Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves:
This was the first review to appear, and in some ways it is the most gratifying. Harold Henderson was for years a colleague of mine at Illinois Times and later at the Reader in Chicago. No one stands higher in my estimation. When the Reader downsized, Harold, typically, turned to a new field—genealogy and family history—and soon rose to the top of that profession as well.
Those of us with ties to the 44 or so Illinois counties lying between I-70 and I-80 have received a gift, but we don't all know it yet. Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois, by my friend and onetime colleague James Krohe Jr., comes closer to unriddling the riddle of the Midwest than anything else I've seen. How is it that a place so bland has such a violent history and uncertain future?
One way to begin to understand the past is not to blink at it. The author accurately compares the "removal" of Native Americans to recent episodes of "ethnic cleansing at its most ruthless." Similarly in agriculture: "Most of the prairie was simply destroyed to get at the soils that lay beneath it"; what remains is appropriately preserved in tiny pioneer cemeteries.
The book's eleven chapters proceed both chronologically and thematically, keeping close to the ground. We learn that Decatur was the hub of railroad Illinois, selling more tickets than Chicago or St. Louis; that it took four days for Canton's abandoned International Harvester factory complex to burn down; that the Corn Belt Liberty League did not survive farm prosperity. (The attempted academic renaissance of midwestern studies should do this well.)
There is no slack water here; the author is always thinking. "On a memorable night in 1895, the Fulton County courthouse in Lewistown was burned to the ground as the last act in a bitter county seat war between that town and Canton. The incident provided material for several of Edgar Lee Masters's poems, making it one of the few times county government has inspired readable verse."
And he earns the epilogue, a reflection on the barely casual interest in the region's past that allowed Galesburg's first settlers' "Log City" and the massive World War II Camp Ellis in Fulton County to be obliterated. "The mid-Illinois landscape is peopled with spirits of these forgotten people and places and things . . . Old interurban and streetcar tracks still run through many a Main Street, buried beneath newer paving; where streets are worn, the rails sometimes are exposed, like the bones sticking out of a grave."
For those with roots south of the Quad Cities and north of Alton, this is a must-have. Others may find it a model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
John Hoffman is the long-time librarian and manuscript curator of the Illinois Historical Survey and Lincoln Room at the University of Illinois's library in Urbana. He is the editor of A Guide to the HIstory of Illinois (Greenwood Press, 1991), a first-rate compendium of descriptions of both primary and secondary sources and bibliographical essays that focus on particular periods and topics in Illinois history. His good opinion is worth having. This is an excerpt from a much longer review.
James Krohe's Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves is an enjoyable sampling of Illinois history, sprinkled with droll asides. . . . After years of perceptive and sometimes sardonic journalism, Krohe's Corn Kings is a book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians as well as local historians generally. Teachers on any level can mine it for nuggets of information. Scholars can check it for new perspectives on old topics. And historiographers can marvel at the distance the field has come since the Centennial History of Illinois. The book is indeed a useful, if wholly unintended, contribution to the state's bicentennial.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Journal of Illinois History
When I moved to Chicago in 1994 to begin my undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t think of Illinois outside the City of Wind’s ragged boundaries.
I knew it existed and that it had people, villages, educational institutions of great repute, and agribusiness in all the cardinal directions. I just didn’t know much else....
What I came to discover during future expeditions around Illinois’s weighty midsection was that this landscape was complex and compelling. It wasn’t just all Honest Abe Might Have Slept Here markers (tho those exist), but rather a region with much to reveal if I was willing to slow down and look closely.
It was with great interest that I saw James Krohe Jr’s latest book, Corn King and One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois, in the window last month at Prairie Archives in downtown Springfield. The cover art caught my eye and I picked it up for closer consideration. I was delighted to find that it was a robust regional history that offered insightful commentary on the region’s development told through the creation of transportation systems, new arrivals from distant lands, the growth of higher education, and more.
In short, it renewed my interest in a region that once upon a time gave me little pause as I moved on to other things.
To me, that is the mark of a worthy read.
I expected a book of anecdotes, but it displays, and more importantly imparts, an incredible amount of knowledge and information. The author weaves a great story and certainly knows his topic, while making the case for Illinois’s uniqueness. It is a great history of central Illinois, successfully relating Illinois history to the larger world. It is one of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
“If you want to know about the history of mid-Illinois, James Krohe Jr. has it covered. This is an outstanding book, well-written and well-researched.”
