michigan shore now occupied by Wilmette and Evanston as a reward for her aid to whites during the Fort Dearborn Massacre. The crowds that took part in the “strikes” in the 1870s—a sporadic series of inchoate worker uprisings—not only included but in some cases were led by women, who impressed more than one visitor with their ferocity and the strength they showed in fending off cops. Etcetera.
As life in Chicago took on less vivid tones, middle- and even working-class women withdrew into the anonymity of the home. The exceptions were the wives and daughters of the local elites, especially its business elites (of which there was scarcely any other kind in Chicago decades). These women of privilege were not only visible, their visibility was the point of their existence as debutantes, hostesses, and patrons. (Some part of these glittering careers is owed to the mostly German and Irish women who washed and cleaned and cooked for the city’s middle and upper classes. Without them these women would not have had the time to devote to “improving” the city’s social and cultural life.)
The 1960s was an era in which victims of injustice were eagerly sought out, both to right old wrongs and to provide young historians the raw material for a career. Working class women in particular came to be portrayed by historians as victims, or as heroines of hearth and home, usually through some form of cooperative effort that shamed the selfish, grasping ways of the menfolk. Such invaluable works as Women Building Chicago were meant not only to restore women to the city’s history, but to restore Women to History.
History as Entertainment
Showing visitors what a great town Chicago used to be has become an especially bustling version of what some have dismissed as the “yesteryear industry.” Consider its two biggest tourist draws: architecture and the blues. People used to come to Chicago and marvel at the buildings of a kind that no one else was building; today they marvel at the buildings of the kind that that no one else builds anymore. The successful blues clubs in today’s Chicago are far from the South Side neighborhoods where the style blues arose. Instead they are on the North Side or, lately, downtown, where they entertain tourists drawn by the city’s busy beating of the drums as the “home of the blues.”
Such venues can be understood as pop culture museums. The bands’ endless replaying of blues standards is reminiscent of the Chicago Symphony’s beating Brahms to death in subscription concerts, or the Lyric Opera’s reliance on the warhorses of that repertory. Just as those classical works recall an age long dead, so the blues evoke for nostalgists and tourists a Chicago that is no more.
Tour guides specializing in the scenes of famous crimes do good business, in spite of the fact that virtually none of the landmarks of the great gangster era—the hangouts, the nightclubs, the bordellos—remain standing. One firm offers tours led by guides wearing gangster attire and “talking the lingo” who escort visitors around town in an imitation “gangster car.”
Close enough for tourism. As noted, 1995’s City of the Century by Donald Miller is the best of the general histories of Chicago aimed at the literate public, even if his account stopped in 1893. It sold respectably for a regional history and was the basis for an equally well-regarded PBS documentary about the city. But the book that got people talking came out several years later—Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003), which could have been subtitled, Jack the Ripper Goes to the Fair. For this novel in historical disguise, tut-tutted the Encyclopedia of Chicago History, the author “arranges facts, suppositions, and invented scenes to meet the expectations of historical fiction.” He also thus put it on the national best-seller lists.
The Relevance Industry: The New Chicago History Museum
How to package history so it appeals to a public whose taste in narrative runs toward the soap opera, the beach novel, and the recovery saga? It is a problem that confounds museum administrators confronted with declining audience numbers. Museum exhibits of the traditional kind must be studied, not merely looked at, the visitor is—usually—not allowed to touch the artifacts, and decorum is expected, if too often not required. None of these things recommend such places to the general public.
Changing the ways history gets displayed has it its own interesting history. The traditional history museum has been reinvented several times since the turn of the 20th century alone. The messages didn’t change much, but the telling did, as museums sought to entice the visitor and speak to her in her own language. From objects entombed in glass cases, exhibits progressed (or at least changed) to video loops and interactive displays that owe more to television than the lecture hall.
Dismaying, then, that innovations in telling about the past coincided with a steady drop in public interest in the tale, as indicated by steadily falling attendance over the decades. The answer has been either to make history more “relevant” to the museum-goer, to make it more dramatic, to make it more “fun,” or all three. The Disneyfied Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield opted for the dramatic and the fun, with mixed results. The Chicago-area’s principal repository of history opted for relevance.
Chicago’s oldest cultural institution, the Chicago Historical Society was founded by the city’s elites in 1856. As described above, the CHS became a serious museum—meaning a museum with a permanent collection—in the 1920s, with the acquisition of the collection of Charles Gunther. It became a serious intellectual place in the 1940s, an up-to-date exhibit space in the 1970s, and a determinedly multi-cultural place in the 1990s. Along the way what had originally been a museum of U.S. history in Chicago—in which the city was significant because it embodied the story of America—turned itself into a museum of Chicago.
At its founding, its mission was to foster an appreciation for local and national history. Perry Duis has explained what this meant. An “appreciation for local history” meant preserving the story of the contributions made by the founding members’ to the city’s developments. An “appreciation for national history” meant instruction for its immigrant citizens in Americanism, of which the lives of the elites were assumed to be models.
