Famous Downstate Illinoisans
The local boys and girls who made good
See Illinois (unpublished)
The Downstater's model for modesty remains Abraham Lincoln, a man who rose from humble, unlettered beginnings, but who did not, in cultural terms, rise too far. He remained a man of the people to the end. His grooming, accent, and manners betrayed his origins to dismissive cosmopolites, and exposed him to ridicule for much of his national political career.
Central Illinoisans wince at such slights to this day, as they continue to feel them themselves; Springfieldians, for example, enjoy a preemptive jest about their putative backwardness when they refer to their city as “Springpatch.”
Still, the same soil that produces the lowly corn plant can occasionally throw up a majestic white oak. Here, offered by region, is a roster of a few of the Downstate Illinoisans from all fields who have made themselves conspicuous on the state, national, and international stages.
What Thomas Jefferson liked to call Sinnissippi has given Illinois three governors to date; the one that had the closest ties to the region was progressive Frank O. Lowden, who served in Springfield from 1917 to 1921. The region also gave Illinois Ruth Hanna McCormick. Owner of a dairy and breeding farm near Byron, she was a state legislator who in 1928 won an at-large congressional seat that made her the first woman in Illinois to win a statewide election.
John B. Anderson, who was born in 1922 in Rockford and served ten terms as a U.S Representative, ran for President an independent in 1980.
Two Sinnissippians—U.S. Grant and Ronald Reagan—made it to the White House. Grant settled in Galena in 1860 to work in his father’s leather goods store. Reagan was born in Whiteside County, in Tampico, and lived in Dixon for four years.
Sinnissippi has made more than its contributions to the annals of American business. John Deere is a name still associated with Moline. Scotsmen John T. Pirie and Samuel Carson ran a dry goods business in LaSalle and later Amboy before moving in 1865 to Chicago, where their little store would grow into one of the nation’s larger department store chains. Lumberman Frederick E. Weyerhauser moved to Rock Island in 1856 and started his empire with purchases of timberland in the upper Mississippi valley that he milled in Rock Island until the trees in Wisconsin and Minnesota gave out and he moved west.
Charles Rudolph Walgreen was born in 1873 near Galesburg. The Walgreens moved to Dixon in 1887; there young Charles attended a local business college and became a druggist’s apprentice. At 20, Walgreen left Dixon for Chicago and drugstore history. Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, was born in Mississippi in 1946 but grew up in Freeport.
Among useful citizens we must count Ottawan W. D. Boyce, who founded the Boys Scouts of America in 1909. Settlement house pioneer Jane Addams, who grew up in Cedarville, Among her classmates at the Rockford Seminary for Women was Julia Lathrop who in 1912 became the first woman to head a U.S. government agency when President Taft appointed her chief of the Children's Bureau in Washington. Another seminary grad was Rockford’s Kate O'Connor, who became the first woman to run a department for the State of Illinois when she was appointed to supervise the state's new minimum wage law for women and children in 1933.
Stewart Brand, innovative social thinker who founded the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, was born in Rockford, in 1938.
Northern Illinois has been a fertile ground for writers working in the minor genres. Columnist and humorist Don Marquis was born in 1878 and grew up in Walnut; his archy and mehitabel characters were familiar to millions in the 1920s and 1930s. Freeport’s products include Luella Parsons, the famous Hollywood columnist, who grew up in Freeport's oldest house. Novelist and screenwriter Gary K. Wolf, creator of the characters who featured in the very popular 1988 film, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," was born and raised in Earlville. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a masters degree in advertising—an especially useful background given the trends in film.
Wolf is not northern Illinois’s only gift to cartooning. Helen E. Hokinson graduated from Mendota High School in 1913. This daughter of a farm machinery salesman studied art in Chicago and began her drawing career doing fashion illustrations for department stores. The New Yorker began running her cartoons in 1925; by her death in 1949 it had published 1,700 of them by one account. They usually depicted befuddled dowager-types; a typical Hokinson woman tells her clubmates, “I just want to say that I’m perfectly willing to serve as treasurer, provided every penny doesn’t have to come out exactly even.”) Two sketchbooks from her high school years are on display at the Hume-Carnegie Museum in Mendota.
In addition to Rockford’s Cheap Trick, popular musicians include big band drummer Louie Bellson (with the bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Duke Ellington, among others) who was born in Rock Falls in 1924 and graduated from Moline High School. Kurt Elling, the Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer, was born in Chicago in 1967 and raised in Rockford, gave up a planned career as a professor in the philosophy of religion for the cabaret life. Jerry Hadley Grammy-winning opera singer spent his boyhood days on a farm in Bureau County, just north of Interstate 80 outside Thomas, near Manlius.
Princetonian Virgil Fox could be described as the Liberace of the pipe organist. An early bloomer, he played for local services by the age of ten; later, from 1926 to 1930, he studied in Chicago. His thrillingly inauthentic performances, such as his "Heavy Organ" concerts of Bach (complete with light shows) appealed to audiences that never otherwise would never had been caught dead at an organ recital.
