A plea for public history, not just Lincoln history
February 29, 1980
An early excursion into territory I explored again in 2014 in this piece. Springfield's preoccupation with Lincoln and his era has meant that talent, time, and resources have not been available for the gathering, cataloging, and study of its own history. I wish I could say that the city's ignorance about itself has been relieved over the 40 years since.
Four years ago, in a foreword to a collection of articles on the history of Springfield, Sangamon State University history professor Cullom Davis wrote, “Few cities of similar size or age have devoted so much energy or attention to rediscovering and preserving their history.” Loath as I am to contradict a Princeton man, I must amend that statement to read, “part of their history.” The Lincoln era in Springfield has been exhaustively researched and written about. But of the 138 years during which Lincoln did not live in Springfield little more is known than is typical of most small cities. It is not accurate to say that Springfield is historically-minded. Rather, it is Lincoln-minded.
The result of this preoccupation is a pervasive ignorance about the town’s past. I am no longer surprised when residents of twenty years’ standing confess amazement upon learning that their city used to be a major coal mining center, for example, or that kids graduate from local schools never having heard of Vachel Lindsay, John L. Lewis, or Elijah lies. Saddened maybe, and irritated, but not surprised.
It is not so much that these people are not being told the story of their city’s past as it is that that story hasn’t yet been written. Springfield’s history—and I suppose this is true of Decatur and Champaign and a dozen other Illinois cities—resembles an unassembled jigsaw puzzle whose pieces have to be collected before anyone can even attempt to solve the puzzle, and it is at this prosaic level that any systematic program of local historical research must begin.
Because of my work I often have occasions to ask questions about the past, and the difficulty of getting even the simplest of them answered has made me wish more than once that someone had compiled a local historical almanac, a sort of Baedeker that might serve as a guide to Springfield’s historical landmarks which today we must track down one by one on our own. It would include things such as: rosters of all past city councils, with dates of service, residences, political parties (I recall with amazement that during the change-of-government campaign in 1977 no one knew for certain whether Springfield had ever had a black alderman); lists of openings and closings of major factories (including coal mines); population data, including ethnic groups; capsule biographies of conspicuous local people; a digest of social and cultural organizations; a bibliography of references; summaries of government expenditures by year and by types; tables of basic economic data such as tax collections, personal income, assessed valuations and the like; maps showing the physical growth of the city, including dates and extents of annexations; chronologies of major public and private improvements such as sewers, utilities and transportation systems; an inventory of subdivisions and major commercial real estate developments, with dates, costs, and locations; lists of schools and churches with appropriate names, founding dates, addresses, and ethnic compositions; a list of calamities both meteorological (such as recent winters, with records and narratives) and man-made (such as fires, explosions or mass violence).
That list easily could be doubled, but you get the idea. Almost as useful would be a complete index to one or more of the local daily newspapers. The papers are a literal treasure trove of information that remains tantalizmgly available yet (because of their sheer bulk) unknowable to any but the most industrious; an index would be the key to unlock that trove.
There is room too for scholarly investigations into local political and financial dynasties, into race relations, into the evolving political culture, into the prickly relationship between the city and the state government—the list is too long. But right now, students, journalists and amateur historians alike must waste time unearthing basic facts that could be better spent on synthesis, analysis, or reflection. It’s not the fact that we take one step back for every two we take forward that is so frustrating, but that each generation keeps having to take those same two steps over and over again. The result is that the general awareness of local history in 1980—with the exception of the 1908 race riots—is no more acute, indeed is arguably less acute than it was ten, twenty, or fifty years ago.
There have been notable attempts to bring order out of this chaos. Since 1971 SSU’s oral history project has amassed some 30,000 pages of transcript from more than 500 conversations with central Illinois coal miners, schoolteachers, farmers, politicians, and others about themselves, their work, and their times. In 1973 the Sangamon County Historical Society began a modest publication series, “Bicentennial Studies in Sangamon History,” whose ten titles provide abbreviated but readable treatments of topics as diverse as local architecture and race riots; its 300-page anthology, A Spring field Reader, won the 1977 Award of Merit for Local and Regional History from the Illinois State Historical Society. And when the New Lincoln Library building was opened in 1977, it boasted a room devoted exclusively to local history known as the Sangamon Valley Collection; the SVC staff has (within the limits of its resources) tried to inventory the city’s past by indexing newspaper obituaries (a boon to genealogists, paid for in part with CETA money), microfilming local documents and attempting (so far with mixed results) to develop the SVC as the repository of official records from the various city departments.
These varied projects, however, constitute only the barest beginnings. In fact, it is because Springfield has so much that makes what we don’t have the more painful. In 1935 Paul Angle published Here I Have Lived, his history of Springfield from its founding until Lincoln’s death in 1865. It is a fine book, although Lincoln thinkers consider it deficient by modern standards of scholarship, leading at least one of them to urge a new version. But badly as Angle needs updating, there is a greater need for a history of post-Civil War Springfield. These were the decades that saw the postwar industrialization, the coal mining boom and bust, population growth, the Depression, political scandal and the ensuing Progressive reforms, the Springfield Survey, the race riots of 1908, the world wars, the growth of state government. Where, one asks, is the Angle of modern Springfield? Who will write this book?
What we need is an effort like that marshaled by the late Logan Hay in the 1920s on behalf of Lincoln history when he transformed the Abraham Lincoln Association into an organization which (through the executive secretaries whose salaries it paid) collected, catalogued, and published masses of Lincolniana rescued from the oblivion of attics and county courthouses. The job would take years, and the cause of local history is not likely to rally to its banner the troops who massed around the ALA’s. (Nor the generals; Lincoln got historians like Angle, Benjamin Thomas and Harry Pratt, while Springfield got Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer.) For example, the Sangamon County Historical Society is considering funding local history-related projects through the SVC. But the SCHS, like most such groups, is as antiquarian in its tastes as it is in much of its membership.
The projects being considered are modest (such as clipping old union newspapers as part of the compilation of a comprehensive file on area coal mining) with none expected to cost more than $500. These are useful efforts. But even these small beginnings must compete for funds with other proposed society projects ranging from the purchase of period costumes for Old State Capitol guides to the repair of Pioneer Park, a patch of weeds south of the city marking the spot of the first white settlement in Sangamon County.
What we really need is a full-time historian whose job it would be to collect, proselytize, catalog, coordinate, cooperate, apply for grants and, in between times, do a little rummaging. Such a post would be analogous in function (if not in funding) to the old ALA executive secretaryships which young scholars such as Paul Angle filled with such distinction. The most logical underwriter of such a project would seem to be the City of Springfield, with the Sangamon Valley Collection his or her base of operations, although those are administrative details I happily leave to others to arrange. The important thing isn’t how it’s done but that it is done, and fairly soon; every day that goes by reveals how fragile is our historical inheritance, as the recent fire at the Herbert Georg photography studios so sadly proved. It is not necessary for a city to be proud of its past; in Springfield’s case it’s probably impossible anyway. But to remain ignorant of it is the most shameful thing of all. □