In the 1960s, the CHS became alert to new issues. The museum was changing, owing to the deaths of the wealthy patrons, or rather to the death of patronage on which it had always depended. Its new reliance on foundation grants and ticket sales for revenue meant it had to attend to new constituencies with new ideas about what history museum ought to be, indeed about what history was.
And the world around the museum was changing. History had come to be seen as the means by which the powerful had kept their hold on peoples of color and on the lower economic classes, by the telling of stories that justified that social order. Activists of a dozen stripes sought to liberate themselves and their peoples not only in the present but from the past.
In 1973, a group of Native American activists protested the racist stereotyping of the Fort Dearborn Massacre statue and demanded a role in deciding how museums interpret individual and community experiences. The statue in dispute was the above-mentioned “Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument” by Carl Rohl-Smith. This controversial and much-traveled work originally stood at 18th and Calumet, close to where the attack occurred. Suffering there from exposure, it was moved indoors in 1931, to the lobby of the CHS building at Clark at North. The powerful work made a grim but not wholly inappropriate prelude to Chicago history for visitors, but as the years went by it became politically charged. It depicted an act of mercy by a Native American, but what stuck in the mind of most visitors was the horror of the attack that they were thus reminded of. Thus it was that offended American Indians gathered at the Society in the 1970s to protest their people’s depiction as “war-like savages.”
In narrow terms it was a feeble objection. Of the two Indian figures in the work, one is staying the hand of war, and if the other warrior is indeed depicted acting as a war-like savage, it was because war-like savagery is what happened that day. The argument of course was not that this statue lied, but that it was this particular event that was chosen to be depicted and displayed in the temple of Chicago history. No statue anywhere in Chicago, for example, depicts the acts of war-like savagery directed by whites against Indians, to say nothing of the persistent disregard of their own treaty obligations. The winners, it might be said, carve the statues.
Whatever the historical merits of the protestors’ case, they had public sympathy on their side. By then, more and more whites had come to see the massacre as a warranted if futile retribution by Indian peoples against a hostile occupying force. The protestors demanded removal of the sculpture; what they got was a new subtitle, The Potawatomi Rescue, that aimed to make clear the fact that not all Indians on that day, at least, acted like savages. But by any title, the work was a complication if not an embarrassment, and in 1991 the sculpture was returned to near its original site, in a park south of Glessner House Museum at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue. (Alas, Chicago’s weather is no kinder to bronze today than it was a century ago, and the statue was taken off the streets again, this time to be put into storage by the city.)
The protesters were not representative of the museum-going public, and it is not clear whether they even were representative of the larger Native American community. The complaints rattled the CHS nonetheless, as it was by then desparate to cultivate new markets which consisted largely of precisely those peoples whose stories, like those of the Indians, had been slighted or distorted by the museum in the past.
The key to unlock the enthusiasm of publics long shut out of museums, both in front and behind the exhibit walls, was to invite them in. This would be done by transforming museums like the CHS from temple to forums, as one critic put it. The “Great Man”—long assumed to be the principal agent of History—was replaced with the People. A new generation of historian had concocted a new history for the U.S. and its second city. The history that mattered was the history that the rich had never allowed to be told, including the true story of the rich and their depredations. And who better to tell it that the academic historians, who brought an inclusive, democratic, anti-establishment, anti-sexist, and anti-racist agenda to the business of interpreting the past?
Beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s, the CHS under several directors, underwent a series of reorganizations and re-staffings. The intent was to make the CHS’s collection and exhibitions policies more collaborative and inclusive, the institution itself more corporate in organization and more commercial in approach. Librarians and gentlemen scholars were replaced by academic historians. As for the telling, the singular was replaced by the everyday, human stories with social processes, all on the assumption that what people want most to learn about is not the Past but themselves.
None of which seemed to matter much to the public. By 2005 the Chicago Historical Society Museum had to lay off staff in the face of deficits caused largely by falling attendance, even though the number of tourists visiting Chicago had never been higher.
The museum leadership reasoned that the public was not bored by the new history, but that the history the CHS had offered so far was not new enough. The museum closed for a year while it undertook a wholesale reinvention. It would offer new kinds of exhibits, organized in new ways, devoted to new topics. Touted as a reinvention, it was merely a further refinement of a process that by then had been underway for a generation. Exhibits would be more thematic and more inclusive. They would rely on media rather than static displays. They would explore such the global connections of the city economy, recall how the city responded to moments of crisis, from the Great Fire to the 1919 race riots and the political riots of 1968. The history of the common people would be offered in a gallery devoted to the city's neighborhoods that will touch on the roles played by race, religion, and politics. And the CHS—which has mounted virtual exhibits for years on the Web—offers visitors another form of virtual history—a replica of a 1930s blues club in which visitors may sit at cabaret tables to see and hear the city's rich history in the development of jazz.
