Some Books About Illinois Towns
Good biographies of Illinois towns abound
See Illinois (unpublished) 2020
Most towns of any size have a history (usually commissioned in observation of a centennial or other anniversary) but too many of these were written by boosters, and some can hardly be said to have been written at all. A typical work of the former type is The History of Peoria, Illinois (N. C. Nason, 1870) by Charles Ballance, the untutored land dealer and mayor of Peoria, which is essential (for want of anything better) but insufficient. Happily, quite a few town histories rise above that standard.
Some of the books mentioned in this piece can be purchased from the nonprofit Bookshop.org via the links here provided. Part of the profit from each sale goes into a fund to support independent bookstores, and part goes into my empty pocket. You should know that.
Northern Illinois towns
Historian and folklorist Roald Tweet, Professor Emeritus of English at Augustana College, introduces his favorite place to strangers in The Quad Cities: An American Mosaic (The Brandt Company, 1996). The story of the Quad Cities is inseparable from that of the Mississippi. The steamboats of the Upper Mississippi have been amply chronicled. Among the few specifically local works is Tweet’s A History of the Rock Island District Corps of Engineers, 1866–1893, published by the Corps in 1975.
The most useful history of Rockford is Jon W. Lundin’s Rockford: An Illustrated History (Windsor Publications, Inc., 1989, second edition American Historical Press, 1996). One critic praised its ”intelligent interpretative framework, which makes it unique among the several histories of the city.” That makes it unusual among histories of most Illinois cities, period.
The many tourists who visit Galena sustain a market for photo books, reminiscences, and reprints of period curiosities. Among the more interesting of many titles are The Building of Galena: An Architectural Legacy by Carl H. Johnson, Jr. (Worzalla, 1977). Galena, Illinois, a reprint of the American Guide Series entry compiled and written by the Federal Writers Project in 1937, was written largely by Nelson Algren, who is as unlikely a guide to Galena as one might imagine.
Central Illinois towns
As social history, Paul Angle’s Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln's Springfield, 1821–1865 and Benjamin Thomas’s Lincoln's New Salem have been rendered incomplete by subsequent research, but each remains valuable to anyone wanting to know something of the social and political context of Lincoln’s life.
Excerpts from journalism and memoirs by various authors make up A Springfield Reader: Historical Views of the Illinois Capital, 1818–1976, edited by James Krohe Jr. (Sangamon County Historical Society, 1976.) See this page for more about it.
Another fine town biography is The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois 1825–70 by Don Harrison Doyle (University of Illinois Press, 1978), which is an academic but still readable history of that interesting city. One review spoke for many others when he called the book “a welcome addition to the slowly growing number of scholarly histories of smaller American cities.”
They Broke the Prairie by Earnest Elmo Calkins earned a placed among the best books about Illinois cities. This history of the Galesburg and of Knox College was first published in 1937, on the occasion of Knox's and Galesburg's sesquicentennial, and was reprinted in 1971. In 1989 the University of Illinois Press brought out a new edition with an introduction by Rodney O. Davis. While it is dated and marred by the prejudices of its era, it remains worth reading. Galesburg also features in Kay J. Carr’s study of the development of community social and political structures, the much-praised Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg: Community and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).
Juliet E. K. Walker investigates the rise and fall of New Philadelphia in Pike County and the career of its remarkable promoter in Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (University of Kentucky Press, 1983).
Many a visitor finds that the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus is just about the prettiest town in mid-Illinois. How it got that way is chronicled in History of the Growth and Development of the Campus Plan of the University of Illinois by Leon D. Tilton and Thomas E. O'Donnell (University of Illinois Press, 1930). A new book is needed to take into account the subsequent expansion of the campus; sadly, that book is not
An Illini Place: Building the University of Illinois Campus by Lex Tate and John Franch (University of Illinois Press, 2017). I reviewed it here.
Southern Illinois towns
Lincoln's Vandalia, a Pioneer Portrait by William E. Baringer (Rutgers University Press, 1949) recounts Lincoln’s early legislative career when Vandalia was the state capital. A more comprehensive treatment of early Vandalia is Paul E. Stroble, Jr.’s High on the Okaw's Western Bank: Vandalia, Illinois 1819–1839 (University of Illinois Press, 1992).
The completion of the Illinois Central Railroad and the coming of the Civil War gave added importance to Cairo, whose standard history is John M. Lansden’s 1910 work, A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois with a foreword by Clyde C. Walton (reprinted by the Southern Illinois University Press, 1976).
For a small town, Cairo has attracted the attention of a surprising number of big writers. Charles Dickens, in Martin Chuzzlewit, has his hero relive one of Dickens’ own real-life adventures when he is fleeced by an unscrupulous land speculator and ends up the owners of a worthless piece of Illinois swamp. In North America (Volume 2) Anthony Trollope devoted to the subject of the mud of Cairo the art, the wit that ordinary novelists devote to their heroes; whatever his other complaints, he cannot have said that Cairo did not inspire him. Cairo's shortcomings also figure centrally in Far From Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns by Ron Powers (Random House, 1991).
H. Allen Smith, who sold some four million books in his career, including the World War II bestseller, Low Man on a Totem Pole, was a McLeansboro boy. Born in 1907, Smith returned to his birthplace in 1946 to walk down memory lane; the results are described amusingly in Lo, the Former Egyptian! (After surveying the community, he asked what caused the town’s founder to pick such an isolated spot for a town. “Were they running from somebody?”)
The rich ethnic past of Metro East has been chronicled in many scholarly articles—two of many are Stanley B. Kimball’s East Europeans in Southwestern Illinois: The Ethnic Experience in Historical Perspective (Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, 1981) and “The Bulgarian Colony of Southwestern Illinois, 1900–1920” by David E. Cassens (Illinois Historical Journal, Vol. 84, 1991)—and too few books. Among the latter is Journey to New Switzerland (Southern Illinois University Press, 1987) by Joseph Suppiger and others, which tells the history of the Highland Settlement in Madison County, and America's First Black Town: Brooklyn Illinois, 1830–1915 by Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua (University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Small towns don’t get much more interesting in Illinois than Elsah; its story is told briefly in Elsah: A Historic Guidebook (Historic Elsah Foundation,1967; revised 1986) by Charles B. Hosmer, Jr. and Paul O. Williams.
Cities in Illinois don’t get more troubled than East St. Louis. What is described as the first comprehensive history of the city is Made in USA: East St. Louis by Andrew J. Theising, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (Virginia Publishing, 2003). Two narrow studies of interest are The Politics of Urban Planning: The East St. Louis Experience by Dennis R. Judd and Robert E. Mendelson (University of Illinois Press, 1973) and Savage Inequalities, which devotes a chapter to the city’s lamentable public schools.
A popular treatment of Alton’s busy past is given in It Happened at the River Bend by John J. Dunphy (Second Reading Publications, 2007). An academic examination of the development of community social and political structures is Kay J. Carr’s Belleville, Ottawa, and Galesburg: Community and Democracy on the Illinois Frontier (Southern Illinois University Press, 1996)
Downstate cities are examined from a sociological perspective in Daniel J. Elazar’s important investigation into political cultures of Illinois, Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (Basic Books, 1970) which casts a light on Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Springfield, and Decatur. (The work was updated in The Closing of the Metropolitan Frontier: Cities of the Prairie Revisited by Rozann Rothman, Stephen L. Schecter, et al, with an introduction by Elazar (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
That toddlin' town
Understand that this is merely a sampling of the dozens—hundreds?—of worthy books about Chicago in all its aspects. Any book set in Chicago will tells readers something about the city, of course, but here we dealing with books in which the town is the main character. Books mainly about Chicago politics, buildings, events, institutions, transportation systems, urban issues, and culture are noted in other parts of Illinois books & writers.
If one can read only one book, try City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America (Simon & Schuster, 1996) by Donald L. Miller. Well-written and astute, the book is the new standard history of Chicago.
Substantial if a less lively read is Chicago: A Biography by Dominic A. Pacyga (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Pacyga is a professor emeritus of history at Chicago’s Columbia College and the author of several important works of local history, including Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880–1922; and Slaughterhouse: Chicago's Union Stock Yard and the World It Made, all from the University of Chicago Press. Most recent, but one hopes not the last, of these newer very good Chicago histories is The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja (Penguin Press, 2013).
From a crowded shelf of dusty volumes I reach first for the works of Bessie Louise Pierce, regarded by many as the first serious historian of Chicago. The three volumes in her A History of Chicago was brought out by the University of Chicago Press in 1937, 1940, and 1957 and remains worth reading. She also compiled a collection of observations and opinions of visitors to the city titled As Others See Chicago, which was published in 1933. And while it is now hard to find, journalist Lloyd Lewis’s Chicago: The History of Its Reputation (Harcourt, Brace, 1929) is worth the looking; few books about the city are more fun to read.
Since the 1990s, readers curious about Chicago have been spoiled for choice. First on the shelves was Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991) is as much a history of agriculture in Illinois as a history of Chicago, but that is not a complaint, as the city and its Downstate hinterland grew rich together. Then there is the deservedly popular Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Crown, 2002), which brings the 1890s city alive as it weaves the stories of the planning and building of the 1893 World's Fair and the hunt for serial killer H. H. Holmes.
The shelves are crammed with books by newspaper reporters recounting foible and folly and all extremely colorful, although they would be better is addressed why Chicago these days is so dull in comparison. The best is still Ben Hecht's 1922 memoir, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago (republished by University of Chicago Press, 2009).
An interesting entry is Chicago by the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image, with an Introduction by Neil Harris (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Chicago by the Book profiles 101 landmark publications (books, catalogs, songs, city directories, government reports, maps, speeches, poems, and more) about Chicago from the past 170 years that have helped define the city and its image. Each title is the focus of an illustrated essay by a leading Chicago scholar, writer, or bibliophile. ●