Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
In Illinois But Not of It
Chicago, meet Illinois
See Illinois (unpublished)
Seldom a topic itself, Chicago-Downstate differences figure in any well-considered account of Illinois politics, business, or the arts. Those differences have been exaggerated or oversimplified by partisans of each side, but they are real enough. Indeed, all the familiar dualisms—urban-rural, Democrat-Republican, Catholic-Protestant, immigrant-native, Cubs-Cardinals—apply to the Chicago-Downstate relationship.
Written to introduce the massive, 350,000-word section about greater Chicago in my unpublished guide to Illinois culture and history, this piece stands by itself as an essay. I’ve written several versions of this essay, but this one is probably the best, even if it is a little long.
The story of Chicago and Illinois—or perhaps more accurately, that of Illinois versus Chicago—is perhaps the most important theme in the modern history of the state. The story of Illinois in the century after the Civil War, for example, was industrialization and urbanization, and no place in Illinois was more industrial or more urban than Chicago. The transformation was worked out in small towns and medium-sized cities too—immigration and the resulting social tensions, radical politics, demands for legislative redress for all manner of ills from unsafe workplaces to tainted meat to bought-off politicians. But it was Chicago’s example, Chicago’s people, Chicago’s issues that usually dominated the story. Indeed Chicago so dominated after the turn of the 20th century that it was easy to get the impression that history had stopped in the rest of the state with Lincoln’s death.
For decades, Chicago city councils were frustrated by the constraints imposed on the city by state legislature dominated by rubes. The city was from the first tied to the state—locals might prefer the phrase “bound and gagged”—by a succession of state constitutions designed to govern a rural state. The rules therein set forth by which its local governments were obliged to operate ill-accommodated a creature as new and dangerous as the industrial city.
It was by means of city charters that the State of Illinois constitution first ceded to its cities the powers needed to govern themselves. As a city changed, its charter had to be changed. For a century after 1830, Chicago was like a youth forever outgrowing his pants. Chicago operated under seven separate charters, but no longer was one amended or replaced than the city grew out of it. When it had grown into a town, it still had to govern itself using the political and legal tools of the village; when it had grown into a city, its governing charter was designed for towns.
The state did away with special city charters as the blueprints for municipal operations in 1870. After that, its cities were to be governed under a single Cities and Villages Act. Absurdly, Chicago and its millions were subject to the same rules that applied to its smaller suburbs. What wasn’t allowed by statutes such as the Cities and Villages Act had to be provided for specially. The city thus had to go to Springfield to bargain with the rest of Illinois to allow it to help itself by authorizing the powers to tax itself, to organize itself, to borrow for its own needs.
The government reform that really mattered in Chicago therefore was the decades-long struggle to obtain for itself from its jealous parent state government a form of self-rule appropriate to the region’s needs. The problem was that Chicago’s political rivals in other parts of the state refused to cede power to it. They feared that the city would become the dominant force in Illinois politically as well as economically.
Chicago could not vote itself an improved charter in Springfield because malapportionment by the Illinois General Assembly had for decades cheated Chicago of the representation its population deserved by gerrymandering legislative districts. Progressive elements, as part of their good-government reform campaigns of the turn of the 20th century, sought a more rational set of rules under which their city might be governed. The clout-y Civic Federation in 1902 pushed for changes to the state constitution that would allow a Chicago-only charter; Chicago voters ratified the amendment, which would have allowed assorted improvements, including more local taxing authority, but the powers in Springfield gutted key parts of the draft charter that was placed before Chicago voters in 1907.
Approving that expurgated charter split the city. Business was, generally, for it, pro-suffrage women, the leftist social reformers, and ethnics were generally, ag’in it, and the measure was thumped it at the pools. Similar efforts in 1909 and 1914 and 1920 also failed. There were occasional piecemeal reforms, such as the constitutional amendment in 1904 that allowed Cook County to set up a unique court system better suited to its needs, but the fundamental problem remained unsolved into the 1950s.
So vexing was the Downstate’s obstructionism that in 1925 the Cook County board considered seceding from Illinois and forming a new State of Chicago, consisting of Cook County and any adjacent counties wise enough to want to join.
