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 narrow sense, however; I was uncredentialed and untrained, merely a journalist who writes about history.
History-writing probably does not need more enthusiastic amateurs, but people who know more than I do insisted I might be more than that. In 1972, Robert P. Howard, my colleague on the Sangamon County Historical Society's Bicentennial booklet series, had published to general applause his Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (William B. Eerdmans, 1972), the first one-volume general history of the state that would remain the standard work for 50 years.
In 1977, we received a letter at Illinois Times from Bob in which he described me as “one of the great Illinois historians." He added that two of my recent pieces, on the World War II ordnance plants and the Town Branch, "were worthy of publication in any national historical journal.” This was exhilarating stuff, as you can imagine, although it was also over-generous. (The articles in question are “Ghosts of the Sangamon bomb factories” and “Touring Springfield as it was 150 years ago.”)
Such praise can be a burden, of course, but in my case it was a boon, because it forced me to begin doing research to the historian's standard rather than the journalist's, and for that I am grateful as much as for the compliments.
Anyway, 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.