Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Here are to be found articles about Abraham Lincoln in all his aspects, living and posthumous—the man himself, his family, Lincoln tourism, the restoration of his Springfield house and neighborhood, Lincoln scholarship, Lincoln museums, scholarly controversies about his life, his work in central Illinois, considerations of him as a prose artist, and reviews of books, published mainly in Illinois Issues, Illinois Times, and Chicago's Reader.
Anyone living in Springfield finds it impossible not to stumble across Lincoln, or rather, stumble into him. I once joked that there are so many Lincoln-related statues on the town's streets—most of them installed at sidewalk level—that, were they counted as citizens, Illinois could qualify for another congressional seat.
The Lincolns' neighborhood, for example, became as familiar to me as my own. My parents, recently transplanted Beardstonians, rented an apartment about a block from Lincoln's home in Springfield. Years later, my morning work routines took me from my downtown office past the house on my way to the founding offices of Illinois Times, which were located within the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Family history researches later took me often to the restored Old State Capitol complex, site of the "House Divided" speech and the then-home of the state's historical library, where were displayed the man's opera gloves, his eyeglasses, and other relics.
Lincoln was a constant presence among the people all across my native central Illinois for more than a quarter-century, thanks to his travels on the old 8th Judicial Circuit. He stayed at their houses—hotels were scarce, at least in the early days of the circuit—argued their cases, addressed them in court with summations, and entertained them in the taverns afterward with stories. As a politician he favored even the smallest burgs with speeches delivered on his behalf or that of his party and its candidates.
He left a trail, in short, and the diligent visitor can follow much of it. A stone in my birthplace, Beardstown, marks where Lincoln was mustered into military service during the Black Hawk War. On the town square is the restored county courthouse where lawyer Lincoln prevailed in what is usually described as "the famous almanac trial," although very few people seem to have ever heard about it.
So it is across the region. A decorated stone on the lawn of the Decatur Art Institute marks the probable route on West Main Street down which Lincoln traveled on his way through town. In the Logan County town of Atlanta is the Carriage Shed, where Abraham Lincoln stayed with the Hoblit family; in Danville is the old Ithian house where Lincoln stayed on visits to that town, featuring a balcony from which he made speech in 1858; a stone tablet on the courthouse lawn in Winchester marks the site of the Aiken Tavern in which Lincoln lodged in 1854. There are others. Many others.
“Lincoln slept here” is a sure draw but the tourist’s attention also is directed to places where Lincoln ate. At the restored Phelps House in Oquawka, both Lincoln and Douglas were entertained. In Athens a marker notes the store in which locals banqueted the Long Nine, of which Lincoln was a member, and where he toasted his colleagues. The Harmon mansion in Danville is identified as a place where the great man once ate a Thanksgiving dinner. (No mention is made of the menu.) Even the content of the outhouse behind his house in Springfield has been explored and its post-prandial contents carefully cataloged during a recent rehab of the house.
Any connection to the great emancipator is bragged on. Towns boast that they were laid out by Lincoln when he was surveyor. In Decatur a marker identifies the site where stood the tent in which delegates of the new Republican Party of Illinois in 1860 gave Lincoln his initial endorsement for the presidential nomination. Springhill Cemetery in Decatur is the burial place of several of Lincoln’s friends. The Bloomington-Normal Area Visitors Guide notes that the legal paperwork needed to set up Illinois State University was largely done by Lincoln, and the University of Illinois brags that the Morrill Act of 1862 that set up it and land grant colleges like it was signed into law by Lincoln. Not only are the sites of the Lincoln-Douglas debates marked, but the sites where he debated about debating; in the Moultrie County town of Bement is a cottage in which the two candidates met in July, 1858, to arrange their debates, preserved as a state memorial. The Petersburg Merchants Association in 2003 changed its name to "Lincoln's New Salem Area Merchants."
The very energetic tourist may also visit the burial places of Lincoln’s teacher and his store partner, the lawn where he and pals played games, the spot where he merely began his survey of one town, and a building lot that he owned (but apparently never visited). In the town of Lincoln, a plaque locates an inn where, in 1876, a gang of counterfeiters plotted to steal Lincoln’s body from its Springfield tomb. Lincoln spoke in the Methodist church in LaHarpe in 1858; a church pew and a large slab of marble still in today's church were there when he spoke, and presumably absorbed some vital essence of the man.
The wise traveler will read the fine print of the tourism brochures before investing too much time and energy on such errands. At the Executive Mansion in Springfield, the Lincoln Bedroom is furnished in part by a bed and dresser given to president-elect Lincoln by Springfield friends before he left for Washington; placed in storage awaiting his return, it was never used by him. The Postville courthouse is a modern reproduction. Lincoln Log Cabin State Park outside Charleston is a memorial to Lincoln’s father rather than to his son, it being the last farm on which father Thomas Lincoln lived; son Lincoln had by then struck out on his own, to New Salem and so never lived there, although he did buy the land to provide a safe haven for father and stepmother in their old age. (After their death, the son later sold it.) Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center on Lake Springfield was designed to be a “living memorial” to Abraham Lincoln in the form of natural plantings composed of plants native to his home states of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky; a very pleasant pot, it nonetheless is one of the few spots in that part of the state on which Lincoln never visited, ate, slept, spoke, spit, rassled, or plead a case.
It is not merely the tourism promoters who exploit the least connection to Lincoln. Historians calibrate the importance of their scholarly subjects according to how well the subjects knew him. Richard Oglesby was a man of considerable accomplishment as a politician, a soldier, and a governor, but it is only because of his many links to Lincoln that Oglesby is remembered at all by even the literate public. Oglesby was in Washington on the day Lincoln was shot, and sat at his deathbed before accompanying the funeral train home to Springfield. Oglesby served as the only president of the association that built the Lincoln tomb, and he delivered the major oration when it was dedicated. He also was the man who contrived the rail-splitter image for Lincoln's successful presidential campaign of 1860—thus was a biography of him published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001 titled Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter.
I made no special effort to learn about the man until my twenties, when I was offered a job as a tour guide at a local Lincoln site. Later, when I was an apprentice journalist, Lincoln and the preservation of his house was much debated officially. History per se had little to do with these public conversations, much less scholarship. The topic was how to better capitalize on Lincoln to boost tourism, usually with side conversations about how to get someone else to pay for it. Whatever the impetus, it all had to be written about.
As a mature journalist I wrote about him many times because there are so many Lincolns to write about. There is the official Lincoln, the popular Lincoln, the "real" Lincoln, the undiscovered Lincoln. Springfield has always thought better of itself than it deserved because he had lived there. (In fact, it was Springfield the state capital, not Springfield the town, in which Lincoln lived.) He made my home town a more interesting place, certainly, and I became grateful for that too.
Downstaters like to claim Lincoln as one of their own, but Chicago figures in his life too, if in less intimate ways. Lincoln’s Whig politics were all about commerce, and Chicago would be made great by government-paid infrastructure such as canals and railroads that Lincoln championed. It was in Chicago, in 1860, in a frame building thrown together for the purpose known as the Wigwam, that the Republican National Convention on the third ballot nominated Lincoln for the presidency. He carried Illinois in 1860 largely with votes from northern Illinois, including Chicago. And the Civil War, in very different ways, made both the city and the man.
That Lincoln was admired in Chicago is plain. Many a Chicagoan started life on the bottom rung of the social ladder, as Lincoln did, and worked his way to the top, and see in his life enough of their own that it creates a bond. Judge Abraham Lincoln Marowitz, the West Side boy who worked his way through law school and grew up to give the oath of office six times to Mayor Richard J. Daley, loved to tell audiences that he was named after Lincoln because his immigrant mother, who admired the president as a champion of freedom, assumed he had been Jewish “because he was shot in the temple.” For years, one Thai restaurateur in Albany Park each day laid a plate of food before a small statue of Lincoln in the rear of the restaurant as an offering, because Lincoln reminded the proprietor of the Thai King Chulalongkorn, the great reformer who abolished slavery in that country in the 19th century. No pork, however—a man named Abraham must be Jewish.
The Chicago City Council was quick to rename an old fort road Lincoln Avenue after his death—one of the first public roads to be named for the president—and later named its most beautiful park for him. Chicago also displays at least five statues of the Great Emancipator. Two of the best, and best-known, were the work of the great Augustus Saint-Gaudens. His “Standing Lincoln” is considered his masterpiece; executed in 1887 after a life mask of the president taken by Chicago sculptor Leonard Volk, it stands in Lincoln Park just east of the Chicago Historical Society at North Avenue and Dearborn Street. Saint-Gaudens’ “The Seated Lincoln” was installed in 1926 in Grant Park across from Buckingham Fountain. (A replica of this work stands outside Westminster Abbey in London.)
Lesser statues of the Great Emancipator are found in most parts of the city (except, interestingly, on the black South Side). Lincoln was fervently supported by the city’s German citizens, and in 1956 the then-German Lincoln Square, where Lincoln, Lawrence, and Western avenues converge, was adorned by Avard Fairbanks’ “The Chicago Lincoln." Then there is “The Young Lincoln” (1997) in Senn Park at Ridge and Ashland Avenues and "Lincoln the Railsplitter" by Charles J. Mulligan, installed in 1911 in Garfield Park.