A few local performers have gone beyond the local stage. Stage, film, and TV actor Eddie Albert was born Eddie Albert Heimberger in Rock Island in 1908. Actress Barbara Hale, well-known as Della Street on TV’s Perry Mason series, was a DeKalbian, and Calista Flockhart, the star of the more recent series, "Ally McBeal," was born in Freeport. Ken Berry, actor in TV comedies and Disney family films, is from Moline. And NIU is the alma mater of Dan Castellaneta, best known as the voice of Homer on TV's The Simpsons.
Central Illinois is not a part of the country where people revel in vulgar distinctions. They are happy with modest achievements. Chicagoans for example would never be satisfied to boast of having only the fifth-largest carillon in the world, as Springfield does. Nor would they brag, as Winchester does, that their Carnegie Library building has a design that is similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s. Or that their city was, as Taylorville became in 1994, the resting place of the second elephant to be buried in Illinois—“Kay,” late of the Carson & Barnes and the Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. circuses.
People, however, are another thing altogether. Elkhart can boast—and does, modestly—of being the home and burial place of Captain Adam H. Bogardus, wildfowl market hunter and conservationist. Bogardus was a champion wingshot in the 1870s who toured with William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody's 'The Wild West.' Show and astounded audiences in shooting exhibition with Annie Oakley.
June Christy, the singer for Stan Kenton’s band who went on to a notable solo career, was born in Springfield as Shirley Luster in 1925 and grew up in Decatur, where she got her start in music.
Robert Falls, who achieved fame as a Tony-winning stage director in Chicago and on Broadway, was born in Ashland and received his training in directing and playwriting at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Richard Fortman, a legend among fans of the game of checkers, was a 1933 graduate of Springfield High School. A warehouse foreman by day, Fortman’s achievements at the higher levels of the game earned him obits in The Times of London and the New York Times.
Film costume designer Marjorie Best was born in Jacksonville in 1903, later moved to Bloomington, and graduated from high school in Normal before moving to Los Angeles. A top designer for Warner Bros. specializing in men's costumes and period films, Best was nominating for four Oscars, winning in 1949 for her work on The Adventures of Don Juan.
Automobile designer Gordon Buehrig was born in 1904 in Mason City. When he was only 25, Gordon Buehrig became the chief body designer for the makers of the Duesenberg His claim to fame is the Auburn Automobile Company's 1930s Cord, of which he was chief design engineer; the car has been recognized as an icon of American design by the Museum of Modem Art.
Frederic Goudy, master designer of typefaces, was born in Bloomington, schooled in Shelbyville, and worked in Springfield before moving on the Chicago and New York and fame among the inky-fingers set.
Edgar Lee Masters, author of The Spoon River Anthology, spent his crucial boyhood years in and around Petersburg. Poet and professional vagabond Vachel Lindsay was born in Springfield in 1879 and lived in that city intermittently for the rest of his life, dying there in 1931. Langston Hughes lived for a time in central Illinois, attending Central School on 8th Street in Lincoln for his eight-grade year. Novelist and short story master J. F. Powers—winner of the National Book Award in 1963—was born in 1917, in Jacksonville, where he lived until the age of seven. Novelist and editor William Maxwell was born and mostly raised in Lincoln before moving first to Chicago, then New York City and fame among the literary cognoscenti.
Nokomis produced two baseball Hall of Famers. One is Charles "Red" Rushing of the Yankees; he lost part of a foot in a mine accident but still won 273 games from 1924 to 1947. The other is Jim Bottomley of the St. Louis Cardinals, who was voted MVP (in 1928) and who holds the major league single-game RBI record (12, set on September 16, 1924, against the Brooklyn Dodgers).
Joe McGinnity, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher at the turn of the twentieth century, lived and played in Springfield. The inventor of the sidearm pitch he named old Sal, McGinnity was legendary for his durability. (He pitched and won both games of a double-header three times in one month.) Robin Roberts was born in 1926 in Springfield and graduated from Lanphier High School. Roberts went on to become one of the best starting pitchers in Major League baseball in the 1950s. In his 19-season career with the Philadelphia Phillies, Roberts was elected to the All-Star team seven times, won 20 or more games six times, and led the league in won games four times, in strikeouts twice, and in shutouts once. As remarkable for durability as skill, he led the league six times in games started, five times in complete games, five times in innings pitched, and six times pitched more than 300 innings in a season. Roberts was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, and his hometown named a minor league baseball stadium after him.
The above-mentioned Edward Mills Purcell of Harvard, who shared the 1952 Nobel Prize for physics for his work in determining the magnetic properties of nuclei, was born in Taylorville. Astronomer Seth Nicholson, Staff Astronomer for 42 years at the Mount Wilson Observatory, discovered four of Jupiter's moons and had features on the moon, Mars, Ganymede and even a planet named after him. He was born in Springfield in 1891 and raised on a nearby farm. Nicholson died in 1963.
