Some Books About Illinois Business
Capitalist fights labor. Illinois loses.
See Illinois (unpublished
Home to global firms, Illinois has an economy larger than that of many a nation. Chicago, its principal city, was not founded as a religious or military or political capital but because it was a good place to do business, and some of America's greatest labor leaders, like John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, John Mitchell, Mother Jones and Eugene V. Debs, got their starts in Illinois. Yet business (broadly understood) figures tangentially if at all in most books about Illinois.
There are exceptions; The original Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide (1939), which was written as part of the WPA's Federal Writers' Project, paid close and sympathetic attention to Illinois labor history. Labor also figures significantly in such general histories as The Industrial State 1980–1893 by Ernest Ludlow Bogart and Charles Manfred Thompson, the fourth volume of the Centennial History of Illinois published in 1920, and in John H. Keiser’s Building for the Centuries: Illinois 1965 to 1898 (University of Illinois Press, 1977).
Books about Illinois businesses and businesspeople have common faults. For one thing, there is not enough of them, considering business’s importance to the life of the state. For another, those that are written tend to chronicle only successful firms, even though such firms are by definition unrepresentative; the fates of the many enterprises that fail might tell us more about the evolution of the state's economy. And biographies of company founders tend to be too kind to their subjects.
Better than most of that type is John Deere's Company: A History of Deere and Company and Its Times by Wayne G. Broehl Jr (Doubleday, 1984) and The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere by Jeremy Dahlstrom (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005).
Unhappily, most company histories are written by buffs or boosters. Men's fascination with big machines that roll, sail, fly, pull, crawl, or burrow has left us with dozens of histories of Illinois railroads (including railroad-related firms such as the Pullman Palace Car Co.) and heavy equipment manufacturers. Typical of the former is Palace Car Prince : A Biography of George Mortimer Pullman by Liston E. Leyendecker (University Press of Colorado, 1992). Typical of the latter is Caterpillar Chronicle: History of the Greatest Earthmovers by Eric C. Orlemann (MBI, 2000). Written by knowledgeable buffs, they usually lack context such as economic history.
Springfield’s surprisingly rich industrial past has been the subject of several such books. Sangamo, A History of Fifty Years by Robert Carr Lanphier and Benjamin Platt Thomas (Chicago: Privately printed, 1949) was augmented by Part Three, Sangamo, 1949–1959: A Supplement To Sangamo, A History of Fifty Years by John H. Schacht (Sangamo Electric Company, 1960?). The Fabulous Franklin Story: The History of the Franklin Life Insurance Company was told by Franklin’s Francis J. O'Brien (The Franklin Life Insurance Company, 1972). The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company by Frederic J. Friedberg (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004) is part history, mostly collector's guide.
Bloomington-Normal’s rich business history has inspired a number of books. The founder of the Funk Brothers Seed Company is recalled in Seed, Soil, and Science: The Story of Eugene D. Funk by Helen M. Cavanagh (Lakeside Press, 1959). The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890–1940 (Cornell University Press, 1990) contains much about work in the field at the University of Illinois and by Funk Brothers; one specialist in that field praised it, saying “it will endure as a standard work.”
Mitsubishi Motors in Illinois: Global Strategies, Local Impacts (Quorum Books, 1995) by various authors tells the story of the factory that promised to the 20th century Twin Cities what the railroad shops had been to the 19th century ones. The latter shops are the subject of Michael G. Matejka and Greg Koos who recall the Chicago & Alton railroad shops through oral history interviews in Bloomington’s C&A Shops: Our Lives Remembered (McLean County Historical Society, 1988).
Notable other works on Bloomington-Normal’s business history include A History: Building a Greater Community: McLean County Chamber of Commerce, 1900–2000 by Illinois State University history professor M. Paul Holsinger (McLean County Chamber of Commerce, 2000). More than one reviewer found that The Farmer from Merna: A Biography of George J. Mecherle and a History of the State Farm Insurance Companies of Bloomington, Illinois by Karl Schriftgiesser (Random House, 1996) over-praised the virtues of its subject, who was in fact not unusual among go-getting businessmen of his time and place.