Some of the better historians of Lincoln and his period—long-time Chicago Historical Society director Paul Angle comes to mind—have been Chicagoans and in 1938, the famous Abraham Lincoln Book Shop on West Chicago Avenue was founded (sayeth the shop’s own history) in part to serve the passionate collecting needs of the many local Lincoln buffs. The foundation of what became the Illinois historical library collection was the Lincoln manuscripts and memorabilia donated by Gov. Henry Horner, a Chicago man. William E. Barton, the most prominent and prolific author and lecturer on Lincoln of his era, lived across the street from Chicago in Oak Park.
Lincoln never lived in Chicago, but many of his papers and artifacts do. It has been said that “no other historical figure has played such a dominant role in the life of the [Chicago] Historical Society” as Lincoln. (Lincoln had accepted the society’s first honorary membership.) Among the CHS’s Lincolniana are his death bed, the table upon which he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, and the silk and beaver top hat he borrowed from a Springfield pal to wear during his inauguration ceremonies in 1861. On the other end of town, the important William E. Barton collection of Lincolniana is housed in the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.
But while Lincoln was Chicago’s kinda guy, Chicago was not his kinda city. He is thought to have visited the city only fourteen times between 1848 and 1860. So identified is he with the bucolic—log cabins and circuit-riding and rail-splitting—that many of Illinois's Downstate residents cannot imagine him in a city like Chicago and resent the claims that Chicago makes on Lincoln. The big city has its own heroes and plenty of them; why do they need to take ours?
Like everybody says, an inexhaustible topic.
I never got bored writing about him, which is more than I can say about several other Illinois topics, and some of it is pretty good. The seriously interested should know that a few pieces about Lincoln tourism can be found on the "Springfield" page.
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To leave an article and return to this page, click on your browser's back button or on "Lincoln" in the topics menu
Last Among First Ladies
Reputation, reality, and Mary Todd Lincoln
Reader January 8, 1988
The Establishment of Springfield
Is Lincoln “a special ward” of the well-to-do?
"Prejudices" Illinois Times February 8, 1980
"Prejudices" Illinois Times 1992
The historians' Lincoln explained
Reader April 28, 1989
Springfield and Lincoln remain strangers..
"Prejudices" Illinois Times February 17, 1977
See also "Springfield—Tourism" on the topics menu
The Lincoln home for the automobile tourist
Adventure Road September/October 1985
The NPS plans for the past of the Lincoln Home
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times January 19, 2010
What lies beneath Abe World’s Lincoln hat?
"Dyspepesiana" Illinois Times February 21, 2013
A Penny Here, a Penny There . . .
Will a monumental Lincoln penny bring in tourist dollars?
"Dyspepesiana" Illinois Times March 14, 2013
A plan for the Lincoln home neighborhood
"Prejudices" Illinois Times November 11, 1990
The NPS plans the next 20 years at Lincoln’s home
"Dyspepesiana" Illinois Times September 2, 2010
My life as a guide at the Lincoln-Herndon law offices
"Dyspepesiana" Illinois Times November 5, 2009
Enticing tourists to linger an extra night
"Dyspepesiana" Illinois Times December 22, 2010
Authenticity and the tourist’s Lincoln
"Prejudices" Illinois Times February 10, 1983
From tiny acorns Presidential libraries grow
“Prejudices” Illinois Times ca 1990
Spielberg almost gets Lincoln right
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times February 14, 2013
A Lively and Active Neighborhood
The NPS's stage-set authenticity at Lincoln's home
“Prejudices” Illinois Times February 11, 1982
The Old Capitol: The Higher Vaudeville
They built it; they didn’t come
"Prejudices" Illinois Times February 6, 1981
Will tourists arrive where Lincoln departed?
Illinois Times August 4, 1978
Fun and games during Lincoln's birthday month
“Dyspepsiana” Illinois Times March 1, 2012
Giving Springfield Luster Ever After
Visiting Mr. Lincoln at home
See Illinois (unpublished) 2006
Turning Lincoln stuff into sacred relics
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times February 11, 2010
Logan Hay, once Springfield’s best-known citizen, is forgotten
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times December 21, 2017
Of the People and for the People—But Never Like Them
Lincoln and the Springfield democracy
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times February 12, 2015
The State of Lincoln Scholarship
Lincoln belongs to Illinois, not the ages
Illinois Issues February 2000
Is the U.S. a nation-state or a nation of states?
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times August 20, 2015
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times February 4, 2010
Lincoln’s New Salem (we think)
See Illinois (unpublished) 2005
Some Books About Lincoln
Writers report on their searches for Illinois's hero
See Illinois (unpublished) 2010
The marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd
was not made in heaven
Illinois Times June 24, 2021
The Black Man's President
Abraham Lincoln's legacy on race, reconsidered
Illinois Times February 10, 2022
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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