The Where, What, How, and How Much

On Illinois guidebooks

See Illinois (unpublished)

ca 2005

This here is the preface to my unpublished guidebook to Illinois history and culture, in which I remark on Illinois guidebooks as a genre. (See Publications for more about that project.) I revised it for The Corn Latitudes. 


You wouldn’t expect to find Illinoisans mentioned in an introduction to speeches by a Roman statesman, but there are two of them in as many pages in the collection of Cicero’s works by British scholar Michael Grant. One is Abraham Lincoln, because his speeches echo with Cicerian cadences; the other is gangster Al Capone, because he lived in one of the several U.S. towns named for the great statesman and orator.


Honest Abe and Scarface occupy opposite ends of the narrow spectrum of the world’s knowledge of Illinois. Educating that world about everything in between has been the burden of guidebook authors for nearly two centuries—longer if one counts the journal that reported on Jolliet and Marquette’s explorations to French colonial officials in Montreal in the 1670s.


Millions of travelers each year still want to visit Illinois. They come looking for history or a new home or a factory site or the quickest route to Wisconsin. Strangers to the state do not make up the whole of this market; a less obvious but larger readership exists in the form of weekending locals. Chicagoans and Downstaters each remain remarkably ignorant of the other’s world, and to that extent both are aliens in their own state; like the emigrating Brit or German or Swede of the 1830s, they must rely on printed guides to tell them the where and what, the how and the how much of life there.


Sometimes that ignorance is simple forgetting. Over and over in Illinois, the history of each human occupation of a region has been obliterated by its successor, leaving the stories of their regional forbears a mystery. The Euro-Americans knew no more about the Kickapoo than they knew about the ancient tribes of Israel—indeed, some thought Illinois’s ancient Indians had been one of those tribes—but Native American peoples had lost track of the region’s pre-white history too. Curators of the Under the Prairie Museum in Elkhart reminded visitors that a stone ax on display, which was found on the nearby Pine Ridge Farm, “would have seemed as strange to a Kickapoo Indian in 1800 as it does to us today.”


Today’s audiences are amply catered to by the commercial press; query the Web site of any sizable bookstore for “Illinois guide” and you will get more than 200 hits. Indeed, measured by the number of titles in print, ours is a golden age of Illinois guidebooks. Sitting next to the inevitable guides to Chicago dining and shopping one finds special-interest guides to hiking, fishing, birding, geology, cycling, antiquing, architecture, “family fun” trips, haunted places. But while most of these guides meet a high standard of usefulness, few aspire to probe more deeply than a Sunday paper travel feature.


The need for a guidebook that did probe more deeply has long been plain. I imagined one that would be not just a travel how-to and would be as useful in the study as on the road. Fans of the the 1930s Federal Writers Project guide will be disappointed that the book I had in mind would not (as the FWP guide does) enlighten them about the composition of the roof of the old Scottish Rite Cathedral in Moline (Bangor slate) or the illustrious dead in Warren’s Elmwood Cemetery (Abner Dalrymple, who led the National League in Home Runs in 1885) or the weight of the Parrott naval cannon that sits on the Ogle County Courthouse grounds in Oregon (9,722 pounds). In the place of such arcana would be the insights of the scholarship that has been applied to Illinois themes in the past thirty years by such thinkers as Daniel Elazar, William Cronon, John Mack Faragher, Liz Cohen, Daniel Bluestone, Jane Adams, and William Julius Wilson, among many others.


Finally, this plea: In 1918 historian Theodore Pease noted a few of the problems writing a history of Illinois that bear on the production of guidebooks as well. The past is a place too, Pease pointed out, and one that is only somewhat more difficult to describe than the present. Pease lamented the deficiencies of the old newspapers and contemporary travelers’ accounts on which he had to rely. “Under such limitations of information,” he concluded dolefully, “the picture of Illinois . . . if it is to be accurate, must be somewhat indistinct.” The risk is any picture of today’s Illinois, if it is to be distinctive, must be somewhat inaccurate.  ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago


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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives


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 Illinois State Museum


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

“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. 



Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated