Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves:
From Chapter 1: A Classic Mixing Zone
“Southerner” is an imprecise term when applied to mid-Illinoisans from south of the Ohio River. Geographer John C. Hudson mapped the birthplaces of the early migrants to Sangamon County and found that while most of two hundred forty-five single individuals and heads of families who settled there before 1830 were born south of the Mason-Dixon line, their families’ American sagas had begun in the east. After arriving via the ports of Philadelphia or Baltimore, these ancestors settled first in southeastern Pennsylvania, then migrated down the Great Valley, as the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia was known; after they entered the continent’s interior through the Roanoke Gap they made farms on the Carolina Piedmont before moving on to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.
Southerners predominated in mid-Illinois for only a few years, but the cultural influence of those founding settlers proved very durable. Novelist and critic Floyd Dell grew up in the Pike County town of Barry at the end of the nineteenth century. He described it as “vaguely permeated by Southern influences—a touch of laziness, quite a lot of mud, and, like the scent of honeysuckle, a whiff of the romantic attitude toward life . . . .”
. . . . Most of the newcomers, Northerner, Southerner, or Midlander, came from settled societies where their neighbors had been people more or less like themselves. That made them more or less unlike most of their new neighbors in mid-Illinois. Apart from a shared devotion to business, for instance, true Yankees and immigrants from the mid-Atlantic states were as unlike as each was from the French and the Indians who had previously occupied the territory. But they were more like each other than either were like the Southerners, who were traditionalists who resisted, indeed resented the trends toward modernization that began in mid-Illinois in the latter 1830s. They were devoted to clan rather than community, and most were suspicious of commerce and institutions. Yankee and Southerner in particular differed over slavery, kinships, church, marriage, farming, money, politics, manners, drinking, government, taxes, even what to have for supper.
Today, historians of that period laud the Southern-bred pioneers for their hardiness and their courage, but travelers and immigrants from other places found them lazy and dissolute. Southerners squatted without qualm on government land. They ignored laws banning the selling of liquor to Indians. As for their personal habits, Eliza Farnham describes her visit to a cabin in Tazewell County occupied by a Southern man and wife and their children. “I have never seen more utter poverty or filth,” she reported. “Had such physical degradation been the result of extreme poverty, the case would have excited compassion, instead of curiosity or disgust. But it was not so.” Miller Wetmore was an upstate New Yorker who in 1836 settled in Knox County when Galesburg was still a-building. “We are pleasently [sic] situated at a Mr. Roundtrees,” he wrote his wife that June. “He is a Kentuckian but a verry [sic] fine Man.”
This antagonism, which was noted in almost every traveler’s guide, memoir, letter home, and early history, was mutual. Among other faults, Southerners thought Yankees to be sharp in their business dealings to the point of dishonesty. Nor did the Yankees’ social and religious creeds impress locals whose views on such matters were decidedly rough-hewn. In the 1840s a journalistic rival of Jacksonville’s Jonathan Baldwin Turner scorned that transplanted Massachusettsan in print as a “crack-brained, gaping, half-witted theorist Yankee.” Linking Lake Michigan to the Illinois River via the Illinois & Michigan Canal was opposed by politicians of Illinois’s lower latitudes out of fear that it would provide Yankees with a too-convenient path into the state’s interior.
The Rev. Peter Cartwright, the fabled circuit-riding Methodist who came to Pleasant Plains by way of Kentucky, understood the antagonism in terms of the old East vs. the new West rather than Yankee vs. Southerner, but no Yankee needed a map to know who Cartwright was talking about. In a 1831 sermon, Cartwright said of Eastern men, "They represent this country as a vast waste, and people as very ignorant; but if I was going to shoot a fool, I would not take aim at a Western man, but would go down by the sea-shore and cock my fusee at the imps who live on oysters."
From Chapter 2: Eden Despoiled
As people do, those living in mid-Illinois in the early 1800s assumed that the bounty of trees was inexhaustible because they had not been able to exhaust it. Their optimism was uninformed. Among the possible explanations for the collapse of the great Indian city at Cahokia was that its inhabitants needing wood for stockades and fires had fallen up the nearby woods like locusts on a field; one of the reasons the Illiniwek established new villages at Peoria Lake in the 1690s, remember, was that they had done the same around their great settlement near Starved Rock.
Salt was an essential raw material in the rudimentary economy of the Euro-American era, used not as flavoring but as a preservative in the days before mechanical refrigeration. (Salt is what meat-packers packed meat in.) Long before European newcomers named it, the Salt Fork of the Middle Fork River, which drains the eastern part of the old Grand Prairie into the Wabash River, was known as a source of salt. . . . Euro-Americans settlers . . . boiled this briny groundwater in large iron kettles to concentrate its salt, which was then dried for shipping. In the 1820s it was no more fanciful to describe kettles of boiling water in the woods as an industrial facility than it was to call Illinois a state. The settlement that accreted around the thriving salt works consisted of twelve cabins and a tavern (a rather higher proportion of residential buildings to taverns than would be found in later Illinois mining camps). The settlement was substantial enough in any event to be proposed as a county seat.
By 1848 the Salt Fork operation had as many as eighty kettles boiling at once, and it yielded a total of 120 bushels of salt each week, for which customers often rode many miles. Alas, as a geologist reported in 1870, the Salt Fork springs were but “feebly impregnated with salt,” and so yielded as little as a fifth as much salt per gallon of brine as did the mines that then were being opened in far southern Illinois. To recover a bushel of Vermilion County salt one had to boil away one hundred gallons of water, which meant burning away a lot of wood. Keeping the kettles boiling required three men to fell and haul trees from ever greater distances. Other salt works could do it cheaper, and when their salt became available in mid-Illinois the Salt Fork works was closed down. Today the only physical evidence of this proto-industry is historic bric-a-brac like the fragment of a kettle on display at the Salt Kettle rest area on I-74 West near Oakwood.
