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What do we leave behind when we go ahead?

Illinois Times

November 18, 1977

Not, strictly speaking, a Springfield memory, but . . . .


I was in a poetic mood when I sat down to write this—not a mood that came upon me often when faced with a column deadline. Researching one's family history has become more popular than it was more than 40 years ago, and no wonder; few hobbies offer its rewards.


Muted it is (I was writing about relatives), the piece offers a complaint about the cavalier way that so many families treat the documentary evidence of the lives lived by newly-dead family members.


When I started, I wrote down everything I knew about my ancestors. It barely filled one 3 X 5 index card. I knew—or was fairly sure I knew—that the Krohes had originally come from Germany. I knew that because my father remembered that his grandmother spoke German and being told that his grandfather—whom he never saw alive—spoke German too. The name itself was a clue, though I didn't know then whether its Germanness was a fact or just an assumption, long held but never tested because everyone interested enough to test it held the assumption in common with their kin.


I knew my great-grandfather once had a farm on Cass County's Chandlerville Road, because my father used to spend parts of his summers there, hiking in the bluffs.


I knew that the Krohes and the First State Bank of Beardstown shared more than their joint residence in that Illinois River town, because that's where my father's father used to work.


That's all I knew.


Exactly where the first American Krohes had come from, or when, or why, I did not know. Neither did I know their names, when they were born, how they made their livings, how they worshipped their god, whom they voted for.or where they lived. What I did not know about the Krohes would fill a book. I wanted to know all these things, because everything I did not know about the Krohes was something I did not know about myself.


It was two years ago that I filled out that single 3 X 5 index card and I have learned a great deal since then—hundreds of 3 X 5 index cards' worth. The man who became my great-great-grandfather, for example, was born a bastard. He sailed to America with his mother in 1834, a boy two years old, in the stinking belly of a tobacco ship. It was winter and there were storms on the Atlantic and it took seven weeks to make New Orleans. Because of the stigma of his birth, he did not share in the estate of his adopted father but was sent off to live and work for his mother's father. He bought a mule team and hired himself out, saving enough money to buy some prime bottomland along the Sangamon from his grandfather's estate when the old man died. He added to it, raised children on it and gave to his sons what had been denied him. He retired to a snug house in town, close to his church and friends. By the time he died in 1922, he'd gotten used to the noise of automobiles clattering by in front of his house. He had a telephone and listened to the radio and had his photograph taken, this boy who'd come to America on a sailing ship. I think about him occasionally, and wonder about the youth of the country and about the sometimes unexpected space a man's life can take up.


I learned how much it cost to become an American in 1837—$1.54 1/2, including a quarter to the judge for administering the oath of citizenship and 12 1/2 cents to the clerk for preparing a writ. I stood leaning on the cold marble headstones of ancestors a century dead and listened while their grandson—a distant relative of mine—told me about his grandfather who worked as a hired man for 50 cents a day and lived in the log house that the family he worked for had lived in until they built the walnut one, and how he courted and won one of the family's daughters and ended up not only with the daughter but, in time, the farm and the house as well. I choked on dust in courthouse basements, trying to assemble from the puzzle of facts buried there pictures of a face or a life but found I could not, that it was like grabbing a shadow.


One of my index cards tells about a trip made two winters ago. I was standing in front of a broken-down, one-room schoolhouse. It had my name on it, or rather my family's name, a gesture to the relative on whose land it stood. It was used only for storage by then. The windows were busted out and it stood abandoned, useless, like the rusting farm machines that dot the countryside that are too old to use and too much trouble to get rid of.


In the doorway there was a jumble of paper. It was letters, personal papers, newspaper clippings, the paper detritus that accumulates in the bottoms of desk drawers and closets over a lifetime. They were sodden with snow. The woman who accumulated them (I learned later) had died some months before and her children had dumped these things here to get rid of them. They didn't need them, they were valueless, their memories of her were still young and strong and had no need of paper crutches. The school would probably be knocked down soon and burned, with the paper inside it, and the land again put under the plow.


How many bonfires, I wondered, had been made of the lives of my ancestors, their smoke rising into the air like ghosts? ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 


Illinois Center for the Book

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.

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