“Inclusiveness” at the new CHM is not limited to ethnic groups and social classes of the sort that were too long ignored by traditional historical accounts. The programs and exhibits also are more geographically inclusive. In 2007, the museum offered its first-ever exhibit on a Chicago suburb, “Schaumburg: From Farmfield to Woodfield,” which marked the first time that “Chicago” as universally used was acknowledged to include its hinterland.
The Chicago museum gave History back to the People, in other words, but the People didn’t seem very interested. The turnstile count at the CHS steadied for the first year of the new CHS, boosted no doubt by curiosity-seekers and by vigorous promotions associated with the re-opening. In 2007, it posted attendance of 201,952. That was its highest since 257,713 toured it in 2000, but it was still fewer people than attended any of the city’s two major art musums, its aquarium, and its museums of anthrology and science.
Journalist Andrew Ferguson had happily toured the CHS’s old Lincoln dioramas as a boy. He was less enamored of the new approach in which visitors were assumed to be interested only in their history of their own. Lincoln as now presented was an extraordinary dead white, midwestern, heterosexual, male, but he was still a white, midwestern, heterosexual male.
What if a woman who’s white and lesbian and northeastern and alive comes to the museum? Or a live black rich guy from the Southwest, or a breathing Hispanic homosexual from Alaska? By the curatorial logic of new history, such people should have no interest in Lincoln, not sharing with him the proper income level, melanin count, genital profile, sexual proclivity, or ontological status.
Critics of the conventional museumology have deduced from falling attendance that Americans new and old are not indifferent to history, only indifferent to other people’s history. It may be that in making history politically and intellectually correct, museum administrators risk losing its audience. Few people want to be instructed by the past. Rather they want to be thrilled by it, awed by it, amused by it, justified by it. This offends many academics, but with school kids it goes down a treat.
Making It Fun
Making history “relevant” is not the only challenge facing historians of every stripe. How does one make history, which is unavoidably about dead people and often dead places, “come alive.” One solution, essayed by the CHS, is to try to turn it into something of today, to explain the past in the context of today’s events rather than, as it was for so long done, to explain today’s events by reference to the past.
A more literal (and more popular) approach is “living history.” The enactment of historic events by locals in costume, to varying degrees of fidelity to the facts, has along been a feature of local civic anniversaries and the like. Of late they have taken on careers of their own, being—for the moment—a new species of family recreation that offers something educational, and thus appeals to suburban parents who find that an educational sauce makes all manner of kiddie fun more palatable.
The McHenry County Conservation District in 1989 first held event named the Kames Rendezvous. In 1990, the event was renamed Trail of History to reflect the increased focus toward living history interpretation. living history interpretive event. Interpreters from across the country portray and demonstrate life as it was from 1670 to 1850 in the former Northwest Territory. Recent years been as many as 140 encampments. Medicine show, tellers of tall tales, demonstration of military tactics during the French and Indian War
The 80-acre island in the Des Plaines at Romeoville known as the Isle de la Cache is a museum to this multiculturalism, 18th century style. The focus is on Native Americans –who provided the French access to the beaver lands to west and north—and the French, who provided the Native Americans access to the markets of Europe and to the grade goods. Isle de la Cache was one of the places where such exchanges took place.
From 1988 until 2006, re-enactors dressed as early 19th century fur trappers, settlers, craftsmen, and entertainers gathered at the Columbia Woods Forest Preserve in Willow Springs for the I&M Canal Rendezvous. Sponsored by the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor Civic Center Authority, the Rendevous sought to recreate (within sensible limits of period accuracy) the annual meetings when voyageurs gathered along the banks of the Des Plaines River to barter supplies for pelts brought in by Native Americans. The voyageurs amused themselves with boozing, fighting, and racing canoes, but the aim of the re-creations are more sedate, and much emphasis is placed on the educational value of the public interacting with re-enactors playing the parts of witnesses and participants.
Dwindling attendance led to the event’s cancellation. In 2007 a new Des Plaines Valley Rendezvous debuted. Sponsors tried to liven the event in part by making it more inclusive (and, in the process, more historically accurate) by including an authentic Native American village to go along with pretend French voyageurs.
History Under Glass: Historical Museums in Chicagoland
History is little taught in schools, and television treats it as a form of reality entertainment. The principal medium for teaching history’s lessons to the general public is today the museum in all its many forms, from the neighborhood museum in the city, the local or county history museum in the county, specialty museums that focus on ethnicity or professions or pastimes or specific events. The following catalog is far from comprehensive.
Local History Museums
For artifacts and displays that convey the grander sweep of Chicago events, one must visit Lincoln Park, home of the Chicago Historical Society. However, the region is dotted with dozens of local history museums. Most are dedicated to recalling the history of a neighborhood, the town, or county, although a few also attempt to preserve bits of it as well. Most of these worthy organizations conduct home tours and neighborhood walking tours throughout the year and support modest publication programs.
The founding of a local historical society is a predictable marker of a maturing civic consciousness. Many were formed to save a local landmark. The impulse to save such structures is not often architectural (although architectural merit is usually advanced as a rationale when it comes time to write a grant request). It is fair to say that when a Queen Anne house is saved it is not because Queen Anne houses are thought beautiful, but because it is old. Whatever the motive, success in saving such buildings leaves local historical societies stuck with old buildings of no obvious utility, so they turn them into museums.
Thus it is that while art museums that deserve the name can be counted on one hand in the Chicago hinterland, virtually every suburban town has a museum of local history. Local history museums usually are set up in the house of the local grandee, but in Chicagoland they also are found in old railroad stations, former cable car shelters, and fire houses. One of the more unusual is the Hoffman Tower Museum, operated by the Lyons Historic District out of the eight-story Hoffman Tower, a castellated concrete whimsy built at the turn of the 20th century by Lyons businessman George Hoffman to attract customers to his commercial picnic grove along the Des Plaines River.
Such museums are seldom more than cupboards of civic bric-a-brac. They display artifacts that often not worth the work that volunteers put into acquiring them—or, truth be told, the trouble visitors must take to see them. Collections can be politely called eclectic. At Arlington Heights, for instance, if one is bored by the doll collection one can turn to the hands-on exhibit of construction techniques. The Aurora Art and History Center exhibits range from astronomical clocks to antique bicycles. Waukegan Historical Society’s collection includes antique toys, Jack Benny's vaudeville trunk, and the first women's bathing suit worn in Waukegan.
The neighborhood museum often is the last resting place of local cranks and collectors who happened to live there. The pride of the Edgewater Historical Society is World War II memorabilia from an Edgewater bricklayer who worked on some of the high-rises on Sheridan Road. Others ring new depth to the term “local.” The Irving Park Historical Society museum on Irving Park Rd. offers memorabilia from Carl Schurz High School. The museum opened by the Norwood Park Historical Society in the 1833 Noble-Seymour-Crippen House includes a young woman's scrapbook in which she tells of rides at Riverview that made her dizzy and other personal experiences. The collection of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society includes terra cotta fragments from the Moorish-style Granada Theatre that once stood on Sheridan Road and vintage photos of the vegetable farms and the greenhouses that once dotted the area. grew flowers that once flourished there.
On the South Side, the Ridge Historical Society, which devotes itself to the past of the Beverly, Morgan Park and Washington Heights neighborhoods, runs a house museum on Seeley Avenue that offers archives, some vintage objects and clothing and water colors from the 1890s including one depicting Chicagoans who used to come to Beverly to pick armfuls of flowers in a daisy field. Southeast Historical Society (originally the East Side Historical Society) was founded in 1977 to preserve memories of Hegewisch, South Chicago, and South Deering; the group prepared a video of the local steel industry and has tended to graves of local pioneers and erected historical markers; it also runs the James P. Fitzgibbons Memorial Museum, which opened in the Chicago Park District’s Calumet Park Fieldhouse at 98th Street and Avenue G in 1985.
A few of Chicagoland’s local history museums are much more than a community storage closet. Affluent areas in both the city and suburbs have the means and the civic vanity to maintain ambitious local history programs. Members of Chicago's Hyde Park Historical Society, for example, serve as docents, publish an excellent newsletter, and sponsor exhibits and programs of historical interest. The Wilmette Historical Society offers walking tours and lectures and maintains collections of photos and documents and artifacts. (The last includes art glass made in Wilmette, WPA murals, the medicine bag of the Village's first doctor, the surveyor's compass used to lay out Wilmette's first streets, and Native American artifacts). Its quarters in the in the former Gross Point Village Hall, built in 1896 and restored in 1992. It and a new wing completed in 2004 offer room enough for several permanent exhibits.
The Lake County History Archives is maintained by the Lake County Discovery Museum and is available to the public for research. Among the holdings are picture postcards and photos of Lake County towns and resorts (including the former U.S. Army base at Fort Sheridan), materials pertaining to the career of Waukeganite Edward Amet, inventor of the first practical 35mm motion picture projector, and various Civil War papers of the 96th Illinois Regimental Volunteers.
Just as a town with a stagnant present dreams of a busy future, so a town with a hectic present dreams of a quieter past. Several such suburbs are finding it in the “history village”—a collection of period structures of various types, reconstructed or moved from original sites. They are popular in part because ghetto-izing historic structures on a single plot assures their protection, they offer one-stop shopping for the local history consumer—and they free up the buildings’ original sites for redevelopment. Win-win.
There are several history villages in Chicagoland. In Union, the McHenry County Historical Museum displays a comprehensive collection of preserved buildings, including an 1847 log cabin, an 1895 one-room schoolhouse, and, unusually, a 20th Century modern tourist cabin. The Arlington Heights Historical Society and Museum offers a replica of the log cabin of the town founder on grounds that also are home to an 1882 Victorian house and coach house and the owner’s soda pop factory. Pioneer Settlement is an open-air museum that displays Will County Historical Society’s collections of early buildings, which include a railroad depot, mid-19th century homes, and an 1830s cabin thought to be Will County’s oldest. The Deerfield Area Historical Society Historical Village consists of five historic buildings: the Caspar Ott Log House from 1837, which is considered the oldest building in Lake County at least by people who don’t have one in their town; the 1847 George Luther House (which houses Society offices, a Village Store, and rural Post Office); a fully furnished 1854 Farm House; and the inevitable Little Red School House (this one a replica) which entertains the town’s fourth graders who spend a day there each year learning that the 19th-century was way different from the 21st.
What Oak Park is to Prairie School architecture buff, what Woodfield Mall is to the shopper, Naperville is to the fan of the outdoor history museum. A local woman in 1939 deeded her family's Victorian-era mansion and grounds to the City of Naperville with the stipulation that the house be maintained as a museum. The 13 acres immediately adjacent to the house proved a useful spot of open shelf space when the Naperville Heritage Society needed someplace to put the1864 Gothic Revival church in 1969 that had to moved to escape the wrecker’s ball. During the next ten years, more than 20 historically significant structures were relocated there and restored to their original appearance.
Not an imitation village a la New Salem, Naper Settlement Museum Village is as its name suggests, an outdoor museum of period building types. A reconstructed Pre-Emption House serves as the visitor center at the 13-acre site, which is home to 25 other buildings that were moved or rebuilt on the site—a post office, schoolhouse, farmhouse, farm hand’s cottage, fire house, smithy, and other buildings typical of the 19th century town. Among them is an Evangelical Church originally built for the German immigrant community on land donated by town founder Joseph Naper, which is touted as the oldest religious structure in DuPage County. The 1883 Martin Mitchell Mansion, on whose grounds the collection stands, is still there too; listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it and its carriage house are currently under restoration. The Settlement also maintains a permanent collection of more then 20,000 objects and archival materials pertaining to local history.
The most sophisticated of these assemblages make some attempt to use the buildings to teach lessons. At Naper Settlement, all of the buildings are staffed by trained volunteers in period costumes. How rigorously accurate is the interpretation can be inferred. Visitors to Naper Settlement are promised that their pulses will slow and their breath come easier when they step into “our village” as “the hassles of everyday life are forgotten inside our gates.” This is possible of course only because the rather more considerable hassles of everyday life in 19th century are not depicted at all.
Some Chicago neighborhoods are themselves outdoor history museums. The best example is Pullman, the model industrial town on the South Side. If the accounting of the industrialists attached no value to the natural history of the area, neither did it see much value in saving its human history. While the neighborhood was by no means derelict, the land had more promise with no town on it. During the 1960s, business leaders in the nearby community of Roseland urged that the old town between 115th and 111th Streets—since 1971 a National Landmark District, the highest historic status awarded by the National Park Service—be leveled so that Calumet Harbor could be expanded.
Residents rallied via the new Pullman Civic Organization to stave off the disaster. Pleading by residents resulted in various official protections—State Landmark status in 1969, National Landmark District in 1971 (joining the likes of Ellis Island and Monticello), a City of Chicago Landmark in 1972 (Pullman south of 111th) and 1993 (the northern end). Pullman is the only Chicago neighborhood that has been designated a National Historic Landmark in its entirety.
Unfortunately, fires are no respecters of official historical status. The Pullman factory water tower and powerhouse were torn down in 1957 after being damaged by fire. Market Hall was ruined by a 1972 fire; the next year a fire gutted what was left of the colonnaded buildings that, with the Market Hall, made up Market Square.
However, most of the 900 19th-century residences—mostly brick rowhouses—remained standing, and Pullman’s town has since been restored to fitful health as a community. Hundreds of houses have been renovated and restored by their owners. Beginning in 1973, the Historic Pullman Foundation acquired several of the town's public buildings: the Hotel Florence (sold by the HPF to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 1991, which had the money to fix it up), the Market Hall (now a gallery of shop space at 112th and Champlain), and the Historic Pullman Center. In 1991 the State of Illinois also purchased the derelict Pullman Factory and Clock Tower buildings; the latter were intended to be the centerpiece of a museum to celebrate Pullman's industrial and labor heritage.
Some preservationists have called the shuttered Pullman works one of the top 10 sites for 19th Century history in the U.S. In 1998, a fire wrecked the main factory building and its clock tower; the tower was to the neighborhood what the Water Tower is to North Michigan Avenue (and handsomer), and its ruin left onlookers in tears. Seven years after the fire, a promised new roof and windows had not been installed by the State of Illinois, nor was the landmark clock tower of the Administration Building rebuilt.
Sadly, restoration work has proven troublesome for both owners. Market Hall has yet to be restored; work to clean up the fire damage was not begun until 1999, although streetscape improvements to the surrounding square have been undertaken by the City of Chicago. After years of delay the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has only stabilized the fire-damaged factory, and the tower and clock were not rebuilt until late 2005. The Florence Hotel is closed to the public during a lengthy improvement program by the state.
Specialty History Museums
The buff is to local history what the fermenting bug Saccharomyces cerevisiae is to wine-making—the mostly invisible agent that makes good things happen. The zeal with which such people set about making it plain to the unbeliever just how exciting trunnion bascule bridges or old streets cars really are has left Chicagoland with a museum-quality collection of specialized local museums. (Even disasters have their own buffs. The Eastland Memorial Society maintains what it calls the largest collection of Eastland artifacts in the world at 310 S. Racine in Chicago.) While most of them offer depth rather than breadth of focus, and some are not even history museums per se, they have much to offer to the history-minded visitor.
In days past, the story of a business was the story of its founders, who sometimes sought to preserve it out of nostalgia or vanity. But whatever its rewards for vanity, archiving history does nothing for the bottom line. These days, “company history” is a few paragraphs on the company Web site explaining its career before it was bought by present owner.
There are exceptions, of course. The McDonald’s Corp. famously has preserved its first drive-in restaurant, in Des Plaines. The Walgreens Company is unusually conscious of its historical heritage. It established Walgreen Drug Stores Historical Foundation in the 1980s to set up a formal process for collecting and documenting the company's history as the corner drugstore recedes past memory into myth. In 1986, the Historical Foundation unveiled a reproduction of the first Walgreens drugstore on the corner of Cottage Grove and Bowen avenues in Chicago, complete with replicas of turn-of-the-20th-century products and packaging, at the Museum of Science and Industry’s "Yesterday's Main Street" exhibit. Such historical self-consciousness is sometimes hard to distinguish from the better sort of marketing, and company accounts of their own pasts cannot usually be counted on to be frank. But in a city that devoted itself for so long to getting, making, and moving, much history is left in the hands of its businesses.
The North Shore’s surprisingly rich military history is the subject of two museums. The Great Lakes Museum at Waukegan’s Great Lake Naval Training Station dedicated to telling the story of this, now the only "boot camp" training camp in the United States Navy (including the expanding role of women in the Navy) through uniforms, photographs. The Naval Air Station Glenview Museum features a growing collection of artifacts and photos from the service men and women who served in all five branches of the armed forces stationed at the base during its 59 years of operation. Artifacts include maps and pictures and models and an engine recovered from a World War II Avender dive bomber that crashed into Lake Michigan during training—unfortunately a reminder of the experience of more than a few rookie pilots based at Glenview.
Fire-fighting exerts a perennial fascination. Plans are afoot to turn the station used by Chicago Fire Department's Engine Co. 18 at 1123 W. Roosevelt Road, into a home for the Fire Museum of Greater Chicago. Elgin's Fire Barn No. 5 Museum is housed in that century-old station at 533 St. Charles Street. The Aurora Regional Fire Museum is housed in that city’s former Central Fire Station.
Machines that clank and hum and move have played essential roles in Chicagoland’s rise. Maritime history is conveyed at the Grosse Point light in Evanston; the keeper’s house is Chicagoland's only maritime museum. And while the Illinois & Michigan Canal barge was not quite as romantic a craft as the Great Lake schooner, it is a vessel that carried a lot of history; the Illinois & Michigan Canal Museum explains it in the original 1837 canal headquarters building in downtown Lockport.
Downtown visitors can learn more about Chicago’s famous bridges from the State Street Bridge Gallery, a museum located in the same space as the equipment used to raise the State Street Bridge, and the Michigan Avenue Bridge Museum, similarly lodged in the southwest tower of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
No aspect of Chicagoland transportation history—indeed of Chicagoland history in general—has inspired more museums than railroading. Lisle has its Depot Museum, as does Batavia; there is one in the Grossdale station in Brookfield. The West Chicago City Museum is in effect a railroad museum, because of the central role played in that town by the railroads. The region has not one but two collections of vintage rolling stock from Chicagoland’s main line, interurban, commuter, elevated, and trolley lines: the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin and the Illinois Railway Museum in Union in southwest McHenry County. (While the replica of McDonald's #1 Store in Des Plaines, which houses a museum about that chain’s very first auto-oriented restaurant, the automobile age has not yet itself inspired any museums.)
Some of Chicagoland’s history museums are of national significance, or at least have as their subjects people, places, or phenomena of national significance. The Jane Addams' Hull-House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It is housed in the two original Hull-House buildings left standing by the university when it built its new campus.
Christian evangelism owes much to Chicago, if only by providing so many potential converts. The D. L. Moody Museum features displays and multimedia kiosks about the life and ministry of the world-renowned evangelist and founder of the Moody Bible Institute. The campus of Wheaton College in Wheaton is the site of the Billy Graham Center Museum which, while taking in the history of Christian evangelism, includes the museum includes rare artifacts, art and displays.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation does not run a museum devoted to the city’s world-famous architecture (although its ArchiCenter on South Michigan Avenue offers exhibits). Happily, the CAF’s popular architecture tours treat the whole city as a museum, and as most of them deal with what is now period architecture styles, they are de facto local history tours.