Dr. Greene Vardiman Black, who lived variously in Winchester, Virginia, and Mt Sterling, Illinois, practiced dentistry in Jacksonville, beginning in 1864. Black is widely known as "the Father of Modern Dentistry," and his Jacksonville office has been reconstructed as an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The Rev. Gustav Niebuhr moved to Lincoln in 1902 as pastor of a local church. All his four children became noted theologians but son Reinhold Niebuhr became world-renowned as a thinker, teacher, and writer who explored the links that bind religion, the individual, and society in such works as his “Serenity Prayer," first published in 1951, and the books Moral Man and Immoral Society and Christianity and Power Politics.
A proud graduate – how could he be any other kind? – of Springfield High School (Class of ’47), William H. Luers was a career Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1986, a career that included stints as ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia. He later served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he put his diplomatic skills to work to smooth relations among New York arts organizations, whose competition for audiences and donors often leaves them behaving like petty duchies of the Hapsberg Empire.
Three Jacksonville men have been governors of Illinois: Joseph Duncan (served 1834–1838), Richard Yates, Sr., (1861–1865), and Richard Yates, Jr. (1901–1905). Stephen A. Douglas became prosecuting attorney for Morgan County here in Jacksonville in 1835. William Jennings Bryan, who graduated from that town’s Illinois College, practiced law there Jacksonville from 1883 to 1887.
Jon Corzine, who left the chairmanship of Goldman Sachs with $400 million in his pocket, went on to be elected as New Jersey's U.S. Senator in 2000 and elected governor in 2005. Corzine has said he's drawn on lessons he learned while growing up in Christian County, on a farm at Willeys Station.
Julius Rosenwald, the philanthropist who made Sears, Roebuck into the world’s foremost retail giant, was born in Springfield in 1862, the son of German immigrants. He grew up there, leaving at sixteen for New York City. In 1907, Louis Kenneth Eilers was born in Gillespie, but his more significant achievement was to become a president of the Eastman-Kodak Company.
Leslie B. Worthington was born in England. In 1906, at age five, he was brought to Witt, where his father farmed and worked mining coal. Young Worthington won a scholarship f to the University of Illinois, after which he went to work at U.S. Steel’s South Works, and eventually rose to become the company’s president and CEO. Worthington died in 1998.
In 1900, William E. Sullivan began manufacturing Ferris wheels in Jacksonville at the Eli Bridge Company works.
Central Illinois has made several gifts to U.S. journalism. Nellie Revell, reporter extraordinaire, was born in Springfield in 1872. Her father was the publisher of the Springfield Republican; she started her career as a reporter at another local paper, and proved so good at it that Pop hired her away for his paper.
Alas for Springfield, Revell left town for a career as a general assignment reporter—still quote rare for women in those days, who thought that covering murder scenes was not lady-like, even when it was ladies who did the murders. She worked in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle and finally New York. She covered everything from Queen Victoria’s funeral to prize fights.
She left the beat to become press agent for a circus—the work wasn’t much different—and later for Broadway stars such as Al Jolson. In the late 1920s she even had a go at writing ad advice column for Variety called "Wisdom for the Woeful." By 1930, Revel turned herself into a radio star with celebrity interviews. She died in 1958, and one obituarist praised her as “one of the most colorful American journalists in the first half of the twentieth century.”
Thomas Morgan was born in 1926 in Springfield, where he grew up and was educated at Springfield High. After college he went to New York City, where he became a successful magazine writer (Esquire, Life, Harper’s, among others) who was among the pioneers of New Journalism in the 1960s. Morgan was a liberal of the genteel sort. In 1960 he signed on as press aide to Adlai E. Stevenson II during the former governor’s quixotic run for the Democratic presidential nomination that year and later served as press secretary to New York’s Mayor John Lindsay.
Michael Skube grew up on Springfield’s East Side in the 1950s. He began to write as a sports stringer for a local paper. In 1988, Skube was recognized as runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Although he was disappointed with only second, Skube recalls it as a life lesson saying, “Students don’t realize that you lose sometimes.” Skube won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1989 for his writing on books.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh was a familiar figure at central Illinois airfields. In 1925, Lindbergh began flying air mail on the route between St. Louis and Chicago’s Maywood Field, with stops in Springfield and Peoria. According to his autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, it was while floating above central Illinois that he conceived and planned the solo flight to Paris that made his name. He was not the first person to dream of escape from Illinois, but few did it so dramatically. Springfield named its first municipal airport Lindbergh Field in his honor.
East Central Illinois
Many a star of stage, screen, and lesser venues of the performing arts has sprouted in the old Grand Prairie of east central Illinois.
Bandleader Glen “Spike” Gray was born Glen Knoblauch in 1900 in the McLean County town of Metamora and schooled in nearby Roanoke. Gray went on to star as the leader (and owner) of the Casa Loma Orchestra, which some critics say set the stage for the big band era.