Water boiled by wood also powered steamboats. The early versions of these vessels that worked the region’s two big rivers burned thirty to forty cords of wood per day. Most of it was cut from bottomland woods by farmers and commercial woodcutters who sold it for anywhere from a dollar to five dollars per cord. Supplying that wood was hard work, indeed a hard life, as traveler Edmund Flagg reported from the Illinois River in 1838. He was dismayed by “the miserable cabin of the woodcutter, reared upon the very verge of the water, surrounded on every side by swamps, and enveloped in their damp dews and the poisonous exhalations rising from the seething decomposition of the monstrous vegetation around.”
By the latter 1800s, both train locomotives and riverboats were burning coal rather than wood, but railroads still needed track ties and trestles, so timber cutting along the Mississippi and Illinois continued. . . . Mature trees [also] had always been used to build with, at least by the Euro-Americans. The hewn timber used in the crudely-worked log house is the most familiar result, but affluence gradually created a market for milled hardwood lumber. The handsome Woodford County courthouse in Metamora, built in 1844–46 from timber felled nearby (much of it black walnut), is one of the few survivors of many buildings so constructed. Sawmills built on local creeks near Big Grove made it possible to convert about twelve thousand acres of oak, walnut, hickory, linden, elm, ash, and sycamore into fine houses in Champaign and Urbana. Funks Grove, among the largest prairie groves in the region, proved to be a gold mine to its owner, so keen was the demand for its timber. It has been estimated that more than a million dollars worth of building materials, fencing, ties, and fuel wood were taken from it by 1903. So intense was this mining of wood that the estimated three thousands acres of trees that composed the original grove shriveled to only twelve hundred acres.
From Chapter 3: ”Wondorous Plant”’
Transforming open prairie into farms was as much a triumph of technology as pluck. Three inventions proved essential. One was cheap, easy-to-maintain fencing in the form of barbed wire, which was needed to protect crops from roaming livestock. Another was a self-scouring steel plow capable of slicing cleanly through sticky prairie soils. A third invention has been less celebrated but was no less crucial to mid-Illinois’ agricultural development—the ceramic drain tile.
Rainwater and snowmelt did not run off the prairie’s flat surface, and clay subsoils kept that water from seeping away below it. The result was land that lay wet for as many as eight months of the year. The proprietors of the Champaign County town of Tolono probably made up a story in which a band of Indian hunters declined to camp there, declaring it, “Too low; no.” The judgment is sound in any event. Virtually all the forms in which fresh water can gather to make life inconvenient to humans—marshes, potholes, backwater lakes, sedge meadows, swamps—sprawled across hundreds of square miles of mid-Illinois. An ambitious farmer encountering that vast and swampy tract must have felt like an idealist considering a career in Illinois politics.
Bogged-down wagons and flooded fields were not the worst of the problems caused by poor surface drainage. Mosquitoes that bred in wetlands would have been merely a nuisance like the greenhead flies but for the fact that they carried the dreaded ague, or malaria. Malaria was to nineteenth century Illinois what boredom is to the late twentieth, meaning so many people suffered from it that nobody noticed it. You could tell an Illinoisan in those days by the way he shook—not the way he shook hands, but the way he shook all over, from the ague. (The disease was known as the Illinois shakes.) As mid-Illinois was one of the wettest parts of the state, so were its citizens among the sickest of the state. . . . .
Landowners who tried to build unnatural streams in the form of drainage ditches to drain fields left wet by nature quickly learned why nature hadn’t bothered. George and Asa Danforth of Tazewell County in 1866 constructed twenty-five miles of drainage ditch using a bulldozer-like ditching machine that needed as many as forty oxen to budge. That was a mere garden hoe compared to the ditching plow used by a big landowner in Livingston County; the contraption was eighteen feet long and needed sixty-eight oxen and eight men to operate. An ingenious mole ditching machine was patented in the Champaign County town of Monticello in 1856 made tunnels by dragging a torpedo-shaped "shoe" through the subsoil. But these dirt water pipes were prone to collapse, and when they clogged they could not be unclogged.
William P. Pierson of the Iroquois County town of Onarga explained it all to the 1868 annual convention of the Illinois State Horticultural Society. “It is quite evident that our world was not finished on the day of creation,” he said. “The job of finishing up this world of ours can never be completed until a considerable portion of it is well under-drained . . . . This is a task that has been assigned to man to do.” Drainage tiles of fired clay that were buried in trenches along the perimeter of a field formed a more durable tunnel that did not easily clog or collapse. Such tiles were cheap, but the labor to install them made tiling a large farm very expensive. Benjamin Gifford bought parts of the 7,500-acre Wildcat Slough in Champaign County in 1881 for as little as thirteen dollars per acre but had to spend forty dollars per acre to drain it. . . .
Chicagoans were to brag some years later about their engineering bravado in reversing the flow of the Chicago River, but mid-Illinoisans have a boast or two to make when it comes to rearranging nature on that scale. Historical geographer John Thompson has described the bottomland of the Illinois River between Peoria and St. Louis as having been “the last frontier in mid-Illinois” for agricultural development. Recurring overflows cost bottomland farmers nearly as many crops as they harvested. Drying out a river bottom field that in some years grew more carp than corn had to wait until the advent of steam-powered earth-movers and pumps. Such tools were used for the first time in the Midwest along the lower Illinois River valley. Between the 1890s and 1930 more than 183,000 acres of floodplain was thus stolen from nature by farmers, more than twenty-one thousand of which had been not merely wet but completed covered by water.