The various reapportionment rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s that established the one-person-one vote principle finally gave the city something like fair legislative representation in Springfield. Thus it was not until 1970 and adoption of a yet another new state constitution that Chicago finally gained most of the home rule powers it needed. Alas, in the decades in between, the suburbs had grown to become a major countervailing political force to the city, and the future that Downstate had so long feared, in which the rest of Illinois would be subservient to the giant, was no longer a threat.
Originally Chicago was not to have been a part of Illinois. The federal act setting up the Northwest Territory had specified that one boundary of any new states carved from it would be a line running east-west from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan. Nathaniel Pope represented the then-territory of Illinois in Congress during the period when Congress considered Illinois’s request for statehood. Pope urged an alternative under which the new state’s northern border would extend west from a spot roughly forty-one miles north of the lake’s southern end.
Pope’s plea was successful. The boundary shift—the grandfather of all redistrictings—would have profound consequences for both states. It meant that Chicago and Rockford were destined to become Illinois cities rather than Wisconsin ones. More importantly, the boundary shift put Illinois’s politics put on a new basis. A larger—and, in time, more populous—northern Illinois would counterbalance the Southernness of the rest of the state. Without the antislavery votes of New Englanders and Scandinavians from Chicago and the rest of northern Illinois, for example, Lincoln would not have carried Illinois in 1860, and without Illinois Lincoln would not have carried the nation, and without Lincoln the nation . . . .
Pope’s coup in getting the future Chicago part of Illinois won the new state massive revenue and political clout at the cost of internal division. Illinois was saddled with the problems familiar in New York or Oregon or any largely rural state that has a dominant city whose interests, cultures, and populations have little in common. Nonetheless, without Chicago and rest of Pope’s addition, Illinois would be little more than Indiana without Indianapolis. For that reason alone, there ought to be a statue to Pope in the capitol at least as prominent as any of Lincoln.
Chicago and Downstate were linked even before Pope amended the map—physically (State Street, Chicago's great street, is in fact the final stretch of Hubbard’s Trace, the trail that was laid out in the 1820s from Danville to Chicago, became State Street) and economically. Pre-fire Chicago made its living selling the things that Downstaters bought from the east, and later served as a substantial part of the new markets for its mail order houses, its farm equipment makers, its railroads. After the Civil War in particular, Chicago bought and sold Downstaters’ produce, made most of the machines they needed to farm with, even the furniture for their houses. At the other end of the railroad tracks that connected virtually every Downstate burg to the city were the customers that their farming grandfathers so often lacked; Chicago gave Downstate a market that transformed the basis of farming from subsistence to commerce and turned backwaters into bustling towns.
These mutual interests made inevitable a working alliance between Illinois’s largest region—Downstate—and its most populous one. Chicago’s earliest railroad was managed by Chicago businessmen but financed largely by small-town merchants and farmers along its tracks who saw the wisdom in gaining more convenient access to the city’s markets. Donald Miller in City of the Century reminds us that the coal supplies of what he calls southern Illinois made possible Chicago’s fantastic industrial growth between 1860 and 1890. Chicago also heated and lighted itself with Downstate coal; Miller suggests it was not a coincidence that the first demonstration in Chicago of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb and the debut Downstate of efficient strip mining happened in the same year, 1880. After the mid-1800s, the new railroads converted the entire state into Chicago’s hinterland. Elgin shipped its milk to Chicago, and thus became vulnerable to the vagaries of that city’s market but the towns of Egypt, which shipped their peaches and apples to Chicago too, were no less vulnerable, for all their being 375 miles from the Loop.
For many thousands of Downstaters, the symbiotic nature of their relationship to the city remained un-illuminated. Far from a benefactor, Chicago to them was a nemesis, a curse, a cesspool. The railroad and commodity traders in particular convinced farmers that there were conspiracies afoot to exploit the honest yeomen who tended the land. The railroads in their early years squeezed customers needing to ship on the lines on which they had a monopoly and conspired with competitors to fix the rates on the ones that didn’t.
Much of the profits in the railroads’ boom years thus came at the expense of Downstate farmers and factory owners, angering both to the point that they united, briefly, to push for government regulation of the sort that in ordinary times each regarded as sins against their political religion. To the extent that Chicago was associated with the railroads—and it was the city where many such firms were headquartered, in which many of the early owners resided, and where much of the wealth they generated was rather flamboyantly spent—Chicago was damned for their abuses.
But the railroads were only one of the burrs that Chicago placed under Downstaters’ saddles. Historian Carl Van Doren, who grew up in Urbana, recalled this about the 1893 depression.