A useful history of Decatur’s A. E. Staley Company is offered in The Kernel and The Bean: The 75-Year Story Of the Staley Company by Dan J. Forrestal (Simon and Schuster, 1982). The official history of Archer Daniels Midland, the food processing giant headquartered in Decatur, is conveyed by such works as The Nature of What's To Come : A Century Of Innovation a company history published in 2002. The rest of the story, including the firm's legal travails in the 1990s, is chronicled in more than one book. One is Rats in the grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland by James B. Lieber (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000). The best of the ADM exposés is The Informant by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald (Broadway Books, 2000), which more than one critic praised as among the best business narratives of the past twenty years.
The Illinois coal wars are still being fought in the pages of history journals and partisan tracts. John L. Lewis is usually cast as the villain in the coal mine disputes of the 1920s and ‘30s. The story of Lewis’s union antagonists in Illinois is partly told in Harriet D. Hudson, The Progressive Mine Workers of America: A Study in Rival Unionism (Bureau of Economic and Business Research Bulletin, University of Illinois, 1952). John L. Lewis, a Biography by Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren van Tine (New York Times Books, 1977) is well documented, for example, but at least one reviewer found that the work scants Lewis's relationship to Illinois’s District 12. The version published by the University of Illinois Press in 1986 is abridged.
How the miners of southern Illinois and, their leaders—often ignorant, usually stubborn—dealt with these issues with a coal industry that was often arrogant and short-sighted has sustained a vast historical literature. Federal relief agencies and academics studied conditions in southern Illinois coal fields. Among the results is People of Coal Town, sociologist Herman R. Lantz’s account of life in Ziegler in (Southern Illinois University Press, 1971). Seven Stranded Coal Towns: A Study of an American Depressed Area by Malcolm Brown and John N. Webb (DaCapo Press, 1971) is a reprint of a Work Projects Administration research monograph from 1941 that reported on the social conditions in Franklin, Saline, and Williamson counties during the Depression. Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney’s Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006) is a solid account of the underground explosions—in Centralia in 1947 and in West Frankfort four years later—that killed 111 and 119 men respectively.
C. William Horrell, was the author of Southern Illinois Coal: A Portfolio (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), whose 78 black-and-white photos taken between 1966 and 1986 record the fast-disappearing heritage of mining in the region.
Illinois’s Egypt inspired one of the best books of Illinois popular history—in the best sense of the term. Bloody Williamson (originally published in 1952 and reprinted with an introduction by John Y. Simon by University of Illinois Press in 1992) is Paul Angle’s “chapter in American lawlessness.” John Y. Simon, the distinguished historian who taught for years at SIU at Carbondale, observed about it in 1992 that has sold briskly for forty years and never disappointed readers—something that can be said about very few Illinois books.
The above-mentioned biographies of John L. Lewis touch on the central Illinois coal wars that inspired some of his more controversial moves; the battles still rage mainly in the pages of history journals and partisan tracts. Carl Oblinger's Divided Kingdom focuses on communities and events in the coal fields of central Illinois through biographical anecdotes culled from interviews with 36 men and four women; topics include the mining wars that ravaged the industry and the coal communities of Illinois in the 1930s. My Midnight at Noon: A History of Coal Mining in Sangamon County by James Krohe Jr. (Sangamon County Historical Society, 1975) is useful if limited in scope. The great novel that might be written about coal mining in Sangamon and the rest of central Illinois has not yet been attempted.
A useful introduction to the riches of the genre, with a guide to further reading, is Chicago Business and Industry: From Fur Trade to E-commerce, edited by Janice L. Reiff (University of Chicago Press, 2013). All the essays in the book originally appeared as entries in The Encyclopedia of Chicago and cover significant local firms and their founders.
The number of first-rate books about this important topic is too small. Among them is Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton & Company; 1991). Still worth reading are The New Gatsbys: Fortunes and Misfortunes of Commodities Traders by Bob Tamarkin (William Morrow & Company, 1985) and The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears by Donald R. Katz. (Viking, 1987).