From Chapter 4: Town Mania
Towns tended to sprout wherever people were. As noted, outlying farms and hamlets needed a nearby place with stables, a bank, warehouse, tannery and mill, and retail stores of various kinds that sold what farmers could not make, and where the services of lawyers and doctors and blacksmiths could be procured. Such towns had to lie within a day’s ride of the farm families it served, which was not much more than fifteen miles by horse-drawn wagon. Farm towns thus necessarily were situated near where the farmers were, and before the railroad era the farmers were huddled along the forested edge of the prairies. Historian James Davis has calculated that in 1834, nearly all towns platted in the twenty-six counties roughly between Beardstown and Danville and Decatur and Ottawa lay not on the open prairie but near wooded lands. (Danville and Urbana were notable exceptions).
People also congregated on the region’s riverbanks at water-powered mills or river landings. Typical was Nimrod Phillips’ ferry across the Illinois in Pike County. It opened in 1822; eventually renamed Griggsville Landing, the spot acquired a grist mill, warehouse, boatyard, and lime kiln. Juliet Walker describes how the process transformed places like Phillips Landing.
Produce awaiting shipment to New Orleans, eastern markets, or northern Illinois was stored in warehouses at the landings. Eventually, merchants there provided goods and services not only for farmers bringing their produce to market but also for residents of outlying areas and for laborers from wharves and warehouses. Passengers who disembarked from the steamboats while farm produce was being loaded sometimes made their way to the local grocers, and westward moving pioneers were provisioned by merchants before crossing the Mississippi.
Archeologist Robert Mazrim makes an important point about these early commercial towns in mid-Illinois: Whether they were creatures of convenience or design, they were not only places where business was done, but places where only business was done. The proprietors of many towns platted around or adjacent to mill seats sold commercial lots to accommodate distilleries, taverns, and dry goods stores to serve the customers of the mills, but the people who owned and used them continued to live and farm in the nearby countryside. Frontier-era towns in Illinois, Mazrim writes, thus were more akin to modern strip malls than traditional small towns.
People and goods also moved to and fro across the interior of mid-Illinois on land by horse, wagon, and stagecoach, and many interior towns began where those conveyances regularly stopped for water or food. Pike County’s Griggsville was platted on a crucial intersection of a road to Phillips Landing when that was the most important point of entry to Pike County from the east; the nearby town of Chambersburg, platted at about the same time three miles from the Illinois River, did not have Griggsville’s road access and remained a local market town.
Some towns just growed. Others were cultivated. Thomas Beard settled on a spot on the Illinois River in Cass County “on account of its being a valuable site for a town and a ferry.” Each fed the growth of the other. Beard’s town soon had a City Hotel, which Beard built to shelter and victual travelers. By 1830 Beard’s “city” boasted three stores, a steam-powered grain mill, a saw mill, and a distillery—all essential to a frontier metropolis.
Beard’s town quickly became a flourishing trading post and steamboat port that rivaled Peoria. Beardstown was Springfield’s Ostia, its Piraeus. One visitor recalled that in 1848 “a traveler between Springfield and Beardstown would rarely be out of sight of heavily loaded wagons carrying out the productions or bringing in the merchants goods;" most of early Springfield’s business district stretched along Jefferson Street because it was along that route that freight wagons arrived from Beardstown. One Beardstown patriot recalled in a 1917 address that its businessmen were known as far away as Pittsburgh and New Orleans “while Chicago still lay in its infantile swaddling clothes.” Alas, the coming of the railroads took away much of Beardstown’s trade. A town usually adopts a nickname when it believes that people have no other reason to remember it. Beardstown has taken several—Belle of the Bend, Friendliest Town in Illinois, Fun Capital of Illinois, Watermelon Capital of the Nation. For a brief but glorious moment, “Beardstown” was enough.
From Chapter 5: "Well-known Repugnances"
The Illiniwek nation once was a powerful confederation of five tribal groups, all cultural kin. It was they who met Jolliet and Marquette when the latter ventured into mid-Illinois in 1673. By then, however, the Illiniwek were a power in decline. The fur trade in the east had unsettled the continent. To secure pelts, the fearsome Iroquois moved west from their stronghold in the Northeast, pushing Great Lakes tribes like the Illinwek ahead of them into Illinois, where they began (in 1655 or so) a series of murderous assaults on the Illiniwek. The Iroquois were themselves finally pushed back east with the help of the French after 1667 but disease and the Iroquois had left the surviving Illinois too weak to repel new interlopers from the north who were politically more adept and militarily more formidable. Within a century of the Iroquois incursions, the Illiniwek were huddling behind the log walls of French fur trading posts for protection. . . .
The French-Canadians, like the British, had been interested in trade, which suited the Indians, however much the latter might have grumbled about its terms. The Americans, when they came, were interested in land, which did not suit the Indians at all. What white people called settlement was regarded by many Indian bands as occupation, and Indian resistance mounted when the newcomers made clear that they wanted it all, that they treated dishonestly, and that they would side with any white against any Indian regardless of circumstance.
Incidents of aggression and retribution along the mid-Illinois frontier became common. James Gilham and his family lived on a remote farm in the future Logan County. While Gilham was away hunting in 1790, Kickapoo warriors kidnapped his wife Ann and three of her children, who were eventually ransomed by the husband. A nineteenth century historian of Fulton County mentions an episode from this period involving a resident of Dean’s Settlement in the southeast part of the county. “One day when he was out in the woods hunting he came across one of his hogs that had just been killed in the woods. He told some of his neighbors he knew the Indians had killed his hog, and he was going to have his revenge. A day or two later a dead Indian was found propped up, sitting on the dead hog.”
A war of Indian resistance in the Ohio Country to the east of Illinois was ended by treaty in 1795. The agreement left the younger and determinedly anti-American leaders among them unhappy; to keep the peace, their elders encouraged them to move away from the whites into more sparsely settled territories to the west. Several of what Ann Durkin Keating calls “those troublesome young men” established villages in mid-Illinois, mainly along the Kankakee and Illinois Rivers.
The Indian communities already in Illinois were disturbed by this new presence among them. Among the Potawatomi, Gomo, one of the village leaders on the Illinois River, favored peace with the Americans; newcomer Main Poc and his followers, who lived not far away, ardently yearned to expel them. The Prairie Band of the Kickapoo were in favor of armed resistance; the head of the Vermilion band, the prophet Kennekuk, preached accommodation. The debates among these leaders anticipated the debates among the whites a generation later about ridding Illinois of slavery, or, a generation after that, about what to do about other “invasions” of mid-Illinois by immigrants of southern and eastern Europe, and, later, of Southern African Americans. . . .
The failed rising in 1832 led by the Sauk war chief Black Hawk effectively ended Indian resistance in this part of the Midwest, and when the last of the Indians agreed to leave for new lands in the West the last legal obstacle to white settlement was removed. The last actual obstacle to settlement was the Indians themselves. In Indiana, the Potowatomi Chief Menominee and his band at Twin Lakes, Indiana, refused to abide by the removal treaties, which led the State of Indiana to send militiamen to remove them. The result was a forced march of some nine hundred people across mid-Illinois in the autum of 1838 that took them through Danville, Catlin (then known as Sandusky Point), Monticello, Decatur, Springfield, Jacksonville, Exeter, Naples, and finally Quincy. Some forty people died from fever or stress, many of them children, which is why the journey is known among the Potowatomi as the Trail of Death.
Such episodes have been presented variously as the extermination of vermin, as a sad but unavoidable side-effect of civilization’s march, as a test of competing economic systems. Seen from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, the expulsion of the native peoples from this part of Illinois looks more like the forced repatriations after World War II, the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia—ethnic cleansing at its most ruthless.
From Chapter 6: "Making the world a little more Christian"
By the latter 1860s mid-Illinois Illinois was no longer a backwoods society but an emerging urban and industrial society, and maybe for that reason the old time religion appealed all the more. Coles reports that Springfield in 1866 was the center of a “great awakening” with meetings at the state capitol and noon prayer meetings in the ward schoolhouses intended to excite an outpouring of the Holy spirit upon the churches and people throughout the State. ”All denominations made great gains during this bonanza year.”
The official rationale for the founding of the new Illinois Industrial University in 1867 was utilitarian and democratic, but the founding generation of teachers and administrators shared a distinctly Christian personal vision that directed their work. In his interesting look at the early days of the future University of Illinois, Brett H. Smith observed that while nineteenth-century millennialistic evangelical revivals frequently invigorated the piety of American private colleges, it was rare for a public university to advocate the transformation of society on religious grounds. The aim of the IIU leaders was (quoting Smith) to “produce . . . men of Christian culture . . . able and willing to lend a helping hand in . . . . reversing the curse of Adam as found in Genesis 3:17–19.”
Humankind, they believed, had toiled miserably for their sustenance since time immemorial. But now, by God's grace, the divinely ordained dignity of farming as covenantal co-laboring with God would be restored. . . . By putting their hands to the plow of agricultural education, they believed, the Lord would usher in nothing less than a "Millennium of Labor."
Both Illinois lawmakers and its farmers, it turned out, had other ideas about God and work and farming. The university’s founders succeeded in their mission nonetheless, in a way. While the school quickly turned away from trying to elevate its farms to Edens, it did elevate its farmers to demi-gods able to marshal science to control plagues and engineer nature to their own specifications.
The revivalist era reached it peak, or arguably its nadir, with the performances of Billy Sunday, the baseball-playing, hokum-peddling "polygonal preacher" who could make hellfire entertaining and virtue fun, at least for a while. Sunday brought his road show to Springfield in 1909 for six weeks of revival meetings and speeches. He was invited by the local Ministerial Association, whose members were convinced, as Springfield preachers had always been convinced, that their town was going to hell. Sunday staged his main meetings in specially-built open-air “tabernacles,” no other building being quite suited to the purpose. (Sunday’s plans specified not only a stage and choir and seating for eight thousand but a press box.) The Springfield version stood at First and Adams streets, only one block from the Satan’s den that was the Illinois statehouse.
Sunday offered a kind of Christian vaudeville, with jokes and music and sing-alongs. The centerpiece of each session was a sermon, by 1909 finely honed and audience-tested, on such topics as "The Devil's Boomerang," "Booze," and "When the Chickens Come Home to Roost." It is doubtful whether any revival has ever been admitted to have failed, but the backers of Sunday's Springfield revival claimed that well over half a million people crowded into the tabernacle, impressive indeed at a time when the total population of the ten counties surrounding Springfield was less than half a million. The city was improved, certainly—its hotels and restaurants did good business, local churches got a good return on their investment in the form of new congregants, and a YWCA was founded—but saved Springfield certainly was not.
From Chapter 7: The Urge to Improve
Self-education had been a necessity in the 1830s and ‘40s. Two generations later, self-education became a recreation. A system of summer school and correspondence school education was founded in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake, New York. Conceived as a summer school for Sunday-school teachers, the Chautauqua was quickly adapted to teaching all sorts of topics. Douglas Wilson of Knox College has noted that the Chautauqua movement owed its distinctive format to two earlier popular nineteenth-century institutions, the lecture lyceum and the religious camp meeting. Adding leisure to the formula made self-improvement palatable to Americans whose resistance to formal learning was as formidable then as now.
Mid-Illinois had several Chautauqua grounds. In Christian County, Pana in 1911 built a pavilion seating thirty-five hundred on whose stage William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, and Sgt. Alvin York held forth. The Chautauqua grounds at Clinton in DeWitt County were gradually improved with bridges and trails, an artificial lake and a boathouse, bathhouse, and diving tower to go with it, and of course an auditorium. Sometimes more than three hundred families camped out there for the entire ten-day term of each summer’s session; the grounds later made a dandy state park. Over in Shelby County, Shelbyville’s Chautauqua hall was built in 1903. The building had a thirty-six-foot by thirty-six-foot stage and a floor area of fifteen thousand square feet unobstructed by support posts, thanks to cunning engineering. As was true of most of Chautauquas’ summer homes, the walls were pierced by large doors that could be opened to cool it during sweltering nights.
In 1904, the Lincoln Chautauqua Association built an open-sided auditorium one hundred and sixty feet in diameter that sat some forty-five hundred people. To today’s eyes the auditorium looks like a parked flying saucer. A special street car line was laid to carry townspeople to and from the site. During assemblies, the grounds were equipped with a dining hall, feed yards for horses, and a garage for automobiles, even its own post office.
One of the most successful of all turn-of-the-century Chautauquas, the Old Salem Chautauqua, was staged a few miles south of Petersburg in Menard County. The fifty-four-acre grounds was less a summer campground than a resort for the many who flocked there for what organizers promised would be “wisdom, music and good cheer.” In addition to a five-thousand-seat auditorium, the grounds boasted a seventy-five-room hotel, a “Hall of Applied Christianity,” bath house and pool, a quarter-mile cinder running track, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, croquet courts, basketball courts, a nine-hole golf course, rental boats, a fishing lake, and fields for quoits (a craze of that day). The Old Salem Chautauqua in its prime was thought to be the largest Chautauqua west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Bible lessons were a staple at all Chautauquas, reflecting their origin, but the Chautauqua programs quickly came to resemble an intellectual vaudeville bill more than a Sunday school. Professors of every discipline spoke, but programs occasionally mixed classical music, opera, and plays. While some speakers took up topics that would empty a hall today, such as economics and foreign policy, most lectures were short on education and long on exhortation. Former Jacksonvillian William J. Bryan—“the one American Poet who could sing outdoors,” as an admiring Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay once described him—was a regular on the Chautauqua circuit, which often brought him back to mid-Illinois.
Orators were entertainers of the higher sort, to whom people listened less to be instructed than to be dazzled or moved or amused or (a desire perhaps more common in those strait-laced times than today) outraged. Few on the Chautauqua circuit, or the lecture circuit generally, entertained more reliably than Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll is remembered mainly for his platform addresses on religion but he spoke regularly on several topics. His audience was a middle class that in the 1870s was being liberated by science from smothering orthodoxies of all kinds, a class that briefly rushed to embrace new ideas with the same fervor that their descendants would show in the 1970s for new ideas about sex, drugs, race, and women’s roles.
One of Ingersoll’s several biographers notes that some people who saw him in action in mid-Illinois courthouses likened him to Lincoln in eloquence. Mark Twain—no mean platform performer himself—was a great admirer of Ingersoll; after hearing him in Chicago, Twain wrote to his wife Livy Clemens, “Lord, what an organ is human speech when it is played by a master!”
From Chapter 8: Realizing the Ideal
The first French immigrants to mid-Illinois had contented themselves with preparing Indians for a better life in the next world, through the agency of Jesuit missions. Later French immigrants came west to prepare themselves for a better life in this world. Utopian theorist Charles Fourier had concocted a peculiar mix of communalism and free love as an alternative to a cruel and corrupt capitalist society. As interpreted by his American disciple Albert Brisbane, Fourier’s ideas inspired followers to found several colonies or “phalanxes” in nine U.S. states to make them real.
Fourierists believed that perfection lie not in the person but in the community. People could come to terms with their unruly natures not by purging themselves of "natural passions" but (as Robert P. Sutton put it) by “harmonizing conflicting human interests in a communal social structure” under which the fruits of communal labor were shared according to the shares each member held in the enterprise. The subscribers were neither destitute dreamers but solidly middle-class New Englanders whose confidence in conventional capitalism had been undermined by recurring economic depressions. They thus found appealing alternatives based on common use (if not ownership) of resources, producers' cooperatives, and protective tariffs.
The first phalanx in Illinois was set up in Bureau County, in 1843, but did not last a year. That was followed by one in 1845 in Fulton County, which outdid its predecessor by failing almost immediately. The most successful of the Fourierist phalanxes in Illinois was the Sangamon Association, started in 1844 outside the farm village of Loami, some sixteen miles south of Springfield. The founding "associationists" comprised thirty-five adults and fifteen children whose numbers were augmented in 1846 by members of a similar groups first formed in Ohio. Some members contributed land, others subscribed to stock. All agreed to live together in a 390-by-24-foot frame building, the precursor to a massive three-story central building called the Phalanstery that would have housed the 1,620 individuals expected in the mature community. (The Jansonists’ Big Brick, noted Elmen, was very like the grand phalanstery planned by the Sangamon Association.) Unlike the other Illinois phalanxes, this one managed to survive more than a few months before disenchantment spread but by 1848 the experiment was finished, and the land returned to its original owners.
