Illinois's disappearing frontier
The sun sets on western Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
An essay describing a place that no longer exists, in a way—western Illinois. Written nearly twenty years ago, it describes economic stagnation and population loss that has only grown worse since. Any number of remedies have been prescribed for this ailing region, from better roads to faster broadband. Some have helped—here and there, for a while—but further decline seems inevitable.
This is taken from the draft of my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. (See Publications for more about that project.) Some of this material appears in slightly different form in my book, Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves.
Like the rest of Illinois’s broad midsection, western Illinois replicates within its borders the larger social and cultural divisions of the state as a whole. Physically, its central part (roughly from Peoria to Quincy) is indistinguishable from the Illinois that lies across the Illinois River to the east. Its northern part—Galesburg, Kewanee, and environs—is demographically and geographically akin to northern Illinois, which it abuts. The southernmost bit around Pike County is in culture and topography a bit of deep southern Illinois that has been marooned north of I-70; the noted novelist and critic Floyd Dell grew up there, and described it as “vaguely permeated by Southern influences—a touch of laziness, quite a lot of mud, and, like the scent of honeysuckle, a whiff of the romantic attitude toward life . . . .”
Perhaps it is because the region is more like other parts of Illinois than it is any single thing in itself, it is easy to overlook. In 1972, a Western Illinois University student named Neal Gamm was irked at the state’s political decision-makers, as was many a resident of western Illinois in those days. Prior to the Civil War, that triangle of land that lies south of the future Interstate 80 between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers seemed laden with promise. Quincy was among the Illinois cities with more than 10,000 residents in 1860, and a third, Galesburg, reached that rank in 1870. By the end of the 20th century the region was a place politicians could afford to overlook when it came time to allocate public resources of all kinds, from the essential (highway money) to the merely necessary (public radio stations).
Gamm proposed that Western Illinois should secede from Illinois and form its own state, “Forgottonia,” with Gamm as governor. Gamm made a poetically apt choice for a capital of his new republic. Forgottonia would be governed from the McDonough County village of Fandon—a town overlooking Troublesome Creek that no longer even had its own post office.
Like every good joke, Gamm’s Forgottonia plan made a point. Even a facetious secession movement was enough to focus attention on the region's concerns among state lawmakers in Springfield. The secession talk is no longer heard but the name has stuck. It has been adopted as name for hobby clubs such as the FDG Club (for Forgottonia Depression Glass) in Bushnell, and newspaper reporters gratefully use “Forgottonia” when they need to brighten dull articles about western Illinois.
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Forgottonia used to be known by a different name. In 1812 the still-young United States had a lot of land and very little money. To reward soldiers who had volunteered to fight against the British in the War of 1812, Congress set aside lands in the then-still remote West to be given as bounties to these stalwart veterans in lieu of cash. Some of that bounty land lay in what became the State of Illinois between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The territory—larger than the state of Massachusetts, taking in all or part of 18 future counties, or about 5.4 million acres—was dubbed the Military Tract.
Veterans were given warrants that could be exchanged for land. Few vets were eager to relocate to then-remote Illinois, however. Indians still roamed its prairies, posing a threat to land titles, if only fitfully to land owners. The result was that former soldiers were among the least numerous settlers in a region set aside for former soldiers. A Henderson County Herodotus noted that he had heard of only three soldiers of that war who came to that county and resided upon their land. We will never know how many warrants were lost because their owners bet them in card games or horse races. John Talbot, an honored settler of Monmouth, won his warrant for a section of McDonough County that way, in a poker game in New Orleans in 1827.
Most warrants were simply bought up cheap by speculators who held the plots off the market until a rise in land prices made them profitable to sell. An 1877 history of Henry County recorded a complaint that was general across the region, namely that the “the poor man looking for land for ‘actual settlement’ was outnumbered by capitalists who’d bought land for hypothetical settlement.”
This was already an old story in Illinois; the first cash crop raised on most Illinois land has always been exaggerated expectations. Oquawka, the Henderson County seat, today is home to barely 1,500 people, but its promoters at least believed it was destined to be a great city. An auction in 1836 saw lots in the still-unbuilt town sell for an average of $900, with some lots bringing thousands—this in a town that did not yet physically exist. A local historian noted dryly, “As it turned out in the end, we might say that the powder flashed in the pan; but those men of that day saw only roseate prospects.” Governor Joseph Duncan of Illinois foolishly bought a fourth-interest in Oquawka for a pledge of $450,000, expecting its value to rise—a rare instance of an Illinois politician making the people rich.
Such stories once were common in western Illinois. In a region that had no towns to speak of, the profits to be made by building the first ones promised to be enormous. In the hope of realizing them, speculators drove up the price of town lots in Quincy, which in 1836 brought as much as seventy-eight dollars per frontage foot. For a time in 1837, desirable town lots in Monmouth were worth one thousand dollars—an astonishing price for the day.
Gradually, as the original blocks of government land moved into private hands, the Military Tract ceased to exist as such. By the turn of the 20th century, few in Illinois recalled the ancient War of 1812, much less the arrangements made for the compensation of its troops. As a regional cognomen the phrase has been, well, forgotten by all but antiquarians.
Western Illinois was one of the first parts of Illinois to be settled, thanks to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. St. Louis was convenient to traders in the old Military Tract in the days when trade was done by boat. All rivers led to it. In the railroad era that advantage was lost. St. Louis lies to the south, and the trains mostly ran east and west. Interstate highways do too, and as a result western Illinois was not so much forgotten as unseen.
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The suburban day-tripper prowling for antique shoppes and harvest festivals should be aware that not all of the region’s more remote towns ooze charm. In The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson memorably described a town between Hamilton and Quincy that, out of kindness, he redubbed Dullard, Illinois. He recalled how, years ago, he had read a chilling story by Richard Matheson about a remote hamlet whose inhabitants waited every year for a lone stranger to come to town so that they could roast him for their annual barbecue. The people of Dullard, he imagined, “watched me with barbecue eyes.“
Travel writer Jamie Jensen visited western Illinois for his 1999 book, Road Trip USA, and described the towns there with a frankness that will not earn him many chamber-of-commerce Man of the Year awards. “Here, small towns bypassed by much of the 20th century are more likely to be forlorn than quaint,” he wrote, “a prelude to those southern states in which local ordinances appear to require the public display of rusty appliances.”
One of these towns was Warsaw, which sits on the eastern bluffs of the Mississippi just downstream from the mouth of the Des Moines River. Warsaw has been taking its lumps for well over a century, and not always from strangers. The town brags about John Hay, its most, indeed its only famous son, but understandably does not go out of its way to report that young Hay hated the place and seldom passed up a chance to insult it. “I prefer, for my friends, men who can read,” he once sneered.
But even Hay could not wholly dismiss the place. His boyhood there—one he could have been lived in any of the region’s river towns—was a delight. “The boys of my day led an amphibian life in and near its waters in the summertime, and in the winter its dazzling ice bridge, of incomparable beauty and purity, was our favorite playground,” Hay recalled sixty years later, adding:
We built our forts and called them the Alamo; we sang rude songs of the canebrake and cornfield; and the happiest days of the year to us who dwelt on the northern bluff of the river were those that brought us, in the loud puffing and whistling steamers of the olden time, to the mecca of our rural fancies, the bright and busy metropolis of St. Louis.”
Warsaw back then was one of those Mississippi River towns whose founders were convinced it would be the next St. Louis. It never quite made it, and these days resembles St. Louis only insofar as both cities are losing people. (Warsaw was home to 1,900-plus people in 1960, but less than 1,500 in 2020.) Writer Jensen described having arrived in “what used to be the town of Warsaw. Patrons of the bars along the main drag probably think it still is Warsaw, but blocks of empty windows and shuttered doorways tell a different story.” Small-towners are usually entitled to resent the jaded sarcasm of travel writers, but sarcasm in this case is, sadly, not out of place; the town’s total industrial base consists of about 40 jobs.
Complaints about small-town life in Forgottonia are revived by each new generation. A freshman in Duke University’s Class of 2004 looked forward to leaving his hometown of Pittsfield this way: “People have told me i'm gonna have a culture shock, and well, quite frankly, i sure as hell hope i do!!”
* * *
When travel writer Bill Bryson drove across Pike County in the late 1980s, he found Hull, Pittsfield, Barry, and Oxville “devoid of life.” Travel writers are not always dependable demographers, but however much life there may or may not be in those towns they certainly boast fewer humans than they used to. Illinois as whole in 2000 averaged 223 residents per square mile in 2000. The Pike County that Bryson drove through had but 21 residents per mile; at the turn of the century it had nearly 40.
Like Illinois, the old Military Tract was settled from the bottom up. As early as 1820, population density reached between two and six people per square mile in southern Calhoun County, which was a dense enough accumulation of people to sustain a rudimentary agricultural economy. The local frontier then still lay well to the north, in what became Knox and Peoria counties. By 1840, settlers moving up from the south were joined by newcomers pouring into the Military Tract from the north and east, and by 1850 the region as a whole was dense enough to sustain commercial agriculture.
The countryside was dotted with thousands of small farms occupied by large families. This rural population kept merchants and professionals in dozens of towns busy. Every burg envisioned itself a booming metropolis, a boast made so often that the Henry News Republican felt obliged to lampoon it. In 1869, the paper revealed, houses in the town of Bradford were “going up at the rate of one in several minutes and few seconds, and the entire stock of one lumber yard has been ‘used up,’ in making stakes for staking out corner lots.” Such promise quickly faded. Bradford in 2000 had a population of 787.
Bradford was hardly alone in failing to sustain its youthful vigor. Of the nine Illinois counties whose population peaked by 1870, six—Hancock, Henderson, Knox, Putnam, Schuyler, and Warren—lay within or adjacent to the region. Since then the region failed to keep pace with other parts of Illinois, and in recent years has actually lost ground. Illinois’s population rose by a modest 8.6 percent in the 1980s. Population change in western Illinois’s 16 counties, however, ranged from slow-growth to no-growth. The region’s fastest-growing county added but 3.3 percent to its numbers. Two counties grew less than 1 percent, and eleven lost people, and some of them a lot of people. Schuyler and Brown shrank by half in the 1980s, Calhoun 40 percent, Stark and Hancock more than a third each.
The wasting of the region’s human resource continued in the 1990s. McDonough County lost another 6.6 percent of its population, or 2,331 people—the most, in percentage terms, of any Illinois county in that decade. Losses continued in other counties, at somewhat slower rates. Exceptions were few. Brown County in the 1990s grew more than 19 percent—more than twice the state rate—thanks mainly to the opening there in 1989 of a new state medium-security prison for men. (Prisons are, with colleges and hospitals, the factories of the era’s new service economy.) Rural counties within commuting distance of cities also held their own; Fulton and Marshall counties grew in the 1990s, thanks mainly to population spillover from urban Peoria County.
Western Illinois perfectly illustrates one of the crucial demographic trends reshaping Illinois as the 21st century began: The de-peopling of the countryside. In its frontier phase, this part of Illinois (as frontier memoirist Rebecca Burlend put it) “is very thinly populated . . . and on that account it is not the situation for shopkeepers.” Today, thanks to the depopulation of the countryside, western Illinois is again not the situation for sellers of most kinds of wares. Film fans in Carthage for example must trek to Quincy, Macomb, Keokuk, or Burlington to see the latest releases because the Main Street movie theaters in each of those towns has closed.
As the towns, so the cities. The populations of the region’s once-bumptious cities are stagnant or declining. By 2000 Quincy had slipped to No. 38 in the ranking of Illinois cities by population, Galesburg to No. 54. The demographic pendulum has swung well away from western Illinois toward metropolitan Chicago in the 20th century, as a region that had been singularly well-situated for the movement of goods by river became a backwater in the railroad and highway ages.