Jazz great Albert "Eddie" Condon was born in 1905 in Indiana but grew up in Momence in Kankakee County. Guitarist Condon led the ensembles that cut the first “Chicago style” jazz recordings in the 1920s. A more modern jazz player was hard bop trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, longtime trumpeter with the Max Roach quartet; he studied music at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s and ‘70s, and played in area clubs. He married singer Dee Dee Garrett (later Bridgewater) who went on to her own, rather longer career.
Torch singer Helen Morgan was born Helen Riggins in Danville, where she lived until she left for Chicago and stardom as a teen. Cabaret singer Bobby Short, who has been called “ the quintessential New Yorker, the Astaire of saloon singers,” was born Robert Waltrip in Danville in 1926; he lived there until he finished high school.
Champaign’s Alison Krauss was a key player in the revival of bluegrass music in the 1990s, and since went on to crossover stardom wit her band, Union Station. REO Speedwagon, the quintessential arena-rock band of the late 1970s and ‘80s, was formed in 1967 by two University of Illinois roommates.
One of America’s best-loved TV characters in the 1970s—Col. Henry Blake in the long-running TV comedy “M.A.S.H.”—was played by native son McLean Stevenson, a second cousin to Adlai Stevenson II who graduated from Bloomington High.
Among Illinois State University’s stellar sons and daughters are film actress Judith Ivey, Chicago-born comedian-director Robert Townsend, and actress Laurie Metcalf. Actor and director and Steppenwolf co-founder John Malkovich was born in southern Illinois but learned stage arts in the Grand Prairie, first at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, later at Illinois State University in Normal.
Film actor Gene Hackman lived for a time in Danville until the 1940s, when he dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Marines. Actor and song-and-dance man Donald O’Connor was born in Chicago in 1925 to a show business family; during layoffs, the O'Connors lived in the home of Donald's uncle and aunt in Danville.
TV actor and comedian Dick Van Dyke grew up in Danville in the 1930s with his younger brother Jerry (also an actor and comedian), where they attended grade school and high school and appeared in many high school plays and community theater productions.
Gregg Toland, Oscar-winning cinematographer of Citizen Kane among dozens of other Hollywood films, was born and raised in Charleston.
Patricia Roberts Harris, first African American woman to serve as a U.S. Ambassador (she represented U.S. in Luxembourg) was born in Mattoon in 1924 and grew up there, the daughter of a railroad dining car waiter.
Rosamond du Jardin, the author of popular novels for teens in the 1950s and ‘60s, was born in 1902 in Fairland, near the Douglas-Champaign county border. On the northern limits of Onarga is Larch Farm, the former home of the famous detective, Allan Pinkerton. Astronaut Carl J. Meade was born at Chanute Air Force Base outside Rantoul.
Among the temporary Grand Prairie residents who studied at the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus are any number of well-known names. Sculptor Lorado Taft earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the then-new Illinois Industrial University in Urbana before leaving for art training in Paris and a career in Chicago. Movie critic Roger Ebert is one; he hosts a film festival of neglected films on campus each year. It was at Urbana-Champaign that Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist, was turned on to socialism. Novelist William Maxwell was a member of the Class of 1930; his attempted suicide as a sophomore after he lost his girlfriend to a pal became the core of the novel, The Folded Leaf. Also among its graduates are Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and George Will, the once-influential conservative pundit.
The university faculty counts many women and men who are stars in their fields. The names will be unfamiliar, but they include the Nobel Prize winner with more than one such prize—the late physicist John Bardeen, a professor of physics and of electrical engineering for 40 years who won one 1956 for the invention of the transistor and another in 1972 for his contributions to the theory of superconductivity.
The highly regarded music school of Illinois Wesleyan University tutored the American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who graduated in 1982.
Ronald Reagan was a member of the Eureka College Class of 1932.
The region has produced its share of standout athletes. One of them is Bonnie Blair, the Champaign speed skater; Blair has been called the Michael Jordan of women’s speed skating, but Jordan could just as easily be called the Bonnie Blair of basketball.
The old Military Tract might sometimes be overlooked as a region, but an impressive number of its daughters and sons have not been. Quincy’s hometown girl who made it big in Hollywood was Oscar-winning actress Mary Astor. She was born Lucile Langhanke in 1906 to an impecunious German immigrant. The daughter’s good looks promised a livelihood he otherwise was unable to provide. Local beauty contests led to a contract, at 14, to a studio and the Langhankes moved to Hollywood. The renamed Astor starred in dozens of silents and managed the transition to talkies star, as so many actors did not, and eventually became an accomplished character player in middle age.
Her screen life was scarcely more exciting than her private life. She had many lovers; a diary containing accounts of some of them figured in a lurid custody case in the 1930s. Her family had expropriated her earnings when she was young, although as an adult she was forced to put them on an allowance because of their lavish lifestyle; they sued her unsuccessfully for non-support.
