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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.




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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.

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