A new standing joke appeared in the community. Some man, it was said, had sent a carload of sheep to Chicago [to be sold for the owner]. The commission agent reported that the amount received for them would not pay the railroad charges, and asked for money to make up the loss. The man replied: ‘Have no money, but am sending more sheep.’ No matter how often we heard this, we laughed.”
The Van Dorens could afford to laugh; they lived in town. Lynn Montross in his novel East Of Eden recalled the agrarian revolt around the time of World War I among Downstate farmers who misunderstood low prices to be the result of reckless speculation on the Chicago Board of Trade.
William Cronon summarized in an historian’s terms the Downstaters’ brief against the city in Nature’s Metropolis.
They knew that its brewers and saloonkeepers had consistently frustrated the efforts of Downstate legislators to prohibit the sale of alcohol, that font of so many other vices. They read in their newspapers about the corruption of machine politics in the city. They had experienced at first hand the hard-selling dishonesty and fraudulent dealings of Chicago’s traveling salesmen. They loathed the cynical and immoral grain speculators on the Chicago Board of Trade, who seemed to prosper by gambling with the foodstuffs on which farmers’ and workers’ lives depended.
Many of the farmers’ complaints were dubious. Today, when the only calluses on many a young farmer came from taking notes toward his MBA, it is easy to forget that a century ago the typical Illinois farmer knew nothing of the distribution of goods, of capital flows, of freight rate-setting and cost structures. Theirs was a simple universe and everything about Chicago seemed complicated. They never grasped that city people’s dependence on their food did not make them dependent on the farmer economically.
Ignorant does not mean stupid. The general opinion that Downstate has been shat upon by Chicago has occasionally been literally as well as metaphorically true. When engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago river, the city’s crap was flushed via the Des Plaines into the Illinois River, with calamitous effects on the latter stream. Peoria legislators, who thus had to endure the stink of Chicago from 170 miles away, led an unsuccessful campaign to repeal the act that set up the Chicago Sanitary District. In time the District hired experts who proved that the river was cleansed by time it got to Peoria and Pekin, and that it was not Chicago’s but local factories that supplied the filth that indisputably poisoned the water in the lower Illinois. By then, alas, an image had settled into Downstate minds. When, in the 1970s, the Chicago Sanitary District’s successor started shipping barge-fulls of sewage sludge to be dumped on mined land just downstream from Peoria, no one was surprised.
“I’d rather be a lamp post in Chicago"
Columnist Mike Royko used to insist that Downstaters saw all Chicagoans as dark-skinned louts who talk funny (just as, it should be said, many Chicagoans see all Downstaters as fair-skinned louts who talk funny.) Downstaters may be careless anthropologists, but their opinions do not owe entirely to prejudice. In 1900 less than 25 percent of the entire population of Illinois was foreign-born but more than 75 percent of the population of Chicago was. Those relative differences persisted, if in less dramatic form. A century later, in 2000, only about 12 percent of the state's population was born outside of the U.S., but in 2000 more than one in five Chicago residents over five was foreign-born, and many more have “ethnic” roots. Their absence leaves Downstaters alternatively intrigued or fearful of these immigrants and their descendants, but in any uninformed; the biggest problem Downstaters had with candidate Rod Blagojevich in the 2002 gubernatorial election was pronouncing his name, which was sometimes rendered more simply as Rod Chicagovich.
Chicagoans as a whole also are poorer, younger, and more violent, and, paradoxically, richer and better educated than the typical Downstater. Religion is a difference too. Most Downstate towns are dominated by the Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations that account for most of the state's Protestants. Chicago is home to the state’s largest concentration of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. They are joined there by the Roman Catholics, the largest Christian denomination in Illinois, most of whose adherents live in and around Chicago.
Chicago’s Catholicism has always put it at odds theologically socially and politically with much of the rest of Illinois—many Downstate preachers came to Illinois specifically to counter the spread of the Roman faith in the Northwest Territory—and has been an enduring if often unacknowledged aspect of the Chicago-Downstate rivalry. After graduation from Mount Carmel, a South-Side Catholic high school, Chicago-born poet Paul Carroll went to college at the Methodist Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington in the 1940s. There he encountered the Downstate Protestant world for the first time, and learned to his disdain that it was a place whose residents “thought God was a life insurance salesman.”
Readers who like ironies may savor the fact that so many of Chicago’s leading lights in its golden age were transplanted Downstaters. Harlow N. Higinbotham, a partner in Field’s great store, was born on a farm near Joliet. Frederick Charles Gunther, candy manufacturer and rare-book collector, came to Chicago by way of Germany, Pennsylvania, and, beginning in his 14th year, Peru, Illinois. Merchant and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald made his fortune in Chicago but was born and mostly raised in Springfield. A. G. Spalding, sportsman and merchant, was born on a farm in Byron in Ogle County. James A. Patten, grain merchant, capitalist, and philanthropist, was born on a farm in De Kalb County's Freeland Corners. Charles Walgreen, pharmacist and drugstore chain founder, was born 1873, on a farm near Galesburg, and spent his teen years in Dixon.
It was not only by the gift of so many proto-moguls that Downstate enriched Chicago at Downstate’s expense. Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay were Downstaters, of course, as was Carl Sandburg. Sandburg lived and worked in Chicago for years; Lindsay fancied himself an artist and spent time in Chicago as a student at the Art Institute; Masters left Lewistown for Chicago, where he practiced law from 1903 until 1920 (several years of that span in partnership with Clarence Darrow) and lived there for most of the rest of his life.
Nor has the traffic in talent from Downstate to Chicago slowed. Consider such lights of today’s Chicago theater as Steppenwolf actors Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovitch, or Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. Malkovich grew up in Benton and Metcalf in Carbondale and Edwardsville; Falls lived in Ashland in Cass County until he was 12, then Champaign, and fell in love with theater watching amateur productions in Springfield.
These, alas, were not the kind of Chicagoans that most Downstaters were exposed to. Sharp traveling salesmen, rapacious railroad agents—these were the only Chicagoans many Downstaters knew through the 1800s. The adventures in the big bad city of the naïve, the eager, and the desperate from the farms and small towns supplied the plot of many a novel that was read by kerosene lantern in the parlors and barns Downstate—good dirty fun, but hardly stories that improved the city’s reputation.
When the heat was on in the 1920s and ‘30s, hoods from Chicago—inevitably, if perhaps not always accurately, described as members of Al Capone’s entourage—hid out in house boats along the Illinois River near such towns as Beardstown. They would vacation there too, relaxing from their labors by renting lodges in the bottomland where they could, for a change, shoot at things that couldn't shoot back. Hennepin reportedly was a favorite spot; so was the area around Snicarte and Bath, where locals known as 'pushers' would escort gang members to prime hunting grounds and, if necessary, do their shooting for them, so the gangsters would have some ducks to show off back in Chicago. Such behavior did not leave the locals with elevated notions about Chicagoans' sense of honor.
Nor was Downstaters’ opinion of Chicagoans always improved by inspecting them in their natural environment. As early as the 1830s, hometown newspapers were publishing advice to yokels who were unaware than hogs were not the only Downstaters who got skinned when they went to Chicago. Dangers to one’s purse or reputation seemed to lurk on every corner. Downstaters who ventured into the city occasionally for a ball game or a convention were beset by dishonest shopkeepers, pickpockets, flim-flam artists of every stripe, crooked cops, white slavers, purveyors of watered-down booze. Later it was rum-runners, immigrants anarchists, boodlers, gang bangers that kept the inhabitants of the state’s nether regions from a peaceful sleep. If there is a bad element in Illinois, Downstaters have been complaining, likely that it came from or at least was inspired by Chicago.
For every Downstater who thrilled at the freedom Chicago offered, ten recoiled in fear at its violence, its dirt, its venality. The city’s ranks were swelled from the start by transplanted Downstaters, but many thousands of each generation eventually fled the city, finding it too crass or too big or too strange or just too not home. Journalist John Bartlow Martin addressed this issue with more than ordinary frankness in his memoir, It Seems Like Only Yesterday. When he was growing up in Indiana, Chicago loomed as “the place where the Big Story happened.” When the grownup Martin arrived in Chicago in 1938 to work, he embraced everything in Chicago he never knew at home—the slums, the odiferous poor, the lights and noise, the speed and violence. Years later he attributed his infatuation to innocent foolishness.
By now the El no longer seemed romantic to me, just an obsolete nuisance; the slums were not picturesque, just appalling; Randolph Street and Rush Street were not glamorous, just tinsel cheap; gangsterism not exciting, just dreary and dangerous. But this change was in me, not the city.