Were dust storms or disease to sweep so much land clean of people it would be reckoned a tragedy. Great novels would be written about it, or at least PBS documentaries. Forgottonian Gamm was correct in his complaint—the region was being ignored in Springfield as long ago as the 1970s—but misapprehended the cause. Local sages, for instance, explained the paucity of interstates in rural Forgottonia in terms of its obdurately Republican nature. The Republicans in the General Assembly, went the argument, need not indulge the region with roads to win the favor of voters who are likely to vote Republican anyway; for the Democrats to build roads would be a waste of political capital, since they could pave Forgottonia from Boden to Brussels and not win any seats in western Illinois. The explanation was not political perfidy; in fact, the political system worked well, to the extent that it devoted no more resources to the region than the region, measured by population, deserved; if there was a paucity of big roads in the region it is because there was, and is, a paucity of big cities worth connecting.
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The cause of this rather more complicated calamity was not unique to western Illinois. The same combination of social factors pushed people off the land here as elsewhere in Illinois and the Midwest, although geography meant that some factors affected this particular region with particular force. Principal among those factors include mechanized agriculture (which cost jobs), agricultural consolidation, industrialization (which created new ones, but in other places), and urbanization (which drew people from the countryside into Quincy, Galesburg, Peoria, and lesser regional centers).
While farming remains far and away the dominant land use in the old Military Tract, farming occupies fewer and fewer people as the region’s farms get bigger. In the late 1990s, the size of the typical Knox County farm was about half the Illinois average, but that was still much bigger than it used to be—well over 400 acres. Bigger farms mean fewer farms. In the 21 years after 1965, the amount of farmed land in Knox County’s Copley Township remained the same but the number of farms dropped about 46 percent. More recent data confirm that the trend is general in the region: the 1870 census counted 3,357 farms in Pike County; in 1997 there were 1,028.
Fewer farms mean fewer farm families. Knox County’s Rio Township was typical; population increased there until about 1880, when some 1,200 people called the place home, but by mid-1999 the township’s population was 622 persons. Towns that depend economically on local farm trade—meaning those that do not lie within easy driving distance of an interstate or a biggish city, or that never developed an industrial base—are drying up too. In most Forgottonia farm towns the big employers are often the only employers—the grain elevator, the farm equipment dealer, the LP gas distributor, the seed company. In Farmington, in Fulton County, the three largest employers by far are the local school district, the IGA supermarket, and a nursing home.
Smaller towns increasingly are home mainly to the old, as long-time residents age and as long-ago emigrants retire to their small-town birthplaces after working lives as reluctant urbanites in places like Peoria. About 12 percent of Illinoisans are over 65, but in only three of western Illinois’s counties does the 65-plus population make up less than 20 percent of the total. (The exceptions are Brown, which has a population of some two thousand youngish prison inmates, and McDonough, whose seat hosts a state university.) In many of the region’s towns—Farmington, Lewiston, Hamilton, Augusta, Rushville, among many others—a nursing home is among the biggest local employers.
One reason the region’s small towns are aging is that they are losing their young people. Some towns host manufacturing concerns that employ a few dozen people. The Vermont Foundry in Vermont, Illinois, had made non-ferrous castings since 1946, and Vaughan & Bushnell keep 300 people busy in Bushnell making hammers. Hancock County is dying the slow death of most western Illinois counties (it lost more than a thousand people in the 1990s) but the county seat of Carthage is holding its own, thanks largely to the presence of Methode Electronics, an automotive electronics firm that employs 1,500.
Unfortunately, jobs in such plants often are the only such jobs for miles around. Many of the region’s former farm towns are not deserted only because many of their younger residents sustain themselves by taking jobs in nearby cities. These are people who live in towns like Rushville, for example, who work at one of the “Cat” plants in or near Peoria, a regimen that requires a daily commute of nearly 150 miles.
* * *
Moving people to jobs, or goods to customers, has always vexed western Illinois businesses. The potters of Ripley sat on the LaMoine River—never one of western Illinois’s commercial waterways. Moving wares to cities such as St. Louis had to wait the coming of spring and high water. Arts historian Betty Madden notes that production at the Ripley potters peaked in the 1880s, but their lack of efficient transport links doomed them to die at the hands of competitors situated near a railroad or river port.
The railroads for a time connected even inland Forgottonia towns to the world, but when the trains stopped much of western Illinois reverted to boondocks. “The Dolly” ran for more than eighty years between Burlington, Iowa, and Galesburg via Oquawka, Aledo, and Galva on the Q’s tracks. Nicknamed “The Dolly Varden” for the then-popular American entertainer, the Dolly was at first a proper train, complete with separate mail, baggage and express cars, a smoking car, and a ladies’ car. As fewer people rode, it had shrunk to a “doodlebug” consisting of a single self-propelled car separated into compartments for mail, baggage, and passengers.
The last run of the Dolly was made in 1952. In fact, most smaller western Illinois towns have not seen a train of any kind, much less a passenger train, in 20 years. Carthage College, a small Lutheran school that had settled in the Hancock County town of that name in 1870, saw its enrollment peak at 250 in 1916—a period, not coincidentally, when train service to and from that part of the state was frequent and reliable. After World War I the trains gradually quit coming to Carthage, and eventually students did too; in 1962 the school relocated in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where it thrives within easy driving distance of Milwaukee and Chicago.
The automobile promised, briefly, to revive moribund towns off the main lines. Historian John Hallwas reports that in 1925, when the state built Route 9 through Colchester, connecting it to the county seat in Macomb, the townspeople celebrated with a four-day “Hard Road Opening and Fall Trading Festival” complete with a “pavement dance.”Their glee owed to the expectation that shoppers from afar could now conveniently travel to the shops of Colchester. The new roads did indeed invigorate trade—but not, ultimately, in Colchester. The new road made it just as easy for local shoppers to get to Macomb and Galesburg as to Colchester. Business in Colchester actually fell after it was connected to the wider world—a decline repeated in hundreds of Illinois small towns whose once-captive buyers were liberated by the car.
The goods and people that increasingly rolled on rubber wheels to and from Chicago largely bypass western Illinois. As recently as 2000 the only interstate highway segments that crossed the region were I-74, which links Peoria and the Quad Cities by way of Galesburg, and the stretch of what became I-72 that links Quincy and Springfield.
That Forgottonia needs more interstate connections to the wider world is accepted on faith. Local legislators have been pushing for years for new four-lane expressways that would run through the region—from Peoria and Chicago, or from Peoria to Quincy. Planning for one was finished in 2002—the conversion of the two-lane U.S. 67 into a four-lane expressway that will slice through the heart of Forgottonia from Beardstown to the Quad Cities via Macomb and Monmouth.
Such new roads do not create commerce but redirect it to towns along it, as the railroads redirected commerce inland from the big rivers. Whether it will stem the hemorrhage of population, much less bring in new people remains to be seen. At a minimum, running an expressway across Forgottonia is likely to cause what population there is to continue to shift.
Urbanization is reshaping settlement patterns in places like western Illinois as decisively as in suburban Chicago or Metro East. Pittsfield has always been the biggest town in modern Pike County, but while fewer than one in ten Pike Countians lived in the county seat in 1930, by 2000 the town was home to about one in four of the county’s people; Pittsfield’s population thus grew by 75 percent during 70 years in which the county’s population dropped nearly 29 percent. Canton is another example. Since 1940 that Fulton County town has grown from nearly 12,000 to more than 15,000 in a period in which the county’s population shriveled some 14 percent, from roughly 44,600 to 38,300.
Thirty years ago the complaint that western Illinois was disappearing from the state’s political consciousness struck most observers as funny. Today, the region seems to disappearing, period, and political and business leaders are not laughing. Forgottonia is indeed being abandoned—but not by its political representatives. Its own people are deserting it. The countryside of western Illinois is being depopulated so relentlessly that large parts of it are today a near-desert in social terms. Here is nostalgia with a vengeance, as the region really is going back to the way things were in the old days. ●