Delightful, De-lovely, Decatur
A Springfieldian looks down his nose at Decatur
November 3, 1978
Decatur and Springfield for decades contended for the title of Illinois's No. 4 city, as each grew to around 90,000 people by 1970 or so. The rivalry was mostly manufactured, but the two towns had real differences. Springfield is a white-collar town and Decatur proudly blue-collar.
Decatur thus was devastated by the collapse of the Illinois manufacturing economy. I note without pleasure that since 1980, Springfield's population has increased (barely) to 115,000 people while that of Decatur shriveled from 94,000 to 71,000. That's a lot of livings lost, and a lot of lives undone.
"I don't know. I've just never been able to see the attraction." The speaker was a woman who's lived in Springfield for more than thirty years, the occasion a Saturday trip to attend a youth soccer tournament, and the subject the city of Decatur, Illinois. Hers is a common judgment among the central Illinoisans who do not live in Decatur and, from what I've heard, several who do.
Decatur has been playing Chicago to Springfield's New York for decades. Outwardly the two cities have much in common. Both were built on the rolling central Illinois prairie, both share(unequally to be sure) in the Lincoln legacy, both were founded at about the same time and both have roughly the same population. But between cities as between people, charm lies in the differences. Decatur makes its living making things—processed foods, automobile tires, road graders, electronic gadgets and so on—while Springfield (to hear the rest of the state tell it) makes its living making trouble for everybody who doesn't live in Springfield.
Decatur, in short, is as blue-collar as Springfield is white-collar, and in that simple demographic datum lies the key to a myriad of differences. Like most factory towns, Decatur is ugly (though Springfield is fast reducing its advantages in this regard), narrow-minded, suspicious, insular. Decatur is the only city its size still exercised over porn shops. The main attraction on Decatur's symphony program this season is "Peter and the Wolf." WAND-TV's weatherman has been known to wear white shoes. Indeed, its only claim to the attention of the world is the fact that it has had the highest unemployment rate in Illinois for several years running.
That and its smell. In an April, 1978, article I made an admittedly unflattering reference to the way Decatur smells. It is "a peculiar odor that has no exact counterpart in nature," 1 wrote, one which "reminds some people of boiling tennis shoes, others of composting-birds' nests." I'blamed it on the soybean processing plants which are one of Decatur's staple industries. Shortly after the piece was published I met some proud Decaturites at a party. They work for one of the soybean processors, and they informed me with some feeling that the stink is not caused by soybeans but by corn, which is also very big in Decatur. I stand corrected. I want to add only that, whether he does it in a bathtub or a swimming pool, a drowned man is still dead.
The Decatur Chamber of Commerce, a never-say-die outfit if ever there was one, publishes a color brochure whose purpose is to entice travelers to bide a while in their Toledo-on-the-Sangamon. It lists the parks and the hotels and Lincoln sites, of course. But next to them, where the list of buried Civil War heroes and azalea walks would be on other cities' brochures, they have a list of factories. Tourism, as you might expect, is not a big business in Decatur.
Why should someone want to live in Decatur who isn't driven to it by the hard lash of economic need? (I'm often asked that question about Springfield, and the best answer I've come up with is, "Because it isn't Decatur.") And the answer is, of course, that the town has its good points. Milliken University is a fine school, and Decatur, according to recent reports, has a much lower crime rate than Springfield; there are especially fewer burglaries, which may be the result of a glut on the hot bowling ball market. Finally, as my homesick metropolite friends point out, it is thirty-nine miles closer than Springfield to New York City.
A few years ago an enterprising group of Decaturites mounted a revue titled, "Is Decatur Really Necessary:" I don't know if they found an answer, but I give them high marks for asking the question. □
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.
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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.