Etienne Cabet of Dijon was, among things, a journalist, lawyer, and radical politician, none of which was the sort of person widely thought capable of prescribing the good society today. When French authorities convicted Cabet of treason he fled to England where he became acquainted with the work of Robert Owen, the Welsh reformer whose New Harmony colony in Indiana had failed a few years before. Cabet drew up his own model for a new society drawn variously from Owen and Sir Thomas More's Utopia. His plans for a perfect society were appropriately expressed as fiction, in a novel titled Voyage en Icarie (1840), a sort of French Looking Backward. His Icarie was not only a fictional society but a fantastic one, being an egalitarian community in which money, private property, crime, immorality, unemployment, and political corruption had no place.
As were the Fourier followers, Cabet’s disciples were idealistic members of the middle class made uneasy by capitalism as practiced in the early 1800s. He and his followers emigrated to the U.S., and first tested his doctrine in 1848 in a settlement in Texas. Cabet established a second colony in mid-Illinois, at the old Mormon town of Nauvoo, renting buildings that had been abandoned when the Mormons fled to Utah territory three years before.
The Icarians, as the group’s members were known, built a few buildings of their own, the most famous being a school made of stone scavenged from the ruins of the Mormon Temple. As had happened in Texas, disputes rent the new project, and when Cabet was not re-elected president in 1856, he and nearly two hundred followers left Nauvoo for East St. Louis, where he died not long after. The Icarian Colony back at Nauvoo carried on determinedly until 1860. Unlike the Mormon theocracy that preceded it in Nauvoo, that experiment was not so unconventional that it aroused the bigoted to suppress it nor so successful that it aroused the propertied to appropriate it. Thus it had virtually no impact on the subsequent history of Illinois beyond inspiring a good book about it.
From Chapter 9: Jiggery-pokery
The Democratic and Republican parties today seem as eternal a presence in mid-Illinois as dirt in the streams. Episodes of political upheaval such as third-party movements have been rare in mid-Illinois—more on that below—and like the local thunderstorms such outbreaks were often furious but quickly spent. The sun, when it came out, still shone on a political landscape that was non-ideological, pragmatic, apartisan (rather than bipartisan), and (depending on who does the defining) corrupt.
Any mid-Illinois politician combines at least three of those traits, in varying proportions. A casual attitude toward party ideology is perhaps the most common. The noted historian and biographer David Donald finished reading a biography of Joseph Cannon convinced that the twenty-termer from Danville never had an idea, perhaps because he never read anything except the Congressional Record. “The fact is that Cannonism did not represent thought at all, but a completely non-ideological approach to politics,” says Donald. “His conservatism was not a matter of economics but of emotion. Instinctively he tried to restore the good old days when minimal government and a straight Republican ticket had made America, as the speaker tersely put it, ‘a hell of a success.’”
Similar in temperament was Shelby Moore Cullom, one of Illinois’s most durable politicians. After earlier service as a state representative and congressman, he was twice elected governor, leaving that office for what became a five-term, thirty-year career in the U.S. Senate. A Kentuckian by birth, Cullom grew up on a Tazewell County farm, then moved to Springfield, which city was to be his home, with the District of Columbia, for the rest of his life. In Springfield he read law in the firm of one of Lincoln’s former law partners—a connection that Cullom never let anyone forget. Honorable and capable of bipartisanship, Cullom was a name known nationally in his day, but he is remembered today, if at all, for having delivered the shortest nominating speech on record—seventy-nine words—in recommending Ulysses S. Grant for a second White House term.
Opinion is general that Cullom was neither a “brilliant disseminator of public policy” nor an influential crafter of laws. Incapable of insights into the questions of the day, much less of tomorrow, he owed his durability to he fact that most of the people in the still-rural and small-town Illinois he presented understood as little of such things as he did. Needing to take a position on public questions, he simply followed the lead of smarter Republican leaders.
In mid-Illinois, the middle of the road saw a lot of traffic. Bloomington’s Adlai Stevenson, vice president to President Grover Cleveland and father to the 1948 presidential candidate, took such a convenient attitude toward doctrine that he earned the nickname "The Great Straddler."
verett Dirksen managed to win the congressional district around Pekin in 1932 by the same number of votes as FDR carried it in the Democratic landslide that year. He pulled off that trick by posing as a Republican to Republican audiences and as a Democrat to Democratic ones; an unnamed newspaperman once said of him, "He delivered the best speech in favor of foreign aid and the best speech against foreign aid that I ever heard."
From Chapter 10: Roll-over Territory
Having a rail link at first gave a town a useful advantage over its neighbors; once every town’s commerce shifted to rails, not having a railroad link was a fatal disadvantage. To secure the blessings of connectedness, town promoters offered railroad companies free rights-of-way or depot sites, bought chunks of stock, in some cases even promised to subsidize operating costs—a preview of the incentives wars fought by Illinois governments in the latter twentieth century over new and relocating factories.
Bushnell was founded in 1854 as a stop on the old Northern Cross Railroad but never thrived; when the Rockford, Rock Island, and St. Louis Railroad announced plans in the 1860s to extend its line west past Beardstown into the old Military Tract, Bushnell’s forward-looking citizens bid to have the new line laid there. Deciding that one railroad was not enough, in 1867 they also subscribed to stock in the Toledo, Peoria & Warsaw railroad, then a-building, to insure its tracks ran through the town too. As one irrepressible booster put it in 1885, “As the sound of the locomotive's whistle could be heard in the distance . . . dreams of future growth and greatness pervaded the minds of all.” By then, alas, the region had more railroads than its railroads had business. Grow Bushnell did—to 2,316 people by 1880. . . .
The costs of being bypassed by a rail line usually justified the risks. . . .Albert Britt, in An America That Was, tells Oquawka’s sad tale. It began in the 1850s when promoters started talking about building a new line from Illinois across Iowa to Omaha and beyond. Locals believed Oquawka’s selection to be inevitable, it being the only logical point for the line to cross the Mississippi going west, and local voters defeated a measure that would have allowed the county to subscribe to fifty thousand dollars worth of stock in the line. Alas, the company’s owners bypassed the ungrateful Oquawkans and crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, twenty miles to the south. Robert P. Sutton in 1990 documented the subsequent collapse of the town, whose adult population declined from eighty-eight percent of Henderson County residents in 1860 to only forty percent ten years later. “Oquawka,” concluded Sutton, “was, figuratively, the moon that never rose.”
At first, new rail lines expanded the existing commercial advantages of the region’s river towns by providing a more efficient means to move river-borne goods to and from them the hinterland. Railroad companies had quickly laid track to connect the busy Mississippi port at Quincy to Chicago, and as a result Quincy by 1870 had passed Peoria to become the second largest city in Illinois, with more than twenty-four thousand residents.
However, rail companies by then also were eager to serve the booming West—the new West that is, the frontier having moved from Illinois beyond the Mississippi. To do that they needed to bridge the Mississippi, which the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad did at Quincy in 1868. “Quincy, as its new bridge demonstrated, was no longer the last point on the line, the city on the edge of the Mississippi,” writes Thomas J. Brown. “It was becoming merely a point in the middle of the United States instead of the central national crossroads that its residents had envisioned.” By the mid-1870s, new bridges had the same effect on river termini such as Pekin, Beardstown, Meredosia, and Naples.
Peoria proved different. The Illinois River was reliably navigable by larger craft only as far upstream as Peoria, where sand bars blocked the way at low water. Peoria thus became a “break-in-bulk point” where the larger boats that worked the wider lower Illinois off-loaded cargoes onto smaller boats capable of navigating the treacherous upper Illinois. Because it was already a major steamboat entrepot, Peoria became a rail center as well, which extended its reach well beyond the river in all directions. For years Peoria was the fourth largest regional hub in the U.S. rail system, and the cars of no fewer than fifteen railroads rumbled into and out of the city, many of which converged in a riverfront crowded with railroad bridges, depots, roundhouses, switching yards, and passenger stations. Thanks to the steel roads, Peoria’s commercial focus was re-oriented from north-south to east-west, to new markets in the new West.
Quincy’s fate offers an instructive contrast. Quincy had always had close commercial ties to St. Louis, and to some extent Quincy rose as St. Louis rose. Unfortunately for Quincy, the growth of St. Louis itself was curtailed, its commercial hinterland being the farming South. Chicago’s great commercial empire was the industrial Northeast, and as a Chicago outpost Peoria after 1870 overtook Quincy to became mid-Illinois’s largest city, and a nationally known manufacturer, while Quincy became known as a great old river town.
From Chapter 11: Growing Factories
Its ability to convert raw corn into pork makes a hog something of a genius, but humans have performed their own miracles in transforming corn into shippable, sellable products. One doesn’t usually think of refining corn the way one might refine petroleum, but a kernel of the stuff is a complex creation crammed with useful starches, proteins, and sugars from which clever machines could create a grocer’s shelf of products. Corn refining began in the U.S. around the time of the Civil War when a process to extract starch from corn was perfected, to the relief of the commercial laundry industry. In 1866 the industry’s wizards learned how to extract first dextrose (a form of sugar) from the starch and then anhydrous sugar, in 1882; in 1889 millers learned how to recover the oil in the germ of the kernel. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Kidder Corn Milling Plant in Paris in Edgar County processed area corn into hominy, corn flour, brewers' supplies, and corn flakes. Here the practices of the frugal mid-Illinois farmer of that era were re-imagined on the industrial scale, as the factory not only squeezed several finished products from raw corn but burned the cobs to power the machinery and packed the husks into bales and sold them as stock food.
Corn processing firms by then also had come to realize there was a lot of potential value in the form of fiber and protein even in the leftover bits they had been throwing out and perfected ways to convert them into valuable animal feeds. Allied Mills, Inc. catered to the appetites of hungry Westerners, specifically that region’s cattle, hogs, and poultry. (Chickens everywhere have reason to be grateful to the firm, as it was a Bartonville lab where scientists determined the Vitamin D and manganese requirements needed to make healthier birds.) Its Wayne Feeds were popular enough that Allied built an eleven-story plant at Bartonville in 1920 that was the largest feed mill in the world at that time.
Mid-Illinois firms were among the nation’s masters of this industrial alchemy. Set in the middle both of the world’s most deliriously productive corn country and of a huge and hungry nation, Decatur was perfectly situated to become a national grain processor. Augustus Eugene Staley the man was making a living selling food starch in Baltimore, but realized there was more money in making it and bought a factory in Decatur in 1906. A. E. Staley the company grew to be one of the largest processors of corn in the United States and the purveyor of such popular products as Staley Pancake and Waffle Syrup, Sta-Puf fabric softener, and Sta-Flo liquid starch.
Staley was unconventional, forward-looking, and paternalistic, the perfect industrial baron of his day. (Among the amenities he provided for his workers were opportunities for organized sport; the footballing Chicago Bears got their start in 1918 as the Decatur Staleys, a factory team.) The founder’s biographer recalls how farms folks used to drive down to Decatur in buggies and just sit and look at Staley’s dazzling fourteen-story headquarters; built in 1930 of Indiana limestone and kept lighted at night as a beacon, the “Castle in the Cornfields” was rivaled in scale in mid-Illinois only by the statehouse in Springfield and the occasional tornado funnel.
Decatur’s grain-processing factories made an impression, too. Most locals have always regarded the smell of cooking grain as Houstonians regard the stinging pollution from that city’s petrochemical plants, as the sweet smell of prosperity. Writer David Foster Wallace grew up in Champaign County, and recalled of his youthful visits to Decatur for tennis tournaments that the air was “so awash in the stink of roasting corn that kids would play with bandannas tied over their mouths and noses.”
From the Epilogue
Some of its mid-Illinois’s immigrants came to mid-Illinois to escape their pasts, the Irish being driven to Illinois by hunger and religious persecution, the Germans by political repression, southern and eastern Europeans and Southern African Americans by poverty. Most of the rest, going back to the Kickapoo, wanted to improve the life they had had, or might have had back home, if home had had more freedom or more land or better land or fewer people or, in some cases, fewer sheriffs. In all cases, it was the future in which these transformations would occur, and it was the future that for more than a century preoccupied the region at the personal and political level after mid-Illinois began to develop in earnest.
Today it is the past that beckons. After more than three hundred years, Euro-American history has a history in mid-Illinois. In many towns, the past—that is, the local consciousness of its past—began when the first generation of residents began to die as the 1800s waned. Every town’s history then still resided largely in the memories of the “old settlers,” as they usually were known. (A wonderful photograph taken at the Old Settlers picnic in Decatur’s Fairview Park in 1937 shows us five of these heroes, aged ninety-one to ninety-six; their erect postures and stern visages make them look every bit the kind of people who could make a city out of nothing. ) Old settlers societies were formed to provide a venue for the sharing of those memories, which eventually were recorded, often in the form of the subscription histories or “mug books” that were popular around the turn dawn of the twentieth century.
Local history in such works often took the form of stories, anecdotes, and fables. Their sometimes suspect accuracy mattered little. The point of collecting them was to celebrate the town or county and the people who made it—and, not coincidentally, to affirm the status that this class had on local society in an era in which newcomers were asserting their own claims. More recent centennial and sesquicentennial celebrations of nation, state, and town had much the same purpose, often taking the form of a kind of retrospective boosterism, in which the booster extols what a great place the town used to be.
Civic affirmation took different forms during the Great Depression. In those dark days, celebrating the heroes who made the town was thought to be one way to inoculate the young against the foreign isms of the moment; they did this (it was hoped) by instilling in them local pride, if not in what their ancestors had done then in the country that made it possible for them to do it. Instruction rather than inoculation is the aim of more recent projects to convey the past to new generations. Nauvoo and Bishop Hill, for example, maintain what amounts to antiques collections on the civic scale, the motive being religious affirmation in the first case and ethnic affirmation in the second.
Today’s mid-Illinoisans find themselves tourists in the foreign land of the past. The mid-nineteenth- century farm is as exotic to mid-Illinois fourth-graders as an Indian village or a French trading post. Several “history farms” and agricultural museums in the region cater to their curiosity. Time has also rendered romantic many structures built in the 1800s.When Progress threatened them, several mid-Illinois towns, moved the buildings out of harm’s way onto park-parklike grounds to create a “history village.”
. . . . As such ersatz villages go, the rebuilt New Salem is special. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had an abiding personal interest in Lincoln. He bought the New Salem site in 1906, then conveyed it in trust to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association, which in turn conveyed it to the State of Illinois in 1919 with the intention of seeing it reconstructed as a memorial to Lincoln’s early years in Illinois. How much the reconstruction looks like the village Lincoln knew is difficult to say. The research that guided the reconstruction of the town and its buildings by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s was fastidious by the standards of the day, but the only indisputably authentic elements of the new New Salem were a few pieces of original furniture donated by descendants of Lincoln’s old neighbors, and the shell of the Onstot cooper shop.
While it would be very hard to re-create old New Salem as an environment, it would be even harder to re-create it as an experience. The twenty-first- century tourist tends to see the hearth as a fireplace, not a cook cookstove, and the oxcart as a theme park ride, not a truck. The modern version of the village is lacking the dirt, the pestilential insects, the stink of smoke and dung that must have permeated the original. Even with more faithful attention paid to such detail, the visitors would still be mere spectators. The village would be a more accurate sort of museum diorama, but still a diorama.
The same dilemmas confront managers of the Lincolns’ house in Springfield. It and the late president’s tomb in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery are not only the two most significant historic sites not only in mid-Illinois but also in the nation. The house sits on a partially restored nineteenth-century residential block that is the centerpiece of the National Park Service’s four-block Lincoln Home National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service, which. The NPS took over the house and site in the 1970s. The changes since were fairly summed up by travel writer Jan Morris as “sanitized for the tourists by the guardian nannies of the national Park Service.” Certainly there was much about 1850s Springfield that a responsible agency would not want to re-create, such as slippery and uneven wooden sidewalks, but for visitors to experience the street as the Lincolns did, they would need at least to smell the sting of coal smoke in the air and the stink of hogs in the streets and see a few unpainted fences, some unmowed lawns, and clothes hanging on wash lines.