That path—youthful wonder, innocent infatuation, followed by disillusion—was trod by uncounted Downstaters. Brian Gallagher, in his biography of Neysa McMein, Quincy’s contribution to Manhattan’s demimonde in the 1920s and '30s, notes that Chicago had thrilled her in her youth as it had Martin, but only because Chicago in those days was “Quincy grown large and loud.”
The much-written-about “revolt from the village” that so animated the Chicago renaissance writers, and whose ringleaders included such Downstaters as Edgar Lee Masters, was almost always followed by their much less chronicled disgust with the city. That may be why the city seems not to sustain its talented citizens over a lifetime the way that New York City or London do. The list of talented people who apprenticed in Chicago before moving on to (usually) New York or Hollywood is, well, about as long as the list of talented people who apprenticed in Chicago, and includes everyone from Louis Armstrong to Mike Nichols to David Mamet. The members of Steppenwolf, the quintessential Chicago theatrical troupe, wins plaudits for returning to Chicago to do plays, but of course, they wouldn’t have to come back if they hadn’t left.
In the 1970s, Chicago’s stock fell to perhaps its lowest point in a century. Gangs, riots, the gruesome and well-publicized murder of a Springfield medical student, made many shun the city. By the 1990s, racial stalemate in government had eased, white flight slowed, the economy slowly rebuilt. But even as it shrank in size and influence, Chicago seemed to expand in horror. In the sweltering summer of 1995, hundreds of mainly old people died, locked in un-air-conditioned rooms because they were too afraid to open door or even a window for fear of being robbed—to many Downstaters. nightmare deaths in a nightmare city.
Among the unthinking, the animus toward Chicago is a fierce and unforgiving as a religious creed. The Downstaters among them thrill to news of every disaster from the Windy City, as they might cheer news that tyrant has broken out in boils. But while the impulse to stick it to the big city remains alive, the insults lack the passion of the old days. Back then, Chicago was excoriated as a den of vice and corruption; today the evil is traffic jams (a measure of how life changed in Illinois in a half-century) and overpriced restaurants. “By now the point should be clear,” says the Peoria-based tractor maker Caterpillar in a recent appeal to prospective employees, “Peoria is not a little Chicago. It doesn't need to be.”
Chicagoans often misapprehend Downstaters’ reactions to their burg. They catch the anxiety with which so many Downstaters regard their state's largest city, but they miss the condescension. Many Downstaters visit for the pleasures of feeling superior to it. They go home and talk about the cab driver who spoke no English and the outrageous price of a beer at the Hyatt. Rather than leave them ashamed of their small-town ways, a trip to Chicago confirms their way of living; rather than envy the Chicagoan, they leave feeling rather sorry for her.
Most of Illinois’s non-Chicagoans have entertained more ambivalent attitudes about the city. They love to insult the city, and tremble at the thought of being caught poor and alone in it, but many—by no means all—seldom pass up a chance to visit it. For all its faults the city at the start of the new millennium has never been cleaner, safer, or more convenient to visitors. Downstaters today are no less thrilled than their grandparents to ogle famous actors and gawk at mansions bigger than the churches or even the courthouses back home, and while they may have gotten used to elevator rides, they don’t get to ride in glass-walled ones, which they flock to the Thompson Center and Water Tower Place to do. And don’t forget the big-league ball games, the obligatory exposure of the kids to a museum, and evenings at clubs that stay open past midnight.
This too is not exactly new. If the city meant danger, it also held magic to people vulnerable to its spell. The memoirs of those who grew up Downstate invariably mention the trains that rumbled or sped past their bedroom windows sounding that old siren’s call to the big city. David Lowe recalls those days eloquently:
It was not of New York that the inhabitants of Peoria and Mattoon and Kokomo and Goshen and Cedar Rapids and Blooming Prairie thought when the cars went by at night, lit up, affording tantalizing glimpses of flashing silver and cut flowers and sparkling glasses of ice water. For nearly a century the trains would be a brilliant advertisement for Chicago, would draw to it like a moving magnet the young men and women of the farms and hamlets for a thousand miles around where the land was drained by the Wabash, the Skunk, the Maumee, and the Sangamon.
Uncounted millions of Downstate girls and boys approached their first train trip to Chicago with the exhilaration and trepidation felt by the young Edgar Lee Masters who, taking a midnight train on his first trip to Chicago, stayed up all night, so eager was he to see the first traces of the city. When Governor Adlai Stevenson was growing up in Bloomington, he was such a regular visitor to the station where the Chicago trains came in every morning that he became a favorite with the conductors, engineers, and firemen.
Beginning with the telecommunications revolution—the first one, the one that began in the 1920s—a Downstater could experience Chicago without ever actually going there. One such flying carpet was radio before the advent of networks. Radio broadcasting was a regional, rather than a national phenomenon, and the stars who were household names in Downstate Illinois came to them from Chicago stations. In the 1920s and ‘30s the new swing music was popularized from Apple River to Zeigler by live broadcast of bands from Chicago hotels via stations such as KYW, which broadcast the dance music of the “Night Hawks” each evening from the Congress Hotel, and WLS, which sponsored performances by the Isham Jones Orchestra from the Sherman Hotel.
Chicago radio stations were familiar to Illinois farmers, too, as the former broadcast talk shows, market and weather reports. WLS studios was the home of the “National Barn Dance,” which was how many a farm family in Illinois spent Saturday nights until they could afford that first Model A to take them into town. (The founding owner of WLS was Sears, Roebuck & Co—the call letters stood for World’s Largest Store—and when Sears sold the station in 1928 the buyer was the venerable Prairie Farmer magazine.) Thanks to cable and satellite television, the city these days is an even more intimate presence in Downstate homes; thanks to WGN-TV’s broadcasts of Cubs games, scarcely a Downstate baseball fan who doesn’t know where Waveland Avenue is, or at least that Chicago has a Waveland Avenue.
The contempt with which some Downstaters hold Chicago and things Chicago is widely reciprocated. This story still circulates in southern Will County: “When Mr. T. V. Corey, Superintendent of the Chicago, Wilmington, and Vermilion Coal Company, was elected Mayor of the coal town of Braidwood . . . the president of the coal company wired back: "Congratulations! But I'd rather be a lamp post in Chicago."
Chicago political leaders famously regarded service in the General Assembly to be a mere apprenticeship for up-and-comers at City Hall. The neophytes were sent to Springfield for seasoning until they were ready for the political big time in the form of a seat on the Chicago city council or the Cook County board, much the way newspaper editors assign rookie reporters to cover school board elections and water main breaks.
The bluster obscures the fact that Chicagoland and Downstate have always had more in common than either region acknowledged, or their leaders always understood. The social trends that have defined Chicagoland in the recent past—suburbanization, immigration, social unrest—are merely Illinois trends, indeed U.S. trends writ large. Urbanization for example has transformed Cook and lately Du Page and Lake counties most dramatically, but it is a statewide phenomenon. From 1900 to 1910, as people fled the farms and small towns for cities, 50 counties out of the state’s then-97 counties lost population while urban counties increased theirs.
Chicago not only is no longer is unique in the world, therefore, it is not always unique even in Illinois. Historians, if not journalists, have taken pains to point out that, for all Chicago’s reputation for political chicanery and corruption, Downstate Republicans in most eras (the 1920s and the 1950s stand out) were hardly less corrupt than their Chicago contemporaries. Nor is organized crime unique to Chicago; Chicago had Torrio and Capone; Downstate had the Sheltons and Charley Birger. Downstate had its grasping capitalists—sometimes the same grasping capitalists as Chicago. (The name “Samuel Insull” can draw a sneer in Charleston-Mattoon as well as Chicago.) Declines in the local manufacturing economy are old news across Downstate; the resulting loss of people (and the loss of political clout) also plagues struggling factory towns such as Peoria, Kankakee, and Decatur. In 1953, two of the nation’s fiction bestsellers were written by men raised at opposite poles of the state—James Jones’ From Here To Eternity and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures Of Augie March.
If Chicago and Downstate have more in common than is often acknowledged, so do Downstate and the suburbs. The suburbs differ from isolated Downstate farm towns only in their contiguity; socially, the suburbs remain small towns, a fact that earns them scorn from the sophisticated but is at the heart of their appeal to everyone else. And if the suburbs are like Downstate towns, Downstaters increasingly live like suburbanites. The middle-class housing subdivisions and malls of Springfield, Champaign or Chicagoland East are indistinguishable from those in most Chicago suburbs; indeed, the preferred farmhouse these days is the ranch-style suburban tract house.