Dozens of books worth reading have been written about Chicago railroads. Several are from the NIU Press series, Railroads in America. Typical is The North Western: A History of the Chicago & North Western Railway System (Northern Illinois University Press, 1996). There should be more works such as The Railroad Tycoon Who Built Chicago: A Biography of William B. Ogden by Jack Harpster (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018).
The prolific David Young has given us fine popular histories of transportation systems that undergird the Chicago economy. They are Chicago Transit: An Illustrated History (Northern Illinois University Press 1998); Chicago Aviation: An Illustrated History ( Northern Illinois University Press, 2003); The Iron Horse and the Windy City: How Railroads Shaped Chicago (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005); and Chicago Maritime: An Illustrated History (Northern Illinois University, 2001).
Chicago’s merchant princes have attracted some attention. The Marshall Fields: The Evolution of an American Business Dynasty by Axel Madsen (Wiley, 2002). A readable popular account of the clan’s namesake store is Give the Lady What She Wants: The Story of Marshall Field & Company by Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan (Rand, McNally, 1952). Another recent entry is Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South by Peter M. Ascoli (Indiana University, 2015)
Business also figures significantly in many books about other aspects of Chicago life. One example of many is David M. Solzman's excellent The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways (University of Chicago, 2006) which tells the story of how the water system made Chicago business and how business nearly unmade the river system.
A faction of informed opinion among historians is that the history of Chicago, and its significance to the rest of the U.S., owes to its labor movements. Barbara Newell’s Chicago and the Labor Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1961), writes about the uniqueness of the Chicago and Illinois labor movement. Another such book is Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864–97 by Richard Schneirov (University of Illinois Press, 1998).
Schneirov also co-authored, with John B. Jentz, Chicago in the Age of Capital: Class, Politics, and Democracy during the Civil War and Reconstruction (University of Illinois Press, 2015); the authors recount the period between the 1850s and 1870s which saw the rise of permanent wage-earning and industrial classes.
Specific works about Haymarket and the Pullman strike (and Pullman the man and Pullman the social experiment) and the Republic Steel massacre and the coal wars and streetcar strikes and union-busting in Decatur are too numerous to list here. Among the best is Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America by James R. green (Pantheon, 2006).
Downstate labor history is just as rich, if less well-known. The coal mine wars of central Illinois over a period of a half-century produced many an out-sized character, only a few of which, alas, have been painted on the page. One who did was Mary “Mother Jones” Harris, whose life story, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, was first published in 1925 and is still in print. Jones also has attracted admiring treatment from biographers of the labor movement such as Dale Fetherling, (Mother Jones: The Miners' Angel, Southern Illinois University Press, 1974) and Elliott J. Gorn (Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Hill & Wang, 2001), although historian Ralph Stone notes that she was “less influential in Illinois than in more troubled mining regions such as West Virginia and Colorado.”
Working people are often all but invisible in most business histories, except as problems for management to solve. Histories based on oral histories allow the working people of the region to speak for themselves. Among them are The Legacy of the Mines: Memoirs of Coal Mining in Fulton County, Illinois, edited by John E. Hallwas (Spoon River College, 1993) and Bloomington’s C&A Shops: Our Lives Remembered (McLean County Historical Society, 1988) by Michael G. Matejka and Greg Koos. Carl Oblinger's Divided Kingdom: Work, Community, and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression (Illinois State Historical Society, 1991) focuses on communities and events in the coal fields of mid-Illinois through biographical anecdotes culled from interviews with thirty-six men and four women.
That history was still being lived in Decatur in the 1990s, as we learn in Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans by Chicago Tribune labor writer Stephen Franklin (Guilford Press, 2001) and Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement (Working Class in American History) by Steven K. Ashby and C. J. Hawking (University of Illinois Press, 2009); the books retell the story of three strikes in the 1990s that left that city’s once-invincible labor unions battered and nearly broken.
I review several books about business and labor at Illinois, reviewed. Curious readers also should consult the bibliography of Illinois labor history compiled by Margaret A. Chaplan, Emerita, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ●