Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves:
An exasperated Arnold Toynbee is said to have said that the nature of time dooms History to be one damned thing after another, but history books needn’t be. This narrative is not arranged chronologically. Instead, each chapter focuses on a single broad theme.
Chapter One: A Classic Mixing Zone describes the region’s settlement by peoples of disparate races and religions. Only in mid-Illinois did the mix of immigrant populations achieve the same proportions in the state as a whole. In mid-Illinois both personal and social identities blurred; people might have agreed worked out ways to live together differently but their collective identity as expressed in politics and manners was an amalgam.
Chapter Two: Eden Despoiled describes the effects of humans' heavy hand on Illinois natural systems. Archeological evidence suggests that native peoples, in using fire to enhance their use of the landscape, changed it. Indians decimated Illinois's populations of game animals, their Euro-American successors waged wars on trees and prairies that were more calculated and more efficient, and the application of industrial methods of grain production wasted much of the region's matchless topsoil. A particular tragedy was the despoliation of the Illinois River, for a time (with the mighty Columbia) the richest commercial fishery in the U.S. Harvesting was often frenetic, and usually led to the exhaustion of the region's resource, leaving mid-Illinois poorer in every way.
Chapter Three: “Wondorous plant” describes the conquest of the prairies for farming, the conquest of farming by commercialization, and scientific agriculture's transformation of the countryside into an outdoor factory for fuel and food. Mid-Illinois was destined (some might say doomed) to become not only one of the most intensively cultivated regions on the planet but also one of the most extensively cultivated. The University of Illinois become to the Grand Prairie farmer what Stanford is to the computer programmer or MIT to the engineer, helping transform row-crop agriculture into a high-tech industry; Bloomington has long been a center for the hybridizing arts; and Decatur firms have been world innovators in commercial grain processing.
Chapter Four: Town Mania recalls that town-building in mid-Illinois is a tradition that stretches back eighteen hundred years. It began when peoples of the Mississippian culture settled in villages and towns arrayed across the region in a distinctively urban hierarchy that in some respect anticipated their Euro-American successors. Euro-American Illinois has always been overwhelming rural, but most of its people have lived in towns. The founding and occasional unfounding of towns—farm towns, commercial towns, coal towns, river towns, crossroads towns, factory settlements and mining camps, government and religious centers, and, most recently, bedroom communities—are some of the livelier episodes in the region’s past.
Chapter Five: “Well known repugnances” takes up one of the consequences of that mixing of peoples. Antagonisms economic, cultural, and racial set Native Americans against Native Americans and later against European and American interlopers, transplanted “Yankees” against Southerners, whites against blacks, Christian sects against conventional believers, owners against workers, and workers against workers. Usually expressed in words or votes or (most commonly) by simply living apart from each other, these antagonisms sometimes were expressed in shootings, scalpings, lynchings, and bombings. The result was an imperfect but politic social accommodation.
Chapter Six: “Making the world a little more Christian” takes up the relations—always complex, frequently contentious–between God and people, gods and gods and believers and nonbelievers. Most conventional histories recount the role of religion by describing the rise of formal church bodies, which is a bit like describing economics solely in terms of banks. Everywhere the search for transcendence, for salvation, for companionship, for change permeated the region’s life. The region’s early colleges for example, were established in effect to train missionaries who would carry the gospel of Protestantism and civilization to the heathen southerners of Downstate Illinois, and the religious marched toward the front of social movements from abolition to Prohibition.
Chapter Seven: The Urge to Improve is my account of mid-Illinois’s efforts to educate itself. In the early years of the Euro-American era, newcomers needed to know little beyond how to pick out good land. That changed. The region boasts both Illinois’s first public institution of higher education—today’s Illinois State University—and its largest (the University of Illinois). The Chautauqua brought education to the masses (some of the old grounds have been preserved) while its state-run institutions were the scene of important innovations in the education of the blind and the deaf.
Chapter Eight: Realizing the Ideal tells the stories of the dreamers by the dozen (not to mention a swindler or two) who imagined mid-Illinois as a promised land in the early 1800s. This part of Illinois also would attract social reformers; where the new utopians hoped for the most part to improve humans by improving the society they lived in, the reformers sought to improve society by improving the humans that lived in it. True believers in each approach were bound to be disappointed, but in trying they wrote some of the most interesting chapters in the history of mid-Illinois.
Chapter Nine: Jiggery-pokery seeks to explain how the blending of commerce-minded Ohioans and New Yorkers, censorious but public-minded New Englanders, and practitioners of so-called courthouse politics from the American South caused mid-Illinois to produce major politicians the way it produced corn, by the bushel. The chapter also explores the unsavory reputation of politics as long practiced by pragmatic mid-Illinoisans, and suggests that the story is not a simple one of corruption vs. virtue but a complex process of conflict and accommodation between disparate subcultures with very different notions of the proper relations of citizens to government and to each other
Chapter Ten: Rollover Territory recounts the challenge of getting from here to there in a region that sprawls across twenty-nine thousand square miles that has few navigable rivers and roads that were indistinguishable from the prairie mud from which they were made. Several transportation “firsts” were forced upon the region by its geography—among them the first commercial railroad in Illinois and one of the nation’s biggest interurban systems. Route 66, the cross-country federal highway celebrated as the Main Street of America also ran through the heart of mid-Illinois (and still does, in the memories of its admirers, to whom it stands as a symbol of life on the open road in a new mobile America.
Chapter Eleven: Growing Factories concerns the transformation of mid-Illinois by inventors and entrepreneurs from an agrarian and trading society into an urban industrial one. “Made in Peoria” was a catchphrase long before “played in Peoria.” Springfield, now known for bureaucrats, a century ago was known for boilers and watches and later electric meters. By the late 1940s varied enterprises produced bricks, candy, butter, textiles, hardware, paper boxes, and mining machinery in Danville. The region’s industrial heyday lasted barely a century, and the region is still recovering from it.
Epilogue The book concludes with a brief reflection on the ebb and flow of history's currents –the rise and fall and subsequent re-rise of the region as an energy producer, for example, having gone from cutting trees to digging coal to growing corn for ethanol—and a brief rumination on the region's future. I also briefly examine history as product, as recreation, and as civic bond.