“Yokels” was newspaper columnist Mike Royko’s preferred generic term for Downstaters. But for decades, Chicago’s economic base was rooted in the countryside; most of its visitors arrived with mud on their boots. The great herds of horses that were stabled in the city to keep the city moving also were common to New York or London in the days before the steam engine, but few great cities other than Chicago also could enjoy great parades of beef cattle and hogs which had been driven into the heart of the city for sale and butchering.
This was not the only rural aspect of the streets of early Chicago. Well into the 19th century, notes historian Perry Duis, the working class Northwest Side had dirt streets, vegetables patches, and chicken coops. (Echoes of that now mostly vanished Chicago survive in the local argot; a weed-filled empty lot is known as a prairie.) Most of the city’s immigrants, whether from Calabria or Mount Carroll, were farmers and shepherds. Sociologist Daniel Elazar noted how in the 1970s, the migration of Southerners, black and white, into the city meant that a majority of Chicago’s population was no more than a generation removed from the farm, if that. The backgrounds of the city’s many displaced rural types—not excluding Mexicans and other Hispanics—show in their taste in music; Chicago has long been one of the biggest markets for country music radio in all its varieties.
Much of Chicago business also was oriented toward the sticks. Montgomery Ward’s and Sears, Roebuck for decades aimed their massive mail order operations almost solely at rural customers. Sears in particular may have been located in the city but only because it was there that the firm could easily reach by rail the small towns where its customers lived. Sears people were plainly uncomfortable in the city; when the firm built its new headquarters in 1906, it chose a site not in the Loop but at Homan Avenue and Arthington Street in the suburbanizing west side, an area of tree-lined streets and be-lawned houses of the sort found in the nicer parts of every Downstate city, in a building that looked more like a high school (albeit a very large one) than a factory. The small-town roots of Sears explains why so many people were surprised in 1974 when the firm relocated from the West Side to a skyscraper downtown—and why they were not surprised at all when it left again for Hoffman Estates, 18 years later.
Chicago’s intelligentsia in its Golden Age also tended to be provincials. Ring Lardner, Jr. was reared in Niles, Michigan. Indiana, that Valhalla of rubeness, played a surprising part in the city literary past thanks to such exiles as George Ade, Theodore Dreiser, and Harriett Anderson. Top critics like George Cram Cook at the Chicago Evening Post and Harry Hansen of the Daily News were small-town Iowans. Journalist Lloyd Lewis—himself a native Indianan—summed up in 1929.
For more than a hundred years a hilarious collection of goggle-mouthed bumpkins in button shoes has flowed into the Chicago matrix from Indiana, downstate Illinois, and the cornlands across the Mississippi, to be metamorphosed by the city into crack foreign correspondents, superlative editors and feature writers, acidulous critics, and slick, upper-bracket novelists. And the process is still going on.
A city the size of Chicago is its own big world but not necessarily a wide one. Many a Chicagoan assumes that once the yokels learn that Chicago has a first-rate second-class art museum and an overpriced orchestra just like real cities they will pile the kids in the car, pausing only to get gas and arrange for the neighbors to slop the pigs while they're away before zooming up the interstate. But it is stay-at-home Chicagoans who in many ways are the more insular these days. Those of them who insist to visitors that Chicago is a world-class city—and the boast is incessant—either don’t know Chicago or they don’t know the world.
Chicago is dazzling only to those who know no other city. Henry Blake Fuller’s respectable middle-class characters nearly always live within the perimeters of Near South or Near North and commute to careers in the Loop, which led critic Robert Bray to remarks that the city’s social ambiance was “in its own way as insular and provincial as anything in the small-town novels that Fuller sought to supersede.” The result is that Chicagoans often are tourists in the Chicago that lies outside their own neighborhoods.
Sociologist Elazar is among the social thinkers who have traced the roots of the durable animus toward Chicago to Illinoisans’s general bias against cities, whose evil many people consider intrinsic. This bias affects Downstaters’ view of their own cities as well, of course, but Chicago was not only the biggest if not always the first of Illinois’s cities but the biggest and most distant city most of them would ever know, and thus the easiest target for what he calls “their deep and abiding distrust of the ‘big city.’” But it is hardly only Downstaters who abhor the city. So do many Chicagoans, who are peasants from a hundred lands, or exiled small-towners from the Midwest, and rubes from its own suburbs. Chicagoland suburbanites in particular more than resemble Downstaters—they are Downstaters, or the children of Downstaters. Thirty years ago Elazar nailed down this crucial fact in a passage that deserves to be more widely read.
Chicagoans are far from being the city slickers they are made out to be in Downstate mythology. Except for a thin veneer of committed city dwellers at the top, the young unmarrieds who need the city’s active social life, and a declining number of European immigrants who are used to living amidst a dense population and who can find that style of living only in the city, most Chicagoans, like their brethren in smaller communities, do not seek the advantages of the city, nor do they show any particular affection for the urban way of life as such.
A cosmopolitan Downstater long has had many more reasons to go to Chicago than a Chicagoan has to go to, say, Decatur or Salem. (In the 1980s, state tourism officials plastered the city with a new marketing slogan, “Just outside Chicago, there’s a state called Illinois.” It was news to most Chicagoans.) As a result, Chicago’s city slickers are bumpkins when it comes to knowledge of the rest of the state. It was still possible in 2000 to hear a Chicago businessman ask what time zone Springfield is in, or refer to the capital as being in southern Illinois.
As Martin Marty notes, “The ‘other Illinoises’ produce writers about Chicago, or at least writers who know Chicago, but Chicago writers do not see or know how to write persistently about Illinois.” Lincoln’s William Maxwell transformed his years at Senn High School (Class of 1926) into a fine novel, The Folded Leaf that explores the Chicago-Downstate divide. A worthy novel of a different kind is Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder, which tells the tale of 15-year-old Mary Alice, who, after her father loses his job, is sent from Chicago to live for a year with her grandmother in a small central Illinois town that to the teenager might as well be Mars. Virtually no such books have come from Chicagoans. To the extent that Chicago writers have betrayed an awareness of Downstate Illinois at all, it was a source of gullible virgins and naïve farm boys of the sort that populated Henry E. Scott’s 1895 novel about a Macoupin County innocent, Beauty’s Peril.
Chicagoans on the whole are not markedly more sophisticated than Downstaters—many recent immigrants are less so—merely sophisticated about different things. If Chicagoans are not as cosmopolitan as they like to think, the Downstater is not quite the hick he is often made out to be. Many a Downstater, for example, is remarkably sophisticated about Chicago. Trips to Chicago have always been antidotes to the ennui of the small-towner, who has been going to the opera, the museums, the fairs (among the more respectable amusements) and returned home refreshed. Peorian Robert Ingersoll was typical of a certain sort of successful Downstate professional who invigorated himself with trips to the big city’s bookshops and theaters. A biographer records that on one trip he and another Downstater, then-Governor Richard Oglesby, saw the great Italian actress, Ristori, in three plays, Elizabeth, Judith, and Mary Stuart.
Today’s Illinoisans may marvel at the idea of a sitting governor taking in one play, much less three in quick succession, but Ingersoll’s example was not lost on his fellow Peorians. Betty Friedan recalled that in the 1930s her mother took her shopping in Chicago once or twice a year, and to the theater. “For my eighteenth birthday, they took me for a weekend in Chicago” she remembered many years later, “and I saw Katharine Cornell in Saint Joan and Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina.” Such memories are as common down there as corn.
For all these many links of commerce and culture, distaste for Chicago still animates a sizable minority of Downstaters. The enduring animus owes much to perceptions of the city that, bizarrely, persist, such as the notion that it is hard-working Downstaters who support Chicago's profligate ways through their state taxes. (In fact, it is Chicagoland whose tax payments support Downstate.)
The other major count in the bill of indictment against the city is its liberal social policies which, through their influence at the statehouse, impose on Downstaters too many restrictions on guns and not nearly enough restrictions on abortion or immigrants. Whereas Cook County wanted to secede from Downstate, unhappy Downstaters want to separate themselves from the festering sore that is Chicago. Ironically, they hope to do this by resort to the same expedient as in 1925—make Chicago the 51st state, thus freeing the rest of the state to order their affairs a la Indiana.
Such comical proposals draw no real support from even the Downstate legislators, indeed are acknowledged by their sponsors to be rhetorical in intent. That most Downstaters acknowledge their impracticality of such schemes does not mean they don't wish things could be otherwise. ●
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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