Unfortunately, most of the some three dozen ethnic museums and cultural centers in Chicagoland are museums of national culture and do not concentrate specifically on the groups’ history in Chicago. Typical is the collection of Ukrainian folk art, including needlework, wood carvings, ceramics, beadwork, and of course, painted Easter eggs at the Ukrainian National Museum in Ukrainian Village on the West Side.
There is of course a massive museum of science and industry in Chicago, but while it contains exhibits about some Chicago firms, it is not a museum of Chicago industry. And given the central part that Chicago played in union and working class history in the 19th and early 20th centuries, labor history is surprisingly under-museum-ed.
History in Brick, Bronze and Stone
The protectors of Chicago’s image have never boasted much about the city’s local politicians. Most of the public statuary in Chicago is of figures who figure in the history of other places. Chicago boasts five statues of Columbus, for example, but not one to its own founding fathers such as Hubbard, Wentworth, or Ogden. Literary and artistic types are seldom thought of as heroes either, which may be why so very few of them in Chicago are memorialized in metal. A rare example is the bust of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Sir Georg Solti by sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink that stood for years in Lincoln Park. In 2007 the bust was moved to a new garden named after the popular CSO maestro on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard in Grant Park.
Public agencies feel a particular responsibility to serve public memory, of course. Naming public buildings after historical figures is the most popular way to preserve the Chicagoland past, it being cheap, if sometimes controversial. Chicago has named any number of parks and schools after personages of its past. Founding fathers such as Jean Baptiste Beaubien, Jean Baptiste Du Sable, John H. Kinzie, and Gurdon Hubbard have been so honored, as have politicians from Lincoln to Altgeld and Deneen to Dever and Dunne and of course Richard J. Daley. (The William E. Dever Crib Lighthouse is not exactly a tourist destination; the crib sits in open water located three miles offshore from the intersection of where North Ave. and Lake Shore Drive.) Oscar Meyer and Cyrus McCormick are on a short list of industry giants to merit school naming. Chicago has produced many reformers, but only a very few—muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd and settlement house pioneer Mary McDowell are two—have schools honoring them. Ralph H. Metcalfe, one suspects, earned the honor as a Congressman and Olympic sprinter, not as a political challenger to the Richard J. Daley machine.
Scattered about the city are works that commemorate specific incidents in the city’s past. The Haymarket riot and the Fort Dearborn Massacre are among the unhappy events thus commemorated. The new Riverwalk Gateway that connects the south Chicago River walkway to the lake front bicycle path under Lake Shore Drive; the space is adorned by a magnificent 170-foot long ceramic mural that tells the history of the Chicago river.
Just as the city’s contentious social past is little talked about as such, so is social class little reflected in the city’s parks, monuments, and celebrations. Scattered here and there in Joliet are 30 life-size Cor-Ten steel silhouettes by artist Marsh Lega of the individuals who lived and worked along the Illinois & Michigan Canal, including factory workers and canal workers as well as the usual pioneers and celebrities. At 41st and Halsted streets in Chicago is the gate to the old Stock Yards, sole physical reminder of the Packingtown setting of The Jungle. On the North Side’s Wicker Park, a modest monument was erected to Nelson Algren in the form of a small fountain built in 1998 in a pocket park where Ashland and Milwaukee avenues and Division Street meet; it bears a quote from his City on the Make: “For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart.”
Collectively, the public art that has taken history as its subject offer the energetic tourist a history lesson that is rich, but not always easy to decipher. The bronze Columbus cast to commemorate the 1983 world’s fair never stood anywhere near the site of the fair. Sculptor Moses Ezekiel’s “Discoverer,” cast in Rome in 1892, had been commissioned by the owners of the Columbus Memorial Building at State and Washington streets for the opening of the fair. The nine-foot bronze was left homeless when that building was torn down in 1959, and it languished in a lumberyard until 1966, when West Side Italians raised the money to re-install it in a plaza built for the purpose on the corner of Loomis and Polk streets in Arrigo Park in the Little Italy neighborhood.
Heald Square on Wacker Drive at Wabash Avenue was named for Capt. Nathan Heald, commander of Fort Dearborn from 1810-1812, but the monument that has stood there since 1941 depicts three figures from the Revolutionary War, none of whom is Heald. When James Earle Fraser sculpted “The Discoverers,” that bas relief that graces the northeast pylon of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, he put the Jesuit Father Marquette in the habit of a Franciscan priest.
The complicated history of Native Americans in Chicago is hardly more complicated than the confused attempts by (mainly white) historians to make sense of it in the uncertain light of their own assumptions and ideological preoccupations. To several generations of Euro-American artist, the only good Indian is a bronze Indian. The subjects are not merely idealized but almost wholly fantastic. It is not the trading post Indians that live on in the pioneer accounts that are recalled, but other of the several Indians invented by whites—the bloodthirsty savage, the holy innocent, and the noble redman.
Consider the career of the Fort Dearborn Massacre as a lesson. The event made a gripping story at the time; not until 1968 Democratic convention riots would a battle in Chicago so excite the rest of the nation. What today would be rushed into production as made-for-TV movie in those days was transmuted into novels and “true” accounts for the popular reader. Well over a dozen works of fiction were eventually inspired by the massacre. Typical was Noah Simmons’ 1896 Heroes and Heroines of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, whose subtitle—A romantic and tragic history of Corporal John Simmons and his heroic wife: also of the first white child born in Chicago: the last survivor of the horrid butchery: a full and true recital of marvelous fortitude, matchless courage and terrible sufferings during the battle, the march, and in captivity—says all.
It would be over-generous to describe such books as histories. Rather, they were fables of frontier life, and with accounts of the French explorers, the George Rogers Clark expedition, the death of Pontiac at Kaskaskia, and tall tales of Mike Fink and the river pirates at Cave-In-Rock constitute the Euro-American mythology of early Illinois. The incident also provided the fodder for what some consider the city’s first indigenous literature, Mrs. John H. Kinzie’s Wau-bun, the Early Day In the Northwest takes up the tale, and is generally credited as the first work of a distinctly Chicago literature. (Not, perhaps, the first work of Chicago history; Wau-bun is a better story than history.)
Readers eventually lost their appetite for tales of Indian bloodshed. Attitudes changed too. It is not for the moment fashionable to portray Native American scalping and dashing babies heads in, so writers keep a polite silence about it. The most recent adult novel to treat the massacre at all is Julia Altrocchi’s widely-Praised Wolves Against the Moon, and it came out in 1940.
The changes in public views of the Indian interregnum in Illinois history both reflects and, to some extent, were encouraged by historians of the period. Richard S. Taylor, compiler of sources on religious history of Illinois, in 1991 criticized Clarence Walworth Alvord’s The Illinois Country, 1673-1818, published in 1920, as a “badly dated and ethnocentric synthesis” because Alvord (for example) describes the spiritual life of the Illinois Indians as “in a state lower than that of the Homeric Greeks.” Alvord’s opinion in turn would come to be dismissed as primitive; the Indians were not so much uncivilized as they were—to adapt a catchphrase from the politically correct glossary—differently civilized.
After a world war, historians were no longer quite so sure about who was savage and who was civilized. Chicago historians such as Milton Quaife wrote with sympathy rather than condescension toward the local native peoples. “He occasionally used the word ‘savages,’” explains Perry Duis,
but it was meant more as a translation of the French word sauvages, a word he encountered frequently in his documentation, than as a derogatory term. In numerous places he respectfully described the natives’ attitudes toward land ownership and nature, while casting the pioneers as land-hungry invaders who ultimately won the battle of possession because of sheer strength rather than the moral superiority of their purpose.
By mid-20th century the Native American had come to be seen as just another ethnic Chicagoan—colorfully entertaining, even noble. Neighborhood girls in Sauganash on the city’s northwest Side around Devon and Cicero—Roman Catholic Italians—used to don Indian dress and pose as Princess Sauganash as part of a community festival.
The primitive Native American has been resurrected of late, although this time her primitiveness is widely seen as a virtue. Sol Tax, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago wrote in 1978 that Indians today play the role of "peaceful conscientious resisters and exemplars" to selfish consumerist whites. Native Americans, whose fate once troubled the consciences of whites, now are their conscience.
The old stereotypes still live nonetheless. Donald Miller’s City of the Century—a book that sold well, was praised by reviewers, and used as the basis of a well-received and much-watched public TV documentary about Chicago—describes the area around Chicago as "infested" with "warlike tribes." That prompted Douglas Greenberg, president of the Chicago Historical Society, to complain in a review that Miller unreflectively passed on the old—and racist—19th Century stereotypes. “He does not sound very much like a 20th Century historian,” scolded Greenberg.
Those Good Old Days
That Chicago is nostalgic about its past is to be expected. Every once-great people harks back to the days of their greatness. Chicago from roughly 1840s until the Great Depression was a extraordinary place. The fact is that for some time since then Chicago has been a very ordinary big city; only by looking backward can Chicagoans still see the world city that once astonished the world.
If the future wasn’t being invented in Chicagoland, it did at least seem to be arriving here faster than other places. The pace of change on this scale, if not its direction, was unique in the experience of the West. “It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago-she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them,” wrote Mark Twain in 1883 in Life On The Mississippi. “She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
As Saul Bellow once observed, “Here centuries of change can be crammed into a few years, and then and now can be as far apart as Stonehenge is from a computer.” Perhaps this the source of the nostalgic affection that pervades Chicago writing: If one never possesses a present long enough to grow weary of it, one is likely to misremember it as golden. ●