Dave Joens Illinois State Archives,
Superior Achievement Award citation
2018 ISHS Annual Awards
. . . . Krohe is both entertaining and enlightening on a wide variety of issues, events, and personalities. His literary voice is knowledgeable and bemused, with a dry wit that makes for an enthralling narrative. . . . Krohe’s book will be of interest to scholars as an example of lively writing and innovative regional history and to lay readings looking for a diverting and fascinating perspective on the Prairie State.
James A. Edstrom
William Rainey Harper College
The Annals of Iowa
Springfield's star historical personage is Abraham Lincoln,of course, but among those who practice history no one stands above Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Some years ago he was named the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies.
This work of solid history, entertainingly told, is mistitled, or rather mis-subtitled; it should read: “A Witty and Profound Account of Life in Central Illinois from Prehistoric Times to the Present.” The author, James Krohe Jr., is well known to readers of this publication as a droll commentator on doings in the greater Springfield area, broadly defined.
The reference to “One-Horse Thieves” is taken from an 1865 letter by Robert G. Ingersoll, the prominent 19th-century orator-atheist-politician from Peoria: “I was at Springfield several weeks during the sitting of the Legislature, and I suppose a more scaly set of one-horse thieves and low-lived political tricksters never assembled on earth.”
The new history is by James Krohe Jr., who has been writing for Illinois Times since it was founded in 1975. His column, “Dyspepsiana,” appears weekly on page 3. Over many years he has contributed nearly 1,000 installments for this newspaper.
Krohe’s low opinion of central Illinois politicians crops up regularly throughout this 300-page volume. Republican Congressman Leslie Arends “never let principle interfere with politics.” In recounting how a new state school for the blind was funded, Krohe remarks sardonically: “The General Assembly seldom passed up a chance to discharge its obligations to its dependent citizens on the cheap.” He describes an open-air tabernacle in Springfield where revival meetings were held by the “baseball-playing, hokum-peddling, ‘polygonal preacher’” Billy Sunday: it “stood at First and Adams Streets, only one block from the Satan’s den that was the Illinois statehouse.” In treating the infamous Springfield race riot of 1908, he observes: “The gambling halls and opium dens and whorehouses frequented by white men were untouched by the mobs, while many of the black businesses that were ravaged (such as barbershops) were eminently respectable by the standards of a town that was home to the General Assembly.” Though Chicago is widely regarded as Illinois’ most corrupt locale, Krohe believes central Illinois has caught up with it: “in a political sense, ‘mid-Illinois’ in the 2000s is metropolitan Chicago.”
Krohe ably describes for a general audience the “wrenching transformations” as the region “moved from Indian country to European-American frontier to industrial heartland to colonial outpost of a global service economy.” Covering economic, political, social, religious and intellectual developments, he enlivens his sprightly narrative with sketches of colorful characters (like the Swedish preacher Erik Janson of Bishop Hill), little-known facts (the Mormons’ gigantic second temple at Nauvoo was in use for less than a month), amusing anecdotes (“The state police memorably described the situation around the capital as ‘quiet except for a few scattered bombings’”), and clever asides (“It is doubtful whether antebellum Illinois’ hogs or its drunks did more damage when let loose; towns passed ineffectual ordinances against both.”).
Krohe’s prose bristles with ingenious figures of speech and turns of phrase.
“Springfield and Bloomington are like a rascal uncle and his scout leader nephew.”
“A hog’s ability to convert raw corn into pork makes the animal something of a genius.”
“At the Ariston Café in Litchfield, travelers could eat dinner served on white linens, which was like pumping gas while wearing a tux.”
“Paving mid-Illinois’ roads was like reforming its sinners – neither ever stayed reformed for long.”
Written with wry detachment, streaked with affection, Krohe’s book is no exercise in regional cheerleading. The result of the “wrenching transformations,” he concludes, “was a mid-Illinois that by many measures was dull, complacent, cautious, and bland.” Even by Illinois standards, it “can seem like a backwater,” for “the economic, social, and political centers of Illinois have shifted well to the northeast.” It was not always thus: the region enjoyed a heyday between the Civil War and the Great Depression.
Krohe laments that “for most mid-Illinoisans most of the time, the real history of the region has been not a matter of pride or self-identification or curiosity but indifference.” To illustrate his point, he cites the destruction of Indian villages and campsites, of Galesburg’s “Log City,” of mills and dams, of commercial potteries, of the top works of coal mines and mining gob piles, of huge military installations, and of immense ordnance factories. He deplores Springfield’s historical amnesia about “the origins of the city’s ongoing experiment in municipal socialism or the inter-union violence that sparked gun battles between miner factions in the streets of the capital in the 1930s.”
Krohe laments not only what has been forgotten but also what has been “merely overlooked.” He cites the example of the Lincoln Legals project, whose staff unearthed thousands of documents illuminating Lincoln’s long career as an attorney, making possible “major scholarly advances not only in Lincoln studies but also in the history of mid-Illinois and the Midwest.” In a second edition of his fine book, he might also deplore the virtual suspension of the Lincoln Papers project that for years had scholars successfully excavating mountains of documents at the National Archives in search of new letters written by and to the 16th president.
November 16, 2017
Most general histories of Illinois become Chicago centric after the Civil War, which is understandable given the historical significance of the city to the state, the Midwest, and to the country in the last third of the nineteenth century and beyond. Unfortunately, in the process, the rich history of downstate Illinois becomes overshadowed. In an effort to correct this imbalance, particularly in regard to the middle of Illinois, James Krohe, Jr.’s, Corn-Kings & One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Illinois presents readers with a comprehensive history of the mid-region of Illinois from its earliest settlements to the present. Unlike other histories of Illinois, Native Americans receive a great deal of treatment, providing human continuity to the settlement of the Prairie State over the centuries.
Although Krohes study is largely a work of historical synthesis, he is able to draw on a wealth of scholarship that demonstrates the importance of middle Illinois to the states history. In some respects, Krohe builds off of the work of John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek (1988) and James E. Davis’ Frontier Illinois (2000) by adding further detailed analysis of middle Illinois during the frontier period and continuing into the twenty-first century. Moreover, Krohes study exhibits the renewed scholarly inquiry of Midwest history along the lines suggested by Jon K. Lauck in The Lost Region (2013).
Corn-Kings & One-Horse Thieves is a thematic history that treats settlement, immigration, demographic patterns, agriculture, transportation systems, manufacturing, town building, state government, education, religion, and partisan politics, as well as issues relating to race, class, and gender. Even though the comprehensive nature of the book has a textbook feel, the author personalizes the narrative with plenty of examples of lived experience, individual profiles, and points of conflict. As any good work of history, Krohe provides a thorough analysis of change over time for each of his thematic chapters that include subheadings that enliven the narrative. In addition, several of his chapters begin with Native American history, where he explores his theme before moving on to Euro-Americans, especially when he discusses settlement, agriculture, and religion. The study does investigate some of the more familiar topics relating to mid- Illinois history, such as communitarian experiments involving the Mormons and Icarians of Nauvoo and the Jansonists of Bishop Hill, as well as significant individuals, such as Abraham Lincoln. However, many other topics and individuals receive ample attention, making the book-length study distinctive in contemporary scholarship on Illinois history.
One of the most interesting aspects of Corn-Kings & One-Horse "Thieves is Krohes examination of mid-Illinois’ economic development. Although the flat, prairie landscape at first appeared unpromising to early Euro-American settlers, the region would, in short order, become economically bountiful. The soils, rainfall, and healthy growing season proved perfect for grain crops as well as for soybeans and livestock. However, the farms of the region required innovations in labor-saving machinery, draining wetlands, and reliable transportation to make the land profitable. Growing up alongside the region’s dynamic agrarian economy was a manufacturing sector that sadly today is a shadow of its former self.
Early on mid-Illinois companies tailored their factories to produce items needed by farmers, such as George Brown’s corn planter manufactured in Galesburg or the tile works produced from local clay deposits in cities such as Macomb that were instrumental in the production of drainage pipe used to convert wetlands into farm lands. Manufacturing, however, was not only focused on supporting farming, for companies produced a wide variety of commercial and consumer items that were produced for local but also for national and international markets. Moreover, manufacturing provided jobs for men and women who left rural communities for the thriving towns and cities of the region. Readers may get a clear sense that Chicago and St. Louis were not the only options for young people eager to experience a life off the farm. Krohe does an excellent job explaining the urban development of the region economically but also socially and politically. Nevertheless, he does not neglect rural life either, for Corn-Kings & One-Horse Thieves presents a rich history of life, community, and work on the mid-Illinois farm. Krohes study, at the end of the day, is a fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Western Illinois University
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
. . . . As any good work of history, Krohe provides a thorough analysis of change over time for each of his thematic chapters that include subheadings that enliven the narrative. In addition, several of his chapters begin with Native American history, where he explores his theme before moving on to Euro-Americans, especially when he discusses settlement, agriculture, and religion. The study does investigate some of the more familiar topics relating to mid- Illinois history, such as communitarian experiments involving the Mormons and Icarians of Nauvoo and the Jansonists of Bishop Hill, as well as significant individuals, such as Abraham Lincoln. However, many other topics and individuals receive ample attention, making the book-length study distinctive in contemporary scholarship on Illinois history.
Western Illinois University
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society