Among Forgottonia’s other gifts to the stage and screen are three Quincians: Bob Livingston, who played Stony Brooke in the Three Mesquiteers Westerns that were hugely popular in the 1930s and ‘40s; character actor John Mahoney, best known as Martin Crane on the TV comedy “Frazier,” who attended then-Quincy College in the 1960s; and veteran character actor John Anderson, who made more 500 TV appearances in the 1960s and ‘70s, and who played such stalwarts onscreen as Lincoln, baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and FDR. Method actor Neville Brand, veteran of a thousand Western and gangster roles on TV and film in the 1950s and ‘60s, attended high school in Kewanee.
Loie Fuller was born Marie Louise Fuller in 1862 in the town of Fullersburg, later absorbed by Hinsdale. Fuller moved with her family when she was 12 to Monmouth where her father had taken over a local hotel. She began her theatrical career in local productions. Fuller left Monmouth while still a teen and made a career and life mainly in Europe, where she died in 1928. Her dances were novel enough in an age that craved it that she became a star of the avant garde. Many artists of the Art Nouveau painted her, and film-making Lumière brothers turned her Serpentine Dance into one of the pioneer works in that new medium in 1896.
Astonishingly, two of the women who set hearts—and minds—a-flutter in the New York City of the 1920s grew up in Quincy. Neysa McMein was born Margery Edna McMein in 1888. (She changed her name to Neysa on the advice of a numerologist.) She studied in Chicago at the Art Institute, and in 1913 went to New York City. She found eager customers for her highly commercial images of All-American girls, selling to such popular magazines of the day as the Saturday Evening Post, McClure's, Woman's Home Companion, and Collier's (McMein provided every one of the covers on McCall’s from 1923 through 1937.) McMein also created the image of "Betty Crocker," one of the advertising icons of the age, and later became a sought-after portraitist by the successful in all fields who felt that mere photos could not flatter them enough.
When not at her easel, McMein was a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table set, her studio on the West Side was the hangout of the such Manhattan lumionaries as Alexander Woollcott, Jascha Heifetz. Franklin Pierce Adams, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Bernard Baruch. McMein died in New York in 1949.
One of the beauties of pre-Depression New York City was Ruth Gardner, granddaughter of Quincy inventor whose valve for steam engines made him—and her—rich. Artistically inclined, she wed an actor, then the founding publisher of the New Yorker magazine (her son would become one of its long-time editors). As that grandson would recall in his memoirs, Ruth’s life was The Great Gatsby come to life—upper East Side flat with live-in servants, regular cruises to Europe, and a 24-bedroom summer mansion on Long Island. Her friends included Harpo Marx, Averell Harriman, and Tallulah Bankhead. A disastrous third marriage left her broke, however, and she died unhappy at 56.
Western Illinois had its share of inventors. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., who invented the Ferris wheel that wowed the crowds at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1894, was born in Galesburg in 1859, although he moved away with family when he was five. Quincy native Arthur Pitney invented a precursor to the modern postage meter which he made and sold in Quincy. A perfected model in 1912 attracted partners, and the Pitney Bowes Postage Meter Company was formed; the firm makes most of the postage meters used in the U.S. Also born in Quincy was
Elmer H. Wavering invented the alternator without which the modern automobile could not run. He also had a hand in developing the first commercially successful car radio with friends Bill Lear and Paul Galvin, the latter the future founder of Motorola.
Father Augustine Tolton, probably most accurately described as the first full-blooded African American priest in the U.S., was educated at Quincy schools. Tolton returned to the river city after his ordination in Rome in 1886, and became pastor of its St. Joseph Church and later established St. Monica’s Church for Negroes in Chicago. Tolton remained in Chicago until he died in 1897, but asked to be returned to be buried at Quincy’s St. Peter’s Cemetery. [
Thomas Baldwin was a circus acrobat who specialized in wowing the yokels with balloon ascents at county fairs. On Independence Day in 1887, Baldwin jumped from his balloon, “City of Quincy” wearing a newfangled flexible parachute, landing safely in, or rather on, a city park at 30th and Maine Streets. Such stunts earned Baldwin national fame, and he took his show on the road for two world tours. In 1908, he was commissioned by the U.S. government to build its first dirigible airship, which he did successfully. In 1964 he was named posthumously to the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, his name is honored at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery; a less august but no less sincere honor was given him by Quincy when it named its municipal airport Baldwin Field.
Journalist James B. Stewart has written best-selling examinations of the Disney empire, among other books, was Page One Editor of the Wall Street Journal and was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Wall Street Journal articles on the 1987 stock market crash and the insider trading scandal. Now the Bloomberg professor of business journalism at the Columbia University Journalism School, Stewart contributes regularly to The New Yorker. He was born and attended public schools in Quincy.
Mary Ann Bickerdyke was an adopted Galesburger. Born in 1817, in Ohio, she moved with her husband to Galesburg in 1856. Active as a herbalist, she enlisted in the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War and ran military hospitals in Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and other places. The care she provided to ordinary soldiers inspired the nickname, “Mother Bickerdyke.” An officer is said to have complained about her meddling to General Sherman, who replied, “She outranks me.” Bickerdyke died in 1901 and was buried in Galesburg; the State of Illinois graced her grave with a monument “in recognition of her sympathy and kindness for her fellow man.”
