Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Illinois: Country-fied city or city-fied country?
Most day-tripping city folks who ever missed a turn on the road in the middle of dead-flat countryside and ended up at the intersection of four corn fields know that sense of disorientation that comes upon us when everything around us is indistinguishable. It's been said of Downstate that there was no there there, but in recent decades there is less and less where there too.
Note: In this piece, which probably dates from the early '80s, I state, “There are hardly ever any farmers at farmer’s markets.” True enough then but no longer, thanks to the rise in boutique farming catering to urbanites' appetites for food that is local, healthful, and fresh, or at least more local, more healthful, and more fresh than the supermarkets.'
The subject was furniture stores, as I recall it. Referring to a shop specializing in Early American designs, A. said, “It’s all country.” Early American is not a style I automatically associate with country, but the more I thought about, it the less certain I became that any of us have any idea what “country” is anymore.
When 1 was a boy, “city” was ' where I lived, while “country” was where my grandparents lived, on a small farm outside Beardstown. They had hogs and we didn’t, while our backyard had grass in it and theirs had alfalfa. Such simple distinctions helped me keep my bearings well enough during the years when my attention was diverted by the exotic pleasures which haystacks and defecating cows held for a lad living in a GI Bill tract house on a street grandiloquently dubbed “Manor Avenue.”
Yet even I gradually became aware of a fuzzing of boundaries in the ’60s. There was that new movie drive-in up the road from the farm, for one thing. And my first-ever summer job was hopping cars at a root beer stand on the state highway on the outskirts of Beardstown, an establishment whose existence was predicated on the possession of an automobile by a significant share of Beardstown’s pork tenderloin fans.
The car made more than drive-ins possible, of course. It made it possible for people to live in places other than where they made their living. Theretofore, “country” and “city” were economic as well as geographical categories. Leo Marx, reviewing a book recently, notes that in the past a sharp-edged dot on a map was the perfect symbol for a city, which was “inhabited by a small, specialized segment of the region’s population” such as bankers and undertakers.
Most people continued to live in the country, because that’s where their livings were. No more. Hardy was able to describe his Casterbridge as being “compact as a box of dominoes,” a place where “country and town met in a mathematical line.” Today we have instead a squalid urban litter lining the highways leading out of even small towns. It’s as if commuters had tossed half-acre subdivision lots and minor-denomination chapels out their car windows along with their gum wrappers. The city never ends anymore. It just gets thinner.
Urban sprawl of this kind is new only in its magnitude, and it’s driving those doughty demographers down to the U.S. Census nuts. The census defines an “urban” area as cities of more than 50,000 people with those of their environs having population densities of at least 1,000 person per square mile, along with incorporated places having at least 2,500 people. Everything else is “rural.”
Inevitably, large tracts of “urban” incorporated areas have population densities which are more nearly rural, while many a “rural” district boasts city-style subdivisions whose residents shop in malls and send their kids to schools which offer courses in “Global Studies” and employ career counselors. One federal official calls this curious new form of civilization the “countryfied city.” 1 would have called it “citified country,” but the point is that there’s not much difference either way.
Whatever country is, or wherever it is, there’s less and less of it. The rural population (except for isolated suburban developments) has largely evaporated in the last fifty years; even farmers are commuting from town these days. Worse, the countryside has become merely a trashier version of the cities we used to visit the countryside to escape. Hedges have been systematically ripped out as out as owners scramble for a few extra bushels. Trees have been cleared, and with them have gone the birds. The roadsides are scalped of predator weeds, and the streams are brown with mud. Even country architecture is being abandoned (as Allison Engel reported here in November) in favor of prefab metal sheds and mobile homes which give a personality that owes more to the parking lot than to the pastoral. V. S Pritchett once tried to identify the source of outrage in Evelyn Waugh, whose life seemed at first to offer no cause for it. He credited it to what he called “the ruin of rural England” since World War I, what Waugh himself called “the grim cyclorama of spoliation.” Central Illinois has never been mistaken for Somerset, but it's easy to see what he meant.
To a considerable extent, country has ceased to be a matter of geography and become solely one of lifestyle. As Marx—that’s Leo Marx—explains, rural life has lost much of its distinctiveness, for “while the physical city was becoming a sprawl, urban ways were becoming increasingly the ways of people everywhere.” And vice versa. In days past, country people were recognizable by more than their address. They wore boots and drove pickup trucks and listened to country music. Today that description fits half the bureaucrats under forty in Springfield. There are still clues, of course, but they’re subtle. Vandals it the country tend to use shotguns to shoot at road signs while their city cousins use hand guns. At Massey-Ferguson Night at the ball park last summer, you could tell the farmers and small-town equipment dealers in the crowd because they were the only ones who actually sang along with the national anthem. And you know you’re in the country if you have to drive more than ten miles to get to a Pizza Hut.
Farmers used to be country. But even here, familiar distinctions have blurred. Take “farmer’s markets,” which are to modern downtown promotions what funny hats are to New Year’s Eve parties. There are hardly ever any farmers at farmer’s markets; farmers don’t grow food anymore, they produce commodities. In their place are ersatz farmers—hobby gardeners, retirees, bake sale fund raisers, and merchandisers who pick their produce fresh—fresh off the loading docks of St. Louis wholesalers. Indeed, “farmer’s market’’ has become a generic term for quasi-rustic street fairs intended to appeal to a certain sort of suburban sensibility which is also responsible for the trade in carriage lamp porch lights.
Illinois is something of an anomaly, being both an industrialized state and an agricultural one at the same time. Its two halves share space uneasily; Illinois has a lot of the West Bank about it. Here and there, in the interstices among the economic orbits of the larger cities, there survive real country towns of the sort Hardy called “the pole, focus-, or nerve-knot of the surrounding country life” whose people understand “every fluctuation in the rustic’s condition, for it affects their receipts as much as the laborer's." But most Illinoisans remain as ignorant of the country as they re of Siberia. A while back DeKalb County planners surveyed farmers, who complained that the new “subdivision people” acted as if farm fields were public open space and grow irritated because a combine can’t do 45 mph on a country road. Hell, so many exurbanites have threatened to sue farmers whose hogs offend them or whose grain dryers keep them awake at night that the legislature last year had to pass a “right to farm” law to keep all of Illinois’ remaining country from turning into something like [the Springfield suburb of] Chatham.
It should be a rule of government that country is country and city is city, and the twain probably should never meet, except maybe in basketball tournaments. This would be a dramatic change from past policies of the state’s road planners, sewer builders, and developers. Planners and other radicals got some help in their fight to restrain the citifying of the country last month from Ronnie Reagan, bless his heart. He signed amendments to the federal Clean Water Act which will reduce or eliminate federal funding for water projects whose principal function is to build reserve capacity to promote urban growth rather than clean up dirty water.
it’s probably too late anyway. Of course, the problem with every place becoming like every other place is that every place becomes no place special. Same thing happens to people. No longer able to define ourselves, we resort to designer jeans labels and religions to set us apart from our neighbors. “Country” is no longer a place, yes, but neither will it long survive even as a state of mind. It’s merely an attitude.
What’s the Zip Code for Nowhere? ●
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.
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."
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."
Illinois Labor History Society
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.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
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
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.
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
Northern Illinois University Press
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture