About Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
“Witty and profound"—Michael Burlingame,
author of Lincoln: A Life
This is what the publisher said about the book:
The history of an often-overlooked, yet fascinating, region of Illinois
In Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves, James Krohe Jr. presents an engaging history of an often-overlooked region, filled with fascinating stories and surprising facts about Illinois’s midsection.
A general history of mid-Illinois for the curious nonacademic reader, Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves draws on a wide range of sources to explore a surprisingly diverse region whose history is America in microcosm.
Actually, that was me, playing my own publicist. Authors are obliged to do that these days, but the description is fair enough.
Some years ago I ago I wrote a massive book about the history of Illinois places. It was good—more than good in places—but unpublishable, give the commercial realities. In that work I divided the state into several regions, each delineated by essentially geological and ecological characteristics (based, ultimately on glaciation). The old Grand Prairie—east-central Illinois—was one, the old Military Tract was another. and of course southern Illinois below I-70, central Illinois, northern Illinois outside Chicago, and Chicago and its suburbs known, gratingly, as Chicagoland. I also included a section on Illinois River towns, whose cultures and economies I thought were distinct in important ways from the countryside they abut.
My argument was that the characteristics of each region affected population migrations which affected culture. Emigrants from hill country in Tennessee and Kentucky sought hill country in western and southern Illinois. The prairie-and-grove ecology of central Illinois appealed to farmers from the richer soil part of Ohio, the flat treeless Grand Prairie appealed to German and Dutch farmers who were familiar with such terrain. Thus were the seeds of political ad social discord sown; among other effects, the hill people could never compete in a commercial ag economy.
The shelves were crowded with commemorations, self-serving institutional autobiographies, and, most recently, product promotions in the form of town histories intended to tempt blurry-eyed travelers off the interstates for plaque-reading and a snack. Most were addressed to readers assumed to not really be interested in history but in the antique and the antic; some seemed addressed to readers not interested in reading.
I wanted in part to explore aspects of the story usually left untold by earlier authors because of inattention, politics, snobbery, or lack of raw material, not so much to correct historical slights as to enrich the tale. I wanted to re-introduce Native Americans into the popular narrative, for example, but not as victims or exotic primitives. The more recent research has revealed them as people who confronted the same sorts of challenges posed by living in mid-Illinois that Euro-Americans would confront and who contrived their own solutions, from organizing an urban society to coping with a changed resource base.
The European emigrants and their descendants who arrived in wagons had been extolled by conventional town histories. The Old Settlers of every locale were celebrated for their hardiness and their foresight but never for their luck or their guile; one didn’t have to be more than ordinarily virtuous to succeed back then; in fact it rather helped not to be. As for Mr. Lincoln, I sought to put him in his place, so to speak; rather than offering mid-Illinois as a place ennobled by the presence of Lincoln, my account would describe Lincoln as a man ennobled by his experience of the region.
I did not want to shrink from recounting foible, but debunking would be a means rather than an end. A history of Illinois that overlooks the venal, the cowardly, or the stupid is a dishonest history, so I included the speculators selling swamps, the labor-sweaters, the gerrymanderers, and the ballot box-stuffers.
Mainly, I wanted to share what a new generation of scholars had taught me about my home region. Beginning in 1985, what was at first known as the Lincoln Legals project disinterred thousands of Lincoln-related documents from the courthouse basements and libraries, mainly in mid-Illinois, and thus added immeasurably to what scholars thought they knew about this seminal aspect of the great man’s life. In other fields, thinkers such as Elazar, Faragher, Doyle, David, Meyer, Gittens, Franke, Seneschal, Thompson, Hudson, Emerson were making considered judgments about the past based on new or reconsidered evidence and putting them into book-length studies. While not every such work focused on mid-Illinois per se, much of their work touched on it, and offered new ways to understand the region’s past in terms of population movements, capital flows, ecological shifts, and cultural anthropology. As far as the larger curious public was aware, their work might as well have been scrawled on a cave wall. Thus the book.
How books get made
One university press was interested, sort of. Their marketing people have much to say about acquisitions, and they looked at a map and saw that the only Downstate cities of any size, and thus book buyers, were clustered in the middle third of the state. They wanted me to recast the book as a conventional narrative history of the middle third of the state because no one wants a guide to places no one wants to go to and because home sells.
I argued that the coherence of my original scheme would be lost, that western Illinois is different from east central Illinois and the river towns distinct from the countryside, but to no avail. Thus was “mid-Illinois” born. Its parents were commerce and cowardice. One reviewer perceptively noted that my attempts to delineate the region of mid-Illinois were "a rather half-hearted rationale for exploring and arbitrarily defined geography." He was correct. Mid-Illinois was indeed arbitrarily defined for purposes of book-making, but not by me.
I should have fought harder, and maybe withdrawn my offer of the book, but I figured I was lucky to find one reputable publisher interested, and would never find two. Had I dared to follow through on my original plan, the result might have been more than a just a good book. Who knows.
I was qualified to do such a book, at least in one way. I'd been writing the history of mid-Illinois half of my life. As I note elsewhere on this site, much of my journalism about Illinois had always had an historical dimension. I did not consider myself an historian in the academic sense, however; I was uncredentialed and untrained, merely a journalist who writes about history.
Happily for me, Southern Illinois University's press's Karl Kageff was astute enough to to see that there was something in the manuscript, and Wayne Larsen helped make it a proper book. Bob, sadly, was long dead by the time it came out, so I didn't get a chance to thank him as a sort-of co-author.
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
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.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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Arts & culture