Quincy native Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. was born in 1915. Tibbets piloted the B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay which dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 5th, 1945. Astronaut Steven R. Nagel was born in Canton.
Wyatt Earp, who has been immortalized as one of the gunslingers at the gunfight at the OK Coral in Tombstone, Arizona, was born in Monmouth in 1848. His had a varied career in the Wild West as a gambler, occasional lawman, and killer. (Other sources describe him less generously as a horse thief, bail jumper, saloonkeeper, and bushwhacker.)
John Hay, personal secretary and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, advised Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as Secretary of State ambassador to England under President William McKinley and Secretary of State for Theodore Roosevelt, grew up in Warsaw in Hancock County, attended school in Pittsfield, and read law in Springfield. A local newspaper was then owned by another of Lincoln's future secretaries, John Nicolay, who would join with Hay in a massive biography of the late President.
Lincoln was a familiar figure in western Illinois, but the only politician of note to hail from the region was Quincy’s John Wood, who served briefly as governor in 1860-61. However, Galesburg and Monmouth were among the several Illinois towns in which the family of the young Ronald Reagan lived.
Carl Sandburg, American poet, historian, novelist, and folklorist, was born in Galesburg 1878 to Swedish immigrants and grew up there. After service in the Spanish-American War he ended up back in Galesburg, where he enrolled in a local college but left for good without a degree in 1903. Novelist and short story master J.F. Powers—winner of the National Book Award in 1963—was born in 1917 and grew up in Jacksonville, but in 1931 he entered classes at Saint Peter's Parish School in Quincy.
Charles Rudolph Walgreen, founder of the ubiquitous drugstore chain that bears his name, was born in Galesburg in 1873 to Swedish emigrants. He lived there until his teens, when the Walgreens moved to Dixon, where he began to learn the druggists’ trade.
To establish instant credibility for his fledgling university, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale under President Delyte Morris brought in retired professors from other universities, who briefly illuminated the campus with their bright but waning light; the most famous, if not the best of these transients was revolutionary designer Buckminster Fuller, who taught there from 1959 to 1970.
Of public men and women the region has produced more than a few. Randolph County’s Pierre Menard was the fur trader and entrepreneur who later rose to political prominence as Illinois's first lieutenant governor. His stature was larger than that office. His colleagues amended the state's new constitution so that this Montrealer could qualify for public office, and the very first statue erected on the grounds of the new state capitol in Springfield in 1888 was of Menard.
John A. Logan—born in Murphysboro, schooled near Belleville—was Illinois’s most famed general after U.S. Grant who later served as U.S. Senator from Illinois in the 1870s.
William Borah, who won fame in Idaho as that state’s Progressive Republican senator 1907 to 1940, went to school in Fairfield, in Wayne County and in the White County town of Enfield. Supreme Court jurist Harry A. Blackmun was born in 1908 in Nashville, in Washington County, but was raised in Minnesota. A New Yorker by birth, Robert G. Ingersoll, the “Great Disturber,” passed the bar in Mt. Vernon and practiced law for two years in Shawneetown before settling in Peoria.
William Jennings Bryan is known to the world as a Nebraska congressman, three-time presidential candidate (1896, 1900, and 1908), prewar Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, and—most notoriously—an antagonist on behalf of the Bible and backwardness in the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925. Bryan was born in Salem in 1860.
John Stelle, born in Mcleansboro in 1891, was Illinois governor from 1940 to 1941, filling out the unexpired term of his deceased predecessor Henry Horner. Stelle promptly began dispensing jobs and contracts to his cronies with a generosity that became legendary, at least among law enforcement officials.
Paul Powell, born in Vienna—that’s the Johnson County Vienna—in 1902. He became famous as the longtime Speaker of the Illinois House whose hotel room in Springfield was found to contain a stash of some $800,000 in unaccounted-for cash.
Paul Simon—crusading journalist, ten-year member of the U.S. House, U.S. Senator and failed Presidential contender—retired to Egypt (Makanda, in what could be described as suburban Carbondale) in 1995. Simon is remembered by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU’s Carbondale campus, where he taught upon leaving politics.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, the United States representative to the U.N. from 1981 to 1985, found herself with her family in Mount Vernon at the age of 12. She lived there long enough to graduate from Mt. Vernon Township High School, after which Barnard, Columbia, and the Institut des Sciences Politiques at the University of Paris must have seemed a breeze.
Robert Ridgway, often referred to as America's leading ornithologist, was born in Mt. Carmel in 1850. Associated for more than 50 years with the Smithsonian Institution, Ridgway published extensively in his field (more than 500 publications) until he died in 1929. (It was Ridgway for example who established the color standards still used to identify birds.) In 1916 Ridgway retired to Olney to continue his research at his home which he called Larchmound.
Egypt has nurtured few business tycoons. Some coal owners and oil men rose to local prominence, but nothing on the scale of the Swifts, the Armours, and their like in Chicago. An exception was H. L. (for Haroldson Lafayette) Hunt. Hunt was born in 1889 on his family’s farm near Vandalia. He made is fortune—fortunes, actually—in farmland and later oil; in his 50s he was reckoned by some to be America’s richest man. Hunt also was a right-wing crackpot who used his millions to pay to back various right-wing political candidates and publish his own primitive anticommunist views via radio and TV and newspapers.
Popular artists of all sorts have carried the southern Illinois flag around the world. Cobden is the birthplace of Agnes Ayres, motion picture actress, who starred with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. African American Oscar Micheaux, who was born in 1884 on a farm near Metropolis, was the producer of The Homesteader (1919), considered by cinema historians to be the first all-black, full-length American film. Micheaux went on to produce, direct and write at least 43 “race films” in all genres, for which feat Micheaux has been awarded a star on Hollywood Boulevard's “Walk of Fame.” 1950s screen star William Holden was born as William Franklin Beedle, Jr. in the Metro East town of O’Fallon. Norman “Clint” Walker was born a twin in 1927 in nearby Hartford; the hunky ex-river hand became famous as the hero of the popular TV western, Cheyenne, from 1955 to 1962.
Frank Willard, creator of the very popular comic strip “Moon Mullins,” was born 1893 in Anna and lived there until his family moved to Chicago in 1909 where he apprenticed as a cartoonist. Willard, who was one the best-paid cartoonists of his era, is buried in Anna Cemetery, beneath a grave marker engraved with the likeness of his most famous character.
Famed jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell was born in Missouri in 1906 and later lived in St. Louis when he was enrolled at Western Military School across the river in Alton. As a fourteen-year-old in the school band, he recalled, he was the fourth worst clarinet player. After a couple of years he left the academy for life as a working musician.
Another of Egypt’s gifts to the popular arts was Burl Ives. Ives was born in 1909 on a Jasper County farm. It is hard to say whether Ives was a folk singer who acted or an actor who sang. A singer from the age of four, Ives learned his songs, according to one account, from his tobacco-chewing grandmother. (Another account describes her as a pipe-smoker.) Ives attended the then-Eastern Illinois State Teachers College at nearby Charleston for a time beginning in 1927. A popular radio, TV, and recording star in his day, he also earned a reputation as a character actor, first on Broadway, and in the 1940s in several major Hollywood films; in which one of the latter, The Big Country (1958), he delivered an Oscar-winning performance. A bridge over the Embarras River in Newton now bears his name.
Southern Illinois produced two of this era’s more interesting theatrical talents. Actress Laurie Metcalf, a founding member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company was born in 1955 in Carbondale and grew up in Edwardsville. Among Metcalf’s colleagues at Steppenwolf was John Malkovich, whom she met at Illinois State University; Malkovich was born in 1953 in Christopher and grew up in the nearby coal-mining town of Benton.
Rudolf Wanderone was a New York pool hustler who hailed from Nashville, Tennessee, but took to calling himself Minnesota Fats after the character in the film, The Hustler. On his way south looking for a game, Fats stopped in DuQuoin to repair his car. There he found a future wife in waitress Evelyn ("Eva-line") Inez and settled down in the Jackson County village of Dowell.
Writer Robert Lewis Taylor was born in Carbondale in 1912 and attended Southern Illinois University for one year. (He finished his bachelors work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1933.) While he wrote successful biographies, Taylor is best known for the picaresque The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which won him a large audience and a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1959.
A writer of a very different sort was James Jones, author of the award-winning 1951 novel From Here to Eternity, was born (in 1921) and grew up in Robinson. He enlisted in the Army to get out of Robinson, and after being wounded Guadalcanal in 1942 returned to Robinson. He honed his craft at a Writer's Colony on a farm in the southwest part of Marshall, but left the area for Paris and the literary lights in 1958.
H. Allen Smith was an American journalist and humorist whose books were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. He was born in McLeansboro in 1907, where he lived until the age of six. Smith was that rarest of creatures, a succesfull freelancer writer who made money, which he did as a humorist, columnist, script writer for screen and radio, memoirist, and magazine feature writer. The title of his first big seller, Low Man on a Totem Pole suggests his style of the other 23.
Small in area but dense with people and history, the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis have given us many notable Illinoisans.
Gustave Koerner, jurist statesman, and historian, is one of Belleville’s more notable contributions to civilization. In the mid-1800s Koerner was the political leader of Illinois’s sizeable German community—he served his country as a sort of civics instructor—and thus one of the state’s more influential citizens.
Abolition agitator Elijah Lovejoy moved to Alton in 1836, after having been run out of St. Louis by pro-slavery mobs. where he became editor of the Alton Observer until 1837, when he was murdered by another mob while he was protecting his printing press.
