Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves:

A Plain-Spoken

History of Mid-Illinois

“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.

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.

In any event, having promised to write a history of the kingdom of my youth, I faced the problem of what to put in it. 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.

SITES

OF INTEREST

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."

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.

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.

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.

[STILL A-BUILDING]

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

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

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Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated