Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Mozart in the Cornfields
Traveling without leaving home
June 16, 1981
How embarrassing. The Springfield I described here was not the Springfield that was but the Springfield I liked to pretend it was becoming. Yes, I might have been stretching the evidence to sustain my thesis, but mainly I was trying to talk myself into something, which was that Springfield was a fine place for me to be, when I knew perfectly well that it wasn't. Apart from being wrong, it's a perfectly sound piece.
I always make it a point to spent time with local boys who’ve made good, in an off chance that I might pick up some handy hints. Which is one of the reasons I accepted Bill Howarth’s invitation to breakfast a couple of weeks ago. Bill is a Springfield native who was in town to deliver a lecture or two and visit family. He’s a professor at Princeton and an acknowledged expert on the life and works of Thoreau.
Unlike me, who has hewed barnacle-like to Springfield’s hull, Howarth has been away from the city for more than twenty years. He found it (he said) a strange new place, and his homecoming was rather like encountering an old schoolmate whose pot belly and thinning hair disguise the younger, remembered version. The fields he used to play in now are planted in waterbed boutiques. He missed the old Carnegie Library, but was impressed by its replacement. He was especially struck at being able to tune in to a local radio station and hear Mozart while driving through the cornfields. To someone who grew up in Springfield in the 1950s, that is as vivid a contradiction of municipal character as a clean street is in New York.
I wanted to tell Howarth that we have not only Mozart but dual TV news anchors (I’m not above impressing a tourist; what’s good enough for Fred Puglia is good enough for me) but I forgot to. The conversation reminded me of a similar encounter I’d had a few weeks previous. My lunch partner that time was the wife of a poet-professor. She works as a magazine editor, such jobs being for the educated women of this generation the equivalent of taking in laundry. The subject was the extraordinary peregrinations of the American middle class, who shuttle between campuses and state capitals and corporation headquarters like electrons on a wire. Springfield sees its share of these wanderers, who always put me in mind of the Texan oil drillers who spend years working in such perfect isolation aboard self-contained rigs off Nigerian shores that they never learn even the name of that country’s president.
This flitting about is presumed to confer sophistication on the flitters, although it would seem more likely to confer merely exhaustion. As I have already said, I move hardly at all. Had I been able to speak when my parents moved to Springfield from Beardstown when I was six weeks old, I would have argued against it as a rash undertaking, since we had no reason not to think that the edge of the world did not stand somewhere on the other side of Ashland.
My acquaintances are too polite to snort in derision when informed that, except for these formative weeks in Beardstown, I have spent all my life in this one city. Instead they smile and ask (in a tone that reveals that they’ve already answered the question for themselves) whether I don’t find life in one place just a little, well, boring? I try to point out that while it is true that I have lived in the same place for thirty years, it is not strictly accurate to say that I’ve lived in the same city for that time. As Howarth discovered, Springfield is not the same city it was twenty, or even ten years ago. As a result, it is possible to live in a succession of different cities without moving so much as a block from home. This saves moving expenses, and the time I save not filling out change-of-address forms I can spend re-reading Wodehouse.
I have lived in three distinct Springfields. I remember only a little about the first one, alas. That was the unreconstructed Springfield of the late 1940s and early 1950s—the lazy, casually racist town where a black state senator couldn’t get a room in a downtown hotel. It literally was the “archetypal rural state capital’’ that Look later described it to be, if only because in pre-sprawl Springfield the cornfields still intruded into the city proper. One could still park diagonally on downtown streets and play the punch boards in the drug stores and, in summer, follow a Cardinals game pitch by pitch as one strolled about listening to the radio through the open doors of bars, barbershops, and pool halls.
The second Springfield I knew better. This was the go-get-’em Springfield that shed the soiled cloak of corruption and marched under the Chamber of Commerce banner into a bright new future of shopping centers and plate glass. All was uplift and improvement in the ’60s. City hall, which used to sell zoning variances, began simply to give them away as a public service. The better elements were ashamed of the old city, and sought to make it into someplace else. One could scarcely sleep at nights for the crash and bang of old buildings being razed.
Springfield nearly modernized itself to death in those years. It gave way in the fullness of time to the third Springfield, the present one. I date its arrival at 1977, when two contradictory trends converged to revolutionize the city and the way its people thought about it. White Oaks Mall opened that year, which paradoxically was also when there matured in the city an awareness that the lifestyle of which White Oaks is the penultimate expression—cities driven into the countryside in automobiles, with the consequent costs in land, energy, and neighborhood integrity—was doomed.
I confess I occasionally feel like a newcomer to this Springfield myself. With its isolation pierced by cable TV and public radio, it’s now a place where (miracles!) one can buy bean sprouts on a sandwich for lunch, where the smelly ethnic cafes of the sort that used to be run by immigrant Italians are now run by scrubbed WASPS who dropped out of promising law careers because they don’t like the feel of vested suits, where city officials talk about carpooling and redirecting development back to the city and building solar houses. Sometimes I feel like a tornado picked me up and dropped me, a dazed Dorothy, in Portland.
To old city hands, the local papers have become travelogues in time. The accustomed distinctions between time and geography blur; both miles and years, after all, are categories of distance. Three examples may make the point. One: The city closed down a small welding plant recently because it was not zoned for industrial use. The city commissioner in charge of zoning was quoted as saying, “Zoning is the one thing that there is no flexibility on.’’ For someone who knew Springfield in the ’60s, the assertion is staggering strange. Five years ago I would have bet that the Twelfth Imam would materialize in a booth at D. H. Brown’s before a city council member would say something like that.
Two: I turned on the TV and learned that the city is proceeding with its plans to remodel Bridgeview beachhouse at Lake Springfield into a solar heating demonstration project. To those who don’t know it, Bridgeview is conspicuous for two things. It was for years a private playground for city pols and their pals, and it was Springfield’s unofficial “black beach.’’ From Birmingham to Davis, in two decades; Mayflower makes the trip faster, but it’s just as far.
And three: The State Journal- Register, in its “Do You Remember” feature ran a photo showing the intersection of Chatham Road and Wabash Avenue taken years ago. The shot shows a narrow country road curving past a distant farmhouse. Today the intersection shows every symptom of urban trauma—fried chicken parlors, two major supermarkets, three gas stations, a bank, an office building, left-turn lanes. Visiting the scene today, it is unrecognizable. It might as well have been in another city.
These changes are not always positive; most have been painful. But I do not envy people who move from city to city, people who shop in the same kinds of shops they used to shop in, who see the same kind of peoi- ple and do the same kind of things no matter where they are. They don’t really move at all. I intend to stay right where lam. In thirty years I’ve grown fond of traveling. ●
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