The region has produced its share of the state’s famous athletes, including Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee (East St. Louis), and champion tennis brat (more accurately, bratty tennis champion) Jimmy Connors, who was born in East St. Louis but raised in Belleville.
Jazz giant Miles Davis was born in 1926 in Alton, but the family moved to East St. Louis just after his birth. Davis took up the trumpet at 13, and played in his high school band in East St. Louis and, more importantly, studied with local jazz artists before heading off to New York City.
Dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago (in 1909) and made her career in Haiti, New York, and Germany, but spent her latter life in southern Illinois, as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University on the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses and “cultural counselor” and director of the Performing Arts Training Center on that school’s East St. Louis campus.
Dancer and singer Josephine Baker, the most famous American expatriate in France in the early decades of the 20th century, was born in an East St. Louis slum in 1906; she ran away at age thirteen and never looked back.
Chuck Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis and grew up there. He never finished high school—stints in reformatory stopped that—but found fame as one of the seminal figures in rock ‘n’ roll, a career that began in earnest in 1953 at The Cosmopolitan, an East St. Louis club.
Phyllis Stewart Schlafly is the ultra-conservative activist and author of the bestselling book, A Choice, Not An Echo. Schafly’s Eagle Forum, founded in 1972, was a major force in blocking ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by the Illinois General Assembly, a failure that is generally thought to have doomed the measure. She was born in 1924 in St. Louis, but has lived for many years in Alton.
James Earl Ray, assassin in 1968 of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Alton in 1908, and livedt here until he left school for the Army at 15.
Actor Buddy Ebsen was a lanky and laconic song and dance man in his youth but spent his later years profitably impersonating Jed Clampett in the popular 1960s television series, The Beverly Hillbillies. He was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Jr., in 1908 in Belleville to immigrant parents; he lived there until age 10, when the family relocated to Florida.
Of the Metro-Easters who are famous for being famous, none is more exotic than Robert Wadlow. Wadlow was born in Alton in 1918, to normal-size parents, but an overactive pituitary gland quickly caused the boy to zoom into the world’s tallest man. “The Alton Giant” died young, at 22, when he was 8 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 490 pounds, and is buried in his home town.
Whatever happened to . . .?
Fame, alas, is fleeting, and the names of many of yesterday’s stars are no longer excite even the buff. Who today, outside Watseka, still thrills to the name Vernal Andrews, known less prosaically to her fans as Baroness Fern Andra? Andra was a 1920s film star who was born in that town in 1893. Fern started her career with her brother, Fred at the Stephens Opera House (what is now the old J. C. Penney building on Main Street). She moved on to vaudeville (something to do with tightrope walking, reports one historian) before finding her niche as a film actress in Europe, where she became known as "the Mary Pickford of Germany." She endured name-calling in the pre-World War II years after press stories that she (as one account put it) was doing a different kind of tightrope act with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief.
The singer they called the Jenny Lind of the prairies was known to her admirers as Marie Litta, but she was born in Bloomington (in 1856) as Marie Eugenia Von Elsner. (She was to change her name to avoid offense to Parisian audiences recently embarrassed by the Germans in the Franco- Prussian War.) Her voice enchanted listeners as a child—she sang before President Grant when she was 12—and she trained in Cleveland, London, and Paris.
Litta debuted at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1876 and made a triumphant debut in "Lucia di Lammermoor" in Paris in 1878. Successful but strenuous tours of the U.S. followed. Litta died back home at age 27, possibly of meningitis. She was Bloomington’s first internationally known hero, and her funeral was well-attended—one account numbers the mourners at 12,000—and emotional. She lies in Bloomington, beneath a stone provided by her grieving fans, whose design Edgar Lee Masters, a fan, found “rather inappropriate.”
Actress Margaret Illington was born there in 1879, as Maud Ellen Light. After attending hometown Illinois Wesleyan University, she made for Chicago and a Joseph Jefferson diamond medal for excellence for her renditions of Shakespeare. New York beckoned inevitably, and it was there she first appeared as Margaret Illington, her first producer cobbling together her stage name from syllables from the names of her native state and city. She was busy in popular productions in New York, London, and elsewhere until she retired in 1919.
Josephine Sanders was another Bloomingtonian who trod the boards. (The 1939 Federal Writers Project guide to Illinois noted Bloomington’s “inexplicable talent for nurturing artists of the world of amusement.”) Under the stage name of Irene Delroy she become a famous musical comedy star who warbled such popular hits as Irving Berlin’s "Ooh! Maybe It's You" in the “Ziegfeld Follies” of 1927. In Hollywood she starred in such musical as Warner Bros. studio’s “Oh Sailor, Behave” in 1930.
Sanders had won over audiences in her hometown even earlier. According to biographer Porter McKeever, this “beautiful blond, dimpled girl with a radiant personality” conquered the heart of the young Adlai Stevenson II in his last year at University High in Normal. It may be as well that she and the future governor never wed, for Miss Delroy would have set a standard in entertaining at the Executive Mansion that most subsequent First Ladies would have found hard to meet. ●
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture